I come from Singapore, a tiny country in Southeast Asia, well-known as having restrictions on free speech. But what is not so well-known is that Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world, according to The Pew Research Center. Though there is much about Singapore’s governance that I disagree with, there is something to be learned from the ways in which Singapore maintains religious and racial harmony.
It is extremely difficult to maintain peace and harmony in a country as diverse as Singapore. Yet, the country has managed to do just that. However, this was not always the case. Throughout the 1960s, Singapore suffered through race riots, which killed almost 30 people and injured hundreds. The government at the time recognized that in order to put an end to such violence, there had to be firm statutes restricting what people could say and do when it came to diverse cultures, races, or religions. Thus, the government enacted several laws to limit Singaporeans from speaking hatefully about any culture, race, or religion.
In 2011, American television host Charlie Rose interviewed Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Rose asked Lee a question that almost every American correspondent asks when they come to Singapore: Will Singapore ever be a ‘true’ democracy? Lee sought clarification by asking “American style?,” to which Rose responded, “Yes.”
Lee snickered, and then responded by saying, “Your First Amendment says that you can say anything you like! [In Singapore], you cannot say anything you like about religion, race, and culture. They are forbidden. They are sensitive issues.”
Many criticize Singapore for restricting free speech in this regard, but even in the U.S., not all speech is actually ‘free’—hate speech and suicide encouragement are outlawed. In Singapore, we have simply recognized that we should not allow any form of malicious or hateful speech to exist regarding race and religion. We recognize that such things can easily compromise the stability of the country. Therefore, Singapore is comfortable with diversity and does not need to be debated or scrutinized by the standards of ‘American-style’ free speech. Doing so would only bring about resentment and tensions between the various groups in Singaporean society.
A few recent examples demonstrate how this law has been enforced. In early April, an Indian imam was forced to leave Singapore after he chanted that he needed “help against the Jews and the Christians” during a prayer sermon. Similarly, in the first week of September, two Christian preachers were banned from speaking in Singapore because they had described Allah as “a false god” and had called Buddhists as “lost, lifeless, confused, and spiritually barren.” And if these things were said by ordinary citizens, there would be similar consequences.
Earlier this year, the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs put out a statement saying, “The U.S. adopts a different standard, and allows some hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech. The U.S. for example, in the name of freedom of speech, allows the burning of the Quran. Singapore takes a very different approach. Anyone who engages in hate speech or attempts to burn the Qur’an, Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, will be arrested and charged.”
These actions have proven to be effective in stopping religious and community leaders from spreading hate and are powerful in minimizing racial violence. However, these laws are no silver bullet and do not magically result in harmony between all races in Singapore. In actuality, there is still much work to be done to ensure that equal opportunity is given to all Singaporeans of all creeds—a task that cannot be done by simply prohibiting individuals from demonizing groups of people. However, increasing equal opportunity to all Singaporeans can be done through dialogue at the grassroots level and through scrutiny of policy at the governmental level. Singapore recognizes that any form of hate speech, even disguised as free speech, is not productive in bringing people greater freedoms. So to maintain harmony, Singapore does not allow hateful speech to be considered a part of their ‘freedom.’ Such speech only inhibits the freedom of the group in question, which in turn inhibits the freedom of the collective nation.