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K Shanmugam: In Singapore, the right to speak freely goes with the duty to act responsibly

“Free speech for us stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion. There is a fence, and that fence protects religious sensitivities," said the Minister for Law and Home Affairs

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Singapore—Speaking at the 16th Religious Rehabilitation Group Seminar at Khadijah Mosque on Monday (Nov 24), K Shanmugam, the Minister for Law and Home Affairs, said that the threat of terrorism has not gone away though its “shape and nature” have changed.

Citing a recent terrorist attack in France wherein a teacher was killed because of an example he used for freedom of speech, Mr Shanmugam compared how religious differences are dealt with in France and Singapore, saying that in this country, the right to speak freely goes with the duty to act responsibly.

French teacher Samuel Paty was killed on Oct 16, beheaded by a teenager from Chechnya. Mr Paty had shown his students cartoons from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo that depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a way that many Muslims found offensive.

Mr Shanmugam said, “French President Macron issued a statement paying tribute to Paty and defending the right in France to publish such cartoons. He made a very strong speech, covering many different aspects.”

Following this, there were retaliatory attacks from jihadists in other parts of France, as well as in Austria. And the Minister said that while jihadists do not represent Muslims, “What has happened in France has restarted the debate on what freedom of expression means, how much you can say, and what is the boundary between free expression and your obligation not to offend someone’s religion.”

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He added that in France, the State does not intervene in religious matters nor does it curb free speech. At the same time, it expects immigrants to adapt to the French way of living. And now France has to “find a way to bridge this gulf between its principles” of Laicite (secularism) and Freedom, and the expectations and beliefs of its people who don’t accept that their religions should be offensively caricatured.”

In Singapore, Mr Shanmugam said, the Government has taken a considerably different, more hands-on approach.

He said, “If we take a hands-off approach, then people will say since the Government won’t do something.… The national harmony will be affected, and the majority of people will be affected. Some groups will be saying yes, free speech, it’s ok, I don’t get offended, you can say what you like about the Prophet, the Pope, or God. But many other people would feel offended. So that is why we take a different approach.”

Singapore also takes a secular approach, just as France does, and both countries guarantee freedom of religion. However, he added, “How we achieve it is different. France says that they prefer to achieve it by taking a hands-off approach; we are interventionist, we intervene.

Because we take the position, that the right to speak freely goes with the duty to act responsibly, the two must go together.

We also do not allow any religion to be attacked or insulted by anybody else, whether majority or minority. Same rules.

We guarantee freedom of religion, the right of every person to practice his or her religious beliefs, and we protect everyone, majority or minority, from any threats, hate speech or violence.

That is the assurance one gets in Singapore. It is also what we need to do to make sure that we preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore.”

There are boundaries, he added, to freedom of religion, which is why magazines such as Charlie Hebdo would not be allowed in Singapore.

“Free speech for us stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion. There is a fence, and that fence protects religious sensitivities. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, if they were here, they would have been told to stop. If they didn’t stop, ISD would visit them, and they would have been arrested.” —/TISG

Read also: S.Jayakumar reveals how he lured Shanmugam and Davinder Singh into politics in new book

S.Jayakumar reveals how he lured Shanmugam and Davinder Singh into politics in new book

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