‘Free speech stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion’, says Singapore minister on Charlie Hebdo’s ‘repulsive’ cartoons

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaking to reporters after addressing a seminar organised by the Religious Rehabilitation Group November 24, 2020. — TODAY pic
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaking to reporters after addressing a seminar organised by the Religious Rehabilitation Group November 24, 2020. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Nov 26 — If cartoonists from French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were operating in Singapore, they would have been told to stop publishing their “repulsive” and “highly offensive” cartoons on religion, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said.

The magazine sparked a series of terrorist attacks in France and around the world after republishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in early September.

Shanmugam said that if the cartoonists did not heed the government’s warning to stop, the Internal Security Department (ISD) would “visit them, and they would be arrested.”

He was speaking on Tuesday at a seminar organised by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).

“The Charlie Hebdo type of cartoons will not be allowed in Singapore whether it is about Catholicism or Protestants, Islam or Hindus. No, we will not allow There is a fence – that fence protects religious sensitivities.”

He added that Singapore’s approach was based on the principle that “free speech stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion.”

He repeatedly stressed this message during a speech at the RRG seminar and when speaking to reporters afterwards.

Shanmugam made the remarks shortly before the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced on Tuesday that it had initiated investigations into 37 people for suspected radical inclinations, inciting violence, or stoking communal unrest.

The investigations happened after Singapore heightened its security alert in response to a resurgence of terrorist activity in France and other parts of the world, ignited by what Charlie Hebdo did.

One attack — the beheading of a French schoolteacher named Samuel Paty — led to a strong response from Muslims around the world after French president Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to the teacher and defended the country’s right to publish the cartoons.

Shanmugam said that such attacks are precisely why the Singapore Government is “defensive” when it comes to race and religion.“Every now and then we get debates in Singapore: Why is the government not allowing free speech? Why is the government so protective, or so defensive when it comes to race and religion?” he said.

“This is why we are defensive when it comes to race and religion, because if we take a hands-off approach, then people will say, ‘Since the government won't do something, I will do something,’ And people are going to be upset with each other. National harmony will be affected. The majority of people will be affected.

“Some groups will be saying, ‘Yes, you know, it's free speech, it's okay, I don't get offended. You can say what you like about the Prophet, Pope or God’. But many other people will feel offended. So that is why we take a different approach.”

And if the state takes such a hands-off approach, “you have publications like Charlie Hebdo that publish repulsive, highly offensive cartoons and articles on religions in the name of free speech,” he said. “And the French expect all religions to accept this.”

Shanmugam also noted that the attacks in France had rekindled a debate on the boundaries of free expression and whether there is an obligation to not offend someone else’s religion.Pointing out that France subscribes to “laicite”, a form of secularism whereby the government will not intervene in religious matters, or stop publications that attack religions, he said that freedom of speech is “quite absolute” in their model, “to the extent that it includes the right to blaspheme.”

But France’s approach had assumed that its new immigrants would accept the French way of looking at freedom of speech, and failed to look into whether it needed to be reconsidered or recalibrated in light of its changing population.

As for Singapore, it also takes a secular approach like France and guarantees the freedom of religion, but it differs by being interventionist, Shanmugam said.

In 2017, for instance, an imam here was fined S$4,000 (RM12,171) and repatriated to India after he made controversial remarks against Christians and Jews in his sermons.

Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel Abdul Malik — believed to be the first religious leader to be prosecuted for delivering an inappropriate sermon — faced one count of committing an act that he knew was prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious groups and was likely to disturb the public tranquillity.

In June this year, a 19-year-old Chinese permanent resident, whom TODAY understood was a student at Temasek Polytechnic, was arrested after he described on Instagram a dream where he killed members of a particular religion and claimed to have “no problem committing genocide.”

Shanmugam said: “France says that it prefers to achieve (freedom of religion) 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.

“As a secular government, we are neutral in the treatment of all religions, but we also do not allow any religion to be attacked or insulted by anybody else — whether majority or minority. Same rules.”

Comments a 'timely reminder'

Religious and community leaders interviewed by TODAY said that they agree with Shanmugam’s comments, which they understood had been the official position and policy adopted by the Singapore government for some time.

Dr Mohd Hasbi Abu Bakar, president of Jamiyah Singapore, said that such a position has helped Singaporeans of different faiths and ideological predispositions to exercise their rights in ways that do not encroach upon, let alone impair, the well-being of others.

“While we celebrate liberties and freedoms, we are always mindful that multi-racial and multi-religious societies must balance rights with responsibilities,” he said.

“Shanmugam’s unambiguous warning for those who are unmindful of the utter sensitivities that race and religious portend to our multi-religious social fabric is thus a timely reminder,” he added.

“At a time when many other plural societies have not been as successful in maintaining ethnic and religious peace, the many laws that have been put in place in our nation have played no small part in enabling us to reach where we are today economically and socially.”

Md Badrun Nafis Saion, chairman of non-profit group AMP Singapore, said that over the years, the authorities had taken necessary steps to protect religious sensitivities against possible provocation that stoke acts of violence.

He agreed that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would have crossed the line.“We need to maintain our social fabric and religious harmony, and guard against those that would divide us as a nation. It is important to adopt a zero-tolerance approach on such issues as it could jeopardise our religious harmony that we have enjoyed over the years,” he said.

“While we encourage freedom of speech, we have to also ensure that we remain sensitive and respect sacred religious sentiments and beliefs of other religions.”

If action were not taken against similar types of cartoons here, Badrun said that it could potentially inflame tensions among various communities, and might even influence individuals to incite violence and social unrest.

“Our local authorities and institutions play a critical role in standing firm against anything that could incite violence towards any religion,” he added. — TODAY

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