Transcript of Minister Shanmugam’s Response to Mr Murali Pillai’s Clarification Questions in Parliament on 11 May 2021
Mr Murali Pillai: Mr Speaker, Sir, I also would like to thank the two honourable Ministers for their detailed Ministerial Statements, and the point made by Minister Lawrence Wong about not engaging in xenophobia, is something that chimes with me. Sir, Honourable Members would know that there was a serious incident that was reported in the press yesterday, that strikes at the very core of what we are as a nation. It was alleged that a Singapore woman of Indian descent was assaulted by a man who used racial slurs and kicked her for not wearing a mask. This, and another racial incident, comes in the wake of the community spread, once again, of COVID-19, this time, attributable to a variant, coming from the Indian subcontinent. The tension appears to be fanned by false or misleading narratives in social media, and circulated through WhatsApp and other platforms. I seek clarifications from the Minister for Home Affairs, for his assessment of the security situation arising from these racial incidents, connected to the pandemic, and what steps will the Government take to nip this in the bud to address the situation. Thank you.
Minister Shanmugam: Thank you, Mr Speaker, Sir. I thank the Member for his questions.
The facts we have, are as reported in the media. Last Friday, the 7th of May, in the morning, a 55-year-old Indian lady was brisk-walking towards Choa Chu Kang Stadium. She said that she lowered her mask below her nose to prevent breathlessness. A man wearing a light-colored T-shirt, accompanied by a woman, shouted at her to put her mask above her nose. And she told him that she was exercising. The man then shouted at her again, used a racial slur, and she responded to him “God bless you”, and began to walk away. She says that the man then ran towards her and landed a “flying kick” on her chest, causing her to fall. She had scratches on her arms and hands. She lodged a Police report that night, and she said she would seek medical attention on the 10th of May, yesterday.
The matter is under investigation. The attacker is believed to be Chinese. Investigations need to be done before we can come to any conclusions.
But such conduct, unfortunately, is consistent with some of the other things that have been happening, and if the facts are as stated by the lady, then it appears to be racist conduct. We have seen racism around the world during this pandemic. In the United States for example, Asians, particularly Chinese, being attacked. The flu or virus was being described as a “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus”, as if viruses have nationality. We condemn that.
Equally, we have to condemn such behaviour in Singapore. I have said previously, there has always been racism in Singapore, like in other countries. But we have managed it, and over time, we have sought to reduce it. But, it has been stirred up recently.
Around the world, economic pressures have led to populism, and the populists have been seeking political profit by exploiting people’s fears over jobs and economic insecurity, blaming foreigners, blaming immigrants, for all of a country’s problems.
In Singapore, we have avoided the worst of such populism, but people are concerned for their jobs, and naturally so. Among Singaporeans, there are legitimate concerns about foreigners taking over our jobs. The concern is fair, and the Government’s duty is to protect Singaporean jobs. But these concerns have been fuelled by unacceptable practices. For example, unfair employment practices that favour hiring foreigners and discriminate against our locals. It is a minority who behave like this, but it naturally makes Singaporeans unhappy. MOM has taken steps to deal with these bad practices.
But what has been happening also, is parties have been deliberating stoking the fears, encouraging racism and xenophobia, and dog whistling, much like what we have seen in the US. That is dangerous, and dangerous for Singapore.
Because, first it will be the expat Indians. Then, it will come to Singaporean Indians. And anyway, not everyone can distinguish between foreign-born Indians and Singapore-born Indians. The lady who was attacked has been a citizen for 25 years. If we go down this route, eventually all Indians can be a target of hate, the so-called “outgroup”, which I referred to in a Ministerial Statement, a couple of years ago.
It is not the case now, we are far from it. But, the expression of overt racism is still there, only amongst a minority in Singapore. The majority of Singaporeans are decent and not racist, but if we continue to fan the flames of racism, we will get to a more uncomfortable position.
There are also websites which deliberately fan racism. They are anti-Government, and that is perfectly okay, but don’t play with race. Comments on these sites have Indians being called “cockroaches”, “rapists” and so on. We should be ashamed, that in the name of free speech, we allow such comments.
This bad behavior and open expression of racism – I invite all here to condemn. When called out, we cannot seek to justify such racist behavior by saying, “Oh, it’s because of the Government’s policies”, or “It’s because of CECA”, or “The Indians are behaving badly”, or that we are entitled to be racist and xenophobic because of these things. Just ask whether racism and xenophobia can ever be justified on these grounds.
There have been several canards about CECA, promoted by a whispering campaign. If anyone here believes that CECA is a problem, put it up for a Motion, debate it openly and let’s hear whether Singaporeans benefit or lose from it. I am looking at you, Mr Leong. I invite you to put up a Motion to debate CECA. You know that most of what is said about CECA is false.
And, what is happening on the ground? We are picking up from different coffeeshops. This morning, a friend of mine overheard in a coffeeshop, a conversation between five elderly gentlemen. They discussed the incident covered in the media of an Indian expatriate family. We don’t know the facts. Several highly racist comments targeting Indians. So, it’s getting to the ground, and being repeated. This will become normalised if we are not careful. I hope responsible Opposition parties will take a stand on this, notwithstanding that many of these sites that promote xenophobia support you.
Singapore is 725 square kilometers of rock. We have to make a living by being open to the world. We will fail if we allow racism and xenophobia to become prevalent, and it is contrary to everything that has made us successful and proud to be Singaporean.
Thank you, Sir.
Watch the speech here.