UN racism rapporteur says Singapore’s free speech restrictions are outdated

April 29th, 2010

At the end of his eight-day visit to Singapore, United Nations official Githu Muigai criticised the Republic’s limits on free speech. “It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse and the protection of racial harmony are not implemented at the detriment of fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly,” said the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

He said it was time to “review any legislative restrictions… to allow Singaporeans to share their views on matters of ethnicity, to identify potential issues of discomfort and above all, work together to find solutions”.

The Rapporteur submits an annual report to the UN. His press conference drew an immediate response from Singapore’s Foreign Ministry: “The Singapore Government looks forward to reading Mr Muigai’s final report. We have an open mind because the maintenance of racial harmony is of such vital importance to us that we are prepared to consider any practical suggestion that advances this goal and is workable in our unique circumstances”

On Muigai’s comments about freedom of expression, MFA said:

“In the course of his press conference this afternoon Mr Muigai referred to restrictions in our laws such as the Penal Code and the Sedition Act and expressed the opinion that they may not as useful today as forty-five years ago. He called for greater openness in the public discussion of sensitive issues. Here we must emphatically disagree with Mr Muigai. Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed, but a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony. This balance is only for the Singapore government to determine because only the Singapore government bears the responsibility should things go wrong. The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle. We believe most Singaporeans agree with the government’s approach.”

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