Friday, September 30, 2005

Let judiciary educate, not penalise


Recently, a Muslim friend made a remark about the 17-year-old boy who was charged for racist remarks on his blog.

He said that blogger had to be taught a lesson because "this is Singapore. Like it or not, people should be taught to respect other races".

In the last few weeks, two others have been charged for similar offences. Some people are calling for the arrest of a Government scholar who made racist remarks on his blog months ago.

While many feel it is right for the Government to send out a zero-tolerance message, it is, however, worrying when they agree that the judiciary should apply the full force of the Sedition Act to individuals who make racially-insensitive remarks.

They also find appealing the suggestion that, like in some other Commonwealth jurisdictions, the penalty for crimes with a racial element should automatically be increased.

But in the many commentaries and views expressed so far in the media, few have paused to ask: "Why did the youth write such things?"

The root of the problem may run deeper.

Some of my peers went through school and never had the opportunity to get to know an ethnic minority friend. I have met some people in their late 30s who have never visited Little India, Geylang or Arab Street.

From the time we get our birth certificate to our death, one word persists: Race.

Race matters when we seek partners, get married or search for housing.

Race is also an issue when you are in the workforce. Your race decides which self-help group your monthly donations go to and how others perceive you.

For example, I recently decided to stop the monthly contributions to my self-help group for several reasons.

I do not believe in having to be a member of a particular race to make a difference for that group. As a Singaporean, I prefer to make an annual donation and divide it among all the self-help groups.

When I stopped contributing, I was blamed by some of my friends from ethnic minorities for "selling out my own kind".

As long as race matters, we will have racists. We will also have individuals who find others racially insensitive or those who "sell out their own kind".

The solution lies not in penalising such persons, but rather in understanding their way of thinking and engaging these thoughts constructively.

By punishing racists, we risk aggravating racism. For fear of sanction, people may stop sharing their real thoughts on the issue of race. And these thoughts could gestate in such a way that they become ideologies with a cult following.

It cannot be denied that there are benefits in a zero-tolerance-to-racism policy. The legislature and modern Singapore's brief history have provided some very strong grounds to do so.

However, we cannot rule out alternative ways to deal with the issue. We should make the punishment fit the crime in more ways than one.

For example, why not empower our judiciary to get these youth to serve in the communities they make fun of. Such youth may then be in a better position to understand that community.

Perhaps, the current review of the laws will pave the way for such measures.

The show of brute force through the long arm of the law and the heavy hammer of the judiciary may provide a quick fix. But education and a culture of allowing people to learn from their mistakes can take us to greater heights.

Dharmendra Yadav

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