As a multi-racial and multi-religious society, there are several necessary laws set in place to ensure all citizens and residents live together harmoniously in Singapore. These laws provide Singaporeans with adequate protection and recourse should one ever feel unsafe or intimidated due to their race or religion.

According to Section 298, uttering words or making sounds within an audible distance; making any gesture; or placing any object within the sight of any person with the deliberate intent to wound their religious or racial feelings is a punishable offence with either an imprisonment term of up to 3 years, a fine, or both.

The more pertinent question is, what exactly constitutes an action, word or object that can be classified as offensive? Although mildly-racist jokes often get laughed off, when do you know if you’ve crossed the line? What happens if you get accused of wounding the religious and racial feelings of others? And what can you do if you feel offended by the actions of someone?

Here are some frequently-asked questions that you may help you better understand the situation:

Q: What does it mean when someone accuses me of wounding racial and religious feelings?

A: As race and religion are very touchy subjects – special care needs to be taken when navigating a conversation or discussion about race.

The bare definition here is – Something you have said or done that has caused harm and hurt to a particular race or their religious beliefs.

Q: If someone makes an off-handed joke about my skin colour that offends me, and after telling the person off nicely, he/she insists that I am just overreacting. What can I do beyond this point?

A: “Racism” is a general term but over the past decade, acts of interpersonal racism have made the news multiple times in various countries. To help differentiate the different levels of racism – from the most extreme to subtle, the term “casual racism” was coined for non-violent and subtle acts. Other synonyms include “everyday racism” and “subtle racism”.

In this case, the situation would be classified as “casual racism”. Currently, there isn’t much legal recourse one can take but if necessary, do approach us for advice if you have been caught in this situation. Otherwise, what you can do is to ignore the perpetrator but if he/she does not stop – then it might be considered a provocation.

Q: How do I provoke someone? What can be classified as “wounding the racial and religious feelings” of someone?

A: Derogatory terms like the “N word”, and it’s equivalent some examples of words you should not use on others. Some gestures such as the “inverted cross” can be very offensive to Christians. In a highly-publicised case a few years ago, a video-blogger made several remarks and gestures that were particularly offensive to Christians and Muslims. He was found guilty and charged.

The rule of thumb is: Do not refer to someone using a derogatory term and if you have accidentally offended someone, simply apologise and move on. The rationale behind this rule is to prevent any actions that could generate social unrest.

Q: What if someone provoked me by offending my race/religious beliefs and out of anger, I physically attacked him. What do I do next?

A: Never take the law in your own hands. You will first need to show that the insult was sufficient enough to provoke you into committing the assault on the person.

However, if you have already retaliated, and physically injured the person, then this is what will happen:

Singapore courts employ a 2-stage test to deem if the test for provocation can be successfully invoked. The test is as follows:

  1. The accused has to prove that he was deprived of his self-control by provocation (a subjective requirement which turns on a finding of fact); and
  2. The provocation should have been ‘grave and sudden’, involving the application of the reasonable man test (an objective requirement).

In other words, the provocation must be really serious, in the levels of a possible hate crime or something that could endanger you or your property to be able to employ a defence against the assault charge. However, it must also be proven that you did not instigate the provocation by challenging the person to provoke you, or retaliating with a racial jibe of your own.

Q: What if I was provoked, and retaliated but accidentally killed the person?

A: Similar to above, but whether or not you get charged for culpable homicide will heavily depend on the results of the 2-stage test and if you fulfil any of the Bars to the provocation defence:

(a) that the provocation is sought or voluntarily provoked by the offender as an excuse for killing or doing harm to any person (that is, the provocation is self-induced);

(b) that the provocation is given by anything done in obedience to the law, or by a public servant in the lawful exercise of the powers of such public servant;

(c) that the provocation is given by anything done in the lawful exercise of the right of private defence.

Q: While scrolling through Facebook, I saw a comment from someone who made a comment that was very derogatory towards a particular racial group. What can I do about this?

A: You can make a police report with either screenshots, or a link to the offending post or comment if it is still online. The police will then investigate the case.

Q: What happens if I make a racist statement against my own race? Is it still a crime?

A: Even though most cases of racism occur between members of different races, there is a possibility that a statement you’ve made against your own race can be considered a crime. This can happen if someone lodges a police report against you, and your statement is found to be offensive, or has offended a sizeable number of people of your own race.

Q: If I make an offensive joke about a particular racial or religious group online while I was drunk, and this offended people enough for them to make a police report, does this mean I am liable for an offence?

A: The short answer is yes.

Under the law, self-induced intoxication is not a defence and you may be charged.

Our Criminal Lawyer, Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu, has defended numerous clients who found themselves in situations from negligent driving to military offences. With vast experience in Singapore’s laws, Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu will be able to provide valuable and timely advice for your situation. For more information, or if you have been caught in a similar situation, feel free to contact us for a consultation.

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