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Students tell MHA exactly what they think about a proposed racial harmony bill

This week: Alarmed by what it could mean for activism and freedom of expression, about 40 students delivered their feedback on the proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

I went to donate blood and they gave me a little medal for being a 10-time donor! Did you know they did that? I didn’t! But now I have a medal 😎 Anyway, this is a little nudge for you to become a blood donor too, if you aren’t already but are eligible to do so.


Have you sent in your feedback to the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill? Yesterday afternoon, a group of university students (and alumni) submitted theirs in a big way: by delivering their responses in person to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

I followed the group of about 40 as they walked from Novena MRT to MHA’s headquarters at New Phoenix Park. Everyone had a letter; some had composed and printed out long reflections, while others had written their thoughts out by hand to demonstrate their sincerity. Some changed into T-shirts (or slipped tops over their existing outfits) saying, “THERE ARE NO MORE UNIVERSITIES IN GAZA”.

These students—from NTU, NUS, SMU and more—are united in their horror at the violence that has been inflicted upon Gaza, and determined not to sit idle. Some have participated in actions within their campus, such as a teach-in cheekily named Ponteng for Palestine, where NTU students skipped classes to do self-study on the history of Palestine instead. Someone in that same university put up posters in the toilets calling out NTU’s Israeli links and collaborations. NUS students have also organised Picnics for Palestine, coming together to read Palestinian poetry. 43 students from Yale-NUS’s class of 2024 found different ways to express their solidarity with Palestine during their graduation ceremony, and later published a statement online. Some parents might be keeping their kids in Singapore rather than let them go off to American universities where, God forbid, they might get involved in protests; they might be shocked to find that students in local tertiary institutions haven’t been passive either. (Admittedly, students in Singapore haven’t been subjected to the police violence some of their counterparts in the US have had to deal with—all of which, in turn, pales in comparison to the brutality Palestinians their age are currently facing in Gaza.)

“Students are realising that the natural reaction to seeing death on this huge of a scale, mutilated bodies, houses reduced to rubble… we need to feel something. That’s a natural response, but we were [previously] conditioned to do otherwise,” said R, an NTU student who’d delivered a letter to MHA. “I think we’ve broken through the conditioning that silenced our natural responses.”

The proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill—which, based on the limited information we have, will likely double down on existing laws related to promoting ill-will or hostility between racial groups, plus introduce the power for the Minister for Home Affairs to issue restraining orders—is a cause of concern for these young activists because they’ve seen how existing legislation has been used. As they write in their press statement:

We have seen that nearly all actions bringing light to the genocide in Gaza and calling on our government to take further actions against Israel are often treated as threats to Singapore’s racial and religious harmony. Participants in Steadfast for Palestine, an event held within a private space, were investigated under the Penal Code for eliciting “racial tensions” despite the racial diversity of the crowd and the lack of discrimination or elicitation of hate against any ethnic group. In fact, event attendees echoed calls against the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians—a clearly anti-racist stance.

The students are especially alarmed by aspects of the proposed law that would provide enhanced penalties for the urging of violence against other groups on racial grounds, and the introduction of restraining orders that can be issued without first establishing that criminal conduct has occurred. The first, they say is worrying because it’s unclear what constitutes “urging violence”. “For example,” they write, “the police statement about Steadfast for Palestine had said that the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ is associated with calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.” The students also expressed discomfort with how the power to issue restraining orders would give the minister “unilateral power in using this Bill to restrict freedom of expression”.

Readers of this newsletter will know that such actions aren’t without risk in Singapore; it’s possible that some, if not all, of those who went to MHA today could be called up at some point in the future for investigations under broad laws like the Public Order Act. Despite that, they believe in the importance of collective action and are sensitive to any threat to the already tiny space Singapore and Singaporean institutions allow for activism and organising. “Students believe in the power of the student movement,” R said. “If the bill passes, well-intentioned acts will be suppressed to a large extent.” They’re worried it could be a “nail in the coffin for a large and vibrant student movement for Palestine”.

When they reached MHA’s headquarters, two students went in to deliver the letters to the mail room. Umar, one of the students who went in, said that “it went surprisingly well” and that they’d made it clear to the officer in the mail room that they wanted to deliver their letters to the Minister for Home Affairs. The officer couldn’t promise them that the minister would read the letters, but the key point is that they were handed over to MHA—the ball is now in MHA’s court how they’d like to respond.


The Science Centre has nixed plans for a talk discussing the difference between sex and gender after conservatives got upset. The event wasn’t even going to be open to a big audience or to children; tickets cost $20 and only those 18 and above would have been allowed to go. Still, some people got twisty panties about the line-up: apart from Mie Hiramoto, an associate professor at NUS, the event would also have included Alexander Teh, a youth counsellor from Oogachaga, and drag queen Becca D’Bus. A group called Protect Singapore, which raised a stink in their Telegram group and got their followers to pressure the Science Centre (ultimately successfully) into cancelling the event, claimed that this line-up was “biased” and that allowing them to participate in a Science Centre event “could unwittingly lend the LGBTQ speakers credibility and may confuse and mislead the general public, especially students and youth”.

In one of his last interviews as prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong took aim at “wokeness”, saying that it leads to “very extreme attitudes and social norms” that have negative outcomes. “I do not think we want to go in that direction,” he said. But if the problem in Singapore is really “wokeness”, then what is this? Who is cancelling whom here? What direction are we going in right now?


CNA did an interview with Uddin MD Sharif’s former employer to talk about the harassment they’d experienced. The company, Hiap Seng Piling Construction, had first received threatening letters with hell notes in them, addressed to Sharif. They made a police report then, and continued to update the police as more letters followed, then escalated to phone calls. Letters were also sent to other businesses in the same building, specifically naming the company. Things then levelled up further: the harasser somehow found the company director’s sister’s home address, and started sending letters to her and even her neighbour. That was when the sister (erroneously identified in previous reports as the director’s daughter) filed a police report of her own, and the company started thinking of sacking Sharif. When Sharif managed to find another company to transfer to, the harassment mysteriously transferred to the new employer, even though Sharif insisted to me that only his old employer, new employer and MOM knew about where he was going. But Hiap Seng’s director told CNA that he didn’t know which company Sharif had been planning to join—narrowing the pool of people with this knowledge further.

The authorities had initially intended for Sharif to return to Bangladesh earlier; it was only after a public outcry that they gave Sharif a Special Pass to stay in Singapore to assist in the investigation. A month-and-a-half later, the police concluded the investigation without finding the harasser, and Sharif was forced to return to Bangladesh upon the lapse of his Special Pass.

It’s alarming that, from this case, it appears as if the police weren’t able to do much about harassment, whether from a real loan shark or otherwise. The company had reported the matter at the very beginning, and kept them updated through multiple letters, phone calls and harassment of others in their building—what action had been taken then, before it escalated to target the director’s family members? And my previous question still stands: how did the harasser know about Sharif’s attempt to transfer companies, allowing them to start harassing the new employer? How very puzzling.

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On the radar

🗳️ Is there going to be a September election? Everyone’s trying to read the tea leaves. The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee still hasn’t been convened. It’s still possible that the boundaries could be reviewed in time for a vote in September, but if that’s what they’re aiming for then they better get a move on.

💊 CNA had this story about the intersection of drug use and gender but I’m not going into detail with it here because I want to save it for an issue of Altering States; I’m working on a book review for which it’ll fit! (I know I’ve mentioned this book review before but still not published it… procrastination has been evil but I promise I’ll get it done!)

Thank you for reading! As always, feel free to forward this weekly wrap to anyone you like, and spread the word about this newsletter!