SINGAPORE: During the debate on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Act (MRHA) on Monday (Oct 7), 23 MPs raised concerns about how the rules would be implemented on matters ranging from the conflation of faith and politics, to the expression of religious beliefs that could be seen as contradictory to others.
The changes to the 27-year-old Act - aimed at allowing the Government to deal more effectively with issues such as the growing influence of social media and the threat of foreign religious interference - were passed on Monday (Oct 7).
READ: Explainer: What is Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and is it still relevant today?
FAITH AND POLITICS
In his speech, Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh said the initial passing of the Act in 1990 was not without controversy, noting that it had initially been mooted only a month after the 1987 Marxist conspiracy.
He pointed out the Act had attracted significant apprehension from religious groups, as well as several ministers at the time.
The Aljunied GRC MP noted that Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam himself – then a backbencher in Parliament – had at the time expressed concerns about the “potential for an irrational exercise of executive power” under the Act.
Mr Singh said the WP did not find the amendments objectionable, noting the importance of racial harmony and religious tolerance as national values.
However, he raised questions about the mixing of religion and politics in Singapore, despite the underlying spirit of the Act to keep the two separate.
He gave the example of a “well-known leader of a religious group” – who also had fronted a number of national initiatives and had links to the People’s Association - who was seen with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the 2015 General Election.
Noting that it was unclear whether the individual was acting as an election agent, Mr Singh said this could be perceived as an example of a religious leader canvassing support for a politician.
“To that end, how would some members of the same religious group with a different political view from that espoused by their religious leader or elder feel if they openly support another political party?” he asked.
The “imprudent timing” of invitations by religious leaders and organisations to politicians - particularly in the run-in to elections - could also signal that worshippers should support these politicians, said Mr Singh.
The significant powers afforded under the Act in acting against those seen to be entering the realm of politics under “the safety of the pulpit or the garb of religion” means clarity regarding the laws and impartiality from the Government is paramount, he noted.
READ: Stronger safeguards against foreign influence, updated restraining order as MRHA amendments passed
Mr Singh’s concerns were echoed by WP chairman Sylvia Lim, who noted religious leaders here had generally expressed support for the amendments to the Act.
“But if the religious leaders had instead gone the other way, that is, expressed concern or opposition to the Bill, would the Government have put its foot down and issued an order requiring them to stop?” she asked.
In response, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said it would not be wise for the Government to cut ties with religious leaders, and noted such ties were built across various religions and political parties.
“Good, deep friendships between government leaders and religious leaders are extremely important. It helps to build trust, build bonds, and that is important for society as a whole, and allows issues to be dealt with in an atmosphere of trust,” he said, noting that the Government had to be fair and neutral in doing so.
Mr Shanmugam also noted religious bodies such as PERGAS (Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association) and the NCCS (National Council of Churches of Singapore) had previously voiced opposition to matters such as the building of casinos and the approval of online gambling, without being censured.
“I don't think we can completely deny them (religious organisations) the right to express some views on some pieces of legislation,” he said, noting however this had to be done without being partisan and political.
READ: 'Could not be timelier': Religious groups support mooted changes to Singapore's religious harmony law
AN ‘ONEROUS’ TASK?
Under the amended Act, religious groups will be required to disclose single foreign donations that are above $10,000. This applies only to monetary donations.
Anonymous cash donations received through donation boxes at religious institutions, or during a collection during worship rites or services are exempted. Donations received from PRs as well as foreigners who are on long-term passes issued by Immigration Checkpoint Authority or the Ministry of Manpower do not need to be disclosed.
Religious groups will also be required to declare any foreign affiliations, which is defined as “an arrangement with a foreign principal where the religious group is accustomed to act in accordance with its instructions, or where the foreign principal exercises total or substantial control over the religious group’s activities”.
One of the concerns raised by MPs was that the requirement of disclosing affiliations could prove difficult.
MP Joan Pereira pointed out that many of the smaller religious bodies rely on volunteers and have “lean resources” to draw upon.
This was echoed by MP Christopher de Souza, who pointed out that given the “long-standing” contribution and ties that some Singapore religious groups have with overseas religious groups, the law needs to be flexible enough to ensure that its intent is achieved, without reducing the good work of such local institutions.
“How can we ensure that the limitations on foreign persons will not be overly onerous in institutions, orders and missionaries who continue to do sterling work in Singapore?” asked Mr De Souza.
Mr Shanmugam explained that the Bill has incorporated the feedback of various organisations. In fact, changes have been made to the Bill based on such feedback, he said.
Added Mr Shanmugam: “The religious organisations know there will be some additional work but they understood and accepted the rationale and the need for the safeguards.
"We’ve been working with them for more than a year. They realised the need for the amendments in maintaining religious harmony, and we’ve assured the religious groups that we will work with them to implement these requirements in a practical manner, and where needed we will also grant exceptions,” he added.
MP Alex Yam also asked if the MRHA would forbid the entrance of new religious movements that do not have a local presence.
“Religious freedom is guaranteed under the constitution, we don’t interfere with that,” said Mr Shanmugam in his reply. “But the requirements in the Bill if it becomes legislation will apply to all new as well as existing religious groups.”
MP Yaacob Ibrahim expressed concerns about how being “wounded” by words is defined.
“Insults are clear. But what about genuine differences of opinion or views?” he asked.
“I adopt a certain religion because I believe it to be the truth and everything else to be untrue. And if I utter my views about what I understand and believe to be untrue of other religions publicly, will I be guilty of an offence?"
He also questioned whether expressing negative views of a person’s religion is an offence if only one person feels wounded.
“And what if the “wounded person” can claim publicly on social media that his religion has been insulted and others from his religion feel equally wounded, would that make it an offence?” asked Mr Yaacob.
“Would there be any difference if 10 others, or perhaps 1,000 others, express support for him online?”
Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the phrase “wounding of religious feelings” is not new as it has been adapted from existing offences in the Penal Code.
“People are free to express their views. This has to be done responsibly,” he said. “Statements that denigrate another religion will of course cross the line.
“We’ve had the penal code for eons and we’ve had the MRHA for 27 years - these phrases are not new and I don’t think anyone complains that there has not been a possibility of discussing viewpoints or that it’s all discussion on religious topics have been silenced.
“I think people understand the norms and values and there are fairly open discussions. If a debate on religious differences gets into a denigration of another religion insults incites violence we will of course take action and we have done so in the past.”
Near the end of the day’s sitting, there was a to-and-fro between Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap and Mr Shanmugam on whether religion and politics should be separated.
Earlier, the Aljunied GRC MP had said that he does “not quite agree” with the Act’s principle of separating religion and politics.
“As a Muslim, Islam is understood as a way of life. Islam encompasses all aspects of life, including politics and the way to practice politics. And I understand that Christianity also believes that it is unlikely that religion can be separated from politics,” he had said.
In his closing speech, Mr Shanmugam described this as a “very surprising statement” and one with “serious implications”.
“Assuming that I heard him right, if we do not separate religion from politics then whose religion comes into politics? Inevitably, if you allow religion to play a significant role in politics, then those who are part of the majority religion must have the bigger say or plurality, at least, will have the bigger say? Do you think the position of religious minorities will be better or worse?” asked the minister.
Mr Faisal rose to clarify and stressed multiple times that his statement must be seen in the context of how Muslims are taught that Islam is “a way of life”.
“It encompasses every aspect of life. That’s what I meant that as a Muslim, I can’t separate the two entity of politics and religion,” said the Opposition MP.
This led Mr Shanmumgam to probe if Mr Faisal’s position would cover hypothetical scenarios, such as one where a religious leader says “Islam covers all aspects of life and therefore, Muslims must vote for Muslims”.
In his responses, Mr Faisal again stressed that his statement must be taken with the context of Islam’s teachings, but noted that he disagrees on religion being used for the benefit of politics.
Towards the end of the 10-minute exchange, Mr Shanmugam pressed Mr Faisal on whether he agreed that religion should be kept separated from politics in Singapore. To that, the Opposition MP eventually said: “I do agree that religion needs to be kept aside or apart from politics so that the religion won’t be used to gain personal benefit or the benefit of any political party.”