Stronger safeguards against foreign influence, updated restraining order as MRHA amendments passed

Stronger safeguards against foreign influence, updated restraining order as MRHA amendments passed

Changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) to allow authorities to deal more effectively with the growing influence of social media and the threat of foreign religious interference were passed on Monday (Oct 7). 

SINGAPORE: Changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) to allow authorities to deal more effectively with the growing influence of social media and the threat of foreign religious interference were passed on Monday (Oct 7).

“It is easy for religious movements in other countries to affect us,” said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam. 

“We have to put in some circuit breakers to prevent events relating to religion from affecting us negatively. 

"We cannot completely shut them out. We want to absorb those religious influences. But at the same time, we do not want them to affect us negatively.” 

Passed in Parliament in 1990, the MRHA came into effect about two years later. It was enacted to help Singapore prevent friction and misunderstanding between the country's religious groups.

The law has helped to maintain peace and harmony in the country despite it never being invoked since it came into effect, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said at an Inter-Religious Organisation event in August.

He had pointed out that things have changed since the law's inception and the proliferation of social media, for one, has made it easier for people to cause offence through spreading vitriol and falsehoods and for others to take offence. 

The amendments to the MRHA would allow authorities to deal with these new threats “comprehensively and in a timely manner”, Mr Lee had added.

READ: Explainer: What is Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and is it still relevant today?

SAFEGUARDING AGAINST FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

Under the amended Act, religious groups will be required to disclose single foreign donations that are above S$10,000. This applies only to monetary donations. 

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling said that the threshold of S$10,000 was set after discussion with major religious organisations. 

“We wanted to balance the objective of preventing foreign influence, and not making it too onerous at the same time for religious organisations,” she added. 

“We are not saying that any donation below S$10,000 is not a concern, or that any donation above S$10,000 is malicious. The Government will make assessments to determine if there is malicious foreign influence.”

Anonymous cash donations received through donation boxes at religious institutions, or during a collection during worship rites or services are exempted. 

Donations received from permanent residents (PR) as well as foreigners who are on long-term passes issued by Immigration Checkpoint Authority (ICA) or the Ministry of Manpower do not need to be disclosed.

Religious groups will also be required to declare any foreign affiliations.

A foreign affiliation 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”. 

READ: 'Could not be timelier': Religious groups support mooted changes to Singapore's religious harmony law

The president, secretary and treasurer of a religious group must also be a Singapore citizen or PR. In addition, the majority of the executive committee or governing body of a religious group must be Singapore citizens. 

If a religious group is incorporated as a company, the requirements will apply to similar positions, including the chairman, managing director and directors of the company. 

These leadership requirements do not apply to spiritual leaders, unless they hold such executive positions in the religious group, said Ms Sun.

She added that the ministry recognises that there are some religious groups that would not be able to meet the above requirements, such as those who serve primarily foreigners who live and work in Singapore, or those set up as single entities operating across different countries.

“We have been engaging some of these groups, and are prepared to consider exemptions from these new leadership requirements for them. This will be granted on a case-by-case basis, as long as there are no security concerns,” she added. 

UPDATED RESTRAINING ORDER

Recognising that social media has enabled offensive posts to "go viral in a matter of seconds", Ms Sun said there is a need for the Government to update the MRHA’s restraining order (RO) to take swift action against such posts. 

Currently, an RO can be issued against any individual who does or says anything that causes religious disharmony, as well as any religious leader or member of a religious group that mixes religion and politics, and any person inciting a religious leader or religious group to do so.

Under the amended Act, an RO can also be issued against a religious group to pre-empt, prevent or reduce any foreign interference affecting the group that may undermine religious tolerance between different religious groups in Singapore and present a threat to public peace and public order in Singapore, said Ms Sun. 

The RO will now take immediate effect after being issued.

READ: Regulations on offensive speech help safeguard racial, religious harmony: Shanmugam

READ: Shanmugam warns of foreign interference in Singapore; questions agenda, funding of The Online Citizen

The scope of the RO will also include requiring the individual to “stop undertaking any communications activity relating to the religiously offensive material”, and includes the removal of any material that has been posted on the Internet, said Ms Sun. 

COMMUNITY REMEDIAL INITIATIVE

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam recalled the incident where the Young Sikh Association reached out to a social media influencer after she uploaded a picture of two Sikh men in white turbans at the recent F1 Grand Prix and referred to them as “huge obstructions”.

He lauded the Young Sikh Association for taking the “commendable path” of reaching out to the influencer to invite her to visit the gurdwara and learn more about Sikhism, adding that this incident “encapsulates the spirit” of the new Community Remedial Initiative (CRI).

The CRI will be offered to an alleged offender by the Minister, Ms Sun explained, adding that it will set out the remedial actions that can be taken to mend ties with the aggrieved community. Some examples include a public or private apology, or participating in activities that promote religious harmony. 

READ: Preetipls video: Racism 'a basic fact' in Singapore, but situation much better, improving, says Shanmugam

Ms Sun explained that the CRI is not mandatory and the person can refuse to take up the offer. Not completing the CRI or refusing the initiative will not be a criminal offence, she added.

If the individual agrees to complete the remedial actions and does so, the case will not be referred for criminal prosecution. 

Ms Sun stressed that the CRI will not be issued to every case of religious disharmony. 

“For example, if the conduct is very egregious, such as when the offender incites violence, this case is clearly not suitable for the CRI," she said.

Mr Shanmugam said it would be "much better" if people reached out to each other and get a "better understanding of each other's religion".

"You can actually do better with fostering a better environment," he said. 

“The philosophy is, it is much better if people reach out to each other and get a better understanding of each other’s religion. You can actually do better with fostering a better environment,” said Mr Shanmugam. 

In closing, the minister said he believes the Bill is "right for our country". 

He added: "In the nearly 30 years since MRHA was enacted, we look around us. Al Qaeda, ISIS, communal violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and more. There are disputes between all major religions across the world, and abuse of religion by politicians and religious leaders. 

"Through this, we stand proud – a beacon of religious tolerance and social harmony. We need to ask ourselves why, why have we been spared?"

Acknowledging that Singapore had previous incidents of religious disharmony, Mr Shanmugam said they were handled with "wisdom and common sense". 

"We draw lines in the sand. We reinforce positive norms, and they make our society stronger. It is not just the MRHA that has helped to keep religious harmony in Singapore," he added. 

"It is a whole series of policies, approach, and most crucially that a significant majority of our people accept, subscribe to and support these policies, and they want religious harmony. It is a core value of our society."

Source: CNA/mt(mi)

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