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

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

The Bill was passed on Nov 9, 1990, to maintain religious harmony and make sure religion is not exploited for political or subversive purposes in Singapore.

religious leaders singapore file

SINGAPORE: The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) is the law that was enacted to help Singapore authorities prevent friction and misunderstanding between the country's religious groups.

Amendments to the almost 30-year-old legislation will be tabled in next week’s Parliamentary sitting to better reflect today’s realities, particularly the proliferation of social media and how people may use it to spread vitriol and division.

READ: Singapore’s religious harmony law to be updated, says K Shanmugam

But what is the MRHA and why was it first introduced in 1990? CNA takes a look back to when the legislation was first debated in Parliament.

WHEN WAS MRHA INTRODUCED?

The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill was introduced for first reading on Jan 15, 1990, by then-Home Affairs Minister Professor S. Jayakumar and was debated extensively over a two-day period during its second reading in February. 

However, because Parliament was prorogued in April that year, the Bill lapsed and had to be re-introduced on Jun 12 in the second session of the 7th Parliament. It was eventually passed on Nov 9 that year and came into force two years later. 

WHY WAS IT TABLED?

Setting the context of why the Bill was needed, Prof Jayakumar, in its second reading on Feb 22, 1990, pointed out that there was heightened fervour among all religious groups and this trend increased the possibility of misunderstanding among them. 

“When religious sensitivities are offended, emotions are quickly aroused and it takes only a few incidents to inflame passions and kindle violence,” said Prof Jayakumar then, according to the Hansard.

The other factor was that while the majority of religious leaders and followers of different faiths are conscious of the need to be tolerant and sensitive in Singapore's multi-religious and multiracial society, there are some whose “conduct can cause considerable tensions and problems”, the minister said. 

Some of these examples were cited in the White Paper on Religious Harmony, including how a Muslim preacher denounced Christianity as “the most foolish religion” and Christian groups pasted posters on an upcoming seminar outside a Hindu temple, Prof Jayakumar said. 

The Bill’s aim was to ensure that followers of different religions exercise moderation and tolerance, not stoke enmity or hatred, as well keep separate religion from politics, he said. 

In his closing speech for the second reading, Prof Jayakumar said: “The Government does not take the position that this Bill is not capable of further improvement. We realise that this is a novel legislation. 

“There are not many precedents in other countries. Therefore, we welcome any suggestions that can improve the Bill and make it more effective,” he added.

CONCERNS?

The Bill was the subject of extensive discussion, with 32 Members of Parliament participating in the two-day debate in February 1990. 

They included those who were concerned with the MRHA’s potential wide-ranging powers and how the Minister was the final arbiter of any executive action. 

Opposition MP Chiam See Tong, for one, said that if the Government had passed the Bill at that point, it was “intent on taking the authoritarian path” and it would “one day surely lead us to a totalitarian state”. 

“This law gives the Minister (of Home Affairs) total and absolute power, first, to silence a religious leader and then to charge him in court,” Mr Chiam said.

He had also urged the Minister to explain his decision to charge a person under this law and if the person’s statements were for wrecking religious harmony or for breaking the prohibition order. 

“This is important because if the court does not go into the merits of his case, then it is an exercise of purely an executive power,” the then-Singapore Democratic Party MP said, adding the law would then be a parallel law to the Internal Security Act.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was then Minister for Trade and Industry and Second Minister for Defence (Services), acknowledged some were uneasy that the Minister would have the power to issue a Prohibition Order and this was a “valid concern”. 

He also recognised the argument for vesting the power to a judicial review, but underscored the point that the principle had to be issuing such an order is a political decision taken by the Executive and not by the court. 

“Remember that judges are also human and also belong to religious faiths,” Mr Lee said. “A court decision, if it goes against a particular religion, will not be the more respected just because it was made by a judge.”

SELECT COMMITTEE’S REVISIONS

The Bill had to be reintroduced after Parliament was prorogued on Apr 21 that year and was referred to a Select Committee for a second time on Jul 18. 

The committee was chaired by then-Speaker of the House Tan Soo Khoon and consisted of: Dr Ahmad Mattar; Dr Arthur Beng Kian Lam; Mr Chiam; Mr Goh Chok Tong; Prof Jayakumar; Mr Lee Hsien Loong (then Brigadier-General (BG)); Dr Ow Chin Hock; Encik Sidek Saniff; Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam; and BG George Yeo.

Prof Jayakumar said later in Parliament that 79 written representations were made and, together with the views expressed in the House, the committee made nearly 20 amendments to address concerns.

For instance, the term “Prohibition Order” was changed to “Restraining Order” after MP Chandra Das made the suggestion. Similarly, Dr Dixie Tan’s suggestion to publish the final recommendation of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony was accepted, the minister said. 

One major change that came about at this stage was the mechanics of issuing a Restraining Order. Prof Jayakumar said under the original Bill, the Minister makes the order and then has to regard the views of the individual and religious organisation. Likewise, after the council gives its views, the Minister would make the decision to modify or rescind the order. 

However, the Select Committee revised the procedure. Prof Jayakumar explained that after the Minister issues the order, the change was that all orders must be confirmed by the President within 30 days of receiving the council’s report. Without confirmation, the order will lapse. 

OUTCOME

The measures eventually introduced in the MRHA included the Minister of Home Affairs having the power to issue Restraining Orders to religious leaders or followers if they had caused “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups” or carried out activities that promote political cause or party under the guise of religion. 

It also facilitated the setting up of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony. 

Ultimately, the law has helped to maintain peace and harmony in the country despite it never being invoked since it came into effect nearly 30 years ago, said PM Lee at an Inter-Religious Organisation event last month.

READ: ‘No illusions about depth of religious fault lines’ - PM Lee on need to manage inter-religious relations in Singapore

However, he pointed out that things have changed since 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. 

This is why amendments to the MRHA will be tabled in Parliament in September to allow authorities to deal with new threats “comprehensively and in a timely manner”, the Prime Minister added.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam elaborated on the reasons for updating the law in July, saying this was to address new threats arising from the ubiquity of the Internet

"The world has become a very different place, we now have Facebook, Twitter, Google. Hate can go viral in seconds," Mr Shanmugam said then.

With the Internet came the democratisation of people’s means of expression, the minister pointed out, and this meant they could now express things like xenophobia and hate easily in public due to the anonymity that the online space affords them. 

This is why the impending amendments would be “pretty essential” for the legislation to keep up with the times, he added. 

"We are going to need to relook the MRHA, (and) need a more robust set of tools to make sure we can stop the spreading of hate and discord," Mr Shanmugam said.

Source: CNA/kk

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