SINGAPORE: Everyone in Singapore will be protected regardless of community and social, religious or sexual "beliefs", said Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Monday (Mar 1).
He said the Government’s position is “clear” and that amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) make it an offence to urge violence on the grounds of religion or religious belief against any person or group.
Mr Shanmugam was speaking in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debates. Responding to questions by Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, Mr Shanmugam said: “Regardless of which community, what your social, religious or sexual beliefs are, everyone will be protected here and I have said so categorically.
“LGBTQ persons, non-LGBTQ persons, we are all equal. We are not any lesser by reason of our sexual preferences.”
Action will be taken if anyone stirs hate speech either for or against any sexual or religious community, added the Home Affairs Minister.
“Doesn’t mean action will be taken on every occasion. Police will use their discretion, assess the context," he said.
Mr Singh (WP-Aljunied) had earlier raised an incident in January of a man caught on camera snatching the LGBT Pride flag off the counter of an eatery at Lau Pa Sat and throwing it at a staff member before walking away.
According to the owner of the food stall SMOL, the man also told staff members to “go to hell”.
“Not everybody supports LGBT … how can you put this flag? You are the kind of people who is destroying Singapore!” the man is alleged to have said.
“Beyond this incident it was concerning to read that one of the reasons the eatery owner uploaded the video was ‘to highlight the everyday reality that the LGBTQ community experiences when most incidents are not even caught on camera’,” said Mr Singh.
“I am aware Minister for Home Affairs in particular has spoken up about the state’s intolerance of acts perpetrated against the LGBTQ community. Minister has stressed that the Government’s job is to protect everybody, and wants race, religion or sexual orientation as irrelevant.”
Mr Shanmugam said: “Action can be taken under the MRHA, if a religious group, using religion, attacks a non-religious group such as LGBT groups or individuals.
“Equally, if a religious group or its member is attacked by non-religious persons or group, say LGBT, action can also be taken. Law is even-handed in this context."
Responding to Mr Shanmugam's speech, Mr Singh said he "completely agreed" with and supported the point that LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ individuals are all equal and that no one is lesser compared to the other.
Adding that it was an "important remark" and a "very powerful statement", Mr Singh said it was a fair and egalitarian approach to dealing with the matter.
"And I hope all Singaporeans regardless of race or religion actually coalesce around this and have reasoned and respectful conversations on LGBTQ issues. And I think we'll be stronger as a nation for it," he added.
GOVT’S POSITION ON SECULARISM
Mr Shanmugam also responded to Mr Pritam’s suggestion that the Government should restate or update its working rules and laws to ensure that there is a preservation of “strict secularism”.
This is so that all communities “recognise that no one is placed above the other” in the matters of law, policy and governance in Singapore’s multiracial and multireligious society, “which also increasingly holds other communities”, Mr Singh had said.
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam said the Government looks at policies “in a secular way”.
“We guarantee freedom of all religions. We don’t favour any particular religion,” he said, reiterating that the Government’s position on secularism and how it works is “quite clear”.
Mr Singh also suggested revisiting the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony.
Mr Shanmugam noted the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony by religious leaders in June 2019, adding that 680 religious organisations and 73 community groups have affirmed the commitment.
“It is a commitment by the major religious groups and organisations on the principles of religious harmony that should govern us,” he added.
“It goes beyond past declarations on religious harmony. It details the many positive ways Singaporeans have been interacting across religions, and it encourages Singaporeans of all faiths to practice tolerance and acceptance.”
The MRHA was amended in October 2019 to strengthen the Government’s ability to safeguard against and respond more effectively to threats to our religious harmony, Mr Shanmugam said.
“It can be seen, we have reviewed the 1989 White Paper, we have taken concrete steps after that review. We have considered the evolving context, brought religious groups and leaders together, affirmed a new document of principles and have amended the MRHA.”
The amendments also introduced a higher standard of behaviour for religious leaders “because of their influence”, said the Home Affairs Minister.
For example, for non-religious leaders, some of the otherwise prohibited conduct would not be an offence, and would not apply if the conduct was carried out in private, said Mr Shanmugam.
But for religious leaders, the defence is narrower and only extends to domestic communications such as between the leader and relatives or their household.
“Given the many steps that have been taken, there is no immediate need for another White Paper, but it is an issue which we will keep reviewing,” said Mr Shanmugam.