Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: What you need to know about the proposed changes

Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: What you need to know about the proposed changes

The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act is being amended for the first time since it was passed nearly 30 years ago.

IRO exhibition
The IRO’s 70th anniversary exhibition traces the organisation’s work over the years to promote interfaith harmony.

SINGAPORE: The impact of social media and preventing foreign interference were among the challenges the Government is hoping to tackle with its proposed changes to Singapore’s religious harmony law. 

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling tabled the amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) on Monday (Sep 2), as it looks to keep the law up to date with latest developments including the proliferation of the Internet and social media.

READ: Changes proposed to Singapore’s religious harmony law to address impact of social media, foreign influence

In coming up with the changes, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said it had engaged religious organisations here since the start of the year.

They include the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, National Council of Churches Singapore, Singapore Buddhist Federation, Taoist Federation, Sikh Advisory Board, Hindu Endowments Board and Hindu Advisory Board.

These changes include expanding the Restriction Order regime, preventing foreign interference, streamlining laws dealing with religious harmony and introducing a new tool to help defuse tensions between religious groups when an offence has been committed.

This is the first time that the law is being updated since it was passed nearly 30 years ago in 1990. It has also never been invoked, but has helped maintain peace and harmony here, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said recently.

Here are the main changes being proposed:

ON RESTRAINING ORDERS

The Restraining Order (RO) today can be issued against people who cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between religious groups, among other reasons.

However, with the rise in use of the Internet and social media, MHA is looking to more quickly stop the spread of offensive content with its proposed changes.

  • It is proposing for the RO to include requiring the person who publishes inflammatory online content to take down the post.
  • It is looking to shorten the time for when an RO takes effect. Currently, there is a 14-day interval from when the Minister of Home Affairs issues a notice of intention to make the order to the order taking effect. The change would mean the RO takes effect immediately.

    The existing safeguard of the President needing to confirm the RO within 30 days of receiving the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony’s recommendation remains.

    “With the Internet and social media, swifter action needs to be taken to prevent statements which are offensive to religious communities from spreading,” MHA said.
  • It is looking to restrict the influence of foreign actors on religious organisations here. With the proposed change, ROs will be expanded to include organisations, and they can be banned from receiving donations from foreign donors or be subject to foreign leadership restrictions.

ON PREVENTING FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

Singapore is “vulnerable” to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines in its society or imposing values that may not be appropriate thus undermining religious harmony here, MHA said.

“They can exert influence and control on our religious organisations through holding leadership positions, donations or their affiliations with the organisations.”

So, it is proposing the following:

  1. Religious organisations need to comply with the listed leadership requirements. 
    - The president, secretary and treasurer (or equivalent roles) have to be Singapore citizens or permanent residents. The majority of its governing body have to be Singapore citizens.
    - An MHA spokesperson told CNA said there are around 2,500 religious organisations in Singapore and around 100 of these may have difficulties meeting these proposed changes. It is prepared to consider granting exemptions from these new requirements on a case-by-case basis. 
    - Changes do not apply to spiritual leaders who don’t hold formal positions in the organisation’s governing body.
  2. One-off donations of S$10,000 or more from foreigners have to be disclosed.
    - Certain types of donations will be exempted: (i) Those given in donation boxes or offerings bags (ii) Proceeds collected during religious ceremonies (iii) Non-cash donations (iv) Zakat and fitrah.
    - Donations from foreigners who are working and living in Singapore such as Work Pass and Long-Term Visit Pass holders will also be exempted.
  3. Religious organisations with affiliations to foreign individuals or organisations who are in a position to exert control over them will have to declare their affiliations.

ON STREAMLINING LAWS

Today, both the MRHA and the Penal Code have provisions to safeguard religious harmony. The proposed changes look to consolidate Penal Code offences that relate to religion under the Act.

The offences will cover acts that:

  • incite violence on the basis of religion or against a religious group or its members
  • incite feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility against a religious group
  • insult the religion or wound the religious feelings of another person

These offences would apply even if the conduct was done overseas, as long as the offence was targeted at a group or a person in Singapore and had an impact on the country, it added.

“This is necessary as today, the Internet and social media allow an individual to disrupt religious harmony in Singapore even when the offences are conducted overseas,” MHA said.

ON COMMUNITY REMEDIAL INITIATIVE

A new tool called the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI) is also being introduced as part of the proposed changes.

It essentially allows the Minister for Home Affairs to offer someone who has wounded the feelings of another religious community to opportunity to mend ties. For instance, the person can make a public or private apology or participate in inter-religious events, MHA said.

The CRI is voluntary and there are no penalties if the person doesn’t take it up or complete the CRI, a spokesperson clarified. However, he or she may be charged for the initial offending conduct.

If the CRI is completed, criminal prosecution will not be taken against him, the spokesperson added.

The proposed changes to the MRHA will be further debated during the second reading of the Bill.

Source: CNA/kk

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