SINGAPORE: Singapore must keep its laws on religious harmony up to date to deal with new threats, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Nov 7).
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which came into force in 1992, allows the Government to take action against those who incite enmity and hatred between religious groups.
“We will have to keep the Act up to date to deal with new threats to our religious harmony that may emerge in time to come,” Mr Lee said.
For example, he cited a growing tendency towards religious extremism and terrorism as a “difficult issue”.
Mr Lee was speaking at this year’s International Conference Singapore, which touches on religious values in a plural world and is organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
“Fortunately, the Government has never had to invoke the powers it has under the Act,” he said. “Nevertheless, by its very existence the Act has made an important contribution to our religious harmony.”
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in 2017 that religious harmony laws will be tightened this year. These include laws forbidding religious leaders from promoting hatred and ill-will among different faith groups or furthering political causes.
Speaking after Mr Lee's keynote address, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said it is "timely" to look at whether the effectiveness of the decades-old Act can be improved.
"In 30 years many things have changed – the way people communicate has changed and how we get influenced has also changed," he said.
"It is in the purview of the Home Affairs Ministry, and I’m quite sure that having announced that we need to put it up to date, (they) will be talking about it soon."
Elaborating on the evolving threats to religious harmony, Mr Masagos cited "external influences" trying to reshape the Muslim community's belief and how they interact with those around them.
"For the longest time, I believe that we live comfortably with our neighbours, whatever faith or race they are," he said.
"And then suddenly there is a call to carve ourselves a niche, a particular identity that is very exclusive and in fact discouraged from mixing around with everybody. And to the extreme that we are all called to migrate to Syria and fight and help to establish a caliphate there."
Other religions and faiths are facing the same kind of challenges, Mr Masagos added, noting that "if we do not address this together, then being different will be a challenge, and being different will be divisive".
"MUSLIMS IN SINGAPORE THRIVING"
Mr Lee said that while religion plays a vital role in society, describing it as a source of moral guidance and contributions in education, community and social work, he acknowledged that it can be a “deeply personal matter”.
“Friction and misunderstandings can arise if religious sensitivities are ignored or offended. Especially at a time of heightened religiosity in many societies, when people are more conscious of their religious identities and convictions.
“Therefore, fostering good interfaith relations is critical for multi-religious societies like Singapore,” he said.
Nevertheless, Singapore has established social norms of compromise and accommodation, although “we were not always like this”.
“But through a long period of sustained effort and socialisation, we have got here,” he added.
Mr Lee praised the work of MUIS, which he said “has been willing to confront and act on difficult issues”.
For example, it played a key role in clarifying public misconceptions and persuading the community regarding the Human Organ Transplant Act, which introduced opt-out rules for organ donation.
“As a result of MUIS’ efforts, Muslims in Singapore are thriving, making good progress in all fields and contributing as good citizens too,” he said.
Singapore will also hold an international conference on building interfaith relations next year, Mr Lee confirmed. The conference will bring together prominent thinkers, policy-makers and practitioners to exchange views on the theme of social cohesion.
“Maintaining religious harmony requires unremitting conscious effort and attention,” Mr Lee said.
“By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise one day tear our society asunder.”