Amendments to Singapore's religious harmony law approved by Parliament

Singapore's Parliament House. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Speaking at the start of the session, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam highlighted the need to update the law, which was passed in 1990 and came into effect in 1992. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

SINGAPORE — The proposed amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) were approved by Parliament on Monday (7 October) following a nearly seven-hour long debate on the topic in the House.

Speaking at the start of the session, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam highlighted the need to update the law, which was passed in 1990 and came into effect in 1992.

“In those 27 years, society, attitudes to towards religion, the environment and more have changed. We reviewed the MRHA and we decided to amend it (to) keep it relevant, keep it effective,” he said.

Among the “significant changes” Shanmugam observed as having taken place during this period were the growing religiosity and increasing reliance on identity politics around the world; an increase in violence committed in the name of religion; the development and evolution of the internet and social media; and the increased possibilities of foreign interference in countries’ affairs. He also cited a Pew Research Centre study which found that in 2016, some 25 per cent of the world’s countries had experienced a high incidence of hostilities involving religion.

With regard to the situation here, Shanmugam noted that Singapore had been “spared much of this trouble” and added that the government has been “even handed in the treatment of all religions and religious groups” for the past 60 years. Still, he noted the ease with which religious movements could affect Singapore.

“So we are updating the MRHA to deal with some of the challenges that I’ve spoken about,” added Shanmugam.

5 key areas of amendments

Outlining the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development Sun Xueling said they fell into five key areas.

The first involves measures to safeguard local religious organisations against foreign influence. These include having religious groups disclose single donations of S$10,000 or more; having them declare their foreign affiliations; and requiring the president, secretary and treasurer of each religious group to be a Singaporean or permanent resident.

Furthermore, the majority of each religious group’s executive committee or governing body must also be Singaporean. Exemptions to these conditions may be granted on a case-by-case basis. “If, however, we have indications that there is a risk of foreign influence that can affect religious harmony, the proposed Bill will allow us to take more targeted actions in the areas of foreign donations and leadership,” said Sun.

Secondly, restraining orders (ROs) issued under the amended MRHA will take immediate effect to minimise the spread of offensive material online. This is in contrast to the14-day notice period currently required for ROs to take effect.

“Social media has enabled offensive posts to go viral in a matter of seconds. There is, thus, a need for the government to update the RO to take swift action against such posts,” said Sun, citing how the RO’s original scope had catered primarily for “offline modes of communication”.

A Community Remedial Initiative (CRI) will also be introduced to offer offenders the chance to mend ties with the offended parties. This can be done through actions such as issuing a public apology or participating in activities that promote religious harmony. While the CRI is voluntary, Sun noted that offenders who have completed the remedial actions will not be liable for criminal prosecution.

Fourthly, the amendments will see religion-related offences under the Penal Code ported over to the MRHA. In doing so, the law will also be made extra-territorial to cover offences committed overseas. It will also frame the urging of violence against a person or group as being more serious than insulting or ridiculing a religion, while religious leaders will also be held to a lower threshold for offences, given their greater ability to influence others.

Lastly, amendments to Section 74 of the Penal Code will increase the maximum punishments for religiously aggravated offences. Currently those convicted of such offences face one-and-a-half times the maximum punishment, while the revisions will see them liable to receive up to twice the maximum punishment.

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