Proposed changes to racial harmony law include safeguards against 'foreign actors': MHA

Representatives from Singapore's various religious groups saying a prayer ahead of the Formula One night race in September 2013. (PHOTO: AFP)

SINGAPORE — A Bill introduced in Parliament on Monday (2 September) seeks to give the Singapore government greater capacity to respond to threats against the nation’s religious harmony.

The proposed changes to the nearly 30-year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) cover key areas such as:

  • Measures to safeguard local religious organisations against foreign influence

  • Introducing a Community Remedial Initiative (CRI) for those who have wounded the religious feelings of another community

  • Updating the government’s ability to impose restraining orders on offensive posts

  • Consolidating offences under the MRHA

In a news release on Monday, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said that it had consulted closely with religious leaders in coming up with the Bill.

“The amendments will strengthen the government’s ability to safeguard and respond more effectively to threats to our religious harmony,” said the ministry.

Adapting to foreign actors, social media age

MHA noted that Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines here or imposing inappropriate values.

As such, the ministry has proposed that key positions in religious organisations be held by only Singaporeans or permanent residents (PRs) – although exceptions may be made on a “case-by-case basis”.

For religious organisations that are companies, the leadership requirements will be imposed on those holding positions “analogous to President, Secretary, and Treasurer, such as the Chairman, Managing Director, and Company Secretary,” said MHA. These requirements do not apply to “spiritual leaders” who do not hold any formal positions in their group’s organising body.

Religious groups should also be made to disclose any one-time donations of $10,000 or more from non-citizens or non-PRs. Groups that are affiliated with foreign individuals or organisations that are in a position to exert control over them should also be made to declare such links, said MHA.

The ministry added, however, that certain types of donations will be exempted, such as those given in donation boxes, proceeds from religious ceremonies, non-cash donations, as well as zakat and fitrah donations for Muslims. Anonymous donations will also be exempted, as well as those coming from foreigners who are working and living in Singapore, such as Work Pass and Long-Term Visit Pass holders.

Noting that swifter action is needed to tackle religiously offensive statements posted on the Internet and social media, the ministry has also suggested that the restraining orders (ROs) it issues be allowed to take immediate effect. Currently, the government has to serve a 14-day notice before an RO takes effect.

On top of this, foreign actors found to be adversely affecting Singapore’s religious harmony via their influence on a local group will also be liable to have an RO slapped on them to prohibit donations and place restrictions on foreign leadership.

No changes were proposed with regard to the application process for confirming the ROs issued to religious groups or individuals. Those affected can make representations to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which will then make its recommendation to the President to “confirm, vary, or cancel” the RO issued by MHA.

Voluntary programme, consolidating offences

For those who have offended other religious groups, MHA has suggested that they be required to “perform activities” under the CRI. The programme is aimed at helping offenders better understand the affected community and “mend ties with them”.

While the CRI is voluntary, it will be taken into account when assessing whether to prosecute the persons involved for their offending act.

MHA also recommended that Penal Code offences relating to religion be consolidated under the MRHA. This will cover acts that:

  1. Incite violence on the basis of religion, or against those from another religious group

  2. Incite feelings of enmity or hostility towards another religious group

  3. Insult another person’s religion or wound a person’s religious feelings

In the instance of the latter two acts, those who are deemed to be religious leaders will be held to higher standard of accountability because of their influence, said MHA.

“For person who are not religious leaders, the act must risk disturbing public peace in Singapore before it is considered an offence. Where the offender is a religious leader, this element of risk of disturbing public peace would not be required to make out an offence,” the ministry added.

MHA noted that these offences would apply even if the acts were committed overseas, as long as they were targeted at a group or person in Singapore and had an impact on the country.

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