Shanmugam says laws to protect religious harmony will be updated for digital age: Reports

Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam speaks to Reuters during an interview after the verdict of the coroner's inquiry into American engineer Shane Todd's death, at the parliament house in Singapore July 8, 2013. Todd committed suicide in Singapore last year, a coroner's inquiry in the city-state concluded on Monday, in a verdict at odds with his family's belief that he was murdered because of his work. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
PHOTO: Reuters/Edgar Su

SINGAPORE — A three-decade-old law that has never been invoked since its inception will be updated in a bid to safeguard Singapore’s religious harmony, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam on Wednesday (July 24).

While he did not elaborate on the amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), nor give a timeline for doing so, the minister hinted that social media giants such as Facebook and Google would be a focus of the proposed changes.

According to media reports, Shanmugam said during a forum on religion, extremism and identity politics that Internet companies profit from the democratisation of free speech online, which has led to the modern day “coarseness” in public discourse and state leaders who “accentuate the deep divisions within society”.

"(These companies) use the mantra of free Internet, free speech. Meanwhile, societies are getting damaged and broken," he said.

Speaking at the forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and the Ministry of Home Affairs, the 60-year-old added that the move comes after extensive consultations with religious groups and their leaders.

"They are all in sync, they all agree broadly with the direction we want to go,” said Shanmugam.

Legislation must ‘keep up with the times’

The MRHA, which came into effect in 1992, allows the authorities to issue restraining orders against those sowing discord among religious faiths. It was first mooted in the late 1980s by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was concerned about rising religiosity and the mixing of religion and politics, and the impact it might have on Singapore.

Alluding to the law, Shanmugam said, “I am a believer in making sure the power is there. But I am also a believer in not exercising that power. You shouldn’t have to exercise the power because if you did, society will not be what it is.”

Using different legislation, the Singapore Government has acted on numerous occasions against those it deems to have threatened social and religious harmony through their online activities.

Most prominently, teenage blogger Amos Yee was fined and jailed in 2015 for uploading YouTube videos that had intended to wound the religious feelings of Christians. Yee was later granted political asylum in the United States.

That same year, a couple were charged with sedition for publishing content on now-defunct website The Real Singapore that could spark hostility between Singaporeans and foreigners. Yang Kaiheng and Ai Takagi were eventually jailed.

In May, the government also passed controversial anti-fake news laws which it said were needed to help society guard against malicious actors who knowingly spread harmful falsehoods and act against the public interest. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) empowers ministers to determine what a falsehood is, and to issue takedown notices.

Last March, during a hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Shanmugam took Facebook to task for its lack of transparency over a massive breach of user data.

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