Published: 07 October 2019
1. Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, I thank the Members who have spoken on the Bill.
2. In my speech, Members will see a number of times I used the phrases “wisdom”, “care”, “sensibility” and “practicality”. That would be in essence what I would say to many of the questions, but let me start by saying I am heartened by the support of the Bill by everyone who spoke. There were some questions, but everyone believes that this should be done, and it is a correct thing to do.
3. So, let me now try and address the points raised by the Members - there have been a lot of points by a lot of the Members. I hope I can cover them.
4. Mr Alex Yam asked whether there were any concerns such as those raised in the White Paper in 1990 which required these proposed amendments.
5. Sir, I have dealt with this in some detail in my Opening Speech. The changes around the world; the reasons for the Amendments. I would refer to those.
6. Mr Yam also asked whether the Act would forbid the entry of new religious movements if they do not have a local presence. No, the Act does not forbid that. Religious freedom is guaranteed under the Constitution. We don’t interfere with that
7. The requirements in the Bill, if it becomes legislation, will apply to all new as well as existing religious groups.
8. Next, on safeguards against foreign influence. Members agree that our religious organisations need safeguards against foreign influence.
9. Ms Irene Quay asked whether there should be omnibus legislation on foreign influence, instead of including these safeguards in the MRHA. I think the Member recognises that legislation is needed. It is a matter of where those laws need to be sited. We took the view that the MRHA should be comprehensive in covering matters relating to religious harmony, whether dealing with offensive speech, or safeguarding against foreign influence that affects religious harmony. Which is why we also moved some provisions from the Penal Code over.We are looking separately into legislation to better counter foreign interference that is harmful to our national security and sovereignty, but that is a separate matter.
10. Mr Christopher de Souza asked about whether leadership requirements will cover corporatised religious charitable groups. The outcomes we want - organisations that propagate, teach, practice religion should be subject to the principles, and those are principles which are set out in the Bill. Those principles apply regardless of whether the organisations are societies, or companies limited by guarantees. It does not cover organisations that may have religious background, but do not have as their purpose the promotion of any religious worship or religion, or whose business does not concern religious affairs and practices, or conducting, teaching or propagating any religious belief.
11. The Act has been applied for a long time in a sensible way and we will continue to do that. There are religious organisations that set up companies to go and do some commercial trading, or otherwise, I don’t think those companies would necessarily be affected. We got to look at what they actually do.
12. Mr de Souza, Dr Lee Bee Wah and Ms Irene Quay expressed concern that the requirements may be too onerous.
13. Mr Yam requested that MHA engage religious organisations to clarify these requirements. He also asked about the feedback that has been received. We have had many discussions with various religious organisations.We also engaged non-apex religious organisations, the larger temples and all the Catholic Orders. The Bill incorporates their feedback - we actually made some changes along the way based on their feedback.
14. The religious organisations know that there will be some additional work, but they understood and accepted the rationale and the need for these safeguards. We have been working with them for more than a year. They realised the need for the Amendments in maintaining religious harmony. We have assured the religious groups that we will work with them to implement these requirements in a practical manner. And, where needed, we will also grant exemptions.
15. Ms Irene Quay asked how we set the threshold at $10,000, and how this compares with money-laundering and counter-terrorism legislation.
16. Money-laundering thresholds take reference from standards set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). All amounts, however small, are covered.
17. Likewise for terrorism financing. Action is taken, however small the amount. We have taken action against persons for as little as $60. So, those legislations are in a different league and extremely strict.
18. For MRHA, we discussed with apex religious organisations what the appropriate level could be. $10,000 was chosen because where the standards of donation was a significant amount, we had to balance between the risk and also the effort that religious organisations have to take. If you set it at too low an amount, they will have to take a lot of effort and it may not be meaningful.
19. Ms Irene Quay asked about examples of past cases where foreign donations have been used to influence local religious organisations. Mr Louis Ng asked whether we track foreign and anonymous donations.
20. We do not track foreign donations to local religious organisations now. So I am unable to give those examples. But, I will say this. If you go back, and for those who know how we did these things - the First Generation leaders, put in some practices, that I must say, had amazing foresight, and I say that with hindsight. Because in the last 30 years, what you have seen is all over the world, money from the Middle East has been used to fund mosques and religious institutions. The result is that because of the influences, changes that have come about, the practice of Islam itself has been changed very substantially.
21. Our first generation leaders put in initiatives like the Mosque Building Fund, where local Muslims donate to build our local mosques. And you know for the building of mosques, the land is not tendered for, it is allocated. Bringing down the cost, so effectively making it very unlikely that foreign funding will come in. Amazing foresight. We haven’t been affected in the same way as a lot of other countries have been where money from the Middle East has come in, because that money comes in with tight conditions that the preacher must have been trained in specific countries. And after a while, you see the entire way in which people practice their religion, changes.
22. Mr Louis Ng spoke about the loopholes in the donation requirements. He raised some examples. Those examples have elements of deceit where the foreigner passes off his donation as anonymous or from another person. Ms Intan Mokhtar raised similar examples.
23. We have offences to deal with donors, religious groups, that use fraud to escape disclosure requirements. Section 16G of the Bill gives the Competent Authority powers. We can ask for more information to determine the accuracy of the disclosures and also to check whether there are grounds for a Restraining Order (RO). But we do not want to put too many requirements on these organisations. There is a mutual element of trust. This is only when you have some reason to believe that something is going on.
24. Mr Ng also asked about a foreigner donating $9,999. Any threshold we set, someone can donate a dollar less. But, we have to choose a threshold. If we didn’t set a threshold, then religious organisations will have to track every single donation, and that is not feasible either. If we believe that there are influence operations going on, based on intelligence or otherwise, then we can move to a RO.
25. Mr Ng asked why the exemptions for donations disclosure also apply to foreigners on long-term passes. Religious institutions and groups in Singapore serve foreigners as well as locals who stay in Singapore. We have foreigners who live here, work here, study here, go to local religious institutions, temples, churches and so on, and they naturally donate to them. Again, we did not want to impose too many administrative burdens on our religious organisations.
26. Let me now move on to leadership.
27. Mr Ng asked about what we can do about citizens or PRs who act as agents of foreign influence in local religious groups. The scope of the RO only applies to ensure that every member of the governing body is a citizen, or to remove persons who are not citizens from a governing body. Where a Singapore citizen is acting as a conduit for foreign influence, we cannot use the RO. We will have to look at other legislation.
28. Mr Alex Yam asked about religious organisations where leadership appointments involve an external decision, due to historical reasons. The Catholic church is an obvious example. We are very mindful of that, and we always knew that those are not areas where we can go and direct or require or impose requirements. And those have been discussed.
29. For other organisations as well, exemptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis. We have met many of these organisations, and have explained to them. The Catholic church came out in support of the amendments because they understood what we were trying to do.
30. Ms Irene Quay and Ms Joan Pereira sought more details on the criteria for exemptions on leadership requirements. Without being comprehensive or exclusive, I will say we will consider the following: whether the congregation is largely made up of foreigners. There are some small religious organisations which serve exclusively a foreign community and sometimes it may not be practical to impose on them the requirements that we have. We also look at the structure of the religious organisation, whether it operates as one entity across different countries. We also of course look at security concerns.
31. Dr Lee Bee Wah raised a good suggestion, that foreign appointment holders who are granted exemptions, should be given basic education on our multi-religious context. We will consider that.
32. Let me now deal with affiliations.
33. Mr Saktiandi asked about whether local religious organisations would need to delink themselves from “unapproved” overseas organisations. Let me clarify – the MRHA does not provide for powers to ask a local religious organisation to dissociate itself from a foreign affiliate. I think that would be too intrusive and excessive. My colleague, Sun Xueling made this point. We have no home-grown religion of our own
We are an open society. I think the approach is to ensure that our local religious organisations are sensitised to our multi-religious context.
34. Ms Intan Mokhtar asked about the Competent Authority – what qualities are expected, to what extent the Minister will seek its counsel. The Competent Authority will be a civil servant appointed to administer the parts of the Act relating to disclosure requirements. It will be made up of officers from MHA, and they will act in accordance with the general directions of the Minister.
35. Let me now move on to the ROs.
36. Mr Yam asked whether it would be an offence if a religious leader made public statements against a law enacted by the Government, which runs counter to the beliefs of the religion. I presume he means whether such conduct would be grounds for an RO to be issued.
37. It depends on what the religious leader says, how he says it, and to whom he says it. We do not want to constrain public debate on social issues, even when done on religious grounds. But, if the religious group says “you can only vote for people who are of the same religion as you”, that is not acceptable, and crosses the line.
38. Ms Intan Mokhtar asked for assurances that the RO will not be used to target any religious community.
39. Mr Alex Yam asked about safeguards if the Government becomes “aggressively atheistic” and applies the MRHA beyond what it was drafted for.
40. The RO has safeguards, which I had mentioned in my opening speech. I will reiterate them. The ROs will be reviewed by the PCRH, which makes recommendations to the President. The President decides whether to confirm, vary, or cancel the RO.
41. The PCRH is made up of community leaders – both religious leaders and laypersons. All the major religions are represented on the Council. They are an independent body, they have powers to call any person to provide information whilst making their recommendations.
42. We have these pieces of legislation and I have made this philosophical point elsewhere. It is the balance of power between the executive and the individuals and other institutions. What is the purpose you seek to achieve, how do you calibrate that balance.
43. We have had this law for 27 years, and I think the fact that it is successful is shown by the fact that we haven’t had to use it even once. It shaped values and norms in our society, and very different from any other place around us and further beyond.
44. Mr Yam also asked about recourse for individuals. If a person or religious group is aggrieved by the RO that is issued, they can make representations to the PCRH.
45. These processes have been put in place to ensure that the Minister’s decision
can be reviewed, and the RO issued is appropriate.
46. Many members have spoken in support of the amendment to remove the 14-day notice period in this age of the Internet.
47. Mr Alex Yam asked how in practice these “new powers” can improve the effectiveness of curbing the spread of hate speech. I want to make one point. There are no new powers. The substantive powers remain the same. We are just removing the 14-day notice period. But the safeguards and the exercise of the powers remain the same.
48. Mr Murali Pillai asked if most of the situations will involve the internet. The RO is meant to be pre-emptive, and to prevent further harm. With the internet and smart phones, I do not think you can talk about this is brick and mortar and this is the Internet. It moves from one to the other very quickly. A speech to a small group of followers in a room can be recorded and transmitted in a matter of seconds and from there, it can go viral very quickly. So, I think a 14-day notice period would be quite ineffective.
49. Ms Anthea Ong said the removal of the 14-day notice period may mean that the Government no longer consults religious groups or stakeholders before the issuance of the RO. As my colleague, SPS Sun Xueling, has said, the Government’s preference has always been for the community to resolve issues of religious disharmony. We work closely with religious groups, and there are open channels. This close, consultative relationship has been mentioned by members such as Mr Louis Ng. That will continue, even as we determine the action to be taken in each case. And the person subject to the RO obviously can exercise his rights to have a review by the PCRH, and ultimately the decision to be confirmed or otherwise by the President.
50. Dr Lee Bee Wah and Mr Alex Yam asked about how the RO would interact with POFMA. They are quite separate pieces of legislation. POFMA can be used to direct online platforms, and amongst other things, to amplify the corrections to a falsehood. In some instances, of course, it can be both false and also come under MRHA. And we have got to decide how to deal with it.
51. Mr Christopher de Souza asked why the PCRH can recommend varying a new RO, but can only confirm or cancel a proposed direction to extend an existing RO. I congratulate him for having read the Bill so closely. This is the same arrangement for the Minister. The Minister may only direct the extension of an existing RO; he cannot change the terms of an existing RO. So he either extends it, or lets it lapse. All the terms of the RO remain the same. Hence, similarly, the PCRH can only confirm or cancel the RO.
52. Let me now move on to criminal offences under the MRHA.
53. Dr Lee Bee Wah and Mr Douglas Foo had questions on thresholds for offences in the MRHA. Mr Foo asked if the Ministry can provide guidelines on what constitutes offensive statements.
54. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim asked how we define “wounding” of religious feelings, and was concerned that it would cover genuine differences of opinions and views. He cautioned that laws must not end up silencing all discussion of religious topics through ambiguous definitions of illegal behaviour. He also asked if proselytisation would be covered.
55. First, the phrases “wounding of religious feelings”, “threat to public peace” are not new. They were adapted from existing offences in the Penal Code. People are free to express their views, but this has to be done responsibly. Statements that denigrate another religion will of course cross the line.
56. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’ve had the Penal Code for eons, and we’ve had the MRHA for 27 years, and these phrases are not new. And I don’t think anyone complains that there has not been a possibility of discussing viewpoints or that all discussion on religious topics have been silenced. I think people understand the norms and values and there are fairly open discussions.
57. If a debate on religious differences spirals or gets into denigration of another religion, or insults and incites violence, we will of course take action. We have done so in the past.
58. Members will remember Amos Yee, who made offensive remarks against Islam and Christianity. He did this repeatedly in 2015 and 2016, and so he was charged under section 298 of the Penal Code, for uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious or racial feelings.
59. So we’ve had this law, we’re just porting it over. The courts will take reference from case law to assess the facts of the case. But you know, nobody has felt that these laws prevented them from saying what they wanted, because most people are sensible, and we have created a framework within Singapore for a sensible, practical, wise way of discussing this.
60. Dr Yaacob asked if the MRHA offences will apply to intra-faith matters, where persons seek to insult or wound persons of a different denomination of the same religion. The answer is yes. The Bill defines “religious belief or activity” to mean holding a religious belief or view, or engaging in religious activity. The religious practice or view of a denomination can be distinct.
61. Dr Walter Theseira asked us to have regard to protecting social harmony, especially in cases where religious leaders stigmatise persons who do not have the same values, and exhort Governments to change policy on religious grounds. The intent, again I reiterate, is not to stifle conversation about policy issues. The role of the law and the Government is to set some boundaries on how these discussions are carried out so that the conversation can be constructive. But apart from the legal framework, the Government seeks to build constructive relationships with stakeholders involved in the debate. But we do need the law to give that framework.
62. Mr Christopher de Souza asked about the scope of “religious leaders”. Section 8 of the MRHA sets out the definition. It includes designated religious leaders such as priests, monks, pastors, imams, but whether someone is in fact a religious leader has got to be a finding of fact, based on the assessment of each case.
63. Mr Desmond Choo and Ms Rahayu were concerned about the distinction we have drawn between public and private speech.
64. For people who are not religious leaders, private speech is not covered under the offences in section 17F.
65. If the alleged offender can prove that he made the communication in situations where the parties to the conversation intended it to be heard or seen by themselves, this will be a defence. We do not want to intrude too much. People have their views. They say it to their family members or they say it to their friends in a specific context, you do not necessarily want to criminalise all of that.
66. The burden is on the alleged offender to prove that.
67. Mr Desmond Choo asked about a person who secretly video-tapes the speech and communicates it. If a person does this so that action can be taken against the offensive speech in the video, then he is likely to have a defence provided in the Bill as well.
68. The defence is tighter for religious leaders and it requires two elements. First, to show that it was private speech. Second, that the communication was domestic. The second element narrows the first, to cover circumstances such as conversations with immediate family. And you will see other examples in the Explanatory Statement. The religious leader will have to show that his conduct falls within this narrower scope.
69. The rationale for the defence is to recognise that there will be situations where the religious leader will want to speak unencumbered and can speak unencumbered. We balanced this with the potential for harm that a spiritual or religious leader can cause.
70. That is why the defence for religious leaders is scoped tighter than for persons who are not religious leaders.
71. Ms Rahayu said there could be situations where members of a religious group have repeated private discussions with different groups of people to preach hatred and disharmony. We can still take action against them. ROs can be issued to stop them from addressing a specified group of worshippers or members of a religious group. The Community Remedial Initiative can also be used.
72. Ms Anthea Ong suggested the inclusion of “Stephen’s law” in the MRHA. Her suggestion may not deal with the outcome of the person’s speech. That is an important aspect that we have take into account, in determining whether the law should step in for conduct or speech that is motivated by religious prejudice. Our approach is that for persons who are not religious leaders, their conduct must have an additional element of being likely to disturb public peace. We have also provided a defence for a person who is pointing out in good faith conduct, which could constitute an offence under section 17F, for the purposes of removal of such material.
73. Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about the rehabilitation of offenders that commit criminal offences under the MRHA, like inciting hatred. This is a good suggestion, and we will look into it.
74. Mr Saktiandi asked about whether we would have oversight of foreign guest speakers who come here without a permit, especially in situations where they approach individual places of worship and speak with smaller groups of people.
75. Ms Joan Pereira had a related question on how we can facilitate whistle-blowing.
76. There are existing requirements that local organisations which bring in foreign preachers to speak in Singapore must comply with. They have to apply for the appropriate permits. There are penalties under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act if there are breaches and if we know of these breaches, we will not hesitate to take action, particularly when we are alerted to an egregious act which incites religious violence or disharmony.
77. Mr Murali asked about the Minister’s powers to create offences in the MRHA. These powers will be used to create regulatory offences, to facilitate disclosure requirements through the MRHA.
78. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked how we can conduct online checks on material, and use technology to stop comments or posts which may incite religious disharmony. We have to take a balanced and pragmatic approach. We cannot regulate all online media. Instead, we restrict access to content that is against public interest when it comes to our attention.
79. Mr Gan also asked about how the ROs can be enforced against online service providers, and Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about how action can be taken for posts on influential pages. The RO in the MRHA will not apply to online service providers that merely convey the offending material. We mitigate the deleterious effects of harmful online content in other ways. Under the Broadcasting Act, IMDA can direct Internet Content Providers (ICPs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to remove or block access to material that is prohibited under the Internet Code of Practice. And if there is wilful transmission of online falsehoods, then POFMA can be used. For social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, IMDA can issue a takedown notice to remove offensive posts.
80. I now move to the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI).
81. Many members have expressed support for this.
82. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has said that while there is a need for strong and decisive measures for serious cases, there are other times when engagement and dialogue will be more appropriate. We fully agree.
83. Using the weight of the law in the first instance, is not always the best way to resolve religious disharmony.
84. Mr Murali asked if it would be better to vest the Attorney-General with the power to issue the CRI, bringing this closer to a conditional warning. Mr Louis Ng has also asked whether the CRI can be a sentencing option for the courts.
85. If the person chooses not to participate in the CRI, the person’s conduct will be taken into account to determine if it is appropriate to bring criminal prosecution against him.
86. We wanted to look for a community-based way of dealing with such issues. The CRI is voluntary so it is not appropriate to leave it to the AGC. I think this is especially important in the context of religion – we should not force people to do what their faith militates against them doing. So we must leave it voluntary and we leave it as something that you can consider doing. And then later on, in terms of whether further action is to be taken, this is something that can be taken into account.
87. Any improvement or understanding on the part of the offender, I think should be done on a voluntary basis. This option would be better than forcing someone through the law to “reform”.
88. The CRI is a novel option. We will work with the religious leaders and communities to ensure that the actions under the CRI are appropriate and beneficial.
89. Mr Alex Yam asked if we had taken reference from other jurisdictions. No, the CRI is not something that other countries have implemented as far as we know, but, we wanted to see how we can deal with these issues in a different, non-legal way, as far as possible.
90. Members, remember I spoke in my opening about how the Young Sikh Association reached out to a social media influencer, Ms Sheena Phua and dealt with it. Mr Saktiandi and Mr Alex Yam brought up this incident as well.
91. Ms Joan Pereira said some offenders may go through the motions of the CRI without any sincere intention, to avoid criminal prosecution. Mr Desmond Choo had concerns that the CRI would be taken advantage of.
92. Before the issuance of the CRI, we will assess the circumstances of each case carefully. But like the young men of the Young Sikh Association, we should take a chance that the CRI will help some people, and some communities, to mend communal relations without having to involve the law, necessarily.
93. Mr Vikram Nair asked if there are plans to use the CRI more widely. It is a new initiative. We will observe how the CRI improves our response to conduct that undermines religious harmony, and then learn along the way.
94. Mr Pritam Singh made some points. I thank him for the general position that he took for the Bill.
95. One point that he made, that in Singapore, politicians are often seen with religious leaders, and gives a picture of mixing religion with politics.
96. So how do you deal with this? I would say with wisdom and common sense, and that it is normal in Singapore. We don’t live apart from religion, we don’t live apart from religious leaders.
97. If you take my Ministry - MHA, it is an important part of what we do, interacting closely with religious leaders, constantly being photographed as well. And so for Government leaders to cut off and not have contact with religious leaders would not be wise.
98. Good, deep friendships, between Government leaders and religious leaders, are extremely important. It helps to builds trust, build bonds, and that is important for society as a whole and allows issues to be dealt with in an atmosphere of trust. But the key is to do it with wisdom, clarity of position, and mutual understanding. And in Singapore we do it publicly, openly and we celebrate the relationship.
99. Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, with your permission I would like to flash some slides, some pictures. This is Prime Minister on 15 April 2015 at the Taoist Federation Silver Jubilee. It sends a signal, it is important that he is there, standing together with the Archbishop and various other leaders.
100. Then you see him last year, at a consecration ceremony of a Hindu temple. Sends a signal, sends a message to all Singaporeans. There were 40,000 people who turned out there. Does the Prime Minister say, no I don’t go for this? Or does he say, I go? He is the Prime Minister of all of Singapore.
101. I went to the Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, spoke with over 400 odd pastors and we were photographed. DPM went, I think on 7 September 2019 (to an appreciation lunch for religious rehabilitation volunteers). The pictures speak for themselves. It’s a constant thing that we all do, and that builds the trust and the bonds between the religious leaders and Government leaders.
102. But it is not only Government leaders who do it, as you can see, it is cross-party. There are quite a few pictures, and across all religions.
103. So, in Government we do that. I said it has to be done with mutual understanding, and that we are neutral. The religious leaders must know that we are neutral, and confidence has to be given to all religions that the Government will be fair and neutral, and be the conscientious referee.
104. I would repeat very strongly, these interactions, the building of bonds, is extremely important. You see the racial harmony in Singapore, is not only because of the laws. But also because how Government leaders have behaved.
105. And if a political leader is invited, taking the example that Mr Singh gave, during a period of celebration - say a celebration for the nation, a significant date for the country. Say the 50th anniversary celebrations. Our tradition in Singapore as you can see from all of this, we go. They are celebrating a national event, and it is important for a Minister to be there, to show that all faiths, all sections of society, are celebrating the success of the nation. And does he not go simply because it coincides with the run up to a General Election?
106. I think we have to be sensible enough to say what is the occasion? Is it a National event? Is the Prime Minister or other Minister being invited in his capacity as a Minister or a senior leader in the Government? And what is the message that is being sent, is it a celebration by the religious community or the success of Singapore? That is what we are celebrating.
107. Another point that Mr Singh made, of religious leaders being seen with political leaders during elections. If the religious leaders are lay religious leaders, they have civil and political rights. The law does not preclude them from exercising their civil and political rights. They can be members of political parties. We have had Ministers, MPs, who were lay preachers. So they hold a senior position in a religious organisation. They are lay persons who hold other jobs, and businesses - as I have said, they can be MPs, they can be Ministers. And you can’t be saying they cannot exercise their rights.
108. I think it is difficult to draw bright lines. But I will agree with this point, because we’ve got to look at these things with care, and without a party lens, and on what is good for Singapore. We must handle these issues with sensibility, with care and with wisdom.
109. Ms Sylvia Lim spoke about religious leaders supporting this Bill, and she asked what views would the Government take if they had not been supportive of the Bill.
110. This is not the first time religious leaders, organisations have expressed a view on a piece of legislation or Government policy. They have also expressed their views on other issues.
111. Can I show extracts of some letters - in December 2010, October 26, on the casinos and gambling, they were quite clear. This is the National Council of Churches of Singapore: “We speak against the building of a casino in Singapore. Casinos undermine values. The Council urges the Government to review this decision. The family and social fabric of our nation is currently not strong enough”.
112. And if you see PERGAS, October 2016, this is regarding the online gambling: “PERGAS would like to voice its concern regarding the Government’s approval of online gambling. Gambling is strictly prohibited in Islam. Erosion of moral values within the community.” I can refer to other examples, but you can see that they were quite uncomfortable, they have expressed their discomfort, it was published in the media.
113. The Government didn’t tell them, “you shouldn’t be expressing your views.” I think that answers Ms Lim’s questions. Should we have told them that they are not to comment? Again I would suggest, not practical to draw very clear bright lines. Needs to be dealt with, with sensitivity, understanding and some care.
114. The MRHA - there was substantive consultations with the religious groups. It relates to them. They expressed their views. Religious leaders in Singapore know they should not be engaging in general political discourse. So again, approaching this without a party lens, the question is, what is good for Singapore? What is doable?
115. On MRHA, obviously they will comment, and it is understandable that they comment. If they didn’t support it, and made the lack of support public in the way they talked about the casinos and the way they talked about gambling online, it would be no different from how they had reacted earlier, if they had said we don’t support this.
116. I don’t think we can completely deny them the right to express some views on some pieces of legislation. At the same time, both parties must understand that the language must be one of mutual respect. Don’t cross over into being partisan and political.
117. Ms Lim also spoke about religious leaders making statements during elections - vote wisely, vote for stability and so on. Again I think the principles ought to be – be careful, be temperate, be wise. I agree.I think for the good of Singapore, we don’t want religious leaders to get into the arena and become partisan.
118. But I can’t see that any lines have been crossed so far. A lot of care has to be exercised by the religious leaders if they choose to make statements, and that is in the interest of everyone.
119. She had a couple of technical questions. The one on how the RO is consistent with Article 15 of the Constitution, because the RO seeks to restrain some rights, or constrain some rights. Article 15 of the Constitution, sub paragraph 4, which she may not have seen, states that the freedom of religion does not authorise any act contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health, or morality.
120. So the constitution itself recognises that there can be some constraints on the freedom of religion. The grounds on which the RO can be issued to religious groups is in circumstances that are set out. For example, where foreign influence undermines religious tolerance between different religious groups that can present a threat to the public peace and public order in Singapore. That is consistent with Article 15.
121. Moving on to her query on Section 16F that states that the Restraining Order has effect despite other written laws. So what does that mean? It is in very limited circumstances but let me give an example. I talked about foreign influence through corporations, companies. Section 145(5) of the Companies Act says that there should be at least one director - this is a provision known to all lawyers - who is ordinarily resident in Singapore. But supposing we issue an RO because we believe that that company or person is subject to foreign influence. So, despite Section 145(5) of the Companies Act, saying that you need at least one person who is resident in Singapore, the RO will take precedence over Section 145(5). That is the context. So Section 16F is to ensure that a religious group cannot refuse to comply with an RO for such reasons.
122. Now let me turn to Mr Faisal Abdul Manap. He had three points. First, he gave a specific illustration, and asked whether that will be a breach. First of all, I would like to ask him if that statement is hypothetical, or whether it is actual and whether it has already been made. But I will tell him on this specific illustration, that the substantive law is broadly similar. If you look at Section 17F, and compare SS 298 + 298A of the Penal Code, which I am sure he is very familiar with, you will see that it is broadly not that different. It would depend on the intent of the person saying it. The way and purpose for which the statement was made.
123. He made a second point on issues relating to practice of religion. Those comments don’t arise from these amendments. The Government’s position has been set out. Different countries follow different approaches. Some, even in Europe create a lot of obstruction for building of mosques. The practice of Islam - they threaten Muslims, there is Islamophobia.
124. We in Singapore take the opposite approach. Here as I have said earlier, the Government allocates land for the building of mosques, only for Muslims. That approach is not taken for any other religion. Other religions have to bid for the land. This is done without tender, and makes the access to the practice of Islam and other religions easily accessible.
125. We set our faces very strongly against Islamophobia. We have made it very clear. Any such practice, we will move. Earlier this year, a gentleman was sent to prison and caned for writing on an MRT wall, certain derogatory remarks about Muslims. We protect religious communities including religious minorities.
126. The third point he makes is that he does not agree with the principles of separation of religion and politics. That is what I heard. I was so surprised, I asked for a confirmation that it is indeed what he said. My people say that is indeed what he said. It is a very surprising statement. It is a very serious statement, and a statement with serious implications.
127. It contradicts everything that we hold as central and important in Singapore. It is a fundamental value. If we went out and asked Singaporeans, I think they will be quite shocked.
128. Let me tell Mr Faisal Abdul Manap. Assuming that I heard him right, if we do not separate religion from politics. Then whose religion comes into politics?
129. Inevitably, if you allow religion to play a significant role in politics, then those who are part of the majority religion must have the bigger say. Or plurality at least, will have the bigger say. Do you think the position of religious minorities will be better or worse? Because he quoted what an Islamic scholar might say. What if the text in another religion is critical of all other religions? And it tells its followers that non-believers should be shunned. How would Mr Faisal Abdul Manap feel if these were the views of the religion of the majority or the plurality? And that comes into politics.
130. So, for an elected Member of Parliament of this House to say, I do not accept the principle of separation of religion from politics, I think it is very, very surprising. If you say it is not possible to draw bright lines, that the line will be fuzzy, that is different. It is what I have said. But anyway, I see your position and I will leave the Chambers with those statements ringing in my head. That you reject the principle of separation of religion from politics.
131. Many members have provided suggestions on how we can resolve disputes arising from different religious beliefs.
132. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked if MHA could consider having a mediation team to resolve disputes. Ms Irene Quay suggested forming a group of official and religious mediators. These groups already exist. One of them is the National Steering Committee (NSC) on Racial and Religious Harmony, chaired by Minister Grace Fu.
133. The religious leaders on the NSC broached the idea of a Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony to counter segregationist behaviours. In addition to the NSC, we have the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (“IRCCs”). They are local-level inter-faith platforms. They are in every constituency and they seek to promote racial and religious harmony. The IRCC leaders are trained, and they can be called upon to mediate in incidents which can impact on social cohesion. For private family disputes, such as those highlighted by Ms Irene Quay, the religious leaders work closely with Government agencies to try and find an amicable solution.
134. Other than mediation, a number of members - Dr Yaacob, Ms Pereira, Mr Gan, Ms Irene Quay, Mr Terence Ho, have talked about the importance of education for members of the public and for our young people. These are important suggestions. Their suggestions also provide a reply to Mr Desmond Choo’s query on how the Government can better bring about awareness among the youth that some discourse is inappropriate in our context.
135. MOE’s curriculum currently inculcates in students values of living harmoniously in our multi-religious context through subjects such as Character and Citizenship Education and Social Studies.
136. MCCY also has the following programmes to foster better understanding and appreciation of different religions and cultures in Singapore. One is BRIDGE (“Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education”) that seeks to provide safe spaces and opportunities for the public to engage in open and facilitated conversations on sensitive topics. Others are Ask Me Anything, Common Senses for Common Spaces and IRCC inter-faith dialogues.
137. Different community platforms can help to build and encourage religious harmony in different parts of society. Mr Douglas Foo talked about the tripartite partnership – Government, employers, and workers. Ms Irene Quay talked about expanding the membership of the IROs to include more members of different faiths. Ms Anthea Ong talked about the inclusion of atheists in inter-faith dialogues.
138. I think these are important and valid suggestions.
139. The law sets out the broad parameters of behaviour, but it cannot be the sole driving force to change behaviour. We do need the community to come in, and ensure that deep and strong bonds are built between and within faiths.
140. Mr Saktiandi asked how employers can look out for radicalisation of domestic workers. I believe the PQ reply earlier had dealt with this.
141. Finally, let me deal with the points raised by Mr Murali on section 18 of the MRHA. He says the courts should act as a safeguard against abuse of powers.
142. I think the Member will note that section 18 of the MRHA is not a total ouster of the courts’ ability to review decisions or recommendations. The courts can review decisions and orders under the MRHA - some narrow grounds, legality or errors of law.
143. He referenced my speech made in the Second Reading of the MRHA in 1990.
144. Let me recap the process of the MRHA in 1990. In 1989, the Government tabled a White Paper setting out the threats to religious harmony, and introduced the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill. The Bill was debated extensively in Parliament and referred to a Select Committee, which made recommendations to improve the Bill.
145. One of the key recommendations made by the Select Committee was the amendment of the issuance process of the ROs.
146. Before the Bill was considered by the Select Committee, it was called the Prohibition Order. The Minister was required only to have regard to the recommendations by the PCRH. He had the sole discretion to decide on the Prohibition Order. The President was not involved in the issuance or review of the Order.
147. The current process for the RO has incorporated the recommendations of the Select Committee. It renamed the Prohibition Order to Restraining Order. The Minister must send the proposed RO to the PCRH. The PCRH then makes recommendations to the President, who can then decide whether to confirm, vary, or cancel the RO. Under the current process, the Minister is not the sole approving authority on the RO. There are checks.
148. In addition to the above, there is a deeper philosophical point.
149. It is about what I said just now about the balance of powers between the executive, other institutions including the courts, institutions like the President, the PCRH and of course, individual members of the public.
150. Mr Singh paid what I think is a compliment by reference to my speech in 1990. No doubt, so as to make me explain myself.
151. Let me say this frankly and completely openly.
152. In 1990 when I spoke on this, when MRHA was first put to Parliament, I was a young, common law-trained lawyer with four years of experience and a few months in politics. My view was that the legal process was able to resolve all disputes and that was the most suitable approach.
153. About 30 years later, with experience and perspective. I have come to realise that this does not always hold true.
154. Is the use of the legal process the best way to deal with all religious issues in society? How about a firebrand preacher who is unrepentant and unremorseful? By going to the courts, you may be able to deal with the preacher. But what of communal relations, and the underlying sentiments of the community? The trial process can often deepen the fault lines and encourage others to do the same. It can even be counter-productive. The alleged offenders become martyrs for their communities, and inflame tensions even more.
155. I will give you a couple of examples. You look at the Bali bomb attacks in October 2002. The mastermind was put on trial, and he said that the court verdict was not in line with Islamic teachings. He used his trial to repeatedly condemn the United States, its President, and Israel, calling them the world’s terrorists. He promised to write a book on Jihad. It inflamed passions. Did it make things better, or worse?
156. Another example, Mumtaz Qadri. He was the bodyguard of Mr Salman Taseer, a politician with relatively liberal viewpoints in Pakistan, and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws. Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salman Taseer, the person he was to protect, claiming it was his religious duty to do so. Qadri was hailed as a hero by some Islamist groups. Thousands of activists turned up during the trial to show their support. Supporters in 2011 threw rose petals on the armoured vehicle carrying Qadri away from the court, all beamed throughout the world and all over Pakistan. When he was executed, crowds took to the streets to protest. These are the real world consequences.
157. In 1989, I was quite innocent of these ways of the world. How people actually behave, how they can abuse the process.
158. If I believed today, what I believed in 1989, then I would not be standing here, tabling this Bill. I took an active role in conceptualising, working through this Bill, and I believe it to be right for our country. That belief has much to do with what has happened in the last 27 years.
159. The formulators of the original MRHA had greater experience, knowledge, and foresight than I had. When I spoke, I recall that the current PM responded to me, though he did not refer to me. But after that, in all my youthful innocence, I was not convinced. I will say that openly.
160. But in the nearly 30 years since MRHA was enacted, we look around us – Al-Qaeda, ISIS, communal violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and more. There are disputes between all major religions across the world and abuse of all major religions by politicians and religious leaders.
161. Through these, we stand proud, a beacon of religious tolerance and social harmony.
162. We need to ask ourselves why. Why have we been spared?
163. My opening speech sets out the principles we have applied, the policies we have put in place, and how they have all worked together to help keep religious harmony.
164. The MRHA tries to balance different methods of resolving disputes. The RO is pre-emptive, to stop the spread of speech or material that can cause widespread harm. It is also used to curb malicious foreign influence.
165. The CRI is a community-based tool. We use this in situations where the person and the offended community are willing to meet to mend relations. Prosecution is used in serious cases, where the person incites violence; or his conduct poses a threat to the public peace and order of Singapore. In such cases, criminal sanctions are appropriate to deter others from similar conduct. It also provides for severe punishments to reflect the person’s culpability and conduct.
166. Has our approach worked? Members answered the question.
167. We have had some incidents of religious disharmony. How did we deal with them?
168. Nine years ago, we had a Christian pastor Rony Tan. He made offensive remarks against Buddhism and Taoism. These video clips were available on his church’s website. We spoke with him, and he apologised publicly to the religious leaders of the affected communities.
169. In 2017 - the context was different. Imam Nalla made a supplication during a Friday prayer in a mosque that we thought was unacceptable. The international context was also different. He was charged under the Penal Code, and fined $4,000. He too, apologised to the community.
170. We have had relatively few instances. Why? Because norms have been shaped, values have been shaped. Does that mean we do not practice our religions? There are many deeply religious people in this House and outside. In fact, the IPS survey shows that Singaporeans are very deeply religious. But that does not prevent us from having harmony.
171. Dr Walter Theseira said that the indiscriminate use of the law would create contention rather than consensus. We agree.
172. If you look, the law has been there for 27 years, it has not been used once.
173. We try, as best as we can, to deal with the issues with wisdom and common sense. Some people say this Government has done so, how do we trust future governments? I think that is the constant paradox about Singapore. It requires governance for the country to proceed.
174. Each of the situations was dealt with wisdom, common sense. We drew lines in the sand, we reinforced positive norms, and they made our society stronger.
175. It is not just the MRHA that has helped to keep religious harmony in Singapore.
176. It is the whole series of policies, approach, and most crucially, that a significant majority of our people accept, subscribe to, and support these policies, and they want religious harmony. It is a core value of our country.
177. Fundamentally, the people trust the Government to keep to this and to apply the rules fairly.
178. The MRHA comes in, give powers to the Government to step in where necessary. Our people know and they appreciate that.
179. We are religiously diverse, yet live in harmony. This is not a natural state of things.
180. We have had nearly 30 years of the MRHA. The most powerful point, as I said earlier about MRHA, is we have never had to use it.
181. Once in a while, we have to go and talk to some religious leaders. But our public approach – setting the norms; our speeches, policies; holding the ring neutrally, fair approach; constant, positive engagement with religious groups, and swift action taken – together with the MRHA and other laws, has created the situation in Singapore.
182. All of this, and more, has meant that we have managed to create a framework of positive norms and values for our society.
183. Sir, I think I have answered all the questions. Thank you.