Published: 04 October 2023
1. Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Minister for Home Affairs, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
Review of the Societies Act
2. The Societies Act governs the registration of societies. It ensures that groups that may be used for unlawful purposes, pose a threat to safety and security, or whose activities are contrary to our national interests, are not allowed to establish themselves in Singapore.
3. To ensure that the Societies Act remains relevant, and can continue to meet its intent, the MHA has proposed a set of amendments to:
(a) Strengthen the regulation of societies to safeguard national interests and security; and
(b) Provide better clarity to the public on the registration requirements.
4. We had conducted engagement sessions with selected societies in 2022 and 2023, as well as a public consultation exercise in 2022 via the REACH platform. The feedback was supportive of the proposed amendments.
5. Let me now go through the provisions of the Bill.
Amendments to Strengthen the Registration Process
6. First, we aim to strengthen the registration process. Currently, applications to register societies can be processed via two routes.
(a) The Normal Route is for applications that fall within the categories specified in the Schedule of the Societies Act. These societies are involved in issues which are more sensitive, such as politics, religion, race, language, and nationality. Such applications go through vetting and assessment by the Registrar of Societies, which may involve several rounds of clarifications with the applicant. The Registrar has the authority to reject applications submitted via the Normal Route.
(b) We also have the Automatic Route. This was introduced in 2004, for applications that do not fall within the categories specified in the Schedule of the Societies Act. It is meant for societies involved in issues which are less sensitive. For these applications, the Societies Act currently states that the Registrar shall, without making any further inquiry, register these societies on the date the Registrar receives the application, so long as the formal requirements for registration are met.
7. In the last 5 years, we received about 1,400 applications. About half of them were submitted via the Automatic Route. This differentiated approach in processing applications has allowed the MHA to focus its attention on assessing the more sensitive applications. That said, there are two gaps.
(a) First, there were instances where the Registrar needed information to ascertain whether applications under the Automatic Route indeed did not fall within the sensitive categories in the Schedule of the Societies Act. However, the current law does not allow the Registrar to seek clarifications of such applications.
(b) Second, even if an application does not fall within the sensitive categories in the Schedule, it could still be of concern. However, the Registrar currently has no authority to reject such applications.
8. Clause 4 of the Bill therefore amends section 4A of the Societies Act to:
(a) Remove the obligation on the Registrar to register a society under the Automatic Route without making any inquiry. This will allow the Registrar to make inquiries of applications submitted via the Automatic Route; and
(b) Empower the Registrar to reject an application submitted via the Automatic Route, if the Registrar is satisfied that the society, if registered:
(i) Is likely to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore; or
(ii) Would be contrary to Singapore’s national security or interest.
9. Let’s give Members a hypothetical example of the current gaps, and how these amendments will address the gaps:
(a) Suppose a group of individuals, with antecedents of concern, wished to set up a society to advocate for the interest of a racial group. However, they know that if they were to set up a society promoting the interests of a particular race, they would have to do so via the Normal Route, where the Registrar would be able to scrutinise their application, such as asking questions to clarify the objectives of the society and queries on their leadership composition.
(b) To avoid being questioned, this group tries to set up a society with an innocuous aim, such as a history interest group. Such an application could then be submitted via the Automatic Route, which currently, will be approved immediately.
(c) The proposed amendments in the Bill would allow the Registrar to make inquiries on all applications submitted, for both Automatic and Normal routes.
10. Clause 4 of the Bill adds a new section to allow appeals to the Minister for Home Affairs for rejected applications via the Automatic Route, similar to the existing appeal mechanism for applications via the Normal Route.
11. If an appeal is rejected to by the Minister, the applicants can launch a judicial review, no different from today.
12. We expect the majority of applications for registration of societies to still go through the Automatic Route without the need for any clarifications.
13. Our next set of amendments seeks to clarify the Registrar’s powers for applications submitted via the Normal Route. Currently, under the Normal Route, the Registrar may request an applicant to insert clauses into their constitution, prior to allowing the registration of the society. This practice is in accordance with section 29(1)(b) of the Interpretation Act, which provides that a power to grant a licence, permit, approval, or exemption, also includes the power to impose reasonable conditions.
14. For instance, to preserve Singapore’s multi-religious and multi-racial harmony, the Registrar may request an applicant of a society that is involved in issues of race and religion to insert a clause that the society “shall not engage in any activities that may undermine racial or religious harmony in Singapore”, as a condition for registration.
15. Clause 3 of the Bill inserts a new section 4(3A) to make it explicit that the Registrar has powers to require the rules of specified societies to be amended as a condition for registration. The Registrar can refuse to register the society if the society does not comply.
(a) Section 4(3A) does not list the grounds for which the Registrar will direct a specified society to amend its rules.
(b) However, this does not mean that the Registrar can require a society to include unreasonable rules into its Constitution, failing which the Registrar will reject an application.
(c) The Registrar’s decisions must still have a nexus to the purpose of the Societies Act, which is to ensure that groups which may be used for unlawful purposes, or poses a threat to public order, welfare, or good order in Singapore, or which will be contrary to our national interests will not be established in Singapore.
Amendments Affecting Registered Societies
16. Mr Speaker, I will now touch on amendments affecting registered societies.
17. Currently, under section 11 of the Societies Act, societies need to seek the Registrar’s approval to change their name or amend the rules in their constitution. The Societies Act is silent on the grounds on which the Registrar can refuse to approve such applications. To provide clarity to societies, Clause 8 of the Bill amends section 11 to include the grounds on which the Registrar may refuse to approve a change of name, or an amendment of provisions in the societies’ constitution. For example:
(a) The Registrar can refuse to approve a change in name if the new name is likely to mislead members of the public as to the true character or purpose of the society.
(b) The Registrar can refuse to approve a change in the constitution if it would be contrary to Singapore’s national interest or prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore.
(c) For avoidance of doubt, the Registrar will not be limited to the grounds stated in the Act.
18. Under section 12(1)(b) of the Societies Act, the Minister can currently declare a person to be unfit to be an officer of a society by reason of any conviction for a criminal offence, for example, where the officer is convicted for dishonesty such as fraud, scam, cheating, or misuse of monies, as well as offences under the Societies Act. An officer here refers to committee members and does not include members of the society.
19. For ease of administration, Clause 10 of the Bill amends section 12(1)(b) of the Societies Act to allow the Registrar, instead of the Minister, to declare a person as unfit to be an officer of a society. The Minister will be the appellate authority. A person who is declared to be unfit by the Registrar can apply to the Minister for permission to act as an officer of a society.
20. Currently, section 2 of the Societies Act defines the place of business of a registered society as “the place where the records and books of account of a society is kept”. This is too narrow in today’s context where virtual offices and storage of documents on the cloud are common. Instead of place of business, Clause 2 of the Bill amends section 2 of the Societies Act to refer to “registered address” instead, defined as the address of the society that is kept and maintained with the Registrar. Consequential amendments will be made throughout the Societies Act.
21. The next set of amendments are on the offences.
22. The last review of the penalties in the Societies Act was done in 2004, 19 years ago. We are increasing the fine quantum for all the offences in the Societies Act to keep up with inflation and to ensure that the fine quantum continues to have a deterrent effect.
23. In addition, we have updated the offences of providing false information to the Registrar.
(a) Currently, sections 10 and 29 of the Societies Act penalise the failure to provide information and the provision of false information to the Registrar.
(b) Clauses 7 and 14 of the Bill update these provisions to align with the language used in newer Acts such as the Debt Collection Act.
(c) In particular, on the provision of false information to the Registrar, the fault element of the offender is presently not mentioned in sections 10 and 29. This means that even if a person provided false or inaccurate information by mistake, he would be in breach.
(d) The MHA’s view is that only those who intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly provide false or inaccurate information should be liable. Clauses 7 and 14 of the Bill therefore amend the fault element of these offences accordingly.
24. Clause 15 of the Bill introduces a new section 30A to allow the Registrar to compound offences in the Societies Act as an alternative to charging offenders in court.
25. The Bill also includes amendments to facilitate the administration and regulation of societies.
(a)First, we are proposing amendments to allow for electronic transmission of documents. These are in Clauses 5, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 16 of the Bill.
(b) Second, currently, application fees are to be paid upon approval of applications before the society is registered. MHA intends to charge the fee upon submission of an application, as costs will have to be incurred to assess the application, regardless of whether the registration is approved. Clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill give effect to this.
(c) Third, societies which are charities presently have to file their annual submissions to two separate authorities – the Registry of Societies and Charities Unit. To reduce the administrative burden on societies which are also charities, a one-stop service will be established which allows such societies to file their annual submissions only once. Clause 17 of the Bill introduces new sections to allow the Registrar to prescribe different forms for them. The details of the one-stop service will be worked out with Charities Unit later.
26. Mr Speaker, the amendments that MHA has proposed aim to strengthen and modernise the regulatory framework governing societies.
27. I beg to move.