Published: 04 October 2023
1. Mr Speaker, I thank the Members who spoke in support of the Bill. Please allow me to address their questions.
Amendments to the Automatic Route
2. Ms Ng Ling Ling asked how the Registrar of Societies would assess whether an application, submitted via the Automatic Route, would pose risks to national security or public order, or be prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore. This assessment looks at many factors, such as the background of the applicants, the proposed activities of the society, and the nature of their foreign affiliations. Where needed, the MHA will consult other agencies.
3. Ms Ng asked whether non-specified societies will be directed to modify their constitutions if they are identified as engaging in causes that seem to discuss or promote issues aligned with a specific policy objective. The answer is – yes, and the current law already allows us to do it. Currently, under section 11A(2) of the Societies Act, the Registrar already has powers to direct a non-specified society to amend its constitution, if it is in the Registrar’s opinion that the amendments are needed to safeguard national interest, or public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore.
4. Ms Ng and Mr Yip spoke about the appeals for societies whose applications are rejected. Questions on how many appeals have been reviewed over the years by the Minister for specified and non-specified societies, and on what grounds are the appeals granted by the Minister, were asked.
(a) Currently, non-specified societies are automatically registered and cannot be rejected.
(b) All appeals received by Minister are for specified societies rejected through the Normal Route. Over the past three years, we received 4 statutory appeals to the Minister. In assessing statutory appeals, Minister will have to weigh the views of the applicants against the Registrar. The grounds of acceding or rejecting the appeal is fact specific.
5. Mr Gerald Giam asked why we need to amend the Automatic Route.
(a) The MHA reviews its laws and regulations regularly to ensure that they remain up to date. These amendments are part of our regular review.
(b) I would like to reiterate that there will still be two routes to register a society. And even with these amendments to the Automatic Route, the MHA expects the majority of the applications via the Automatic Route to be approved without having to make further inquiries. I can also assure this House that genuine applications under the Automatic Route will not face a longer waiting period for approvals than under the current regime.
6. Mr Giam asked if there were any applications that were approved via the Automatic Route that should not have been approved because they posed a threat.
(a) There were no applications that were automatically approved that we thought should have not.
(b) However, we have come across three applications, that were submitted via the Automatic Route, that triggered some concerns, as the applicants had some antecedents. For operational reasons, we seek Members’ understanding that we are not able to share more about these three applications. And for their own reasons, which we do not know, the applicants did not pursue their applications.
7. Mr Giam also asked, instead of amending the Automatic Route, why not expand the Schedule to include more categories. We will still need to allow the Registrar to ask questions, as we need to be able to assess whether the application does indeed fall outside the categories in the Schedule. Sometimes, the Registrar may not be able to assess based purely on the details submitted by the application.
8. Mr Giam suggested that questionnaires be built into the application form, to help identify societies whether they should be submitted via the Normal or Automatic Routes.
(a) This is already the process today.
(b) Applicants have to answer a set of questions as part of the application process. Based on their replies, the system will route to either the Automatic or Normal Route.
(c) However, as mentioned, there could be instances where the Registrar may need to make enquiries to ascertain whether the declarations were done correctly. For example, when the objectives in their draft constitution indicate a function covered in the Schedule, but yet their declaration indicated otherwise. In such a situation, the amendments would allow the Registrar to ask questions.
9. Giam asked for examples of applications that were submitted via the Automatic Route, but should have been submitted via the Normal Route.
(a) This happens once in a while. Applicants make incorrect declarations, though without ill intent, that result in their applications sent via the wrong route. Let me give an actual example, but with the name redacted.
(i) Currently, pugilistic or martial arts fall within the categories in the Schedule. Hence, applications for societies that deal with pugilistic or martial arts have to be submitted via the Normal Route.
(ii) An applicant clicked 'No" on the question pertaining to whether it is a martial arts group, thinking that it is a sports group. However, ROS reviewed the application and found that its constitution listed martial arts as an activity. ROS then moved it to the Normal Route instead.
Amendments to the Normal Route
10. Mr Murali Pillai highlighted the change from “shall” to “may” in section 4(1) of the Societies Act. Currently, section 4 of the Societies Act provides that the Registrar shall register a specified society upon application and payment of the prescribed fee unless one of the grounds for refusal in section 4 applies.
(a) Currently, the prescribed fee is paid only upon approval of application. Hence, upon payment of the fees, the Registrar must – shall – register the society.
(b) We are amending the Societies Act to state that the prescribed fee is be paid upon application instead of upon approval. This means that, after the payment of fees, the Registrar might still refuse to register the society based on one of the grounds in section 4. Therefore, it is inaccurate to mandate that the Registrar must register the society upon payment of the prescribed fee.
(c) To be clear, if none of the grounds for refusal in section 4 is made out, the Registrar will not refuse to register the society. Hence, the amendment remains aligned with Article 14 of the Constitution and the purpose of section 4 as stated by Senior Minister of State Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee in 2004.
11. Mr Murali also asked about the ambit of the Registrar’s powers to mandate the inclusion or exclusion of provisions of the constitution of a specified society before registration. He further asked how this power will be exercised in conformity with Article 14 of the Constitution.
(a) To clarify, as mentioned in my opening speech, this is not a new power. This practice is in accordance with section 29(1)(b) of the Interpretation Act, which provides that a power to grant approval also includes the power to impose reasonable conditions. The amendment to the Societies Act simply makes this power explicit.
(b) The Registrar’s discretion is not unfettered – his decisions must still have a nexus to Singapore’s security, public order, or morality. Hence, even with the amendments, the Registrar’s powers must still be exercised in line with Article 14 of the Constitution.
12. To answer Mr Yip Hon Weng’s question on the recourse if there are disagreements on the rules being inserted, applicants can write to the Registry of Societies, and we will consider each case on a case-by-case basis. If the Registrar refuses to approve their application due to their refusal to insert the rules, then the applicants can also appeal to the Minister within 30 days under section 4(4) of the Societies Act.
13. Mr Giam asked why societies discussing issues related to civil or political rights, or the governance of Singapore society, remain listed in the Schedule. These are sensitive issues, and need to be appropriately handled by the society in order for it not to become a socially divisive one. In some cases, they could also be a channel for foreign influence into sensitive domestic affairs. Hence, societies that cover these areas should apply via the Normal Route. I would like to highlight that about 50% of applications to register a society go through the Normal Route, and the vast majority are approved.
Amendments of Rules and Names
14. Mr Yip asked for clarity on the list of considerations for amendments of rules and name. This is provided for in the amendments under Clause 8 of the Bill, which listed the grounds of which the application to change name and rules will be rejected. Societies can also refer to the Frequently Ask Questions on the Registry of Societies’ website for guidelines on amendments of rules and names.
15. Associate Professor Razwana Begum noted that the Bill would provide clarity on the reasons why applications to change names and rules are rejected. I wish to clarify that the amendments in Clause 8 of the Bill list the grounds on which the Registrar can reject applications to change names or rules. It does not legally require the Registrar to provide reasons for rejecting the applications to change names or rules. Having said that, the ROS will engage the applicants and advise where appropriate, as long as it does not involve the disclosure of sensitive information.
Rejections of Applications
16. We had several questions on the grounds of rejection.
(a) Mr Giam asked how many applications to form societies were rejected in the past five years and what were the grounds for their rejection.
(b) On the grounds of rejecting an application for registration, Ms Nadia Samdin asked when the Registrar would consider an application to be prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order.
(c) Ms Nadia also asked when the Registrar would refuse an application to amend the rules of a society on the grounds that it is contrary to national interests or security, prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order, or contrary to the Societies Act.
(d) Mr Murali also asked questions in a similar vein, on how the powers based on these grounds would be exercised.
17. In the past five years, 53 applications were rejected. This is 3.7% of all applications received during this period. The grounds for rejection for those via the Normal Route are as stated in sections 4(2) and 4(3) of the Societies Act. For example, an application may be rejected if the society was likely to be used for unlawful purposes, or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore, or that it would be contrary to national security or interest for the society to be registered.
18. The Registrar considers many factors in assessing whether an application should be rejected based on the grounds in the Societies Act, and in the Bill. Let me give some examples.
19. Applications for registration may be refused where doing so is necessary to:
(a) prevent social segregation or religious and racial disharmony,
(b) safeguard Singapore against foreign interference, or
(c) protect public safety or Singapore’s security in general.
20. Applications to amend rules may be rejected if the rules would lead to a breach of the Societies Act or the Societies Regulations. For example, section 12 of the Societies Act prohibits a person from acting as an officer of a society if he has been declared unfit to hold office. If the amended rules would have the effect of permitting a disqualified person to act as an officer, the Registrar may reject the application.
21. Ms Ng and Mr Yip asked how this Bill will combat foreign interference through registered societies. We already have laws to protect against foreign interference through entities in Singapore, including registered societies and companies.
(a) In particular, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which was passed in Parliament in 2021, will allow the Government to designate an entity, such as a registered society, as a Politically Significant Person. Once designated, the entity will be subject to countermeasures, such as being required to disclose political donations, and foreign affiliations. If there is a higher risk of foreign interference, Government can also issue stepped-up countermeasures to impose stricter safeguards, such as disallowing foreign political donations, and foreigners from holding leadership positions.
(b) On religious organisations, we amended the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 2019, to require religious groups to disclose foreign donations and affiliations and to be subject to local leadership requirements. We can also impose additional safeguards on religious groups if there is a greater threat of foreign influence.
22. Associate Professor Razwana suggested that “selected societies” be required to provide more details on their governing body at the point of registration. I would like to reassure her that the Registrar can and will ask for more information, over and above what societies submit in the application forms, if the Registrar assesses a need to.
Considerations for Dissolving a Society
23. Dr Syed Harun recognised that the Bill strikes a balance between public safety and interests, while allowing for the space of expression in the local communities. He also urged the MHA to be discerning when making decisions on dissolving societies that have a long track record. I would like to reassure Dr Syed that we will continue to strive to maintain a good balance on considering whether to dissolve a society.
One-Stop Service Portal for Charities
24. Mr Yip asked about the one-stop service portal for charities. The intent of the portal is to would provide a seamless integration between the charities unit and Registry of Societies systems. Ideally, charities which are also societies will go to one system for their Annual Returns submission. The details of the one-stop service will be worked out with the Charities Unit later.
25. Mr Yip Hon Weng asked if groups that are organised in virtual spaces, within chat groups, and on the Internet, will be addressed under the Societies Act and the conditions for their registrations. In the Societies Act, a “society” includes any club, company, partnership or association of 10 or more persons, whatever its nature or object, except for groups that are already governed by other Acts, such as companies under the Companies Act. Hence, groups that form in virtual spaces meet the technical definition of a society. That said, we have to take a practical approach – groups that are transient and informal do not fall under the ambit of the Societies Act. Mr Giam asked if the amended Automatic Route would deter legitimate groups from registering as a society. I would like to share that groups can indeed maintain themselves as virtual groups or informal groups. However, without a legal entity, these groups cannot do things such as open a bank account in the name of their group, or rent a property in the name of the group for their activities. And this will likely constrain their ability to attract members.
26. Associate Professor Razwana suggested for more resources and information such as providing mandatory training on rules, countering threats, and vulnerabilities to be given to societies at higher risks of being exploited by bad actors. She also mentioned formation of online groups on various digital platforms and asked for support to guide them on the compliance obligations. The relevant domain agencies would provide such information. For example, there are available resources for societies to consider such as the Terrorist Financing Risk Mitigation Toolkit developed by the Charities Unit. That said, we will take up Associate Professor Razwana’s suggestion on how we can provide links to these resources on the ROS website. ROS is working on revamping their website, and I have asked the team to incorporate Associate Professor Razwana’s suggestion.
27. Associate Professor Razwana also asked MHA to consider introducing explicit whistleblower protection programmes to encourage and facilitate the reporting of “suspicious” activities. At this point, we do not think such measures are necessary. Individuals can already report “suspicious” activities to the Police, and their identities can be protected. In particular, under section 127(1) of the Evidence Act, Police officers cannot be compelled to disclose where they got the information from as to the commission of any offence.
28. Associate Professor Razwana raised concerns that vulnerable individuals such as the young may be susceptible to influence to engage in undesirable or criminal activities when joining a society and asked if there were any support to educate the public. Such education efforts would be undertaken by the domain agencies, rather than the ROS. That said, if Associate Professor has any specific area of concern, I will bring it back and feedback to the relevant agency.
29. Associate Professor Razwana suggested that the public have free access to information on societies. We are not contemplating this at this time. As there are costs involved in maintaining a database, and for extraction of information, we currently impose charges to recover costs. For example, $10 will be charged for the online purchase of a society’s constitution.
Workload of ROS and Police
30. Finally, we would like to thank Mr Yip for his concerns on the workload for ROS and SPF. We have established work processes between the two Departments and relevant information is exchanged where needed. We work together as one Home Team.
31. That said, I thank Members for supporting the Bill. Mr Speaker, I beg to move.