Published: 07 October 2019
1. Mr Speaker, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
2. This Bill proposes amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA).
3. The MRHA was passed in 1990 and came into effect in 1992.
4. In those 27 years, society, attitudes towards religion, the environment and more, have changed. We reviewed the MRHA and decided to amend it to keep it relevant, keep it effective.
5. In this speech, I will touch on three aspects. First, the background to the MRHA. The reasons why it was introduced in 1990. Second, a brief look at relevant events around the world, the extent of religious harmony and our experience over the past 27 years. And third, set out the rationale for the Amendments.
6. My colleague SPS Sun Xueling will speak on the specific provisions in the Bill.
7. Let me now deal with context and the background to the MRHA. The rationale for the MRHA was set out in a White Paper. It was published in December 1989. It highlighted several important aspects.
8. Religious harmony is a necessary condition for us to survive as a country. The Government needed to set out a set of “working rules” on how different religious groups interact with each other.
9. One such rule was that religious groups should not do anything that causes disharmony, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups - and especially so for proselytisation. We accept that proselytisation is a key tenet for many religions. They want to propagate their faith. But in Singapore, we want it to be done sensitively.
10. Another rule, if I may highlight, is that religious groups should not venture into politics. Political parties should not use religion to get popular support.
11. The White Paper also recognised that it would be unwise to assume that all religious groups will recognise these Rules of Prudence. But in our context - in fact in any country, if these rules were ignored, that could seriously damage our social fabric and our political, economic fabric.
12. The White Paper then said legislation was therefore necessary. We wanted to take pre-emptive action to maintain Religious Harmony.
13. The MRHA was then passed. It had these key features: one, it covered conduct that harmed religious tolerance; two, there were powers for the Minister to issue orders restraining harmful conduct; and three, a Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) was set up, which could consider these orders. It could also consider other matters that affected the maintenance of religious harmony
14. Let me give a bit more context on the reasons for the introduction of the Act then.
15. I think we all recognise the power of religion. It has been and it is a force for much good. Major religions have transformed societies in positive ways. They are the bedrock of core societal values, compassion, kindness and generosity
16. The collective efforts of a number of different religious organisations, groups - their values, their efforts, their faith, also helped to make Singapore what it is today.
17. At the same time, we recognise that religion has been used; can be used, by bad actors as a rallying point for violence. Also by bad actors to pursue political power, often with bad outcomes for societies.
18. In 1990, the Government was very aware of the good that religion can bring about and also, how it can be abused by some. So how to keep the good, allow a large measure of freedom and how to keep out the negative groups?
19. The Government decided on two key principles.
20. First, re-emphasise the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. The right of every person to practise his or her beliefs. The Government, as a matter of policy, made sure that religion remained accessible to all Singaporeans who wish to access it.
21. For example, land was set aside; land is continuously set aside, in our residential estates. Every time we plan an estate, we take into account religious needs for worship, for all religions based on an assessment of racial proportions. The Government helped to establish the Mosque Building and MENDAKI Fund which made it easier to mobilise the community, and build mosques.
22. At the same time, the Government itself is secular. Secularism in Singapore is unique. It is not like secularism in some other countries. The example I spoke about in April, in this House, was France. There, the state will not intervene in religious matters, even, for example, if an act or speech offends other religions. We take a different position. I explained this in some detail, in my Parliamentary Statement in April before this House.
23. The Government does not privilege any religious group. But we also do not allow any religious group to be attacked or insulted. We actively encourage inter-faith dialogues and activities to foster mutual understanding, respect.
24. At the same time, we keep to the position that no religious group should influence Government policy and decision-making.
25. That was the background for the passing of the MRHA in 1990.
26. In the last 29 years since it was passed, there have been some significant changes.
27. I will touch on four. First, the growing religiosity, and increased reliance on identity politics around the world. Second, increased violence committed in the name of religion. Third, the Internet and social media; and fourth, increased possibilities for interference by countries in the affairs of other countries.
28. First, rising religiosity.
29. You look at the 2015 Pew Research Centre survey. It was projected that by 2050, 87 per cent of the world’s population will be religiously-affiliated.
30. That we can see, is particularly so in this region, if you look at Indonesia for example.
31. Rising religiosity by itself can be a force for considerable good as I explained earlier. But there can be trouble when it is exploited by bad actors, for example, for identity politics. And it can be so exploited. We see that in many places.
32. You look at Europe - far-right movements, they play up anxieties against Muslims, other minorities.
33. You look nearer - in this region, in Myanmar, the religious conflict between the majority Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority. Buddhist monks enter the political scene, and say they are defending Buddhist Myanmar against Islamisation.
34. You look at Sri Lanka. Some have sought to radicalise Buddhists, by claims that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. You had a 2013 Buddhist attack on a mosque. In 2014, anti-Muslim riots which resulted in a 10-day national state of emergency. Last year, more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
35. The developments in India are worth noting. India was established in 1947 as a pluralist nation and home. Of course, it comprises people of many religions, sects and ethnicities. The Constitution provides no particular religion with special status.
36. A writer pointed out, that the party that champions secularism, the Congress Party, during the 1984 national elections, moved away from being tied to secularism. It won by riding on Hindu majoritarian politics. By 2019, to regain power, the Congress Party dropped the word “secularism” from its Manifesto. Tells you how far things have come. The party of Nehru and Ghandi.
37. The writer, Kanchan Chandra, said that through the years, Indian politicians have swayed from one side to another. They were overly championing the minority interests, or giving in too much to the majority’s desires. Over time, this generated feelings of unhappiness from both the minority and majority religionists.
38. The point is, secularism is ideal, but it is difficult to get it right; get the balance right.
39. Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion. But so do the Constitutions of many other countries, including the United States. And that has not prevented the rise of identity politics.
40. The second trend that I want to touch on is the increasing violence from conflicts that has been fueled by religious hate speech.
Once hate speech is systemically developed and normalised, it destroys social cohesion, erodes shared values, and lays the foundation for violence. I spoke about this to a considerable degree, to a great extent, in this House in April.
41. Hate speech fuels religious violence.
42. A 2018 Pew Research Centre study shows that two years earlier in 2016, more than 25 per cent of countries in the world experienced a high incidence of hostilities involving religion. I think the point is made. If you look around, you see many examples, and I gave many examples a few months ago.
43. The third trend I want to touch on - the Internet, social media.
44. The Internet has been used to mobilise hatred and mob attacks. It provides for anonymity, allows unfettered expressions and religious intolerance.
45. Internet access made it easier for people to be influenced by extremist ideologies. Collectively, social media can invoke irrational fear of both the majority and the minority groups.
46. Parts of the Internet are already turning into hothouses of hate. Like-minded bigots find each other and gather online. They are helped by internet platforms where algorithms allow hate to go viral.
47. There are many examples. If you look at India, in 2014, photos of venerated Hindu figures were morphed in a ‘derogatory’ manner, and circulated on social media. It went viral. We had lots of people taking to the streets, asking for the blood of the offenders.
48. In Indonesia, you have lots of preachers. Some of whom have vast followings on social media. They are influencers with a force of their own. They can mobilise huge crowds and they can make part of the Muslim community susceptible to identity politics
49. Right next to us, you have the “Buy Muslim First” campaign in Malaysia. It has been gaining momentum, going around in WhatsApp messages, and now seen as a boycott of goods and services produced by non-Muslims. Government leaders have attempted to intervene. But so far the impact has been minimal. If this continues to grow, it will stoke Muslim versus non-Muslim sentiments.
50. The fourth point I will touch on is foreign interference.
51. Again, I would not go into details. It is well-documented. Members know about it. The Internet makes it much more possible. We talked about it in great detail.
52. Let me now turn to the situation in Singapore. We have been spared much of this trouble in Singapore.
53. Over the last 60 years, the Government has been even-handed in the treatment of all religions and all religious groups.
54. We actively protect religious diversity, but also emphasise our common spaces and our shared experiences.
55. Earlier this year, more than 300 religious organisations affirmed the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony. The Commitment encourages day-to-day positive interactions. People can work and live together harmoniously.
56. Beyond institutional structures, we also have laws in place that seek to ensure that no one exploits fault lines.
57. Because of these policies, the laws and the enforcement, I think we have created some norms and values within Singapore which makes us unique and different from many other places. We have peace and harmony.
58. We go back to a 2014 Pew Research Centre study on religious diversity. It showed that Singapore was the most religiously diverse country in the world. That can make us particularly susceptible to deepening fault lines. Because we are so diverse in such a small place. Yet, a 2016 Gallup World Poll ranked us first out of 140 countries for tolerance of ethnic minorities. That is ethnicity, not religion, but I think you can draw some conclusions from that.
59. A 2019 IPS and OnePeople.sg joint study also found inter-religious harmony in Singapore improving. Nine in 10 said that the level of racial and religious harmony in Singapore is moderate, high, or very high. I think you take these surveys and studies in context. Just because people say we are number one does not automatically mean we are number one. But we look at our lived experiences; lived reality, and I think the surveys and studies are consistent with the way our lived reality and experiences are in Singapore.
60. Let me now come to the reasons for the amendments. I have described the developments around the world that we should be concerned about.
61. It is easy for religious movements in other countries to affect us. Religious movements, a new way of thinking. Revolutions, like the 1979 Iranian revolution swept throughout the world - the ideas, it comes through here too.
62. We have to put in some circuit breakers to prevent events relating to religion from affecting us negatively. We cannot completely shut them out. We want to absorb those religious influences. But at the same time, we do not want them to affect us negatively.
63. We are updating the MRHA to deal with some of the challenges that I have spoken about. Let me touch on three key proposed changes to the MRHA.
64. First, we are moving over the religion-related offences from the Penal Code and housing them under the MRHA.
65. The amendments will make it an offence to knowingly urge violence, on the grounds of religion or religious belief, against any person or group.
66. Protection is provided to religious groups and its members, as well as non-religious groups and the members of such groups. Action can be taken if any religious group or its member attacks another religious group using religion. But action can also be taken if a religious group, using religion, attacks a non-religious group - say for example, they attack LGBTQ groups or individuals on the basis of religion. Equally, if a religious group or its member is attacked by any non-religious person or group, say LGBTQs, then action can also be taken. It is even-handed.
67. Second, we need to put in place measures to safeguard against foreign actors who attempt to use religion to divide our local communities.
68. The Bill introduces requirements on religious organisations to disclose foreign donations and affiliations.
69. It also introduces local leadership requirements for religious organisations. We will not apply these requirements to spiritual leaders and preachers. It is not possible - many of them come from overseas. It is not our intent to constrain the practice of religion.
70. Third, the MRHA allows the Government to issue a Restraining Order to anyone who threatens religious harmony. That has been there all along. Currently, it requires a 14-day notice period to be given. With the Internet and social media, 14 days is too long. We will amend for the Order to take immediate effect once issued.
71. We will separately introduce a Community Remedial Initiative (CRI). It is a new tool that focuses on restoration and rehabilitation.
72. I would like to mention in this context an interesting incident recently which captures the essence of what we are trying to do.
73. Some members may recall a few days ago that the Young Sikh Association reached out to a social media influencer, Ms Sheena Phua. She had uploaded a picture showing two Sikh men in white turbans at the recent F1 Grand Prix, and referred to them as “huge obstructions”. The online firestorm began – she was accused of being racist and slighting Sikhism.
74. It would have been entirely understandable for the Sikh community to criticise her, but the Young Sikh Association took a better path. In many ways, a very commendable path. They reached out to her, invited her to visit the gurdwara so that they could educate her about Sikhism. These young men understood that at times, insensitive and derogatory comments can come from a place of ignorance, and that the better and more sustainable path is not of hate or taking sides, but of friendship, respect, and learning about each other.
75. Mr Malminderjit Singh, the secretary of the Sikh Advisory Board, called the actions of these young men a “First World response to a Third World incident”. I agree.
76. That incident, in fact, encapsulates the spirit of the CRI. It will not be compulsory, because we do not want to force a person of one religion to compulsorily, say step into another place of religious worship, if there are religious reasons why that person may not wish to do so. We do not want to compel them to do something that they may not wish to do. But we will leave it as a natural offer – based on their own conscience and what they are prepared to do. That will be taken into account in whatever actions that are subsequently taken.
77. The philosophy is, it is much better if people reach out to each other and get a better understanding of each other’s religion. You can actually do better with fostering a better environment.
78. These are the changes. They are being proposed after a lot of thought, consultations, and as Members would know, with considerable support from the different religious communities. All the major faith organisations have come out after they saw the Bill and after it was introduced in Parliament, to give their support
79. I hope that Members will likewise support it. Thank you.