Published: 07 October 2019
1. Mr Speaker, I will be speaking in my capacity as Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs.
2. The Minister for Home Affairs has set out the broad rationale on the need for the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, otherwise known as the MRHA. He also explained why we need to amend the MRHA to ensure that it remains effective.
3. I will now set out the Government’s position and provide details on the key amendments. There are five key areas:
a. First, introduction of safeguards against foreign influence that affect religious harmony;
b. Second, the updating of the Restraining Order;
c. Third, introduction of the Community Remedial Initiative;
d. Fourth, porting over of religion-related provisions from the Penal Code to the MRHA; and
e. Fifth, related amendments to the Penal Code.
4. First, safeguards against foreign influence that affect religious harmony. The Minister for Home Affairs has presented examples worldwide that show how foreign influence has impacted religious harmony in those communities. We will take active steps to prevent foreign influence from affecting our religious harmony.
a. All our major religious faiths and traditions originated elsewhere.
b. Many of our religious organisations take guidance on key tenets of their faith from their counterparts or superiors who are overseas.
c. Our religious groups serve both Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans.
6. So it is not possible to say we cannot have foreign influence. But we must safeguard against malicious foreign influence which seeks to undermine religious harmony here.
7. Let me provide one example from overseas.
a. In Sri Lanka, as a result of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, investigations uncovered a link between extremism and funding and donations from the Middle East.
i. The founder of the Centre for Islamic Guidance in Sri Lanka, Mohamed Aliyar, was arrested on charges related to the financing of terrorism.
ii. The Centre for Islamic Guidance was partly funded by countries in the Middle East.
iii. He was closely linked to Zahran Hashim, a radical preacher who allegedly mentored many of the Easter attack bombers.
8. In looking at the safeguards against foreign influence, they are structured so that there will be baseline requirements which all religious groups will be subject to. If there are specific threats, the Government can take more targeted action.
9. These baseline safeguards were developed after extensive discussions with apex religious organisations.
10. First, on donations. We will require religious groups to disclose single foreign donations that are SGD10,000 or more. Clause 13 gives effect to this.
a. The disclosure threshold of $10,000 was set after discussion with the major apex religious organisations. We wanted to balance the objective of preventing foreign influence, and not making it too onerous at the same time for religious organisations.
b. We are not saying that any donation below $10,000 is not a concern. Or that any donation above $10,000 is malicious. The Government will make assessments to determine if there is malicious foreign influence.
c. The requirements apply to monetary donations.
d. To reduce the administrative burden on religious groups, we have provided for exemptions to this requirement in the Bill.
e. For example, anonymous cash donations received through donation boxes at religious institutions, or received during a collection during worship rites or services are exempted. Donations received from PRs as well as foreigners who are on long-term passes issued by ICA or MOM do not need to be disclosed.
f. The Minister will be able to set out other types of donations that can be exempted from disclosure requirements through subsidiary legislation.
11. Second, on leadership.
a. We will require the President, Secretary and Treasurer of the religious group to be either a Singapore citizen or PR.
b. If a religious group is incorporated as a company, the requirements will apply on the positions analogous to President, Secretary, or Treasurer – for example, the Chairman, Managing Director, and Directors of the company.
c. If the religious group was set up as a partnership, the equivalent position would be Partners.
12. In addition to this, the majority of the executive committee or governing body of the religious group must be Singapore Citizens.
13. Clause 13 inserts the new sections 16D and 16E which give effect to this.
14. The leadership requirements do not apply to spiritual leaders, unless they hold such executive positions in the religious group.
15. We recognise that there are some religious groups which would not be able to meet these requirements, such as those who serve primarily foreigners who live and work in Singapore, or which are set up as single entities operating across different countries.
16. We have been engaging some of these groups, and are prepared to consider exemptions from these new leadership requirements for them. This will be granted on a case-by-case basis, as long as there are no security concerns.
17. Third, on foreign affiliations. Religious groups will be required to declare any foreign affiliations.
18. Foreign affiliation is defined in the new section 16B as an arrangement with a foreign principal where the religious group is accustomed to act in accordance with its instructions, or where the foreign principal exercises total or substantial control over the religious group’s activities.
19. The safeguard for foreign affiliations is for disclosure purposes.
20. We have sought to set the baseline requirements at a level that minimises regulatory burden on the religious groups. If however we have indications that there is a risk of foreign influence that can affect religious harmony, the proposed Bill will allow us to take a more targeted action in the areas of foreign donations and leadership.
21. Clause 5 specifically expands the current scope of the Restraining Order, otherwise known as the RO, under section 8 of the MRHA. This allows the Government to take targeted action in the areas of donation and leadership of local religious groups where there is indication that there is a risk of foreign influence that can affect religious harmony.
22. Under the new Clause 5, a RO can be issued against a religious group to pre-empt, prevent, or reduce any foreign influence affecting the religious group which may undermine religious tolerance between different religious groups in Singapore, and present a threat to public peace and public order in Singapore.
23. The RO can impose additional safeguards on religious groups.
a. To prohibit or restrict receiving of anonymous donations, or of foreign donations by the religious group.
b. To ensure that every member of the governing body is a citizen of Singapore, or prohibit a specific foreigner or PR from holding office in the governing body in the religious group.
24. The safeguards for the issuance of the RO against religious groups will be the same as those for the issuance of RO against individuals.
a. The Presidential Council of Religious Harmony, or PCRH, will hear representations and review the RO after it has been issued;
b. The PCRH will be able to call any person to provide information to them; and
c. The PCRH will make a recommendation to the President, who will continue to have the power to confirm, cancel, or vary the RO.
25. The additional safeguards will require religious organisations to take on more work. They understand that more work is required, but at the same time, the religious groups acknowledge the importance of such safeguards. They support these amendments. Any religious group that need more time to comply with these requirements can work out appropriate interim arrangements with MHA.
26. I will now move on to the updating of the RO that can be issued against individuals.
27. The MRHA currently provides that an RO can be issued against:
a. Any individual who does or says anything that causes religious disharmony;
b. Any religious leader or member of a religious group that mixes religion and politics, and any person inciting a religious leader or religious group to do so.
28. The RO can prevent this individual from addressing religious groups, or being involved in producing or distributing publications produced by religious groups.
29. The scope of the RO was drawn up nearly 30 years ago, before the advent of the Internet. It caters primarily to offline modes of communication.
30. Social media has enabled offensive posts to go viral in a matter of seconds. There is thus a need for the Government to update the RO to take swift action against such posts.
31. First, we will remove the 14-day notice period for the issuance of ROs. The RO will now be issued and take immediate effect. This allows us to stem religiously offensive posts at its source quickly, before it spreads.
32. Second, the scope of the RO will now include requiring the individual to stop undertaking any “communications activity” relating to the religiously offensive material.This will include the removal of any material that has been posted on the Internet.
33. The safeguards remain unchanged from what they were before. The individual and the religious group which the individual belongs to can make representations to the PCRH. The RO will be considered by the PCRH, and ultimately confirmed, canceled, or varied by the President.
34. Clauses 2, 5, and 6 give effect to this.
35. I will now speak about the Community Remedial Initiative. To maintain religious harmony, it is not enough to just restrain bad behaviour. When there has been some damage, we need to find a way to soothe communal tensions and repair disrupted ties between communities.
36. Our experience with cases of religious disharmony is that the most effective resolution occurs when the offender displays remorse over his actions, and makes amends directly to the offended party. This is frequently facilitated by their religious groups.
37. In such cases, the benefits are twofold – first, the offender reflects on his actions and better understands the multi-religious context in which he lives; second, the offended community is given a chance to speak with, and accept the apology by the offender. This goes a long way in soothing communal tensions.
38. There is hence a need for a new tool in the MRHA which focuses on restoration and rehabilitation. This is the Community Remedial Initiative, otherwise known as the CRI.
39. Clause 13 introduces the new section 16H, which gives effect to this.
40. The CRI is offered by the Minister to an alleged offender, which will set out the remedial actions that can be taken to mend ties with the aggrieved community.
41. Some examples of remedial actions under the CRI include issuance of a public or private apology, or participating in activities that promote religious harmony. In determining the appropriate activities, the Minister will consult with the religious leaders, though the final decision rests with him.
42. The CRI is not mandatory. The alleged offender can refuse to take up this offer, and the non-completion or refusal of the CRI will not be a criminal offence.
43. At the same time, if the offender agrees to complete the remedial actions and does so, the Minister undertakes not to refer the case for criminal prosecution.
44. The CRI will not be issued to every case where an individual engages in conduct which leads to religious disharmony. The Minister will have to exercise judgment in each case, to take the most appropriate course of action.
45. For example, if the conduct is very egregious, such as when the offender incites violence, this case is clearly not suitable for the CRI.
46. Cases of egregious conduct relating to religious disharmony used to be dealt with under the Penal Code, in sections 267C, and sections 295 to 298A.
47. I will now speak about the porting over of these religion-related offences from the Penal Code to the MRHA.
48. We wanted to make the MRHA a comprehensive Act which provides for a full range of legislative levers to deal with the maintenance of religious harmony.
49. In the porting over of these offences, we approach it in two ways.
a. First, what is the offence? An offence of urging violence against another person or group is more serious than offences of insulting or ridiculing a religion.
b. Second, who is the offender? Religious leaders have a greater ability to influence and mobilise their followers, as compared to lay persons. This is the case even when they speak to their followers in private capacities. As such, religious leaders will be subject to a lower threshold for offences.
50. Clause 14 inserts the new section 17E, which introduces offences of urging violence on religious grounds against any person or group, and offences of urging violence against religious groups or persons who belong to these groups.
51. This sends a strong signal that the weaponisation of religion to urge violence or force to be used against any person is unacceptable in our society.
52. Because of the seriousness of the outcome, that force or violence is likely to occur, any person who commits this offence will be subject to the maximum punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment, or fine, or both.
53. This is the most serious offence in the MRHA.
54. Clause 14 also inserts the new section 17F, which introduces offences of inciting hatred, ill-will or hostility against a religious group, and offences of insulting a religion or wounding the religious feelings of a person.
55. For offenders who are not religious leaders, there is an additional element that needs to be proven for these offences. That is their conduct would threaten the public peace or public order in Singapore. For religious leaders, there is no need to prove this element.
56. The defences for these offences are different for religious leaders and non-religious leaders.
57. It will be a defence for offenders who are not religious leaders to prove that their conduct could reasonably be taken to indicate that the parties desired it to be heard or seen only by themselves. In other words, private conduct will not be covered by the offence.
58. For religious leaders, in addition to proving that they were engaged in private conduct, there is an additional requirement that the private conduct was a domestic communication. This would cover situations where the religious leader is speaking with close family members in their household, or a small group of very close friends in his house.
59. There will be extra-territorial coverage for these offences.
a. If the offence is committed overseas, targets Singapore, and has an impact in Singapore, this will be covered.
b. An example would be if a religious leader in another country urges his affiliate group in Singapore to rise up and attack another religious group - this will be considered an offence.
60. We acknowledge that it may be difficult to enforce these offences extra-territorially.
61. But this signals our commitment to protect our religious harmony, even when the threats originate from beyond our shores.
62. With the porting over of religion-related offences from the Penal Code to the MRHA, we will repeal religion-related offences in sections 295 to 297, and remove references to religion-related offences in sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code.
63. We will also make related amendments to section 74 of the Penal Code.
64. Section 74 of the Penal Code currently provides for enhanced maximum punishments of up to one-and-a-half times, where a specified list of Penal Code offences is committed in a racially or religiously aggravated manner.
65. This includes situations where the offender demonstrates towards the victim hostility based on the victim’s religion.
66. The scope of section 74 will be expanded two ways.
a. First, the scope of section 74 will be expanded to cover all offences in the Penal Code.
b. Second, the enhancement of maximum punishments will be increased from one-and-a-half to two times, except those which are punishable with death or imprisonment for life.
c. We will also exclude offences which have incorporated a racial aggravating factor, such as sections 298 and 298A.
67. Clause 17 gives effect to these amendments to the Penal Code.
68. Mr Speaker, I have given Members an overview of the key amendments which we are proposing to the MRHA.
69. These amendments are necessary to refresh our toolbox of legislative levers, so that we can continue to respond effectively to the growing threats to religious harmony in Singapore.
70. The amendments we have proposed today are testament to the Government’s commitment to continue to safeguard religious harmony, which is vital to the peace and progress that we enjoy today.