02 Sep 2019

First Reading of Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill

1. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), enacted in 1990, provides for powers to maintain religious harmony in Singapore based on two principles: (i) followers of different religions should exercise moderation and tolerance towards each other and their beliefs, and not instigate religious enmity or hatred; and (ii) religion and politics should be kept separate. These principles remain relevant today.

 

2. Following close consultations with religious leaders, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has reviewed and is proposing amendments to the MRHA. The amendments will strengthen the Government’s ability to safeguard against and respond more effectively to threats to our religious harmony.

     

    Introduction of Safeguards against Foreign Influence

     

3. Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines in our society, or imposing values which may not be appropriate for us and may undermine our religious harmony through our religious organisations. They can exert influence and control on our religious organisations through holding leadership positions, donations or their affiliations with the organisations1. To safeguard our religious organisations against foreign influences which might adversely affect our religious harmony, the following provisions are proposed:

     

4. First, religious organisations will need to comply with the following leadership requirements:

     

    a. The President, Secretary and Treasurer (or their equivalent roles) have to be Singapore Citizens (SCs) or Permanent Residents (PRs)2; and

    b. The majority of the religious organisation’s governing body have to be SCs.

 

5. Religious organisations may be granted exemptions on a case-by-case basis from these leadership requirements, for example, if they have been set up historically as cross-border organisations, and if the foreign leadership is not assessed to hold intentions or advocate views which would have adverse impact on religious harmony in Singapore. The leadership requirements do not apply to spiritual leaders who do not hold formal positions in the religious organisation’s governing body.

     

6. Second, to enhance transparency on the foreign funding of religious organisations, we will require religious organisations to disclose any single-time donation of $10,000 or more if they are not from SCs or PRs. To ensure that this requirement is not unduly onerous on religious organisations, certain types of donation will be exempted, such as those given in donation boxes, proceeds collected during religious ceremonies, non-cash donations, and zakat and fitrah. MHA will also exempt anonymous donations, and donations from foreigners who are working and living in Singapore, such as Work Pass and Long-Term Visit Pass holders.

7. Third, religious organisations with affiliations to foreign individuals or organisations who are in a position to exert control over them will have to declare such affiliations.

     

    Introduction of the Community Remedial Initiative

     

8. A new initiative known as the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI) will be introduced. Under the CRI, the Minister for Home Affairs may offer a person who has wounded the feelings of another religious community an opportunity to perform activities to help him better understand the affected religious community, and mend ties with them. Examples of remedial actions may include a public or private apology to the aggrieved parties, or participation in inter-religious events.

     

9. The CRI will be voluntary in that the person may choose whether to undertake the CRI offered by the Minister. The CRI will be taken into account when assessing whether to prosecute the person for the offending act.

     

    Updating the Restraining Order

     

10. The MRHA currently provides powers for the Government to issue Restraining Orders (RO) against persons who cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between religious groups; religious leaders or members who promote a political cause, carry out subversive activities or excite disaffection against the President or Government under the guise of religion; or any person inciting any religious organisation or religious leader or member to do any of the above.

     

11. With the Internet and social media, swifter action needs to be taken to prevent statements which are offensive to religious communities from spreading. Hence, we propose to amend the MRHA such that the RO will take immediate effect once issued, instead of the Government having to serve a 14-day notice before the RO takes effect.

     

12. In addition, if foreign actors are assessed to be adversely affecting religious harmony in Singapore through their influence over a local religious organisation, an RO can be issued against that religious organisation to: (i) prohibit it from receiving donations from specific or all foreign donors; (ii) require the entire governing body to be SCs; and/or (iii) require it to suspend or remove specific foreigners from office.

     

13. There is no change to the process for confirming the ROs issued to religious organisations or individuals – the religious organisation or person can make representations to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH), and the PCRH will then make a recommendation to the President to confirm, vary, or cancel the RO issued by the Minister for Home Affairs. See Annex for background information on the PCRH.

     

    Consolidation of Offences Related to Religious Harmony Under MRHA

     

14. Currently, both the Penal Code and the MRHA have provisions that safeguard religious harmony. To strengthen and better focus our efforts in maintaining religious harmony, the Penal Code offences that pertain to religion will be consolidated under the MRHA. The offences will cover acts that:

     

    a. Incite violence on the basis of religion, or against a religious group or its members;

    b. Incite feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility against a religious group; and

    c. Insult the religion or wound the religious feelings of another person.


15. For the offence in para 14(a), given its seriousness, the offence will apply equally to everyone. For the offences in paras 14(b) and 14(c), the offence is differentiated by whether the offender is a religious leader or not a religious leader. Religious leaders are held to a higher standard of behaviour because of their influence. For persons who are not religious leaders, the act must risk disturbing public peace in Singapore before it is considered an offence. Where the offender is a religious leader, this element of risk of disturbing public peace would not be required to make out an offence.


16. These offences would apply even if the conduct was done overseas, as long as the offence was targeted at a group or a person in Singapore and had an impact on Singapore. This is necessary as today, the Internet and social media allow an individual to disrupt religious harmony in Singapore, even when the offences are conducted overseas.


    Consultations with, and Support from Religious Organisations


17. MHA has been engaging various stakeholders on the amendments. These organisations include the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, National Council of Churches Singapore, Singapore Buddhist Federation, Taoist Federation, Sikh Advisory Board, Hindu Endowments Board, and Hindu Advisory Board. All of them agree on the need to update the MRHA, and support the amendments. They have also provided constructive feedback, much of which MHA has incorporated into the Bill.

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1 Religious organisations include registered societies, companies, partnerships, or any other body of persons that promotes religion or religious worship, or deals with religious affairs or the practice, conduct, teaching or propagation of any religious beliefs.

2 If the religious organisation is a company, the leadership requirements will be imposed on the persons in the entity that hold positions analogous to the President, Secretary, and Treasurer, such as the Chairman, Managing Director, and Company Secretary. If a religious organisation is a partnership, this would be the partners of the partnership.

 

Annex

 

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