Moves to bolster Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act

The Bill will also introduce a new Community Remedial Initiative, which will give those who have wounded the feelings of another faith an opportunity to understand the affected community.
The Bill will also introduce a new Community Remedial Initiative, which will give those who have wounded the feelings of another faith an opportunity to understand the affected community.PHOTO: ST FILE

Proposed changes would enable threats to be dealt with quicker, curb foreign influence

Proposed changes to an almost 30-year-old law that would allow the Government to act swiftly against threats to religious harmony and curb foreign influence on religious organisations were introduced in Parliament yesterday.

The changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) would allow restraining orders issued under the Act to take effect immediately. Currently, the Government has to serve a 14-day notice before the order takes effect.

To counter foreign influence, the Bill also proposes that religious organisations ensure key leadership roles are filled by Singaporeans or permanent residents. Such groups must also disclose one-time donations of $10,000 or more from foreigners, and declare any affiliation to foreign individuals or groups in a position to influence them.

The Bill also introduces a Community Remedial Initiative, which will give people who have wounded the feelings of those of another faith the chance to understand the affected community.

The MRHA has never been invoked since 1992, when it first went into effect. But the situation since then has changed significantly, especially with the advent of social media, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

"The MRHA performs an important function of clearly stating the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in order to maintain religious harmony in Singapore," a spokesman said. "This function continues to be important, even if we have not had the need to issue a Restraining Order under the MRHA all these years."

Noting that the scope of restraining orders will be expanded to require offensive online posts to be taken down, the spokesman added: "There is a need to allow the Government to take swift action against inflammatory online publications as they can also affect religious harmony, no different from offline speeches."

  • 2,500 

    Approximate number of religious organisations in Singapore.

    100

    Approximate number of religious organisations that may have difficulties meeting the proposed leadership requirements, according to MHA.

 
 
 

If the Bill is passed, restraining orders can also be issued against religious organisations in which foreigners are found to be threatening racial harmony in Singapore.

Such organisations could then be prohibited from receiving donations from foreign donors. The Government could also require the group's governing body to comprise only Singaporeans, and call for it to suspend or remove foreigners from office.

The current process for confirming restraining orders, where the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony makes a recommendation to the President to confirm, vary or cancel the order, will remain unchanged, said MHA.

On introducing safeguards against foreign influence, MHA said Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines or imposing values that could undermine religious harmony.

Under the proposed changes, the president, secretary and treasurer - or equivalent roles - of all religious organisations must be Singaporeans or PRs. In addition, the majority of the group's governing body must be Singaporean. These requirements will not apply to foreigners who are religious leaders but hold no formal position in the group's governing body.

There are around 2,500 religious organisations in Singapore.

Around 100 may have difficulties meeting the proposed leadership requirements, MHA said. It added that it may grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

Religious groups said they supported changes to the law and understood the need for them.

The Community Remedial Initiative will not be made compulsory, MHA said. It will determine what action to take on a case-by-case basis, depending on the type of offence and context. This could range from requiring a person to make a public or private apology, to having the person participate in activities to better understand the offended group.

The proposed legislation will also consolidate offences under the Penal Code that pertain to religion under the MRHA.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2019, with the headline 'Moves to bolster Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act'. Print Edition | Subscribe