Parliament: Changes proposed to Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to allow swifter action, guard against foreign influence

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

SINGAPORE - Proposed legislation that would allow the Government to act swiftly against threats to religious harmony and foreign influence in religious organisations was introduced in Parliament on Monday (Sept 2).

The changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) would allow restraining orders issued under the Act to take effect immediately, to prevent statements deemed offensive to religious communities from spreading on the Internet and social media. 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 if they come from foreigners, and declare any affiliation to foreign groups in a position to influence them.

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

The MRHA has never been invoked since 1992, when it first came 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. 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," a ministry spokesman said.

He 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. The scope of the restraining order will be expanded to require the offender to take down the offensive online post."

Updated restraining orders

The MRHA currently allows the Government to issue restraining orders against those who undermine religious harmony, and fine and jail those who breach such orders.

However, the Government must serve a 14-day notice before such orders take effect.

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 impose a requirement for 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 will remain unchanged, said the MHA.

The group or person who receives such an order can make representations to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony. The council will then make a recommendation to the President on whether to confirm, vary, or cancel the order.

Safeguards against foreign influence

In a statement, the MHA said Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines or imposing values "which may not be appropriate for us", and may undermine religious harmony.

Explaining its decision to introduce new safeguards on foreign influence, it added: "(Foreigners) can exert influence and control on our religious organisations through holding leadership positions, donations or their affiliations with the organisations."

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, the MHA said. It added that it has been discussing the issue with some of them, and may grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The ministry also said the rules on donations will not apply to certain types of funds, such as those collected in donation boxes or zakat and fitrah.

Religious organisations will also have to declare affiliations to foreign individuals or organisations which are in a position of control over them. However, the Bill does not give the Government the power to ask local religious organisations to disassociate from their foreign affiliations.

New remedial initiative

The MHA said the Community Remedial Initiative - which could consist of a public or private apology, or participation in activities that help the individual better understand the offended group - will not be made compulsory.

It noted that criminal prosecution will not be taken against someone who has completed the Community Remedial Initiative.

The MHA said that action taken will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the type of offence and the context. It may consult religious leaders on both sides, but will make the final decision.

"The Community Remedial Initiative is an addition to the suite of tools that the Government can use to safeguard religious harmony, which also includes the restraining order, criminal prosecution, and working with community leaders to manage the situation," it said.

Consolidating related offences under MRHA

Offences under the Penal Code that pertain to religion will be consolidated under the MRHA.

This is to "strengthen and better focus our efforts in maintaining religious harmony", the MHA said.

The offences cover acts that incite violence on the basis of religion or against a religious group. These offences apply equally to everyone.

It also covers acts that incite feelings of ill will against a religious group, or that insult the religion or wound the religious feelings of another person. In such cases, religious leaders will be 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," the MHA said.

"Where the offender is a religious leader, this element of risk of disturbing public peace would not be required to make out an offence."

The offences will apply even when an act takes place overseas, as long as it is targeted at people in Singapore and has an impact here.

"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," the ministry said.

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