Parliament: MPs call for clarity on how Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act will be implemented

Members of the Muslim and Christian communities as well as grassroots and religious leaders of various faiths share an iftar meal at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Bukit Timah Road during Ramadan, on May 27, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Even as Singapore strengthens the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, it must continue to shore up the secular common space and ensure religious leaders do not exert undue influence on public policy, some MPs said in Parliament on Monday (Oct 7).

Others brought up the need for more clarity on the definition of certain terms in the Act and how it will be implemented.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Jalan Besar GRC), a former Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, noted that the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony said it is "neither possible nor desirable" for a person to compartmentalise their secular and religious selves.

"That is why it is absurd to ask me to decide whether I am a first a Muslim or a Singaporean," he said. "So, if we agree that if it is not possible to compartmentalise ourselves, then we must be alert to the breaching of the barriers of secularism in our public life."

"That is, we must continue to strengthen our common spaces and ensure that religious actors cannot impose their will on public policy to the detriment of other religious groups or the public good."

His call to keep the public space secular was echoed by Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who gave the example of how the structure of the family has changed significantly since the major religions were founded.

"Women can, and do, live independent of men today. A divorcee or widow is no longer condemned to penury or forced into a second marriage by society. Single parents and blended step-families exist. There are Singaporeans of different sexual orientations," Dr Theseira noted.

He acknowledged that religious leaders have the right to prescribe principles of life for their followers, but pointed out that doing so in a destructive manner could have negative consequences for society. For example, religious leaders in other countries routinely demand changes in family policy, so that religious principles are enforced "with the full weight of the State".

"This right, if applied indiscriminately in Singapore, would lead to the shrinking of the secular space in Singapore," Dr Theseira said.

Workers' Party's Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) added that issues can arise when religious leaders choose to openly champion political causes. She noted that in the run-up to the debate on the Bill, religious leaders openly supported it.

"Religious authority is being thrown behind the government's legislation, both publicly and also to specific congregations. Is that mixing religious authority with politics?" she asked.

"If the religious leaders had instead gone the other way, that is to express concern or opposition to the Bill, would the Government have put its foot down and issued an order requiring them to stop?"

She also asked if it would be appropriate for a religious leader to encourage congregants to "vote for stability" or be seen in a political party's uniform on Nomination Day.

This point was also brought up by Workers' Party secretary-general Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who noted that a well-known religious leader was seen with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the last general election. This person was a senior party member, a highly visible leader of the Inter-Religious Organisation, and had links to the People's Association, he said.

"While it is unclear if the individual concerned was the Prime Minister's election agent, it is nonetheless useful for the House to pause and consider the optics of a respected member of a religious group appearing to canvass support for a politician," he said.

"To that end, how would some members of the same religious group with a different political view from that espoused by their religious leader or elder feel if they openly support another political party?"

He added that selecting well-known religious or community figures in capacities like election agents "muddies the already difficult distinction between religion and politics".

Ms Lim said: " If unchecked, there is a possibility that, over time, there would be a polarisation of society along political lines, caused not by foreign influences, but by Singapore's own religious leaders."

MPs also called for greater clarity on who the Act will apply to and how it will be implemented.

For example, the Act holds religious leaders to a higher standard as they wield greater influence. But it is not clear on what exactly is a religious leader, said Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC). While some religions may require leaders to undertake formal vows, others may not have such a requirement, he pointed out.

"Would that include part-time staff, those invited to speak to recount their experience and give testimonies to a religious group, counsellors who help families overcome financial, family or marriage difficulties or the loss of loved ones, those who do or organise charitable work such as providing rations for families in the neighbourhood?" he asked.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) also asked the Government to shed light on what kind of statements are considered offensive enough to breach the law. The end goal should be to determine why certain acts are deemed offensive and how to prevent them from recurring, she added.

"After all, many offences happen as a result of a lack of empathy and ignorance, rather than pure malice," Ms Lee said.

"In previous cases, some people who insulted other races and religions were doxxed and had their livelihoods affected, with some even losing their jobs. If we can rehabilitate criminals, can we do the same for cases under MRHA?" she asked, referring to the Act.

Changes to the Act will not cover what is said privately and to small groups. But Dr Yaacob urged Singaporeans "to aim for a higher bar".

"The best restraint must come from all of us," he said. "What we believe is the right thing to say in public must also be the right thing to say privately."

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