Parliament updates religious harmony law; stiffer penalties to deal with religious hate crimes

Changes allow for higher penalties, swifter action to be taken over offensive statements

While the level of religious harmony in Singapore remains high, updates to the MRHA are timely amid rising religiosity and increasing violence fuelled by hate speech globally, said Mr Shanmugam.
While the level of religious harmony in Singapore remains high, updates to the MRHA are timely amid rising religiosity and increasing violence fuelled by hate speech globally, said Mr Shanmugam.PHOTO: ST FILE

Parliament has passed changes to the law on religious harmony to allow the authorities to move more swiftly against those who threaten the good relations among people of different religions here.

Key changes include higher maximum punishments and immediate restraining orders to prevent offensive statements from spreading on social media, instead of the current 14-day notice period. The Act also covers offences committed overseas.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that while the level of religious harmony in Singapore remains high, updates to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) are timely amid rising religiosity and increasing violence fuelled by hate speech globally.

Moving the changes to the Act yesterday, he noted that since the Act was passed in 1990, the Internet and social media have been used to mobilise hatred and mob attacks. There has also been increased foreign interference in the affairs of other countries, he said.

Mr Shanmugam cited, among others, far-right movements in Europe and Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka that play up anxieties against Muslims and other minorities, and how India's politicians have moved away from secularism. In Malaysia, a "Buy Muslim First" campaign has gained momentum and could stoke us-versus-them sentiments if it grows.

Singapore has been mostly spared such troubles, said the minister. But it could easily be affected by developments in other countries, he added. Citing a 2014 Pew Research Centre study showing that Singapore is the most religiously diverse society in the world, Mr Shanmugam said this could make the country especially susceptible to deepening fault lines.

It is therefore necessary to put in "circuit breakers" to prevent this - both through laws as well as tools focusing on restoration and rehabilitation, he said.

 
 
 
 
 

Other changes to the Act include safeguards against foreign influence like disclosure requirements for single foreign donations of $10,000 or more. The president, secretary and treasurer of a religious organisation must also be Singaporeans or permanent residents, and the majority of its executive committee or governing body, Singapore citizens.

The changes, which have considerable support from the different religious communities, come after extensive consultation with them, he said.

Another change is the introduction of a Community Remedial Initiative, which Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sun Xueling said allows an offender to mend ties with the aggrieved community through an apology or by taking part in activities that promote harmony.

The changes were debated for over five hours, with 25 MPs speaking on the need to maintain harmony but also seeking clarity on foreign links, and the complex interplay between religion and politics, such as when religious leaders speak up on social concerns.

Rounding up the debate, Mr Shanmugam said the law does not have powers to ask local religious groups to dissociate themselves from foreign affiliates, and this would be too intrusive and excessive. "We have no home-grown religion of our own, and we are an open society. The approach is to ensure that our local religious organisations are sensitised to a multi-religious context."

The Government also does not wish to constrain debate on social issues, even when done on religious grounds, he said. "But if a religious group says you can only work for people who are of the same religion as you, that is not acceptable and it crosses the line."

Mr Shanmugam said that while the law sets out broad parameters of behaviour, it cannot be the sole driving force to change behaviour.

 
 
 

That the Act has never been used shows how successful it has been in shaping societal norms and values.

He observed that since the Act was passed in 1990, there have been disputes among all major religions across the world.

"Through this, Singapore stands proud as a beacon of religious tolerance and social harmony. We need to ask ourselves why."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2019, with the headline 'Parliament updates law to uphold religious harmony'. Subscribe