Local religious groups say proposed changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) are a much-needed update, especially since hate speech can spread like wildfire on social media.
These changes to the nearly 30-year-old law also mean that external forces with divisive intentions will not be able to take root here, they added.
The new Bill introduced in Parliament yesterday would - if passed - allow the Government to act swiftly against threats to religious harmony and curb foreign influences in local religious organisations.
It would require religious groups to ensure their key leaders are Singaporeans or permanent residents, and declare single donations of $10,000 or more if they come from foreigners, among other things.
It would also mean that restraining orders issued under the MRHA take effect immediately. The Government now has to serve a 14-day notice before the order takes effect.
Venerable Kwang Phing, president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, said foreigners could use the Internet as a tool to recruit Singaporeans to their religious causes.
Those involved in religious conflicts overseas will try to find their sympathisers here, he noted.
"Therefore, updating the MRHA and intensified public education programmes are important measures to ensure long-lasting peace and harmony here."
In a joint statement, the Hindu Endowments Board and Hindu Advisory Board said religious harmony is something that Singaporeans work hard to sustain.
"Maintaining religious harmony requires constant attention and focus to ensure internal or external forces, with divisive intentions and an agenda to create disharmony, do not take root here."
A National Council of Churches of Singapore spokesman said the proposed changes "hold religious leaders to a higher standard of conduct and greater accountability".
"These measures will also encourage religious communities and their leaders to practise good governance and to be more alert to the influence of foreign sources that have the potential to sow seeds of distrust and conflict," he said.
The Bill also introduces the Community Remedial Initiative, which gives a person the opportunity to better understand the feelings of a religious group he has offended. He could be asked to make a public or private apology, or participate in activities with that group.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said mosques here have initiatives to strengthen ties with other faith communities and improve interfaith understanding, and that it also organises such programmes.
Islamic religious teachers also abide by an ethics code so that they can give the community advice suited to Singapore's context, a Muis spokesman added.
"We hope that the ground-up efforts by religious communities in Singapore, together with a clear set of laws to protect religious harmony, will strengthen mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence in our religiously diverse society," the spokesman said.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said it had also discussed the issue with other religious groups, including the Catholics, Taoists and Sikhs, since early this year.
"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," it said.
Five things to know about the MRHA
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) was enacted in 1990 to safeguard the separation of religion and politics. It went into force in 1992. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) proposed changes to the law in Parliament yesterday.
WHAT IS THE MRHA?
The MRHA currently provides powers for the Government to issue restraining orders against those who cause enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility between religious groups.
It also targets those who use the guise of religion to promote a political cause, carry out subversive activities or cause discontent against the Government or president.
The president confirms the restraining order after receiving recommendations from the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.
The restraining order can prevent a person from addressing religious groups on subjects specified by the Government.
It can also prevent the person from printing, editing, distributing or holding office on the editorial board of publications produced by religious groups.
SAFEGUARDS AGAINST FOREIGN INFLUENCES
MHA is proposing that key positions in religious organisations be held by only Singaporeans or permanent residents, with "exemptions granted on a case-by-case basis". These organisations will also have to disclose any donation of $10,000 or more if the donors are not Singaporeans or permanent residents.
The ministry said the rules on donations will not apply to certain types of funds, such as those collected in donation boxes or zakat and fitrah.
It 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.
Local religious organisations will also have to declare affiliations to foreigners or foreign organisations that are in a position to exert control over them.
However, the changes will not grant the Government additional powers to ask the religious organisations to dis-sociate from their foreign affiliations.
A new Community Remedial Initiative is being proposed so that those found hurting religious sentiments can undertake activities and mend ties with the community.
The ministry said that action taken will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the type of offence and the context. It noted that criminal prosecution will not be taken against someone who has completed the initiative, for that offending act.
To take swifter action to prevent the spread of offensive statements against religious groups on the Internet and social media, MHA is proposing that restraining orders take immediate effect once issued.
Currently, the Government has to give a 14-day notice before the order takes effect.
The ministry is also proposing provisions for such orders to be issued against a local religious organisation - under which it can prohibit donations or place restrictions on foreign leadership - if foreigners are found to be upsetting religious harmony through their influence on the group.
MHAis proposing to consolidate Penal Code offences related to religion under the MRHA, to "strengthen and better focus" efforts to maintain religious harmony.
The offences cover acts that incite violence on the basis of religion or against a religious group, and acts that incite feelings of ill will against a religious group, or wound the religious feelings of another person.
Linette Lai and Malavika Menon