The Government will propose changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act next week in an effort to tackle the spread of extremist views and other material that may undermine religious harmony in Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Speaking at the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO)’s 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner at the Fullerton Bay Hotel on Mon (26 Aug), Mr Lee said that while there has not been any urgency to enforce the Act in the past 30 years, the high accessibility of certain technological developments have posed a challenge against maintaining peace within Singapore’s multi-faith society.
In a globalised world, the existence of social media “makes it hard to insulate ourselves from religious problems elsewhere”, according to Mr Lee, adding that “the proliferation of social media has made it much easier for people to cause offence through spreading vitriol and falsehoods, and for others to take offence”.
Mr Lee also observed that the nature in which such harmful content is disseminated runs contrary to how the Government handles discussions on sensitive matters such as religion.
“We try our best to practise our faiths in ways that are appropriate to our multi-racial and multi-religious context. But all the faiths defer to superior religious authorities based elsewhere; their followers feel that they belong to a global community of the faithful.
“This keeps our religious groups up to date with developments abroad, but it also exposes us to other people’s problems. For example, the culture wars in the US, or the emergence of radical terrorist groups in the Middle East, based on distorted views of Islam,” he said.
The Government, added Mr Lee, has “no illusions about the depth of the religious fault lines” in Singapore society as well as the consequences of failing to manage said fault lines.
“[Thus] we do not allow unfettered and rambunctious discussion on religion, or even worse provocative or blasphemous cartoons, performances and videos,” stressed Mr Lee, adding that it is unlikely that the Government will be lenient in its stance “for a very long time to come”.
Citing regional events such as rising extremism and intolerance in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where chasms between the adherents of the largest faiths in both countries have created problems that persist until today, Mr Lee said that Singapore in comparison ” is very precious, very rare and remarkable”.
Thus, he reminded Singaporeans to “respect people who have different faiths from ourselves” in order to “be one people, one nation and one Singapore”.
“It is the only way we can maintain a culture of tolerance and live amicably together in a dense urban environment … Whether it is the burning of joss sticks during the 7th month of the lunar calendar, or the sounding of the azan [Islamic call to prayer] at our mosques, or the ringing of bells at churches and Hindu temples, we need to make adjustments, accommodate, be tolerant and forbearing towards one another,” said Mr Lee.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was put forth in Parliament by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the 1980s upon recognising the need to protect Singapore from a global resurgence in religious fanaticism.
Currently, the Act vests within the Government the power to issue restraining orders against those found guilty of inciting religious discord in Singapore, specifically religious leaders or preachers, as stipulated in Section 8(1):
Important to ensure that “the power is there”, but not to “exercise the power”: Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam
Last month, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam indicated that the Government will introduce changes to the Act, specifically in relation to those who utilise social media and other information technology to spread bigotry regarding any religion in Singapore.
Speaking at a forum on religion, extremism and identity politics organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 24 Jul, Mr Shanmugam, however, said that while it is important for the Government not to take a passive approach in dealing with attempts to incite disharmony within Singapore society, he also believes that the power to curb such attempts should typically be used as a guideline or parameter for society instead of a go-to solution.
“I am a believer in making sure the power is there. But I am also a believer in not exercising that power. You shouldn’t have to exercise the power because if you did, society will not be what it is,” said Mr Shanmugam.
In explaining why the Government disallows offensive speech in public discourse in Singapore, Mr Shanmugam in a ministerial speech in Parliament on 1 Apr said that offensive speech, while working “at a slower pace”, may serve as a precursor to hate speech.
“Offensive speech, which imply that their target lacks morals, intelligence or dignity, can be insidious. Listeners may get a false sense that they are not internalising this sort of descriptions because they are funny.
“But you are being drip-fed the notion that the out-group is stupid, ignorant, immoral, sinful. This can ultimately lead to their dehumanisation,” he warned.
Mr Shanmugam added: “There is emerging work in the field of neuroscience: If an individual observes another member of his own species experiencing pain, he would experience non-conscious neuro-simulation, which leads to empathy. But such empathy is only triggered when the other person is part of your in-group.”
“When you think of the out-group as sub-human, you may therefore be no longer bounded by moral constraints towards them. Subconsciously, the brain won’t feel empathy for them,” said Mr Shanmugam, adding that individuals “don’t have to be extremists to be moved by incendiary rhetoric” as studies in neuroscience have shown previously.
“Logic and reason will not work when an entire architecture of hate has been built up and hateful emotions have been engaged … The concept of “a marketplace of ideas” does not work in these circumstances,” said Mr Shanmugam, reiterating the need for some sort of government regulation when dealing with sensitive issues such as race and religion beyond discussions and dialogues.
Citing the example of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist Bodu Bala Sena group in Sri Lanka, which has claimed that “an increasing Islamic religiosity has threatened the place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka”, Mr Shanmugam said that religious leaders in Singapore do not express such views in Singapore due to the Republic’s laws and “the 54 years when we have done many things to try to build a society based on mutual respect and harmony”.
Touching on MHA’s ban on even foreign preachers such as Zimbabwe’s Grand Mufti Ismail Menk, who reportedly said that a Muslim wishing a non-Muslim friend “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Deepavali/Diwali” is considered “the highest form of blasphemy”, Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore prohibits the entry of foreign preachers even “if they have been offensive elsewhere, or if their offensive teachings are available online”.
“By allowing them into Singapore, we would allow them to build up a following. Eventually, we will have a society where there are members who believe in not shaking hands, or not greeting people of different faiths, or not voting for candidates of another race or religion,” he stressed.