Nearly 30 years since its introduction in 1990, the Singapore Government intends to updates the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA). The proposed changes brought forth in Parliament on Monday (2 September) seeks to address the impact of social media and foreign influences.
This comes at a time when the country has just experienced a heated debate on racial harmony in Singapore with the recent brownface saga where two Singaporean social media personalities were slapped with two-year conditional warnings by the police under Section 298(a) of the Penal Code which covers the offence of wounding racial feelings.
The dua had released a rap video condemning an advertisement by e-payment website E-Pay which featured actor and DJ Dennis Chew impersonating different races including a Malay woman wearing a headscarf and had his skin artificially darkened (brownface) to portray an Indian man.
The rap video in Preetipls’ signature satirical comedy style hoped to point out the problems with the ad but it was also laced with expletives and mocked the majority Chinese Singaporeans for directly exploiting minorities for monetary gain. This rubbed some people the wrong way.
However, we note that while both parties – Preetipls & Subhas Nair and E-Pay – apologised for their respective actions, and that police reports were made against both E-Pay for the advertisement and the duo for their music video, only Preetipls and Subhas Nair were slapped with a warning. E-Pay was let off the hook.
Amendments to the MRHA
Anyway, on Monday, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of Home Affairs Sun Xueling tabled the first reading of the amendments to the MRHA.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the some of the key changes that were proposed include introducing safeguards against foreign influences, updating the restraining order, introducing a community remedial initiative, and consolidating offences pertaining to religious harmony under the MHRA.
In a statement, the MHA notes that the MRHA providers the authorities power to maintain religious harmony in Singapore based on two principles:
- followers of different religions should exercise moderation and tolerance towards each other and their beliefs, and not instigate religious enmity or hatred, and;
- religion and politics should be kept separate.
The amendments were proposed following close consultations with various stakeholders including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, National Council of Churches Singapore, Singapore Buddhist Federation, Taoist Federation, Sikh Advisory Board, Hindu Endowments Board, and Hindu Advisory Board since early this year.
“The amendments will strengthen the Government’s ability to safeguard against and respond more effectively to threats to our religious harmony,” says MHA adding that all the stakeholders support the proposed amendments.
Introduction of Safeguards against Foreign Influence
Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines in its society, notes MHA, and may undermine religious harmony in the country through various religious organisations.
A such, MHA proposes that:
1. Religious organisations will need to comply with the following leadership requirements:
- The President, Secretary and Treasurer (or their equivalent roles) have to be Singapore Citizens (SCs) or Permanent Residents (PRs)2; and
- The majority of the religious organisation’s governing body has to be Singapore Citizens.
The MHA added that exemptions may be granted on a case-by-case basis, “for example, if they have been set up historically as cross-border organisations, and if the foreign leadership is not assessed to hold intentions or advocate views which would have an adverse impact on religious harmony in Singapore”.
Additionally, these requirements do not apply to spiritual leaders who don’t hold formal positions within the religious organisations governing body.
2. Religious organisations will be required to disclose any single-time donation of $10,000 or more if they are not from Singapore Citizens or Permanent Residents
This would help enhance the transparency on the foreign funding of religious organisations, said MHA. To ensure that the requirement does not unduly burden the organisations, certain types of donations will be exempted. These include those given in donation boxes, proceed from religious ceremonies, non-cash donations, zakat, and fitrah. Exemptions will also be given to anonymous donations and donations from foreigners working and living in Singapore on Work Pass and Long-Term Visit Pass.
3. Religious organisations will have to declare any affiliations to foreign individuals or organisations who exert control over them
Introduction of the Community Remedial Initiative
Another proposal is the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI) which offers remedial actions after a person who has ‘wounded the feelings of another religious community’.
The MHA may offer the person who did the wounding an opportunity to perform activities that would help him better understand the affected community and mend ties with them. This can include a public or private apology to the wounded party or participation in inter-religious events.
The MHA notes that the CRI will be voluntary and that it will be taken into account when assessing whether to prosecute the person who committed the offending act.
Updating the Restraining Order
Right now, the government can issue a Restraining Order (RO) against any person who causes feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between religious groups; religious leaders or members who promote a political cause, carry out subversive activities or excite disaffection against the President or Government under the guise of religion; or any person inciting any religious organisation or religious leader or member to do any of the above. The government is also required to serve a 14-day notice before an RO can take effect.
Noticing a need for swifter action to be taken in this age of internet and social media, it is proposed that an RO issued by the government will take effect immediately upon issuance.
Additionally, the RO will be extended to also cover religious organisations if foreign actors are deemed as adversely affecting religious harmony in Singapore through their influence over a local religious organisation. The RO will:
- prohibit the organisation from receiving donations from specific or all foreign donors;
- require the entire governing body to be Singapore Citizens; and/or
- require it to suspend or remove specific foreigners from office.
MHA notes there will be no change in the process of confirming the ROs issues to either organisations or individuals. Those against whom an RO is issue can make representations to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PRCH) which will then make recommendations to the President to confirm, vary, or cancel the RO issued by the MHA.
Consolidation of Offences Related to Religious Harmony Under MRHA
The Penal Code offences pertaining to religion will be consolidated under the MHRA in order to “strengthen and better focus” the government’s efforts in maintaining religious harmony, according to the MHA.
The offences will cover acts that:
- Incite violence on the basis of religion, or against a religious group or its members;
- Incite feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility against a religious group; and
- Insult the religion or wound the religious feelings of another person.
Given the seriousness of the offence listed in (1), MHA notes that it will apply to everyone. However, the other two offences will be differentiated by whether the offender is a religious leader or not.
“Religious leaders are held to a higher standard of behaviour because of their influence,” notes the MHA.
“For persons who are not religious leaders, the act must risk disturbing public peace in Singapore before it is considered an offence. 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 ministry added that these offences will apply even if it was done overseas, as long as it was targeted at a group of person in Singapore and had an impact on the country.
“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 statement highlighted.