Govt should increase legal protection of vulnerable groups and minorities, non-religious groups should be included in national interfaith discourse: Anthea Ong

The Government should increase legal protections to safeguard the psychological wellbeing vulnerable groups and minorities against religiously-motivated violence in Singapore, said Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong in Parliament on Mon (7 Oct)

Speaking during the debate on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill, Ong said more must be done to protect the mental wellbeing of vulnerable groups and minorities such as “those who suffer from religious trauma, LGBTQ persons, atheists, unwed mothers, foreign workers, and new citizens” against “religiously-motivated violence”.

While religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health, Ong argued that victims of religiously-motivated abuse cannot be ignored in efforts towards religious harmony.

“Open dialogue about such emotionally-harming practices needs to take place more often. There needs to be more support for those affected by religious trauma,” Ong said.

Religious trauma takes place “when religion has been been weaponised to cause guilt, shame and a feeling of unworthiness in people”, she added.

Citing her experience as a co-founder of a community project called A Good Space, Ong said that she was approached “the last 3 to 6 months alone” by three different groups who support people who suffer from mental distress as a result of religious trauma.

“One of these groups was set up four years ago to address religious trauma for young girls and the group has supported a range of issues from micro-aggression wth remarks such as “your skirt’s too tight”, “why aren’t you in a hijab”, to outright sexual harassment and violations.

“Another is an interfaith group set up last year by a 35 year old man and his wife. He shared his traumatic experiences of deep religious indoctrination, peer pressure, pastoral surveillance and being asked to participate in the many disciplinary actions that his church did to those who weren’t faithful.

“He eventually became, in his words, an ‘evangeliser climbing the church ladder who have lost my identity, my education and all other passions’.

“Now his group brings together, and support, many pro-pluralistic believers regularly to share with each other their experiences of religious trauma,” she said.

“I am glad to see interfaith groups like Interverse by Saiful Anuar emerging in this area and hope to see more religious and interfaith communities take on such support roles.

“I also hope that the Government proactively encourage intra-faith dialogue beyond just interfaith ones to maintain not just religious harmony but also the mental wellbeing of our fellow Singaporeans,” said Ong.

Citing the account of another community practitioner who set up a healing group for LGBT Muslim women three years ago, Ong said that the practitioner was “shocked” to hear that a psychologist had advised parents during a parenting talk to “treat their LGBT children like drug addicts” and advocated the use of conversion therapy, which has proven to be harmful to LGBT individuals.

“Despite a large body of scientific evidence showing that being LGBTI is normal and healthy, and the World Health Organisation having removed homosexuality as a disease 42 years ago in 1977, punishments are still imposed by religious communities,” Ong said.

She, however, lauded the Government’s move to include new provisions in Sections 17(e)(1) and (2) of the Act, which criminalises the act of “knowingly urging, on the ground of religion or religious belief or activity, the use of force or violence”, as new provisions “serve to protect our vulnerable groups, including the LGBTQ community, from hate speech and institutionalised discrimination which, to my mind, always constitutes violence”.

The Act states that the target of said violence – whether a group or an individual – “is distinguished by religion or religious belief or activity, or by ethnicity, descent, nationality, language or political opinion, or any other characteristic whether or not of a similar kind”.

“The target group may be made up of atheists, individuals from a specific racial community, who share a similar sexual orientation, or have a certain nationality or descent like foreign workers or new citizens,” Ong elaborated, in addition to religious groups.

Citing a 2016 case of a Singaporean man who threatened to ‘open fire’ at the LGBT community in a Facebook community group based on certain religious beliefs, and who was subsequently charged for “making an electronic record containing an incitement to violence”, Ong questioned Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam if the accused’s action can be classified as an offence under the new provisions of Sections 17e(1) & (2).

Lack of notice and consultation with religious groups prior to issuing Restraining Order may adversely impact religious group implicated: NMP Anthea Ong

While the Amendment Bill allows for the Minister to have greater authority in issuing a Restraining Order “without 14 days’ notice”, and without consulting “affected persons and religious groups nor relevant stakeholders” beforehand, Ong warned that such provisions “may not sufficiently take into account the sensitivities of religious issues, and the need to ensure good governance”.

“A decision that is made without notice nor consultation may be seen as heavy-handed and controlling of the religious landscape in Singapore. While affected parties can appeal within 14 days of the order, the Restraining Order having been made would cast negative public attention on the particular religion affected.

“The absence of consultation may also mean that the Minister has less information to decide whether making an Order is the best way to achieve religious harmony.

“While the current Government may believe itself to be competent in making Orders appropriately, we may not be able to say the same of future governments.

“I think it is important to keep the safeguard procedures of notice and consultation to ensure that the law is properly enforced,” said Ong, adding that the “swift issuance of the Order is efficient but may not be appropriate in all instances”.

“For online communications, such a swift issuance may be more suitable. Yet, for restraining orders relating to not accepting, returning, or disposing of donations and the composition of the governing body, these are decisions that can be undertaken less urgently.

“Hearing the affected person or religious group’s side of the story, such as on how the sources and necessity of these donations are, and the nature of contributions of the governing body members, would be extremely useful in
decision-making,” she said.

Non-religious groups should be included in national interfaith discourse: NMP Anthea Ong

Ong also said that while “Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country”, one in four Singaporeans do not adhere to a particular religion, according to a recent survey by the Institute for Policy Studies.

However, she highlighted that non-religious groups are often sidelined in interfaith discussions, which should not be the case as “Singaporeans who do not have a religion do not necessarily oppose religion, they simply hold a different set of beliefs”.

“The Humanist Society Singapore had to insert itself in interfaith programmes through its assiduous efforts.

“Five years ago, they had to intently knock on the doors of initiatives such as RSIS conference, NUS interfaith, NTU Path, UnConference, RosesOfPeace, CIFU, OnePeople,” said Ong.

“I urge the Government to consider using ‘interbelief’ instead of ‘interfaith’ in our official narrative so that we are not alienating 25% of our Singaporeans, and for all interfaith communities to do the same,” she added.

Ong also warned that a “top-down approach” may only serve to “perpetuate the divisions” between communities in Singapore, adding that the Government “must not over-regulate peace and harmony or intervene too early”, as it might take away the ability and opportunity for said communities to hone genuine communication amongst one another.

“We must go beyond mere proclamations of peaceful co-existence to develop the ability to understand and communicate with each other across all kinds of divisions, within and between religions and cultures, as a fundamental prerequisite for our society to remain cohesive and robust.

“This intercultural competence, and not merely multiculturalism, must be a collective responsibility and priority for a Singapore that citizens from communities can call home, truly,” Ong concluded.

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