Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Changes proposed to Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to allow swifter action, guard against foreign influence

Moves to bolster Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act
Proposed changes would enable threats to be dealt with quicker, curb foreign influence
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2019

Proposed changes to an almost 30-year-old law that would allow the Government to act swiftly against threats to religious harmony and curb foreign influence on religious organisations were introduced in Parliament yesterday.

The changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) would allow restraining orders issued under the Act to take effect immediately. Currently, the Government has to serve a 14-day notice before the order takes effect.

To counter foreign influence, the Bill also proposes that religious organisations ensure key leadership roles are filled by Singaporeans or permanent residents. Such groups must also disclose one-time donations of $10,000 or more from foreigners, and declare any affiliation to foreign individuals or groups in a position to influence them.

The Bill also introduces a Community Remedial Initiative, which will give people who have wounded the feelings of those of another faith the chance to understand the affected community.

The MRHA has never been invoked since 1992, when it first went into effect. But the situation since then has changed significantly, especially with the advent of social media, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

"The MRHA performs an important function of clearly stating the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in order to maintain religious harmony in Singapore," a spokesman said. "This function continues to be important, even if we have not had the need to issue a Restraining Order under the MRHA all these years."

Noting that the scope of restraining orders will be expanded to require offensive online posts to be taken down, the spokesman added: "There is a need to allow the Government to take swift action against inflammatory online publications as they can also affect religious harmony, no different from offline speeches."



If the Bill is passed, restraining orders can also be issued against religious organisations in which foreigners are found to be threatening racial harmony in Singapore.

Such organisations could then be prohibited from receiving donations from foreign donors. The Government could also require the group's governing body to comprise only Singaporeans, and call for it to suspend or remove foreigners from office.

The current process for confirming restraining orders, where the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony makes a recommendation to the President to confirm, vary or cancel the order, will remain unchanged, said MHA.

On introducing safeguards against foreign influence, MHA said Singapore is vulnerable to foreign actors exploiting religious fault lines or imposing values that could undermine religious harmony.

Under the proposed changes, the president, secretary and treasurer - or equivalent roles - of all religious organisations must be Singaporeans or PRs. In addition, the majority of the group's governing body must be Singaporean. These requirements will not apply to foreigners who are religious leaders but hold no formal position in the group's governing body.

There are around 2,500 religious organisations in Singapore.

Around 100 may have difficulties meeting the proposed leadership requirements, MHA said. It added that it may grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

Religious groups said they supported changes to the law and understood the need for them.

The Community Remedial Initiative will not be made compulsory, MHA said. It will determine what action to take on a case-by-case basis, depending on the type of offence and context. This could range from requiring a person to make a public or private apology, to having the person participate in activities to better understand the offended group.

The proposed legislation will also consolidate offences under the Penal Code that pertain to religion under the MRHA.














Changes proposed to Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: 5 things to know about the law
By Linette Lai and Malavika Menon, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2019

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 dissociate from their foreign affiliations.

MAKING AMENDS

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.





UPDATED ORDERS

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.

CONSOLIDATING LAWS

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.










Changes to Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act much needed, say religious groups
They cite impact of social media, need to keep out external forces with divisive intentions
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2019

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.






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