On Wednesday, November 7, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore needs to review, update and tighten its religious harmony laws in order to combat new threats and prevent the promotion of hatred and ill will among religious groups.
At this year’s International Conference Singapore, which highlights and discusses religious values in a plural world, PM Lee spoke about The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which was implemented in 1992.
The Act allows the Government to appropriately deal with those who encourage or provoke hatred between different religious groups.
In 2017, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that religious harmony laws, which include laws forbidding religious leaders from promoting ill-will and hatred among different religious groups and furthering political causes, were going to be reinforced this year.
At the conference, which is organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), PM Lee said that the Act needs to be kept “up to date to deal with new threats to our religious harmony that may emerge in time to come”.
He alluded to the growing tendency towards terrorism and religious extremism as a “difficult issue” in Singapore that needs to be addressed.
“Fortunately, the Government has never had to invoke the powers it has under the Act,” he said. “Nevertheless, by its very existence the Act has made an important contribution to our religious harmony.”
After PM Lee’s keynote address, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said it is “timely” to review the nearly-30-year-old Act to see whether it is still effective in today’s world and to improve what needs updating.
“In 30 years many things have changed – the way people communicate has changed and how we get influenced has also changed,” Masagos said.
“It is in the purview of the Home Affairs Ministry, and I’m quite sure that having announced that we need to put it up to date, [they] will be talking about it soon.”
Masagos spoke of threats to religious harmony, citing “external influences” that attempt to affect the Muslim community’s belief and their interaction with non-Muslims.
“For the longest time, I believe that we live comfortably with our neighbours, whatever faith or race they are,” he said.
“And then suddenly there is a call to carve ourselves a niche, a particular identity that is very exclusive and in fact discouraged from mixing around with everybody. And to the extreme that we are all called to migrate to Syria and fight and help to establish a caliphate there.”
Referring to other religious groups facing similar difficulties, Masagos said that “if we do not address this together, then being different will be a challenge, and being different will be divisive”.
PM Lee acknowledged that while religion has an important place in society, offering moral guidance and contributing to education, community and social work, it is also a “deeply personal matter” that can cause “friction and misunderstandings … if religious sensitivities are ignored or offended.
“Especially at a time of heightened religiosity in many societies, when people are more conscious of their religious identities and convictions,” he said, stressing that it is “critical” for “multi-religious societies like Singapore” to foster good inter-faith relationships.
PM Lee praised Singapore for eventually adopting the social values of compromise and accommodation “through a long period of sustained effort and socialisation”.
He complimented the MUIS for their willingness and ability to “confront and act on difficult issues”, such as advocating and clearing public misconceptions regarding the Human Organ Transplant Act, which introduced opt-out rules for organ donation.
“As a result of MUIS’ efforts, Muslims in Singapore are thriving, making good progress in all fields and contributing as good citizens too,” said PM Lee.
There are more plans in place to deal with the issue of attaining and maintaining religious harmony. PM Lee announced that in 2019 Singapore will be hosting an international conference on building and strengthening inter-religious relations. At the conference, today’s prominent thinkers, policy-makers and practitioners will come together to discuss, debate and deliver views on the topic of social cohesion.
“Maintaining religious harmony requires unremitting conscious effort and attention,” affirmed PM Lee.
“By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise one day tear our society asunder.”