Singapore—Proposed amendments to the country’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) were introduced in Parliament on September 2, Monday, These amendments would let the Government employ quick action against threats to harmony within the different religious groups within the country, as well as undue influence from foreign entities.
The changes open the door for restraining orders issued under MRHA to be effective at once in order to stop statements that could be offensive to religious communities from proliferating online on social media and other sites.
At present, there is a 14-day window between the serving of the restraining order and when the order actually takes effect.
In another amendment, key leadership positions in religious organisations are required to be occupied by Singaporean citizens or permanent residents in order to prevent undue foreign influence.
Religious organisations are also required to declare one-time donations worth S$10,000 or higher if these are made by foreigners, as well as reveal any affiliation with religious groups based overseas that may possibly exert an influence on them.
Additionally, there is also a new proposed amendment called the Community Remedial Initiative, which gives a faith community an opportunity to understand another when it has wounded its feelings.
While the MRHA has been in effect since 1992, it has never been invoked. However, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the landscape has shifted since then, especially due to social media.
A spokesman for the MHA said, “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. 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.
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. The scope of the restraining order will be expanded to require the offender to take down the offensive online post.”
If the Bill that would amend the MRHA is passed, it will allow th Government to issue restraining orders against faith groups wherein foreigners are deemed to threaten harmony in the country. Furthermore, these groups could also be disallowed from taking donations from donors overseas.
The MHA has pointed out the country’s vulnerability to foreign actors who wish to take advantage of the religious differences between foreign groups or, alternatively, impose values that could threaten religious harmony and, the Ministry said, “may not be appropriate for us.”
According to the MHA, foreigners may “exert influence and control on our religious organisations through holding leadership positions, donations or their affiliations with the organisations.”
Therefore, the proposed changes require that the president, secretary and treasurer – or equivalent roles – of all religious organisations must be Singaporean citizens or permanent residents, and, furthermore, the majority of the governing body of each organisation must be Singaporean.
The MHA also said that there are about 100 religious groups that may have a hard time complying with these new amendments, but the Ministry has touched base with these groups and may even make exceptions as it deems necessary. -/TISG