ASIA/SINGAPORE - Protecting religious harmony: government and communities agree on changes to the law

Thursday, 5 September 2019 religious freedom   religious minorities   violence   politics  

Singapore (Agenzia Fides) - The Catholic Church and the leaders of other religious communities are supportive of the proposed changes to Singapore's religious harmony law. As reported to Agenzia Fides, the Archdiocese of Singapore expressed its full support for the changes proposed to the "Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act" (MRHA), a provision currently in force. The communications department of the diocese of Singapore points out, in a note sent to Fides, that the amendments could not be timelier, given that the law was passed in 1990 to ensure the maintenance of religious harmony in Singapore and a much-needed update is necessary .
In fact, with the pervasiveness of the Internet and social media, hateful messages that can deepen and fracture religious harmony can spread faster and wider than before. "It is therefore important that the MRHA is updated to ensure that we respond in an effective manner to any new threats that can harm religious harmony", it says.
Although Singapore has enjoyed peace and stability over the years, religious harmony cannot be taken for granted. As a multi-religious society, Singapore is vulnerable to foreigners who can make use of religion to divide society, influencing religious organizations through aspects such as donations, leadership or strong foreign affiliations.
"We are pleased that the government of Singapore has involved various religious organizations, and among them the Catholic Church, taking into account opinions and feedback, to elaborate further measures to safeguard religious harmony in Singapore", says the note sent to Fides from the Department.
The Ministry of the Interior, after a series of consultations with all religious groups, proposed a series of amendments to the law. With the proposed amendments, the government is given full powers to issue restraining orders, with immediate effect, against those who cause enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility between religious groups, or use religion to cause political subversion.
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. In addition, MHA is proposing that key positions in religious organisations be held by only Singaporeans or permanent resident. These organisations will also have to disclose any donation of $10,000 or more if the donors are not Singaporeans or permanent residents and will have to declare the possible affiliation to foreign organizations. "The goal is to preserve religious harmony", says the Ministry.
The Ministry proposes to reinforce penalties for crimes related to religion.
To take swifter action to prevent the spread of offensive statements against religious groups on the Internet and social media, even used to recruit militants and fighters, remarked Venerable Kwang Phing, President of the Buddhist Federation of Singapore, MHA is proposing that restraining orders take immediate effect once issued.
Even the Hindu Endowments Board and Hindu Advisory Board said religious harmony "is something that Singaporeans work hard to sustain".
The 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".
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore said "mosques here have initiatives to strengthen ties with other faith communities and improve interfaith understanding, and that it also organises such programmes".
The population of Singapore is 5.6 million and is marked by religious pluralism: Buddhists are 34%, Muslims 14.3%, Hindus 5.2%, Christians 18% (about half Catholics, 9% of the population). (SD) (Agenzia Fides, 5/9/2019)