Singapore govt gets powers to deal swiftly with religious hate crimes as changes to law passed in Parliament

Singapore govt gets powers to deal swiftly with religious hate crimes as changes to law passed in Parliament

SINGAPORE,. The Bill to amend the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) was passed in Parliament on Monday (October 7), after a spirited debate that saw 23 Members of Parliament (MPs) and two political office-holders speak out in favour of the changes.

The Act guards against religious enmity and hatred, prevents foreign influence of religion, and ensures a separation of religion from politics in Singapore.

MPs from both the ruling People’s Action Party and the opposition Workers’ Party supported the Bill.

Even then, there were several wide-ranging concerns brought up by the MPs during the debate, which lasted more than six hours.

Mr Alex Yam, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, and Nominated MP Anthea Ong were among those who questioned whether the expanded scope of the laws had enough safeguards built in to prevent a future government from abusing these powers.

One of the changes, for instance, speeds up the process for the Minister of Home Affairs to impose restriction orders on online statements that incite ill-will between faiths.

Several asked Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam how the wounding of religious feelings should be defined, so as not to wrongly punish people who express opinions in good faith.

Others wondered about the application of the law — how the check on foreign donations can be carried out, how the rules against foreign leadership of religious organisations are feasibly enforced, and how exemptions to certain provisions are granted.

Many MPs praised the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI), a new rehabilitative lever that allows the offender to voluntarily reconcile their differences with the offended religion, instead of prosecution.

They pointed to the recent incident in which the Young Sikh Association invited an Instagram user Sheena Phua to visit a Sikh temple after she had made an insensitive post about Sikhs.

Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad said of the incident that made its rounds on social media and the association’s response: “CRI was (already) a reality without a name.”

No other country has such a programme, Shanmugam said later in his closing remarks.

Safeguards against abuse of powers

On the need for safeguards, Yam questioned how future governments, which may not be as “accommodatively secular” as the current one, can be prevented to misapply the law. He was also concerned that an aggressively atheistic future government could apply the law wrongly.

On a related note, Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai argued against a provision that makes the decision of the Home Affairs Minister not justiciable — meaning it cannot be called into question by the courts.

Noting that a speech made by Shanmugam in the 1990s had earlier touched on the point on safeguarding against misuse of powers, Murali said that the courts should be allowed to scrutinise these decisions: “Most importantly, there is a safeguard against abuse of power in the future. It is not enough to say that the executive is still accountable to the public through elections.”

In his closing speech, Shanmugam said that there are safeguards through the channel of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which will review any restriction orders imposed by the minister in charge and will make recommendations to Singapore’s president on whether to confirm, vary or cancel the order.

This did not change with the amendments.

The only thing to be changed is the removal of the 14-day notice period from the time the order is issued to when it is put in force, something which MPs lauded as a quicker way to deal with online threats.

Shanmugam said that the independent Presidential Council for Religious Harmony is comprised of community leaders, including religious leaders representing the major religions as well as laypersons. He noted that the MRHA, which has been around for 27 years and has never been invoked, is proof that the law works.

“The fact that it is successful is shown by the fact that we haven’t had to use it even once. It shaped values and norms in our society, and is very different from every other place around us and further beyond,” he said, adding that individuals can seek recourse through the council.

Defining insults and what it means to be ‘offended’

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, MP for Jalan Besar GRC and formerly the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, raised the point of defining offences, given that under the amended laws, the bar for religious leaders to cause offence is much lower than laypersons due to their level of influence.

“I have two concerns… In the first instance how do we define being wounded by words of the other parties? Insults are clear. But what about genuine differences of opinion or views? After all, isn’t religion by its very nature exclusive?” he asked, citing a White Paper in 1989 that was released in the lead-up to establishing the Act.

Dr Yaacob noted that it also applies to non-religious persons, who may believe that certain religious practices are not right and end up making public statements about it — if only one person gets offended, would that be an offence?

He added: “My concern is that the ambiguities of what ‘being wounded’ constitutes and when public order or peace is threatened can lead to some claims of ill-will that (will in turn) lead to an unintended escalation and expansion of the conflict.”

He also cautioned that the laws do not end up silencing religious discussion through ambiguous definitions.

Shanmugam took time to address Dr Yaacob’s concerns, stating that the phrases of “wounding of religious feelings” and “threats to public peace” are not new and had been part of the Penal Code for years.

“People are free to express their views. This has to be done responsibly. Statements that denigrate another religion will, of course, cross the line,” Shanmugam said.

“Members will remember Amos Yee (and his) offensive remarks against Islam and Christianity. He did this repeatedly in 2015 and 2016, and so he was charged under Section 298 of the Penal Code for uttering words with deliberate intent to hurt one’s religious or racial feelings.

“But you know, nobody had felt that these laws prevented them from saying what they wanted, because most people are sensible. And we have created a framework within Singapore for sensible, practical, wise ways of discussing these.”

During the session, some MPs made various suggestions to promote greater understanding among people of different faiths. Joan Pereira, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, and Nominated MPs Irene Quay and Terence Ho spoke about the importance of educating young people and members of the public on religious harmony, and Quay proposed forming a group of official and religious mediators.

Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) suggested rehabilitating offenders who commit criminal offences under the MRHA such as inciting hatred. Religious leaders who have been granted MRHA exceptions, such as churches that serve a foreign or expatriate community, could be given a basic education on Singapore’s multi-religious context.

Shanmugam said that these were good ideas and he will look into them. ― TODAY

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