Amended Bill introduces new measures for religious harmony
Other key changes include immediate restraining order on offensive material and disclosing of foreign links
Stronger safeguards against threats to racial and religious harmony will soon come into effect, after amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) were passed in Parliament yesterday.
Key changes include higher maximum punishments and immediate restraining orders to prevent offensive statements from spreading on social media, instead of the current 14-day notice period.
Moving the changes to the Act yesterday, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said: "We recognise that religion has been used, can be used, by bad actors as a rallying point for violence. Also by bad actors to pursue political power, often with bad outcomes for societies."
Singapore faces new challenges in ensuring racial and religious harmony, Mr Shanmugam added, stressing that Singapore is vulnerable to foreign influence and the impact of social media and the Internet, which makes it even easier for offensive material to spread.
The Act was introduced in 1992 to help reduce misunderstanding and conflict between different religious groups, and the amendments will allow the authorities to deal with the new threats effectively, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling.
To safeguard against foreign influence, religious groups will be required to declare any foreign affiliations.
Single foreign donations that are above $10,000 must also be disclosed.
Anonymous cash donations received through donation boxes at religious institutions, however, are exempted, and so are donations received from permanent residents (PRs) and foreigners who are on long-term passes, she added.
In addition, the president, secretary and treasurer of a religious group must also be a Singapore citizen or PR, and the majority of the executive committee or governing body of the group, Singapore citizens.
The leadership requirement does not apply to spiritual leaders unless they hold such executive roles, Ms Sun added.
In order to address the speed at which offensive material can now go viral, Ms Sun added that changes will be made to the Restraining Order.
Currently, the Order requires a 14-day notice period. Under the amended Act, the Order will take immediate effect.
The amendments will also include the introduction of the Community Remedial Initiative, where offenders can choose to make amends directly to the offended party instead of facing criminal prosecution.
This will not apply to offenders who display very egregious conduct, such as inciting violence.
These religion-related criminal offences will be ported over from the Penal Code, to allow MRHA a full range of legislative powers, as part of the amendments.
The changes were debated for more than five hours, with 25 MPs speaking on the need to maintain harmony but also seeking clarity on the practical implications and applications of the amended laws.
This included issues such as whether religion and politics can and should be separated, definitions of what is "offensive" and the challenges the new rules will impose on smaller groups or groups that do not currently have a local presence.