(Delivered in Parliament on 7 October 2019)
The Law on Maintaining Religious Harmony was enacted in 1992. two principles stated were: first, that followers of different religions should exercise moderation and tolerance towards each other and their beliefs, and not instigate religious enmity and hatred; and secondly, that religion and politics should be kept separate
I will address the two principles later in my speech. Before that, I would like to seek clarification from the minister on the new section of this amendment bill, section 17F. In short, what I understand from this section is that a person is said to be committing an offence if he or she intentionally engages in an act that insults religion or religious belief or another person’s activity in Singapore, where these acts (i) incite hatred towards other religions, (ii) hurt the feelings of the believers of other religions and (iii) affect the peace and public order.
I will share an example and hope the minister can explain based on the example given if there is a breach of section 17.
A Muslim religious leader or preacher said in a lecture session that the teachings of Islam states that Jesus is a prophet and not a son god as Christianity propogates, and then it was said that any religion that says otherwise, Jesus is a son of God, its followers will receive punishment in hell. In addition, the preacher also delivered these message in an enthusiastic manner which may given the impression that he is insulting Christians.
If the video sharing of this session took place on the internet, I think many Christians may get offended as to them the preacher was insulting their beliefs.
But from the point of view of the preacher, his intention was simply to convey the teachings of Islam to Muslims and he had no intention or motive to hurt the feelings of any party or cause a stir among the multi-religious community.
My interpretation of section 17 (G) is that the motive or intention is irrelevant in determining whether a person has committed an offense as set out under section 17F. Therefore, with reference to my example as cited earlier, the preacher in this example may be charged for committing an offence under the MRHA, eventhough, his intention or motif is to convey the teaching of the Holy Quran.
I would like to seek clarity from minister on this matter in the circumstances described above, whether this preacher has committed an offence under section 17 (F).
Next, I would like to touch on the two principles of this Act that is, first, that followers of different religions should exercise moderation and tolerance towards each other and their beliefs, and not instigate religious enmity and hatred; and secondly, that religion and politics should be kept separate
Singaporeans have always been reminded of the importance of integration between multi-racial and religious communities in order to create and maintain harmony. The messages are always emphasized that moderation and tolerance are among the key elements in achieving integration.
Each religion directs its followers to strive in achieving and maintaining racial harmony. I believe that every religion calls for moderation and tolerance for the sake of harmonious living.
However Sir, what is the meaning of moderation and tolerance in religion?
Does moderation and tolerance mean that followers of a religion should compromise their religious values and practices such as making themselves ‘less Muslim’, and so on?
Or Is it necessary for the followers of a religion to do something that is forbidden or contrary to their religious values and teachings so that he will be regarded as one who practices moderation and tolerance?
Personally, I believe that tolerance, as one of the core pillar in maintaining religious harmony, can be achieved without the need to compromise the values and beliefs of a person who practices their religion.
I would like to share my experience living in Australia during my studying years. I am amazed at the way Australians practice tolerance in honoring and respecting the beliefs and teachings of a religion. A friend to my father, Mr. A, decided to enrol his daughter to a prestigious all girls’ high school in Melbourne. Mr A had sought the school’s permission to allow his daughter to practice Islamic teachings of covering up oneself or covering up the female ‘Aurat’. The school allowed Mr A’s daughter to wear a scarf. Not only that, his daughter was also allowed to wear long sleeves and long dress as long as it confines the school’s uniforms colors and pattern.
Australia despite being a multiracial country, made up of people from all over the globe, literally practices their country’s principle of religious freedom. As a nation and multiracial society they recognize the need to respect the teachings and beliefs of various religions. They do not practice tolerance by asking a follower to compromise their religious beliefs for the sake of integration. The tolerance practiced by Australian religions is to respect one’s beliefs and steps are taken to provide support so that the religious practices of a person are not being compromised as I have shared in the examples above.
Another principle of this Act is to separate religion and politics. I can’t fully agree with this principle. As a Muslim, Islam is understood as A Way of Life. Islam covers all aspects of life including politics. I understand that even Christianity believes that religion and politics cannot be separated.
We have witnessed that Parliament, as the highest lawmaking institution in the country, allows religious elements in the swearing-in process of its Members. Members who are Christians are allowed to swear by the Bible during oath taking or swearing-in ceremony and these members will end with the phrase, ‘So help me God’.
Maintaining religious harmony is a shared responsibility. Every member of the society should strive to respect and exercises tolerance towards the different religious beliefs and practices. Respecting and tolerance not by asking one’s to compromise their beliefs for the sake of integration, but, instead tolerance in the truest meaning.