Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act Bill – Speech by Slyvia Lim

(Delivered in Parliament on 7 October 2019)

Introduction

Mr Speaker,

Amongst a number of reasons detailed by Minister, the amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act aim to make the Act relevant for the information age. The Bill updates what is essentially a preventive regime, albeit one that gives the Cabinet executive authority to endeavour that religion is kept out of politics. To that end, it is important to remember the socio-political context of 30 years ago, when the Bill was first debated in the House.

Generally, that era was known to be a time of heightened religiosity. The Bill was mooted only one month after the detention of some Singaporeans who were accused of being Marxists. It is important, if not critical to note that the passage of the underlying Act in 1990 itself did not go without significant apprehension from religious groups and Members of Parliament, including differences of opinion even amongst Ministers.

The Quagmire of Religion and Politics: The 1990 MRHA Debate

Even Minister Shanmugam’s speech, in his capacity as a backbencher then was noteworthy because it raised fundamental points about the separation of powers and the potential for an irrational exercise of Executive power. This was not the only difficulty. Prime Minister Lee, in his capacity as Minister of Trade and Industry and the then Minister of National Development, Mr S Dhanabalan both disagreed about the interplay between politics and religion in special situations where religious bodies would have no choice but to get involved in politics to overthrow a government – for example in the event the government became corrupt, oppressive, tyrannical.

Sir, I raise the historical difficulty with passage of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act because the points and apprehensions expressed about the underlying Act continue to be of relevance today. While the Marxist arrests clouded the passage of the Act to some extent then, this Government is not similarly encumbered today in as far as the Bill is concerned. To that end, the Worker’s Party does not find the amendments mooted in the Bill before the House objectionable. Racial harmony remains a critical important national value that must be upheld alongside a spirit of tolerance between believers of all religious groups.

A More Complex Terrain Today

Today, the confluence of the regional environment, social mores and the ubiquity of social media are perhaps of equal, if not, of more concern in the maintenance of racial harmony than in late 1980s. For example, the political narrative that has been developing within our closest neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Southern Thailand, while strictly speaking is not our business, is nonetheless cause for concern.

Only last week, a Malay civil rights group openly called for a Vote Muslim First campaign with regard to the upcoming by-election for Tanjong Piai in Johor. The recent Indonesian Presidential Elections also saw candidates seeking to burnish their religious credentials. Mr Speaker, the age-old problem of mixing religion and politics has not gone away. If anything, it has become more acute. And with social media, it has become a more sensitive matter.

Going forward, this is something the Government and politicians and political party members in Singapore need to keep an eye on as well in view of our unique context and political circumstances and consider where things have to be tightened. With a difficult subject – the mixing of religion and politics – at the heart of the Act, the signals a one-party dominant government and its politicians send on the subject will have a direct bearing how the Act will be applied and deemed relevant in years to come. I will spend the first part of my speech to share some examples about how things can be perceived on the ground in Singapore in spite of the spirit of the underlying Act which seeks to keep religion and politics separate.

Religious Leaders next to Politicians

Firstly, the more visible appearance of religious leaders alongside politicians. A well-known leader of a religious group – fronting many national initiatives including being a very senior party member and highly visible leader of the Inter-Religious Organisation and separately with links to the People’s Association was seen with the PM Lee during the 2015 elections. While it is unclear if the individual concerned was the Prime Minister’s election agent, it is nonetheless useful for the House to pause and consider the optics of a respected member of a religious group appearing to canvass support for a politician.

To that end, how would some members of the same religious group with a different political view from that espoused by their religious leader or elder feel if they openly support another political party? Could it not create or ferment tension within that religious group? Should another group or individual from within any particular religious organisation or faith rise in stature because of a disagreement or internal politics, would it be fair game for a politician from another political party to canvass support for him or her? What can we reasonably foresee may happen next? Mr Speaker, I would argue the selection of established and well-known religious and even community personalities in party politics in capacities such as election agents, notwithstanding their secular appointments – muddies the already difficult distinction between religion and politics.

Seeking a Mandate from the laity?

Secondly, all political leaders must also be mindful of their signature when engaging religious events such as large-scale prayer sessions and gatherings of any religion. Going forward, we should pause and consider the effect of politicians of all political parties attending places of worship of any faith as political leaders, as opposed to as lay congregants, visitors or well-wishers. For example, the imprudent timing of such invitations to politicians, particularly in the run-in to elections would inevitably have a signaling effect on the religious laity of any faith to support the politician/s in question.

Neutrality in theory and practice

Thirdly, even events that take place in this House can be open to close scrutiny and test the long-held approach of the state as a neutral arbiter when it comes to matters of faith. In the first sitting that took place in this House following the tragic mosque shootings in Christchurch in March this year, this House observed a minute of silence for the victims of that massacre. Only a mere month later, many Christians perished in Sri Lanka in a series of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka. I am aware that some Christian Singaporeans privately wondered why Parliament did not observe a moment of silence for those Christians who perished in Sri Lanka as well.

Taking Stock for Tomorrow

Sir, perceptions, particularly when it comes to matters of faith can take a life of their own and it behooves politicians of all stripes, and our religious leaders to take a moment to reflect on how we should navigate this space in future so the House ensures the Government remains trusted as a neutral arbiter in matters of faith. Would more religious or quasi-religious invitations or relationships between the state and citizens be better managed through the unifying and ceremonial role of the President or some other platform? This is something the Government would need to assess and consider carefully.

Sir, why is this renewed conversation in the context of the MRHA relevant? Firstly, it is because the Minister and Cabinet have significant powers under the Act to slap a restraining order on anyone the Government deems to be moving into the realm of politics from the safety of the pulpit or under the garb of religion. With no prospect of judicial review to adjudicate the rationality of executive fiat, clarity in how the law is applied and impartiality from the Government is paramount, not just in words but action.

Secondly, it must not be that politicians are allowed to engage religion and religious groups how they deem fit, but the faithful can only engage a political matter if, for example, they speak positively about the Government or its policies. But if they publicly raise objections or disagreements about government policy, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act portends that action could be taken against them. What the perception of such a one-way approach would ultimately do is to undermine and damage the Government’s case if it seeks to use the Act in future to move against elements it deems to be mixing religion and politics.

As we look towards tomorrow’s Singapore, and as we enter the 4G era, the House must ensure that the public space must continue to be a secular and safe space for all Singaporeans, regardless of creed. While the terrain of religion and politics is not without its difficulties, it is critical that restraint, mutual respect and equanimity define how both politicians and religious leaders operate in a Singapore where being a successful multi-racial and multi-religious society is a significant value proposition in our neighbourhood, and for our survival as one people.

Clarification

Mr Speaker, it is worthwhile to note that the original Act has not been employed since its passage into law and to my understanding, no restraining orders have been issued in the last almost 30-odd years. I have one clarification on the Bill. One important change is the removal of a check on Executive power. Under the Act today, a 14-day notice period operates to inform the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony about the impending issuance of a Restraining Order. Under the Bill before the House today, the Government seeks to remove any requirement to notify the Council, ostensibly because it seeks to move quickly against an offender. I wish to clarify with the Minister, in the event a religious leader is slapped with a restraining order to remove an offending post – from his or her Facebook page for example, and he or she does not do so – what recourse, legislation or regulations will the Government turn to, to see that the offending statement is speedily removed particularly if it cannot be classified as a false statement of fact?

Conclusion

In conclusion Sir, the Workers’ Party notes the challenges presented by the interplay of religion and politics in a multi-racial and multi-religious society like ours. Whatever our political views, religion can exploited and the use of religion to split communities is a renewed concern given the advent of fast-moving communications technology. A multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore and the way our people accommodate differences and diverse views and display a genuine tolerance towards one another is a key strength of this country. Therefore the Workers Party supports these amendments, notwithstanding our concerns about the application of the underlying Act.