Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act Bill – Speech by Sylvia Lim

(Delivered in Parliament on 7 October 2019)

In the Ministry’s Press Release on this Bill on 2 September, the government re-stated the two principles underpinning the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act passed nearly 30 years ago. The 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 would like to touch on both aspects in my speech, and seek a clarification on a specific clause of the Bill.

Moderation and Tolerance

The debate on any curtailment of religious freedom is difficult, because our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion as a Fundamental Liberty. Article 15(1) provides that “every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.” Thus, it is a fundamental right for a person not only to believe in the God he chooses, but to manifest that belief in action, and to spread the belief to non-believers. Today’s debate is really one about the extent of this right.

Singaporeans value the peaceful coexistence of multiple religions in Singapore, and the Workers’ Party values this as well. Over the weekend, I visited the home of a resident who was obviously a devout follower of his faith. When I asked him about his views on other faiths, he said: “I believe what I believe not because you are wrong, but because my God is the right God for me”. Singaporeans on the whole embody a spirit of moderation. To that end, we agree that the agenda-setting in religious matters should be done by Singaporeans. The government has expressed concern that some foreign brands of religiosity, if imported, may not be appropriate and may cause tensions on religious grounds to arise. We do not dismiss this risk.

The Bill imposes reporting requirements on religious groups regarding their foreign affiliations and donations, and may require certain donations from foreign principals to be returned or surrendered. The Bill also empowers the Minister to require the removal of foreigners from the governing bodies of religious institutions, if such persons are deemed by the government to have priorities that are inappropriate. There have been news reports that the major religious groups in Singapore support these amendments.

Nevertheless, Article 15(3) of the Constitution provides that every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs. It could be argued by some that the powers in the Bill constitute an erosion of the autonomy of religious groups. Earlier in his Second Reading Speech, the Minister did say that it was not the intention of the government to constrain the practice of religion. This statement is welcome. However, it is important for the Ministry to further elaborate on why the government believes that the Bill is fully consistent with Article 15.

Separation of Religion and Politics

Although this Bill does not specifically deal with the separation of religion and politics, it is useful to remind ourselves of what the separation of religion and politics entails. This is especially timely, in view of the impending General Election.

During the debate on the Act 30 years ago, it was acknowledged that it is not possible to strictly divorce religion from politics. This impossibility is true today and probably for all ages. Like Mr Alex Yam before me, I am a Catholic myself, and I am to be guided by the Church’s teachings. The tenets of Christianity exhort Christians to promote social justice. In the Biblical book of the prophet Isaiah, it is written: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the case of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow”. Advocacy for the voiceless is every Christian’s calling. This is a force for good in Singapore, as we address concerns about class divides and move to foster an inclusive society.

However, while individuals may order their actions based on their faiths, the picture takes on a more sensitive hue when religious leaders openly champion social or political causes. The government has previously voiced its concern about the possible misuse of religious authority.

While the focus of today’s Bill is on foreign interference, we should be vigilant that Singapore’s own religious leaders do not polarise their congregations along party political lines. On this, I wish to share some observations.

In the run-up to the debate on this Bill, there has been open support for the Bill expressed by religious leaders. Religious authority is being thrown behind the government’s legislation, both publicly and also to specific congregations. Is that mixing religious authority with politics? As far as I know, the government has welcomed this open support. But if the religious leaders had instead gone the other way, i.e. express concern or opposition to the Bill, would the government have put its foot down and issued an order requiring them to stop?

Let us take other examples. Is it appropriate for a religious leader to exhort his congregation during a General Election to “Vote for Stability”? Or is it right for a religious leader to be publicly seen, walking into a Nomination Centre in party uniform with a political party’s candidates on Nomination Day? It is already brewing on the ground that some religious institutions are developing reputations for being supportive of certain political parties. Any decision by religious leaders to take an openly partisan stance bears the risk of causing tension between followers who subscribe to their leaders’ political allegiances and those who do not. If unchecked, there is a possibility that, over time, there would be a polarisation of society along political lines, caused not by foreign influences, but by Singapore’s own religious leaders. Such a prospect could fracture social cohesion and divide society.

A Question

Before I end, I would like to ask for clarification on the Bill regarding the proposed Section 16F. The section states that a restraining order issued by the Minister has effect “despite the provisions of any other written law in force.” The Explanatory Note to the Bill touches on Section 16F but is not clear as to how a restraining order could be contrary to a written law. Without clarification, the section reads as if a restraining order may breach other laws or be illegal in some manner. Could the Ministry explain what this is all about, please?

Concluding Remarks

The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was controversial at the time it was passed. The then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told the House that the Cabinet had not been unanimous in deciding to legislate, and decided to mull over it and consult widely for several years. When the Bill was presented, he said: “In a sense, this Bill is a recognition of a retrogression, or potential deterioration, in religious harmony.”

The Workers’ Party shares this concern of the government and is prepared to work with the government on this aspect.