The automatic registration regime was the main amendment introduced in the Societies (Amendment) Bill in 2004. That was in turn derived from a recommendation by the Remaking Singapore Committee, chaired by then-Minister of State for National Development, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, to adopt a differentiated approach by listing down explicitly the types of societies that would require prior approval. Those outside the list would be “automatically” approved and registered. The Committee added a caveat that the registrations of such societies could still be revoked if they were subsequently found to use the society for unlawful purposes.
MHA consulted the public on this and public feedback was generally supportive. MHA then fine-tuned the feedback received and finalised the scheme. Under the 2004 Societies (Amendment) Bill, the “automatic regime” required the Registrar of Societies to register these societies on the date the application is received without making any further inquiries, as long as the payment of the prescribed fee and other formalities are met.
During the Second Reading of the Bill in 2004, then-Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee, said that the amendments would “make it easier for many societies to be registered” and that “the changes are in line with the Government’s move to loosen up restrictions to encourage greater social entrepreneurship.” He called this automatic regime a “forward-looking approach”.
The Bill before us today reverses some of the liberalisations to the Societies Act in 2004. It seeks to allow the Registrar to require further information to ascertain whether the society does indeed qualify for registration via the automatic route. The Bill also allows the Registrar to reject an application submitted via the automatic route if the Registrar is satisfied that the society, if registered, is likely to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore, or would be contrary to Singapore’s national interests or security.
This effectively removes the automatic registration process in all but name, as every registration, even for societies that are not specified in the Schedule, will henceforth be subject to additional scrutiny. Thus, if the 2004 amendments were a “forward-looking approach”, this Bill appears to be a backward-looking approach.
Why are the amendments to the automatic registration route now necessary? What has changed between 2004, when they were introduced, and now? Section 24(1) of the Act already empowers the Minister to dissolve a society if it had secured automatic registration through false declaration or misrepresentation of its objects and activities at the point of registration. If there is need for an addition to the list of Specified societies listed in the Schedule, the Minister is already empowered under section 33A to amend the Schedule by notification in the Gazette. If the society engages in illegal activities, it can be dealt with through a whole host of laws to safeguard national security, and racial and religious harmony.
The MOS has cited hypothetical examples. Does she have real examples of society applications submitted since 2004 under the automatic route where one or both of the “two gaps” she mentioned were breached? What instances were there of registrations of non-specified societies that posed a security threat and should not have been registered? How did the Registrar deal with those cases?
How many applications to form societies were rejected or refused registration by the Registrar in the past five years, and what are the reasons for their rejection or refusal of registration?
Since 2004, we have seen the proliferation of access to the world wide web, social media, smart phones and artificial intelligence. There is no shortage of data for the authorities to conduct background checks on applicants, without even asking them for more information.
Additionally, questionnaires can be built into the online application form, and the applicants’ answers to these questions could be used to flag out societies that are not eligible for the automatic registration route. The applicant can then be immediately notified to select the normal registration route before submitting their application. If all these gates fail and the society gets registered through misrepresentation, the Minister can dissolve the society under Section 24(1).
Groups nowadays can easily organise themselves over closed chat groups and will likely avoid going through the hassle of registering a society if it is made more onerous. It will impose a greater burden on law-abiding groups who diligently register their societies.
By placing more hurdles for groups seeking to organise formally, the unintended effect could be to drive them and their activities underground. When this happens, the Registry of Societies will lose regulatory oversight of their financial conduct, which is one area where regulation is necessary in the public interest.
Can the MOS assure the House that genuine applications under the automatic route will not face longer waiting periods for approval than under the current regime?
Finally, why do societies discussing issues related to civil or political rights, or the governance of the Singapore society* remain listed in the Schedule? The inclusion of these types of societies in the Schedule means that they cannot be registered under the automatic route.
Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee said in 2004 that “such groups, which aim to promote a particular cause, can potentially give rise to law and order problems if they engage actively in pushing their agenda, without due regard for those who may not agree with their cause.”
Is this still the Government’s position and, more importantly, is that the only reason?
I look forward to the Minister’s answers to my questions. Thank you.
* Items 4 and 5 in the Schedule read:
4. Any society whose object, purpose or activity, whether primary or otherwise, is to —
(a) represent persons who advocate;
(b) promote; or
(c) discuss any issue relating to,
any civil or political right (including human rights, environmental rights and animal rights).
5. Any society whose object, purpose or activity, whether primary or otherwise, is to discuss any matter relating to the governance of the Singapore society.