SG govt proposes changes to religious harmony law with the rise of social media

The government has proposed changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) in parliament to keep up with the impact of social media and the Internet. The changes, according to a press release, seek to strengthen the government’s ability to safeguard against and respond more effectively to threats to religious harmony.

One key point cited in the bill is regarding restraining orders, which currently requires 14-day notice before taking effect. The new amendment calls for restraining orders to take immediate effect once issued. The bill said:

With the Internet and social media, swifter action needs to be taken to prevent statements which are offensive to religious communities from spreading.

Under MRHA, restraining orders can be enforced on persons who cause feelings of "enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility" between religious groups. It can also include religious leaders or members who promote a political cause, carry out "subversive activities or excite disaffection" against the President or Government under the guise of religion; or any person inciting any religious organisation or religious leader or member to do any of the above.

In the event of where foreign actors are found to adversely affect religious harmony in Singapore through their influence over a local religious organisation, the government is proposing for a restraining order to be issued against that religious organisation. The move aims to prohibit it from receiving donations from specific or all foreign donors; require the entire governing body to be Singapore Citizens; and/or require it to suspend or remove specific foreigners from office.

Currently, both the Penal Code and the MRHA have provisions that safeguard religious harmony. To "better focus" efforts in maintaining religious harmony, the government is proposing to consolidate the Penal Code offences that pertain to religion under the MRHA.

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Additionally, one of the offences, which is on inciting violence on the basis of religion, or against a religious group or its members, will apply equally to everyone, given its "seriousness". Meanwhile, two other offences, which involve inciting feelings of negative feelings against a religious group and insulting the religion or wound the religious feelings of another person, will be differentiated by whether the offender is a religious leader or not a religious leader.

Religious leaders, said the press release on the amendment, are "held to a higher standard of behaviour" because of their influence. Therefore, where the offender is a religious leader, the "element of risk of disturbing public peace" would not be required to make out an offence.

Should the amendments come into effect, the offences would also apply even if the conduct was done overseas, as long as the offence was targeted at a group or a person in Singapore and had an impact on Singapore. The bill said:

This is necessary as today, the Internet and social media allow an individual to disrupt religious harmony in Singapore, even when the offences are conducted overseas.

The amendment bill presented in parliament also brought up a new initiative known as the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI), which may be offered by the Minister for Home Affairs to an offender to help him or her better understand the affected religious community, and mend ties with them. Examples of remedial actions include a public or private apology to the aggrieved parties, or participation in inter-religious events. While voluntary, the CRI will be taken into account when assessing whether to prosecute the person for the offending act, added the press release.

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