Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 25/2019)
Sir, this Bill relates to a very fundamental tenet of Singapore society. Singaporeans often proudly cite the fact that Singapore is a country where many religions can co-exist peacefully and even thrive. We cannot take this state of affairs for granted.
This Bill is acknowledgment that we must constantly update our legal framework to address new challenges. The most pressing ones we face right now are the challenges posed by social media and the internet, as well as the trend of foreign influence exploiting religious fault lines.
The Ministry has closely consulted religious leaders in drafting the Bill and I understand that there is strong support from religious leaders for this Bill.
I am heartened to see that while the challenges have evolved, the government’s consultative relationship with the religious groups when it comes to religious matters has not changed.
Sir I support the amendments proposed but my concern is how effective they would be and I would like to seek some clarifications.
Singaporeans or PRs acting under foreign influence
The Bill seeks to prevent foreign actors from adversely affecting religious harmony in Singapore by imposing requirements relating to citizenship or permanent residence requirements on the leadership of religious organisations and on the disclosure of large donations, amongst others.
A restraining order can also be issued to prohibit a religious organisation from receiving donations from specific or all foreign donors, to require the entire governing body to be Singapore citizens, and to require specific foreigners to be suspended or removed from office.
However, citizenship or permanent residence is a very rough proxy for whether an individual is under foreign influence.
Earlier this year, SPS Sun Xueling shared that 24 radicalised Singaporeans have been dealt with under the Internal Security Act since 2015. Just this year alone, two Singaporean men were detained in January, while another two were detained in May and July. All four men had been radicalised by pro-ISIS elements. They were Singapore citizens but were acting under the influence of foreign actors.
How does the Bill propose to address foreign influence on religious organisations where the influence does not come directly from foreign actors, but from citizens or permanent residents who are acting under foreign influence?
Section 8(2A) specifies the reasons for which a restraining order may be made. On what grounds under section 8(2A) can a restraining order be made to address foreign influence exerted through Singapore citizens in a religious organisation?
Disclosure of “foreign donations”
Next, I support the requirement for religious organisations to disclose “foreign donations” of $10,000 or more. But with so many exemptions proposed, my concern is whether this requirement will be effective.
We are exempting “foreigners in Singapore on long-term passes”. Why? It is probably more justifiable to exempt Singapore Citizens and Singapore Permanent Residents. But since the amendment is proposed to safeguards against foreign influence. Can the Minister clarify why the exemption is extended to “foreigners in Singapore on long-term passes”?
The exemption is also for anonymous donations like those made via donation boxes placed at the religious site. This exemption seems quite straight forward since we don’t know who made those donations.
However, how will we prevent people from exploiting this loophole? A foreigner could inform a religious organisation that he or she is making a donation to of $10,000 or more but to circumvent the need to disclose this donation to authorities, he or she will drop of the donation in the donation box. He or she could also ask a foreigner in Singapore on a long-term pass to help make that donation but still alert the religious organisation that the donation is from him or her.
I suggest that we also require religious organisations to disclose any correspondence with foreigners with regard to donations of large amounts.
This can be similar to the proposed requirement for religious organisations to disclose affiliations to foreign individuals or organisations, which are in a position of control or power over the religious organisation.
Can I also ask if the Ministry is tracking how much foreign donations a religious organisation is receiving annually and also how much it receives anonymously?
There might be a case where a religious organisation who receives a significant amount of foreign donations but does not need to disclose their foreign donations as it is from different sources and each source donations $9,999.
I do believe that we should monitor this, be alerted when and pay attention to religious organisations who have significant amounts of or sudden increases in foreign donations which does not need to be disclosed. This should apply also to sudden increases in anonymous donations.
Beyond these suggestions, can Minister provide more assurances that the exemptions proposed will not become loopholes, which makes it harder to safeguards against foreign influence?
Community remedial initiative as a sentencing option
Lastly, Section 16H provides for the community remedial initiative (“CRI”) as a reconciliatory approach for addressing offending behaviour that has wounded the feelings of a religious community.
The CRI has a similar objective as a Community Service Order (“CSO”), which is a sentence that can be imposed for an offender to make amends to the community by performing unpaid community service under the supervision of an authorised officer.
The difference between the CRI and a CSO is that the decision to offer the CRI is made by the Minister, making it different from a corrective work order, which is a punishment imposed by a judge.
The CRI is intended to be offered at the pre-trial stage as opposed to a CSO which features at the post-trial, sentencing stage.
A CSO may not be a sentencing option for some of the new offences in the Bill because a CSO cannot be imposed for an offence, which is punishable with a term of imprisonment which exceeds three years.
The offence of inciting hatred and ill-will is punishable with imprisonment up to five years while the offence of urging violence on religious grounds or against religious groups is punishable with imprisonment up to ten years.
However, both the CRI and a CSO have similar underlying rationales of rehabilitation and education. The need to rehabilitate and re-educate an offender is still present even after an offender has been tried. Yet, under section 16H(5)(b), a CRI cannot be entered into after the commencement of trial.
Will the Minister consider extending the CRI as a sentencing option?
Sir, I stand in support of the Bill. However, beyond the MRHA or the proposed amendments, what is even more remarkable is the collaborative relationship between the government and our religious organisations.
The religious groups have a close relationship based on mutual trust and respect, and frequently interact through platforms such as the Inter-Religious Organisation. The success of our multi-religious society lies not just our laws but also our approach in managing inter-religious relations.
In the press coverage leading up to the second reading of the Bill, it has been often highlighted that Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act has never once been invoked since it came into effect nearly 30 years ago. I am glad there has never been an occasion for its use. I hope our focus will continue to remain on education and building inter-religious ties, and that we never have to resort to the mechanisms under the MRHA.
Watch the speech here
Watch the response by MHA here