SPEECH BY ER DR LEE BEE WAH, MP FOR NEE SOON GRC, AT THE SECOND READING OF THE AMENDMENTS TO THE MAINTENANCE OF RELIGIOUS HARMONY BILL
Mr Speaker Sir,
Religious views are a personal matter. But when they threaten the multi-racial harmony of our society, the Government needs to step in to protect our hard-won harmony.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) has served us well in preserving the peace and harmony in our multi-racial society. But we need to update the law to reflect current needs.
The media has exposed how many users of the internet have used it to promote hidden agendas. Today there are also less scrupulous religious groups that use these platforms to attack, disrupt and spread extremist views or hostility towards other religions.
And we know how a post on the internet can go viral rapidly, especially when it relates to sensational topics. We cannot afford to wait 14 days or more to allow Restraining Orders (RO) to kick in for the offending online content to be removed. I would like to ask, if a post is suspected to be both fake news and hurting religious harmony, how will these orders interact with the mechanism under POFMA? Can the Minister consider penalties for those who deliberately circulate such offending content, especially if they are influential pages?
Under the framework of offences, any individual who urges violence against any person or group on the basis of religion, or violence against any religious group or member faces imprisonment of up to 10 years or a fine, or both. A religious leader or anyone posing a risk of disturbing public peace, who incites hostility against a religion, insults someone’s religion or wounds their religious feelings face imprisonment of up to five years or a fine, or both.
While I agree that these acts have potentially serious consequences that deserve heavy penalties, things like wounding religious feelings can be rather subjective. Sometimes it may simply be due to misunderstanding or clashing cultures and no ill will was truly intended. May I ask how does one determine if something is to be considered sufficiently offensive to breach the
law? The government has consulted with religious groups in enacting this Bill, and I hope they will continue to consult with the relevant religious groups when applying the laws too, as well as conduct dialogues with relevant stakeholders and affected parties after the laws are applied. The end goal should be to determine why certain acts are deemed offensive and how to prevent it from happening in future.
On this note, I am glad to see the introduction of the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI), where offenders will be asked to make amendments to offended parties, and be given opportunities to understand how they did wrong in the context of a multi-racial society.
After all, many offences happen as a result of a lack of empathy and ignorance, rather than pure malice. I also hope we can nurture a society that is more sympathetic but act decisively when
the need arises. In previous cases, some people who insulted other races and religions were doxed and had their livelihoods affected, with some even losing their jobs. If we can rehabilitate criminals, can we do the same for cases under MRHA?
Religion has a huge impact and influence on many. Certainly, it can evoke strong emotions. Hence, there is reasonable cause for concern over foreigners taking advantage of this fact to try to abuse religion to establish their own agenda. The Bill aims to deter this by requiring key appointment holders or equivalent to be Singaporeans or PRs. However, for smaller organisations, this requirement may be hard to meet. I understand the government is willing to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis, or for cross-border or historical organisations.
For foreign appointment holders who get exemptions, it may be good for them to be given some basic education on the framework of our religious harmony practices so that they know the consequences if they breach the MRHA law.
Sir, religious harmony is always work in progress, and the Bill brings about many necessary improvements to preserve this harmony that is responsible for making Singapore a safe and stable country to live and do business in. I support the Bill. Thank you.
In Chinese please.
Watch the speech here
Watch MHA’s response here