Religious Cults in Singapore: Are they Illegal? Penalties & More

Last updated on August 17, 2020

religious cult

In February 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that an unregistered local chapter of a South Korean church accused of being a religious cult was being investigated for operating illegally and using deceptive recruitment methods to gain followers in Singapore. 

This article will give you a better understanding of:

What is a Religious Cult? How is It Different from a Religious Group?

A religious cult may be differentiated as being a group of individuals with uncommon religious beliefs and practices, distinguished from the major religious beliefs.

Religious cults may even hold extreme or dangerous religious beliefs such as those motivated by terrorism or discrimination against other groups in the community.

Characteristics of a religious cult  

Some characteristics of religious cults include:

  • Divergence from common beliefs of major religions
  • Members not being allowed to interact with one another
  • Members not being allowed to speak to their families or friends about the group’s activities
  • Members not being allowed to verify teachings with other religious groups
  • Members often being led by a charismatic, authoritarian leader who is regarded as a reincarnation of a godlike figure or as the saviour of the group
  • The leader claims to have exclusive means of knowing the “truth”

Does the Right of Freedom of Religion Apply to Religious Cults? 

The right to freedom of religion in Singapore is constitutionally guaranteed in Article 15 of the Singapore Constitution. Freedom of religion means that every person in Singapore, regardless of citizenship, has the right to profess, propagate and practise his or her religion.  

Consequently, people in Singapore generally have the freedom to subscribe to and spread any religion, and to engage in any religious practice. Religious groups therefore have the right to manage their own religious affairs, and establish institutions for religious or charitable purposes such as churches.

However, the freedom of religion also has its limits. Although religious groups and religious cults are still entitled to hold their beliefs, they are not allowed to perform any act that goes against any general law relating to public order, public health or morality. 

Likewise, if religious cults were to perform illegal acts, or acts that threaten the safety of members of the public, they would not be protected by the right of freedom of religion.

Are Religious Cults Illegal in Singapore? 

Under the Societies Act, the definition of “societies” includes any club, company, partnership or association of 10 or more persons, whatever its nature or purpose. Hence, as long as there are 10 or more members in a religious group, the group would be considered a society and should be registered with the Registry of Societies. 

However, registration can be refused or cancelled. This occurs if the society is used, or later found to be used, for unlawful purposes or purposes prejudicial to public peace and good order in Singapore.

For example, in the case of the Jehovah Witnesses, some men had tried to use their religious beliefs to evade National Service. Their refusal to do National Service was viewed by the government to be a serious threat to national security, resulting in the group being de-registered.

Any society that is not registered is deemed to be an unlawful society, and therefore illegal. Hence, religious cults (or any religious group, in general) that are unregistered or have been de-registered are illegal in Singapore.

This is unless the activities of the religious cult are organised wholly outside Singapore and the cult does not carry on any activity in Singapore.

However, religious cults with fewer than 10 members do not qualify as societies under the Societies Act may still be illegal. What matters is whether the religious cult crosses the line into criminality or poses a threat to public security.

For example, if a religious cult were to carry out activities in Singapore that are unlawful or against public interest, such as attempting to harm or incite fear and hatred in members of the public, it may be deemed illegal and even subsequently banned.

What are the Offences a Religious Cult can be Charged With, and Their Penalties? 

1) Managing an unlawful society 

As said earlier, religious cults are likely to be unregistered and thus unlawful societies. It is an offence for any person to manage or assist in the management of such societies under section 14 of the Societies Act. If you are found guilty of doing so, this could lead to a jail term of up to 5 years. 

It is also an offence under section 15 of the Societies Act to allow an unlawful society to use your premises, for which the punishment is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or 3 years’ jail.

Any premises used as a place of worship or to perform any other activities of a religious cult may be subjected to police raids, although the police do not specifically look for such premises. 

2) Being a member of an unlawful society 

Similarly, members of religious cults found to be unlawful societies, risk getting a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 3 years’ jail. This includes persons who attend cult meetings.

Additionally, it is an offence under section 16 of the Societies Act to invite another person to become a member of an unlawful society. The punishment for this is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or 3 years’ jail.

3) Forming an unlawful assembly 

When there is an assembly of 5 or more members of a religious cult, this is a possible offence of “unlawful assembly” under section 141 of the Penal Code (PC)

An assembly is unlawful if the “common object” or shared purpose of the members is to engage in criminal conduct, where this includes the commission of any offence. Even if members of the assembly did not set out to commit illegal activities, the assembly may subsequently become unlawful as long as illegal activities are involved.

Should the activities of the religious cult involve illegal acts such as vandalising and damaging property or causing harm to others, members of the assembly may be charged with and convicted of being a member of an unlawful assembly if they had been aware of the circumstances of the assembly but intentionally joined or continued to be a part of it.

This is an offence punishable by up to 2 years’ jail and/or a fine.

4) Reproduction, sale, or possession of objectionable and prohibited publications 

Objectionable publications

Religious cults may use their publications to spread their ideas, which may include promoting criminal acts or acts of serious physical harm as part of their religious beliefs. They may also use these publications to say that members of other groups or communities are inferior to them.

Under section 12 of the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA) however, it is an offence to make, reproduce, sell, distribute or possess any objectionable publication. A publication can be considered objectionable if any part of it deals with matters of race or religion in a way that is likely to cause feelings of hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.      

For distributing objectionable publications under the UPA, an offender could face up to 12 months’ jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

Prohibited publications

Religious publications may also be prohibited by the government for being contrary to public interest, such as those from organisations related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, that were prejudicial to the government’s efforts in maintaining national security and unity. 

Under section 6 of the UPA, a first-time offender found to be in possession of prohibited publications without reasonable excuse could attract a fine of up to $2,000 and/or up to 12 months’ jail. Once the publication is in your possession, you will be presumed to have known the contents and nature of the publications until you can prove otherwise. 

Importing, publishing, selling or distributing prohibited publication are also an offence. A person found guilty of this offence could face a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to 3 years’ jail for a first-time offence.

It is also an offence to publish or possess any propaganda or publication of an unlawful society under section 18 of the Societies Act. The punishment is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 2 years’ jail

5) Wounding the religious feelings of other groups and inciting hostility 

Members of religious cults may condemn or insult other religious groups and hurt their feelings.

Section 298 of the PC makes it an offence to utter words or do anything that can be represented, seen or heard by any person, if done with the deliberate intention to offend that person’s religious or racial feelings. Such words or actions by that person may cause social unrest and undermine religious harmony which is taken very seriously in Singapore. 

The punishment for this offence is up to 3 years’ jail and/or a fine. For example, teenage blogger Amos Yee was jailed for 6 weeks under section 298 in 2016 for making deliberate and offensive remarks with the intent of hurting the feelings of Muslims and Christians.

Section 298 may be supplemented by section 298A of the PC which carries the same punishment. Section 298A makes it an offence for any person to knowingly do or say anything to promote disharmony or hatred between different religious racial groups, or anything that is prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.

A religious cult member may encourage the religious cult to commit acts that cause feelings of ill-will or hostility between different religious groups, including making remarks about other religions calculated to insult other religious groups.

6) Committing genocide 

A person of a religious cult may be found guilty of genocide for committing any act under section 130D of the Penal Code with the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Such acts include:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious physical or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately trying to cause full or partial physical destruction of the group
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

An act that may fall under this offence would be the overseas case of the Jonestown mass murder-suicide in 1978.

Under the orders of the religious cult leader Jim Jones, more than 900 people committed suicide by drinking a beverage mixed with cyanide which is a poisonous and deadly substance. They had also killed a United States Congressman and several journalists.

The punishment for genocide is life imprisonment or up to 20 years’ jail. If the offence involves killing another person, the punishment is death

What Can You Do If You Think You’ve Joined a Religious Cult?

First, check if the religious group you have joined is registered with the Registry of Societies. If you suspect you have joined a religious cult, stop all involvement with them and leave as soon as possible.

This is because religious cults that are unregistered societies or that engage in unlawful activities are illegal in Singapore, as mentioned above, and attending such meetings can be an offence.

Keep in mind that there are also many other offences and harsh penalties associated with the activities of religious cults, including the possession of objectionable or prohibited publications or inciting hostility among other religious groups.

If you have been involved in a religious cult and have been charged with any of the offences stated in this article, you may want to engage a criminal lawyer.

A criminal lawyer has considerable expertise and experience and is trained to advise you on whether your involvement would likely attract a criminal offence. A criminal lawyer would also be able to advise you on your next best course of action and to represent you in court if necessary.

You can contact experienced criminal lawyers here.

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