Guide to Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act

Last updated on November 20, 2019

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The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) was enacted in 1990 to provide the Government with the powers necessary to maintain religious harmony in Singapore.

It encourages tolerance and moderation amongst different religious groups. At the same time, it also seeks to separate religion from politics.

In October 2019, Parliament introduced amendments to the MRHA in response to a changing world. While these amendments have not come into effect yet, they are meant to address two concerns:

  1. The use of the internet and social media to spread hate and mobilise mobs against religious groups; and
  2. Increasing foreign interference in domestic affairs globally.

This article provides an overview of the MRHA’s key provisions.

What Actions can be Taken Against Individuals Who Stir Up Hostility Against Other Religious Groups?

After the amendments to the MRHA come into effect, a new section 17F of the MRHA will prohibit individuals from:

  • Inciting hostility, ill-will or hatred between local religious groups;
  • Insulting religion; or
  • Wounding the religious feelings of others,

where such actions would threaten the public peace or public order in Singapore. It does not matter whether these actions were conducted in Singapore or overseas.

The punishment for this offence is a fine, or up to 5 years’ jail, or both.

While similar laws currently exist in the Penal Code, these laws will be amended to remove their references to religion. This is in order to consolidate laws protecting religious harmony into the MRHA.

Private statements that are intended to be seen or heard only by the parties themselves are excused from this offence. This is unless the parties could have reasonably expected others to also see and hear those statements.

Religious leaders are held to a higher standard

Religious leaders can also be found liable under the new section 17F for stirring up religious hostilities. However, they are held to a higher standard than offenders who are not religious leaders.

This is because the religious leaders’ actions need not have threatened the public peace or public order in Singapore before they can be found guilty of an offence under section 17F.

Under the MRHA, “religious leaders” refer to people in a position of authority in a religious group or institution in relation to religious practice and worship, or that religion’s tenets.

People who are simply part of the religious group’s governing body, without having such positions of religious authority, will not be considered “religious leaders” for the purposes of the MRHA.

A religious leader can only be excused from an offence under section 17F if the statements made had been directed to a domestic audience (i.e. the religious leader’s relatives or members of his/her household) and had been intended to be heard by them only.

Issuance of Restraining Orders (ROs)

Restraining Orders (ROs) can be issued against religious leaders or members of religious groups to prevent them from spreading views that might stir up religious hostilities.

In response to the increasing use of digital and social media to spread divisive religious views, the MRHA is also being amended to no longer require the Government to serve a 14-day notice before issuing an RO. Instead, the Government will be able to issue the RO immediately.

Individuals who are the subject of the RO will be able to provide their side of the story to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) after the RO has been given. The PCRH may then recommend for the RO to be confirmed, cancelled, or varied.

What Actions can be Taken Against Individuals Who Incite Violence Against Religious Groups, or Incite Violence on Religious Grounds?

Another Penal Code offence that protects religious harmony is being consolidated into the MRHA as a new section 17E prohibition against inciting violence against religious groups, or on religious grounds.

For the offence of inciting violence against religious groups, the grounds for inciting violence need not be religious.

For the offence of inciting violence on religious grounds on the other hand, the group being targeted for violence need not be a religious group. It can be any group bound by a common characteristic, such as ethnicity, descent, nationality, language, political opinion or even sexual orientation.

Both offences are considered more severe than the section 17F offence of stirring up hostilities discussed above and carry a heavier punishment. The punishment can be a fine, or a jail term of up to 10 years, or both.

How does the MRHA Safeguard Against Foreign Influence?

The Government also introduced measures in the MRHA amendments to protect our religious groups from foreign influence. These measures act both:

  • Directly, through regulation of the citizenship of religious groups’ governing body members; and
  • Indirectly, through the regulation of foreign donations and affiliations.

Regulation of the citizenship of religious groups’ governing body members

Once the MRHA amendments take effect, a religious group must ensure that more than half the seats in its governing body are held by Singapore Citizens.

Furthermore, religious groups are not allowed to appoint non-Singapore Citizens or non-Singapore Permanent Residents (PRs) into key positions in their governing bodies. Such key positions include chairman, director, company secretary, president, treasurers, and partners.

If those positions are vacant, only Singapore Citizens or PRs are allowed to temporarily fill in those positions.

A religious group can be fined up to $5,000 for failing to follow the above-mentioned restrictions. An additional fine of $500 can also be levied for every day or part of the day the offence continues.

The Government can also remove the individuals in question through an RO if it believes that the foreign influence undermines our religious harmony and is a threat to our public peace and order.

The Government may consider granting an exemption to these requirements if the foreign leadership does not hold views that harm religious harmony in Singapore, or the religious group had been historically set up as a cross-border initiative.

Regulation of foreign donations and affiliations

Religious groups will also be required to annually inform the Government of any donations of at least $10,000 it receives from foreign individuals (i.e. not Singapore Citizens or PRs) or foreign organisations.

Religious groups are also required to declare any affiliations with foreigners that can potentially influence their activities in Singapore, such as foreign religious organisations that give guidance to local religious groups.

A person who makes a false or misleading report on the disclosure of donations or foreign affiliations can be fined up to $10,000 for a first-time offence. Other persons in key positions within the religious group can also be fined up to $5,000.

What Happens If an Offence Under the MRHA has Potentially been Committed?

Carrying out acts that may be an offence under the MRHA does not automatically result in a fine or a jail sentence.

Instead of being prosecuted, the alleged offender may be allowed to make amends by performing an activity to promote religious harmony in Singapore. This is known as the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI).

A CRI could include making a public apology or participating in a community programme.

CRIs will only be available for acts carried out after the MRHA amendments have taken effect. They are offered at the Government’s discretion, and only for acts that:

  • Stir up, or that the alleged offender knows is likely to stir up, hostility, ill-will or hatred against religious groups in Singapore; or
  • Were conducted on religious grounds, and that the alleged offender knows are likely to insult the religious feelings of another person in Singapore.

The CRI is also completely voluntary for the alleged offender.

Should the alleged offender decide to take up the offer of CRI, the Government will not proceed with the prosecution of the offence. If the alleged offender had already been charged, the alleged offender can be discharged from, but not acquitted of, the charge.

If an alleged offender does not comply with the terms of the CRI, the Government may go ahead with the prosecution for that offence.

Times have changed since the MRHA was first enacted. There is a greater need now to protect religious groups from foreign influence and to stem the flow of religious hate speech on social media.

The amended MRHA will provide more tools for Singapore to face these challenges head-on.