Guide to Singapore’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act

Last updated on January 13, 2024

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

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

In 2019, amendments were introduced to the MRHA to enable the Ministry of  Home Affairs (MHA) to respond more effectively to incidents of religious disharmony, as well as strengthen safeguards against foreign influence that could threaten the country’s religious harmony.

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?

Section 17F of the MRHA prohibits 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, up to 5 years’ jail, or both.

It is a defence if an accused person can prove, on the balance of probabilities, that such conduct was communicated domestically and was in circumstances where it was reasonably expected that no external parties could hear or see such conduct or actions.

Religious leaders are held to a higher standard

Religious leaders can also be held liable under section 17F for stirring up religious hostilities. However, they are held to a higher standard as compared to 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.

Restraining Orders (ROs) against offensive online content

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 Government will be able to issue an RO immediately to require an offender to remove offensive online content.

The individual on which the RO is served, and the religious group which the individual belongs to, will be able to make representations to the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH). The RO will be reviewed by the PCRH, and the President will then decide if the RO should be confirmed, cancelled or varied.

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

Section 17E prohibits 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.

As for the offence of inciting violence on religious grounds, 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 penalties include a fine, or a jail term of up to 10 years, or both.

How does the MRHA Safeguard Against Foreign Influence?

The various measures in the MRHA to protect our religious groups from foreign influence 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

Key administrative leadership positions (e.g. chairman, director, company secretary, president, treasurers, and partners) must be held by a Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident, and the majority of the governing body has to be Singapore Citizens. The requirement does not apply to spiritual leaders who are foreigners, and do not hold key administrative leadership positions. Exemptions to this requirement will be considered by MHA on a case-by-case basis.

Failing to follow this requirement is an offence, and a religious group can be fined up to $5,000. An additional fine of $500 can also be levied for every day or part of the day that the offence continues.

Regulation of foreign donations and affiliations

While religious groups can still accept donations from foreign sources, they must declare single monetary donations of S$10,000 or more from foreign sources (i.e. individuals as well as organisations).

However, donations from the following foreign sources do note need to be declared, even if the amount exceeds S$10,000:

  • Singapore Permanent Residents;
  • Foreigners residing in Singapore on valid Employment passes or Immigration Passes;
  • Anonymous donations received through donation boxes placed at religious sites;
  • Proceeds collected during collective worship or religious rites/ceremonies;
  • Non-cash donations (such as statues or ritual items); and
  • Zakat and Fitrah.

Religious groups must also 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.

Do note that where there is foreign influence in the religious group which undermines religious harmony and is a threat to Singapore’s peace, ROs can be issued to these religious groups to stop them from receiving donations from foreign sources. Further leadership requirements may also be imposed.

Religious groups must also declare any affiliations to foreign persons or organisations in a position of control or power over the local religious group. This is purely a disclosure requirement, and the RO will not be able to compel religious groups to dissociate from their foreign affiliations.

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 learn more about Singapore’s multi-religious society. This is known as the Community Remedial Initiative (CRI).

Under the CRI, the MHA may, at its discretion, offer a person who has wounded the feelings of another religious community an opportunity to perform activities to help them better understand the affected religious community, and mend ties with them.

A CRI could include making a public or private apology to the affected parties, or participating in inter-religious community programmes.

The CRI is also completely voluntary for the alleged offender. The alleged offender can refuse to take up this offer, and the non-completion or refusal of the CRI will not be a criminal offence. If the offender agrees to complete CRI and does so, MHA will undertake not to refer the case for criminal prosecution.

If the alleged offender had already been charged with the offence, the alleged offender can be discharged from, but not acquitted of, the charge.

If an alleged offender agrees to undertake a CRI but does not comply with the terms of the CRI, then the CRI may be terminated and the case referred to the Public Prosecutor.

The laws under the MRHA reinforce the need to preserve Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious harmony, which cannot be taken for granted.

If you or a loved one have been charged with any of the offences listed above, it is recommended to you consult a criminal lawyer for further legal advice. A criminal lawyer would be able to advise you on the charges and any penalties that might apply, and the possible steps that you can take moving forward.

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