Changes to 30-year-old religious harmony law to be introduced in Parliament next week: PM Lee Hsien Loong

SINGAPORE - Changes to a law that safeguards religious harmony in Singapore will be introduced in Parliament next week, in a move to pave the way for the Government to deal with new threats in a comprehensive and timely manner.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in announcing the legislative move on Monday (Aug 26), noted the Government has never had to invoke its powers under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in the last 30 years.

But in this span of time, the situation has changed significantly, he said.

"The proliferation of social media has made it much easier for people to cause offence through spreading vitriol and falsehoods, and for others to take offence," PMĀ Lee said at a gala dinner marking the 70th anniversary of the Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore (IRO).

The Act, passed in 1990 but took effect two years later, allows the Government to issue restraining orders against preachers who engage in conduct or speech that undermines religious harmony, and fine and jail those who breach such orders.

Plans to update it were announced last month by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

On Monday, PM Lee noted that Singapore has made great strides in building mutual trust and confidence, and is more cohesive, with people able to discuss sensitive matters more openly and candidly when addressing problems as well as appreciate each other's points of view.

"But we do not allow unfettered and rambunctious discussion on religion, or even worse provocative or blasphemous cartoons, performances and videos, nor are we likely to do so for a very long time to come," he said.

"We have no illusions about the depth of the religious fault lines in our society, and the harm that will befall us if we neglect to manage them," he added, noting that Singapore had suffered religious strife in the past.

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Today, such strife, intolerance and extremism are prevailing trends, he said, citing Sri Lanka where Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims used to live peacefully but since its independence in 1948, the island has become riven by ethnic and religious tensions and conflict.

In the Philippines too, the divide between the Christian and Catholic north and the Muslim south is "a deep and enduring fault line", he added.

"Against that backdrop, what we have in Singapore is very precious, very rare and remarkable," he said.

The Act sets the ground rules for all groups and to help the Government police these rules, PM Lee said.

It also established the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which has given good advice on dealing with sensitive religious issues which arise from time to time, he noted.

Though it has never been invoked, the law's very existence has helped to maintain the peace and harmony in Singapore which people sometimes takes for granted, PM Lee said.

While he did not elaborate on the proposed changes to the Act, he said religious leaders were consulted widely on them, and he was grateful for their support.

But legislation is only one part of Singapore's approach in building religious harmony, which, he warned, can be disrupted by religious problems elsewhere.

"We must also have religious and government leaders who are broad-minded and enlightened, who understand the context in which we operate, and who set an example for others to spread the message of tolerance and understanding," he added.

He commended the work of younger IRO leaders, for reaching out to non-religious groups, among other efforts, and also the contributions and guidance of elder leaders.

He cited the late president S R Nathan, who served as IRO patron from 2012 to 2016: "He exemplified what the IRO stood for, was passionate about the IRO's mission and provided invaluable advice and wisdom," he added.

Mrs S R Nathan received the Honorary Posthumous IRO Award for her husband from PM Lee.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.