Laws safeguarding religious harmony have to be kept up-to-date to deal with new threats: PM Lee

Singapore’s religious harmony has to be kept up to date to deal with new threats that seek to incite enmity and hatred between religious groups, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Nov 7).


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the opening ceremony of the MUIS 50 International Conference on 7 November 2018

Even though the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act has been in force for three decades without the Government having to invoke its powers, Mr Lee said it has “has made an important contribution to our religious harmony” by setting out the ground rules on the “give and take” that is essential in a multi-religious society, so that all faiths can coexist peacefully.

It also allows the Government to take prompt action against anyone whose actions or words cause feelings of enmity and hatred between religious groups, added the Prime Minister. He was delivering the keynote address at an international conference themed “Future of Faith: Religious Values in a Plural World”, organised by Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

The Act, which came into force in 1992, allows the Home Affairs Minister to issue a restraining order against a leader or member of any religious group, if the minister is satisfied that the person has committed or is trying to commit any act that might incite “enmity, hatred, ill will or hostility between different religious groups”, or that promotes a political cause under the guise of propagating religious beliefs.

Stressing the importance of fostering good interfaith relations, “by its very existence”, Mr Lee noted that the law has made an important contribution to our religious harmony, and has to be kept up-to-date to “deal with new threats to our religious harmony that will emerge from time to time”.

In his speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore has established social norms of compromise and accommodation “through a long period of sustained effort and socialisation”.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Last September, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was the first to bring up the need to update this piece of legislature.

While Singapore already has very strict laws against hate speech, Mr Shanmugam said then that the Act will be further strengthened amid regional developments. However, he did not provide details.

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of the conference on Wednesday, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said it is timely to review the Act, and added that the Ministry of Home Affairs will share more details on it “soon”.

Elaborating on the new threats, Mr Masagos — who is also the Environment and Water Resources Minister — said that there have been external influences trying to “re-shape” how Muslims live their lives, which includes being exclusivist. There is also the longstanding danger of terrorism, with terrorist groups calling on Muslims to establish an Islamic caliphate.

“All these ideas are new ideas, which are ideas from old texts, or interpretation of old texts. So, these need to be addressed by our own scholars,” he added.

In his speech on Wednesday to 350 interfaith religious leaders and scholars, Mr Lee also reiterated the need for different races and religions to adopt a “give and take” approach, given that different communities live side by side, with places of worship coexisting in close proximity with one another.

He cited an example of how a Chinese temple recently held an event on a common site that it shares with a neighbouring mosque. As that event coincided with Hari Raya Haji, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, the temple leaders “decided to build their shelter earlier, so that they could share it with their Muslim neighbours, to use for their prayers too”, said Mr Lee.

Living together also means having to manage difficult issues, and doing so sensitively, said the Prime Minister. Illustrating this, he pointed out how many Muslims had reservations about the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA) — legislated in 1987 — and were exempted from the law due to religious reasons.

“But over time, Muslims saw how the Act operated, and understood that it saved lives,” said Mr Lee. Muis held dialogues to clarify misconceptions and concerns, and it was only after the community was persuaded did the Government amend the law to automatically include Muslims under the Act in 2008.

Maintaining religious harmony, said Mr Lee, requires “unremitting conscious effort and attention”. He added: “It also requires religious leaders who under the broader social context, support the Government’s efforts to build common ground and guide their followers on the right path.”

“By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise one day, tear our society asunder.”


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