S'pore law minister can demand takedown of offensive posts under updated Religious Harmony Act

The Law Minister said that while it should not be used, it must exist as a deterrent.

Jason Fan| September 26, 11:58 AM

Amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act will soon give Singapore's Law Minister more power against religious authorities whose actions have been deemed a threat to Singapore's religious harmony.

This includes the ability to demand the immediate takedown of offensive online posts.

The amendment bill will be read for a second time in Parliament in October 2019, after which it would be passed into law.

The Act currently allows the Minister for Home Affairs to make a restraining order against a person of religious authority, which only takes effect after 14 days.

This can happen in the event the person of religious authority is deemed to have provoked hostility between different religious groups, or to have promoted a political cause under the guise of practicing a religious belief.

No restraining orders have yet been issued under the Act.

A deterrent

However, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam previously said that while the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act does not need to be used, it has to exist as a deterrent measure.

He made this comment at the forum on Religion, Extremism and Identity Politics, an event that was jointly organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on July 24, 2019.

During the event, he brought up the need to update the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which was enacted in 1990, and came into force in 1992.

Persuasion is not enough

Although the Act has yet to be utilised, Shanmugam emphasised that the Act's existence is crucial to protect Singapore's religious harmony.

"If you don't have the legal power, pure persuasion has its limits. Persuasion works when people know that you also have the power to carry out and prevent something negative."

He explained that the law's existence serves to set the parameters for social conduct, and is necessary to ensure that nobody crosses the line.

The Act is particularly important because Singapore is not a mono-religious society, he said.

However, despite the importance of the Act, he insisted that invoking the Act should not be necessary.

Law as deterrence

Shanmugam elaborated that positive conduct cannot be encouraged through law, and that it is meaningless to try and use laws to get people to respect each other.

The law, however, can be used as a deterrence to ensure that individuals do not run down other religions.

"I am a believer in making sure the power is there. But I am also a believer in not exercising that power. You shouldn't have to exercise the power because if you did, society will not be what it is".

Top image by Jacky Ho, for the Institute of Policy Studies, NUS.