Sylvia Lim raises hard questions to the Government on the controversial Religious Harmony Act
WP chair, Ms Sylvia Lim’s Parliamentary Speech on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill, touched on the topics raised by the Bill, as well as sought clarifications from the Minister on aspects and details in the Bill.
She first cites the Constitutional right of the freedom of religion, which includes the right to promote one’s beliefs. She says Singaporeans value the peaceful co-exsitence of multiple religions in Singapore, quoting a resident who said: “I believe what I believe not because you are wrong, but because my God is the right one for me.”
Sylvia Lim says ‘Singaporeans on the whole embody a spirit of moderation’, and that the WP believes the agenda setting of religious matters should be done by Singaporeans. While she acknowledges the risk of foreign actors negatively influencing us religiously, she asked for clarification whether the latest changes to the Bill infringes on the Constitution.
Domestic ‘political interference’ greater than ‘foreign interference’?
On separation of religion and politics, Sylvia says “while the focus of today’s Bill is on foreign interference, we should be vigilant that Singapore’s own religious leaders do not polarise their congregations along party-political lines.”
On this, Sylvia shared some observations:
“There has been open support for the Bill expressed by religious leaders. Religious authority is being thrown being the Govt’s legislation, both publicy, and also to specific congregations. Is that mixing religious authority with politics?
“As far as I know, the Government has welcomed this open support. But if the religious leaders had instead gone the other way, that is, express concern, or opposition to the Bill, would the Government have put its foot down and issued an order requiring them to stop?
She also gave other examples:
“Is it appropriate for a religious leader to exhort his congregation during a general election to ‘vote for stability’, or is it right for religious leaders to be publicly seen walking into a nomination centre in party uniform, with a political party’s candidates on nomination day?
“It is already brewing on the ground, that some religious institutions are developing reputations for being supportive of certain political parties. Any decision by religious leaders to take an openly-partisan stance bears the risk of causing tension between followers who ascribe to the leader’s political allegiances, and those who do not.
“If unchecked, there is a possibility that over time, there would be a polarisation of society along political lines, caused not by foreign influences, but by Singapore’s own religious leaders.
“Such a prospect could fracture social cohesion and divide society,” she said.
Seeking clarification on ‘dubious clause’
Sylvia Lim lastly touched on Section 16(F) of the proposed Bill, which states that a restraining order issued by the Minister ‘has effect despite the provisions of any other written law in force.’
“The explanatory note..is not clear as to how a restraining order could be contrary to a written law. Without clarification, the section reads as if a restraining order may breach other laws, or be illegal in some manner. Could the ministry explain what this is all about, please?”
Closing words: Why now?
Sylvia Lim also raised how the Bill was controversial back then when it was first mooted in Parliament:
“The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was controversial at the time it was passed. The then-first Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, told the House that the Cabinet had not been unanimous in deciding whether to legislate, and decided to mull over it and consult widely for several years.
“When the Bill was presented, he said and I quote: ‘In a sense, this Bill is a recognition of a retrogression or potential deterioration in religious harmony’, unquote.
“Sir, the Workers’ Party shares this concern of the Government and is prepared to work with the government on this aspect. Thank you.”
Watch her speech here: