Singapore Bill sets new way to rehabilitate people who insult religion

SINGAPORE — When someone in Singapore makes an insulting post that could stir religious hatred, throwing the book at him in a public court case could lead to more animosity in society, rather than less.

With the aim to restore religious peace when such situations occur, the Singapore government plans to introduce a novel method to help educate and mend ties between the offender and the offended religious community, as opposed to hauling him to court.

Yesterday, a new Bill to amend the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) includes a way for the government to offer a person who has wounded the feelings of another religious community an opportunity to reconcile their differences through a Community Remedial Initiative (CRI).

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The Singapore government is looking to introduce a Community Remedial Initiative as a way for those who insult religion to make amends without being hauled to court. — TODAY Pic

Under this programme, the offender could be asked to apologise privately or publicly, or asked to participate in activities by the offended religion, giving the offender opportunities to understand the religion that he has insulted, and learn about Singapore’s multi-religious society.

The terms of the CRI will be determined by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which will also gather views from the offended religion on possible remedies.

“If the offender completes the CRI, criminal prosecution will not be taken against him for that offending act,” said the MHA in response to TODAY.

Unlike the corrective work order for litterbugs, which is meted out by a judge, the CRI is not a form of punishment and is not mandatory.

The offender can still decline to undertake the CRI, said the ministry. “The CRI will be taken into account when assessing whether to prosecute the person.”

Singapore Buddhist Federation president Seck Kwang Phing lauded the initiative as a “soft, intermediate approach” to dealing with people who unintentionally cause offence, giving them a second chance to remedy the offence they had caused.

He said there is value in letting offenders, who might not be malicious in the first place, to understand and hear the perspectives of the affected religious community.

Asked to give an example of a type of remedy, Sikh Advisory Board secretary Malminderjit Singh said it could be a dialogue or an information sharing session with the offender.

“I won’t go as far as to say that it will be like a CWO, such as having them clean the temples,” he joked, adding that he is waiting to hear more details about the CRI.

“It is supposed to be an educational process after all, and it is good that there are options for the community to decide how to reconcile matters.”

Faster removal of offensive posts

Another proposed change to the MRHA would ensure that offending messages that insult religion and create religious disharmony can be taken down immediately.

The current law, which was drafted at a time before the rise of social media, had allowed the Minister for Home Affairs to impose restraining orders against people who make inflammatory speeches offline. The restraining order can also stop him from printing, publishing, editing and distributing publications by religious groups, or from holding an office of an editorial board and committee of any religious groups’ publications.

The changes will expand the scope of the restraining order, requiring the offender to take down the offensive online post.

Speaking at the Forum on Religion, Extremism and Identity Politics co-organised by MHA and the Institute of Policy Studies in July, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the MRHA needs to be updated in order to tackle new threats in the Internet age.

Currently, the Minister for Home Affairs must give a notice of intention to the offender, the head of his religious group, as well as the 10-member Presidential Council for Religious Harmony. All these parties will have 14 days to give their views, after which the restraining order will take effect.

The Bill will allow the restraining order to take effect immediately. The person and his religious group may still make their own representations to the Presidential Council in the 14 days after the order is given.

Malminderjit said the changes are overdue and if passed, the amended MRHA will be able to reflect the changing nature of how people pass on and consume information, including those concerning religion.

“In this day and age, everything can be disseminated to thousands within minutes and precautions should be taken against this, so the changes are important so that people can respect each other, live together and work together peacefully,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said that with the pervasiveness of the internet and social media, hateful messages that can deepen and fracture religious harmony can spread faster and wider than before.

“It is therefore important that the MRHA is updated to ensure that we respond in an effective manner to any new threats that can harm religious harmony,” it said in a statement today. — TODAY & Picture courtesy: mothership.sg

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