Protecting Vulnerable Groups against Religious Intolerance, Overreach of Minister’s Powers and Inclusion of Non-Religious Persons
Parliamentary Speech for Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill, 7 Oct 2019
Anthea Ong on Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill
Singapore's laws must go beyond physical safety to protect the psychosocial safety and mental well-being of vulnerable…
More Protection for Vulnerable Groups
Mr Speaker, I support this Bill as it takes a strong stance against religious intolerance that would threaten the public peace and public order of Singapore. It also expands the scope of protection beyond religious groups against such intolerance and discrimination.
I especially applaud the new provisions in Sections 17E (1) & (2) which explicitly state that it is an offence of any person knowingly urging, on the ground of religion or religious belief or activity, the use of force or violence, and the target group or target person is distinguished by religion or religious belief or activity, or by ethnicity, descent, nationality, language or political opinion, or any other characteristic whether or not of a similar kind.
The target group was elaborated in unambiguous terms in the Explanatory Statement on Page 77 of the Bill. I quote, “the target group need not be confined to persons who practise a certain religion. The target group may be made up of atheists, individuals from a specific racial community, who share a similar sexual orientation, or have a certain nationality or descent like foreign workers or new citizens.” unquote
In April 2019, the Minister said that hate speech dehumanises marginalised groups, which enables individuals to justify violence against them. These new provisions serve to protect our vulnerable groups, including the LGBTQ community, from hate speech and institutionalised discrimination which, to my mind, always constitutes violence.
This is indeed an important change that signals the coming of age of a progressive and inclusive society that we are, and must be. I recall the 2016 case of a Singaporean man who threatened to ‘open fire’ at the LGBTQ community in a Facebook community based on certain religious beliefs and was subsequently charged for “making an electronic record containing an incitement to violence”. Would the Minister clarify, as an illustration for the Bill, that the man’s action could be an offence under the new provisions of s17E (1) & (2)?
Religious Harmony & Mental Health
Mr Speaker, beyond physical safety, our laws must also protect the psychosocial safety and mental wellbeing of vulnerable groups against religiously-motivated violence.
In the last 3 to 6 months alone, a community project I co-founded called A Good Space, has been approached by 3 different groups who support people who suffer from mental distress because of religious discrimination — some call this religious trauma which is sometimes defined as when religion has been been weaponised to cause guilt, shame and a feeling of unworthiness in people.
One of these groups was set up four years ago to address religious trauma for young girls and the group has supported a range of issues from micro-aggression wth remarks such as “your skirt’s too tight”, “why aren’t you in a hijab”, to outright sexual harassment and violations.
Another is an interfaith group set up last year by a 35 year old man and his wife. He shared his traumatic experiences of deep religious indoctrination, peer pressure, pastoral surveillance and being asked to participate in the many disciplinary actions that his church did to those who weren’t faithful. He eventually became, in his words, an “evangeliser climbing the church ladder who have lost my identity, my education and all other passions”. Now his group brings together, and support, many pro-pluralistic believers regularly to share with each other their experiences of religious trauma.
Another community practitioner, in her 30s, who set up a healing group in December 2016 to support Muslim women from the LGBTQ community just shared this story with me. She attended a parenting talk by a psychologist recently at a mosque and was shocked to hear the speaker tell parents to treat their LGBT children like a drug addicts and also encouraged them to put these children through conversion therapy! Despite a large body of scientific evidence showing that being LGBTI is normal and healthy, and the World Health Organisation having removed homosexuality as a disease 42 years ago in 1977, punishments are still imposed by religious communities.
Both religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health which is the basis for harmony and peace in our society. But we cannot and must not dismiss the religious hurt and victims of religious abuse in this effort towards religious harmony. I hope the new provisions will go some way in deterring these practices.
Open dialogue about such emotionally-harming practices needs to take place more often. There needs to be more support for those affected by religious trauma. I am glad to see interfaith groups like Interverse by Saiful Anuar emerging in this area and hope to see more religious and interfaith communities take on such support roles. I also hope that the Government proactively encourage intra-faith dialogue beyond just interfaith ones to maintain not just religious harmony but also the mental wellbeing of our fellow Singaporeans.
Amendments: Lack of Notice and Consultation
Mr. Speaker, let me now move our focus to another key amendment of this Bill. For the Bill to truly work in achieving religious harmony as its intent, its implementation should heavily engage various religious groups. Instead, the Bill allows for the expanded powers of the Minister in being able to make a Restraining Order without 14 days’ notice of his intention to the person against whom the Order is made or to the religious group that is implicated. The Minister can decide without affected persons and religious groups nor relevant stakeholders consulting and advising on the Order.
I am concerned that the lack of notice and consultation may not sufficiently take into account the sensitivities of religious issues, and the need to ensure good governance. A decision that is made without notice nor consultation may be seen as heavy-handed and controlling of the religious landscape in Singapore. While affected parties can appeal within 14 days of the order, the Restraining Order having been made would cast negative public attention on the particular religion affected. The absence of consultation may also mean that the Minister has less information to decide whether making an Order is the best way to achieve religious harmony. While the current Government may believe itself to be competent in making Orders appropriately, we may not be able to say the same of future governments. I think it is important to keep the safeguard procedures of notice and consultation to ensure that the law is properly enforced.
Moreover, Mr Speaker, allowing swift issuance of the Order is efficient but may not be appropriate in all instances. For online communications, such a swift issuance may be more suitable. Yet, for restraining orders relating to not accepting, returning, or disposing of donations and the composition of the governing body, these are decisions that can be undertaken less urgently. Hearing the affected person or religious group’s side of the story, such as on how the sources and necessity of these donations are, and the nature of contributions of the governing body members, would be extremely useful in decision-making.
I strongly urge the Minister to clarify on the removal of the notice period and the non-requirement of notice or consult. And to enlighten us with the implementation and training guidelines for the ‘competent authority’ with these new provisions.
Amendment: Adding a Stephen’s Code to the Bill
Mr Speaker, let me invite us to think about the other side of this religious coin? As much as we enhance our laws to protect against religious intolerance, how can we also ensure that engaging in honest dialogue made in good faith for the purpose of intellectual and spiritual advancement will not make a person liable under the MHRA and other related legislation like the s298 and s298A of the Penal Code and the Sedition Act?
Section 17F(10) in the Bill is implicit yet limiting in this regard. I urge the Minister to consider the inclusion of a “Stephen’s Code” into our laws to provide protection for reasonable speech made with good intentions for the sake of protecting public interest — like Canada and New Zealand have. New Zealand’s version of this code reads, I quote, “It is not an offence against this section to express in good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, any opinion whatever on any religious subject.” unquote
This ensures that highly intolerant segments of society who deliberately take offence will not be able to silence reasonable and well-intended speech. Non-religious individuals in Singapore can feel restrained providing a fair response to religiously-motivated opinions for fear of causing offence, even if unintentional.
Religious Harmony with Non-Religious Persons
Finally, Mr. Speaker, this brings me to the scope of inclusion in our policy and social narratives for religious harmony. Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country. Yet 1 in 4 Singaporeans do not follow a religion, according to the 2019 survey by the Institute for Policy Studies. Religious harmony, which is the intent of this Bill cannot be complete, if we do not actively invite and include all the non-religious in our current interfaith initiatives.
The Humanist Society Singapore had to insert itself in interfaith programmes through its assiduous efforts. Five years ago, they had to intently knock on the doors of initiatives such as RSIS conference, NUS interfaith, NTU Path, UnConference, RosesOfPeace, CIFU, OnePeople.
People of faith must know and understand that fellow Singaporeans who do not have a religion do not necessarily oppose religion, they simply hold a different set of beliefs. I urge the Government to consider using ‘interbelief’ instead of ‘interfaith’ in our official narrative so that we are not alienating 25% of our Singaporeans, and for all interfaith communities to do the same.
Mr Speaker, diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with yet perhaps the most dangerous for a society to be without.
Someone once said that ‘diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice at the table and belonging is being heard at the table.” The Bill recognises the need for us to protect our vulnerable and minority groups and is a step in the right direction by bringing them to the table. Yet we must do more to make sure we give everyone a voice to be heard — whether they be those who suffer from religious trauma, LGBTQ persons, atheists, unwed mothers, foreign workers, new citizens and many more minorities.
Because religious diversity may be a given but religious harmony, whether inter or intra, is not. A top-down approach may risk creating merely facades without sentiment and could in fact perpetuate the divisions. We must go beyond mere proclamations of peaceful co-existence to develop the ability to understand and communicate with each other across all kinds of divisions, within and between religions and cultures, as a fundamental prerequisite for our society to remain cohesive and robust. The Government must not over-regulate peace and harmony or intervene too early as it might rob us of the opportunity, as a people, to develop this ability. This intercultural competence, and not merely multiculturalism, must be a collective responsibility and priority for a Singapore that citizens from communities can call home, truly.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).
Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng