To ensure there is little chance for such a scenario to play out, the Government is proposing nationality rules on top leaders of religious organisations, making it a requirement for them to declare donations from foreign sources as well as any affiliations, in a Bill to amend the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA).
Introduced in Parliament on Monday (Sept 2), the Bill, if passed, would require the top leadership positions — the president, secretary and treasurer — to be Singapore citizens or permanent residents, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in a statement.
If the organisation is a company, this will affect the equivalent roles of a chairman, managing director and company secretary. The requirements do not apply to spiritual leaders who do not hold these formal positions in the organisation.
A majority of its governing body, such as its executive committee, must also be citizens.
Out of around 2,500 religious organisations here today, around 100 will not be able to meet this requirement, said the MHA.
In its statement, MHA said some organisations may be granted exemptions from these leadership requirements on a case-by-case basis, such as if they have been “set up historically as cross-border organisations, and if the foreign leadership is not assessed to hold intentions or advocate views which would have an adverse impact on religious harmony in Singapore”.
MHA in response to queries from TODAY added that it has been engaging some of these organisations to inform them of the new requirements.
The MRHA, which safeguards Singapore’s religious harmony and stops religion from influencing politics, has never been used in the 27 years since it came into force in 1992.
If the Bill passes, there will be a grace period for religious organisations to fulfill these criteria. The exemptions will also not last in perpetuity and will need to be renewed and extended.
The proposed changes are aimed to protect inter-religious peace in Singapore, in a time when the rise of identity politics as well as the mixing of religion and politics have led to strife elsewhere.
Singapore, too, is not spared from the pitfalls of extremism and foreigners who could exploit religious fault lines here. In July, two men were detained under the Internal Security Act for terrorism-related conduct, one of whom had been in regular contact with the mastermind behind the Sri Lanka Easter bomb attacks.
DECLARING FOREIGN DONATIONS AND AFFILIATIONS
The proposed changes also seek to enhance the transparency on the foreign funding of religious organisations, said MHA, but it will do so without being “unduly onerous”.
It proposed that religious organisations declare to the ministry any one-time donations of S$10,000 or more that are made by a person who is not a citizen or permanent resident.
A donation given to and accepted by the religious leader, which is not for his own use or benefit, will be deemed to be a donation to the religious organisation, said the MHA.
However, certain types of donations will be exempted, such as those given to donation boxes or collected during religious ceremonies, non-cash or anonymous donations, as well as zakat fitrah offerings for Muslims.
Donations from foreigners who are working and living in Singapore, such as work pass and long term visit pass holders, will also be exempt from this requirement.
If there is a threat to religious tolerance, or to public peace and order in Singapore, a restraining order can be meted out against a religious organisation that can restrict or prohibit it from receiving donations from specific or all foreign donors, and compel it to return these donations.
The restraining order can also target certain individuals’ eligibility to hold office in the organisation, and require its entire executive committee to be Singapore citizens as well.
In addition, local religious organisations will need to declare their affiliations to foreign individuals or organisations that are in a position to exert control over them. These include foreign entities that religious organisations take guidance from.
The disclosure, however, is not meant to empower the Government to force them to dissociate from their foreign affiliations.
Singapore Buddhist Federation president Venerable Seck Kwang Phing told TODAY that the changes are necessary to guard against harmful foreign influence as the world becomes more globalised.
Most Sikh preachers, for example, come from overseas, said Sikh Advisory Board secretary Malminderjit Singh, and the Sikh Advisory Board has a “list of do’s and don’ts” as foreign preachers may not understand Singapore’s approach to religious tolerance.
While there are no homegrown religions in Singapore and all religions practiced here are imported, Mr Singh, said he believes the changes are not meant to influence the principles of religion but are aimed at preserving the peace.
He said: “There is no doubt about the fact (that all religions are imported), but in Singapore, we are mindful of our boundaries here in existing peacefully with other religions, and that is why we are very different from how religions are practiced overseas.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said in a statement on Monday (Sep 2) that although Singapore has enjoyed peace and stability over the years, religious harmony is not to be taken for granted.
"As a multi-religious society, Singapore is vulnerable to malicious foreign actors who may make use of religion to divide society. In particular, foreign actors can exert influence and control on religious organisations through aspects like donations, leadership or strong foreign affiliations," it said.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said that it strongly supported the amendments to the MHRA and hoped the ground-up efforts by religious communities here, together with a clear set of laws to protect religious harmony will "strengthen mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence in our religiously diverse society".