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Freedom of religion in Singapore

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Title: Freedom of religion in Singapore  
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Subject: Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Freedom of religion in Armenia, Freedom of religion in Azerbaijan, Freedom of religion in Cyprus, Freedom of religion in Syria
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Freedom of religion in Singapore

Freedom of religion in Singapore is guaranteed under the Constitution. However, the Government of Singapore restricts this right in some circumstances. The Government has restricted the Jehovah's Witnesses and banned the Unification Church. The Government does not tolerate speech or actions that it deems could adversely affect racial or religious harmony.

Religious demography

Singapore has an area of 270 square miles (700 km2) and a total population of 5.31 million (as of June 2013), of whom 3.6 million are citizens or permanent residents. According to a 2000 government survey, 85 percent of citizens and permanent residents profess some religious faith. Of this group, 51 percent practice Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship, or other religious practice traditionally associated with the ethnic Chinese population. Approximately 15 percent of the population is Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and 4 percent Hindu. The remainder is composed of atheists, agnostics, and adherents of other religions including small Sikh, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Jain communities. Among Christians, the majority of whom are ethnic Chinese, Protestants outnumber Roman Catholics by slightly more than two to one.

Approximately 77.8% of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 14% ethnic Malay, and 7% ethnic Indian. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim and most ethnic Indians are Hindu. The ethnic Chinese population is divided between Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, or is nonreligious.

Foreign missionaries are active in the country.

Status of religious freedom

Legal and policy framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in some circumstances. The Constitution provides that every citizen or person in the country has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief so long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. There is no state religion.

All religious groups are subject to government scrutiny and must be registered legally under the Societies Act. The Government deregistered the country's congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in 1972 and the Unification Church in 1982, making them unlawful societies. Such a designation makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences relating to owning property, conducting financial transactions, or holding public meetings.

The Government plays an active but limited role in religious affairs. For example, the Government seeks to ensure that citizens, most of whom live in Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). The MUIS advises the Government on concerns of the Muslim community, drafts the approved weekly sermon, regulates some Muslim religious matters, and oversees a mosque-building fund financed by voluntary payroll deductions. The Constitution acknowledges Malay/Muslims to be "the indigenous people of Singapore" and charges the Government specifically to promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social, cultural, and language interests.

The 1961 Women's Charter gives women, among other rights, the right to own property, conduct trade, and receive divorce settlements. Muslim women enjoy most of the rights and protections of the Women's Charter; however, for the most part, Muslim marriage law falls under the administration of the Muslim Law Act, which empowers the Shari'a court to oversee such matters. The act also allows Muslim men to practice polygamy. Requests to take additional wives may be refused by the Registry of Muslim Marriages, which solicits the views of existing wives and reviews the financial capability of the husband. As of 2007, there were 44 applications for polygamous marriage and 13 applications were approved.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights examines all pending bills to ensure that they do not disadvantage a particular group. It also reports to the Government on matters affecting any racial or religious community and investigates complaints. There were no complaints or reports to the Presidential Council on Minority Rights from the fiscal year 2005/2006.

The Government does not permit religious instruction in public schools.

There are official holy days for each major religion in the country: Hari Raya Haji and Hari Raya Puasa for Muslims, Christmas and Good Friday for Christians, Deepavali for Hindus, and Vesak Day for Buddhists.

The Government promotes interfaith understanding indirectly by sponsoring activities to promote interethnic harmony. Because the primary ethnic minorities are predominantly of one faith each, government programs to promote ethnic harmony have implications for interfaith relations. In February 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled the Community Engagement Programme (CEP). The goal of the CEP is to promote multiracial and interreligious harmony, in part so that a strong foundation would be in place should an incident that could provoke ethnic/religious discord, such as a religiously related terrorist attack, occur in the country. The CEP has held numerous community-based seminars, worked with trade unions to form cluster working groups on religious and community harmony, and launched a new website as a platform for communication and dialogue.

Restrictions on religious freedom

The Government restricts certain religious groups by application of the Societies Act. In 1982 the Minister for Home Affairs dissolved the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, also known as the Unification Church. In 1972 the Government deregistered the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that its existence was prejudicial to public welfare and order because its members refuse to perform military service (obligatory for all male citizens), salute the flag, or swear oaths of allegiance to the state. At the time, there were approximately 200 Jehovah's Witnesses in the country; as of 2007 there were approximately two thousand. Although the Court of Appeals in 1996 upheld the rights of members of Jehovah's Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious belief, and the Government does not arrest members for being believers, the result of deregistration has been to make public meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses illegal. Nevertheless, since the 1996 ruling, no charges have been brought against persons attending or holding Jehovah's Witness meetings in private homes.

The Government can also influence religious practice through the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. The act was passed in 1990 and revised in 2001 in response to actions that the Government viewed as threats to religious harmony. This includes aggressive and "insensitive" proselytizing and "the mixing of religion and politics." The act established the Presidential Council on Religious Harmony, which reports to the Minister for Home Affairs and is empowered to issue restraining orders against leaders and members of religious groups to prevent them from carrying out political activities, "exciting disaffection against" the Government, creating "ill will" between religious groups, or carrying out subversive activities. These orders place individuals on notice that they should not repeat such acts; contravening a restraining order can result in fines of up to $6,622 (SGD 10,000) and up to two years' imprisonment for a first offense. The act also prohibits judicial review of its enforcement or of any possible denial of rights arising from it.

Missionaries, with the exception of members of Jehovah's Witnesses and representatives of the Unification Church, are permitted to work and to publish and distribute religious texts. However, while the Government does not prohibit evangelical activities, in practice it discourages activities that might upset the balance of intercommunal relations. As of 2007, authorities did not detain any Jehovah's Witnesses for proselytizing.

The Government has banned all written materials published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and other corporations of Jehovah's Witnesses. In practice this has led to confiscation of Bibles published by the groups, although the Bible itself has not been outlawed. A person in possession of banned literature can be fined up to SGD 2,000 (USD 1,324) and jailed up to 12 months for a first conviction.

There were no government seizures of Jehovah's Witnesses literature already in the country during the previous 12-month period. In August 2006 one individual was detained briefly for attempting to bring Jehovah's Witnesses publications into the country from Malaysia. In this instance, the literature was confiscated and he was convicted of smuggling prohibited media. Authorities fined the individual SGD 6,000 (USD 3,846).

There were reports of Jehovah's Witnesses students being suspended from school for refusing to sing the national anthem or participate in the flag ceremony.

There were 23 members of Jehovah's Witnesses incarcerated in the armed forces detention barracks because they refused to carry out the legal obligation for all male citizens to serve in the armed forces. The initial sentence for failure to comply with the military service requirement is 15 months' imprisonment, to which 24 months are added upon a second refusal. Failure to perform annual military reserve duty, which is required of all those who have completed their initial two-year obligation, results in 40 sentences; a 12-month sentence is usual after four such refusals. All of the Jehovah's Witnesses in detention were incarcerated for failing to perform their initial military obligations and expect to serve a total of 39 months.

The Compulsory Education Act of 2000 mandates attendance at public schools for all children, with few exceptions. In response to concern from the Malay/Muslim community regarding the fate of madrassahs, the Government temporarily exempted madrassah students from compulsory school attendance, allowing attendance at a madrassah in lieu of a public school. However, according to local press reports, if a madrassah does not meet minimum academic standards by 2008, its students would have to transfer either to a madrassah that does meet such standards or to a public school.

There were no religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Societal abuses and discrimination

There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, which are illegal in Singapore.

Ethnic Malays constituted the great majority of the country's Muslim community. Attitudes held by the Malay and non-Malay communities regarding one another are based on both ethnicity and religion, which in effect are impossible to separate.

The Government enforced ethnic ratios for publicly subsidized housing, where the majority of citizens live and own their own units. The policy was designed to prevent ethnic/racial ghettos. When a housing development is at or near the limit for a particular ethnic group, the policy sometimes compels owners to sell their apartments to persons of underrepresented groups.

See also


  • United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Singapore: International Religious Freedom Report 2007. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.

Further reading

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