Maintenance of Religious Harmony in Malaysia and Singapore

SINGAPORE – Maintenance of religious harmony. It sounds wonderful. An idea that promotes people getting along together. True freedom of religion. But the artwork of legislative ambiguity is misleading in many countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, the city-state at the southern end of Malaysia.

Maintenance of religious harmony. It sounds wonderful. An idea that promotes people getting along together. True freedom of religion. It sounds like Singapore may be on to something. But the artwork of legislative ambiguity is misleading. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in Singapore is anything but religious freedom.

Two men and two women, residents of Finland, were detained on November 28th for “allegedly passing out Christian pamphlets.” International Christian Concern reported that the four were arrested in their hotel rooms at a popular resort. The four are being held in custody under charges that they were “disturbing religious harmony” following complaints from local citizens.

Police seized more than 300 Christian pamphlets from the hotel rooms. If the four are found guilty of the charges against them, they could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison.

The Malaysian Constitution provides that “Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion, and subject to Clause (4), to propagate it.”

Two problems exist that complicate the appearance of freedom of religion. Both are also in the Malaysian Constitution:

Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation. – Article 3 (1)

Clause (4) says that “State law and . . . federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” – Article 11 (4)

The constitution clearly protects only the rights of Muslims to propagate their religion whilst that freedom is not extended to any others, particularly Christians.

This type of ‘freedom of religion’ is no more than craftily-worded legislation that deliberately misleads the general public (those of us who don’t normally read constitutions).

Singapore, the independent city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia, also guarantees religious freedom in Article 15 (1) of its constitution. It has even passed the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which is binding law. The full title of the law is “An Act to provide for the maintenance of religious harmony and for establishing a Presidential Council for Religious Harmony and for matters connected therewith.”

Under the auspices of Section 8 (1) of the act and the council, the Minister for Home Affairs has the power to restrain anyone accused of:

(a) causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups;

(b) carrying out activities to promote a political cause, or a cause of any political party while, or under the guise of, propagating or practicing any religious belief;

(c) carrying out subversive activities under the guise of propagating or practicing any religious belief; or

(d) exciting disaffection against the President or the Government while, or under the guise of, propagating or practicing any religious belief.

The restraints extend to persons [who have] . . . caused feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will, or hostility between different religious groups.

The constitution itself guarantees the right to “freely profess, practice, and propagate” their religious beliefs. Neither ‘profess’, ‘practice’, nor ‘propagate’ are defined in the Singapore Constitution. This becomes problematic in a court of law.

What the Singapore Constitution seems to say is that people have the right to explain their religion to others but that they do not have the right to convert someone who already holds to a pre-existing religious belief. In fact, conversion is deemed to be a violation of the ‘freedom of conscience’ also ensured by the constitution.

Nation after nation has introduced so-called ‘freedom of religion.’ We need to become more aware of what that means in any given country, especially when it is clearly a granted freedom that is contradicted within the same legislation.

People (in government or otherwise) do not always say what they mean or mean what they say about freedom of religion. The reasons may be indiscernible to us. However, the Singapore Constitution reflects what is often behind the contradictions. There have been, and there are, groups operating under the guise of religion who seek to undermine, subvert, or even overthrow governments.

Well-meaning legislators may need to rethink, reword, and clarify the actual intent of the law. In other cases, especially where there is a defined government religion, it is more likely that the laws, although proclaiming freedom of religion, are actually written to protect the cultural curtain of those nations.

Regardless, our responsibility is both to share the Gospel while also obeying Romans 13:1-7 –

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.

Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.

For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to [execute] wrath on him who practices evil.

Therefore [you] must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.

For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.

Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes [are due], customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

To read more news on Religious Freedom on Missions Box, go here.

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