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Suppression in Singapore

The government restricts religious freedom to eradicate dissent

WHILE debate continues in the United States over the propriety of religious organizations speaking out on matters of public policy, the government of Singapore has taken steps to render such activity criminal. The Singapore Parliament, where every seat but one is held by the ruling People's Action Party, is about to enact a law for the ``Maintenance of Religious Harmony.'' The law will permit the government to silence or imprison without trial members of the religious community with whom it disagrees. In doing so, the Singapore government will have eliminated one of the few remaining sources of independent expression in Singapore. The government of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew contends that the new law is aimed at clergy who promote hatred between the religions or use religion as a ``guise'' for promoting political causes. It empowers the Minister of Home Affairs to issue a renewable two-year prohibition order to prevent individuals from speaking before religious groups or publishing their views. Violating a prohibition order, which under the law cannot be challenged in the courts, can result in up to two years' imprisonment and a S$10,000 ($5,300) fine.

In a White Paper issued in December 1989, the government contended that such legislation is necessary to prevent the ``misuse of religions'' in Singapore's multi-religious and multiracial society. According to the government, religious harmony is threatened by members of the religious community who promote political views under the cloak of religion. The White Paper insists that such persons, whatever their views, must express them circumspectly. Only executive action immune from judicial review, says the government, will allow it to act ``promptly and effectively.''

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The real purpose of the law is to inhibit criticism of the government. The White Paper explains that religious leaders must not ``incite (their followers) to oppose the government.'' One provision explicitly prohibits ``exciting disaffection against the President or the Government of Singapore.'' Thus a member of the clergy who gives a sermon disagreeing with government policies toward the poor could be slapped with a two-year prohibition order. In short, the law is a blatant attempt to restrict the basic political rights of Singapore's religious community.

This is not the first time that Prime Minister Lee has done this. In May and June of 1987, the government arrested and detained for up to three years 22 young political activists, most of whom were active members of Roman Catholic organizations, under the country's Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged involvement in a ``Marxist comspiracy.'' Of the 11 organizations named by the government as targets for infiltration, six were Catholic or Christian groups. In late 1987, the government expelled the headquarters of the Christian Conference of Asia, an ecumenical council. Several foreign Muslim theologians have been banned from Singapore.

The government's White Paper makes accusations against all the major religious groups in Singapore. It charges foreign Muslim theologians of making ``provocative political speeches'' inciting Muslims against the government. It alleges that Hindu and Sikh activists have become involved with political developments in India, which the government says are not of concern to Singaporeans. Protestant groups are accused of distributing materials denigrating the Pope. The proposed law on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony is presumably aimed at preventing such activities in the future.

The new law restricts religious freedom, but also curtails the right to free expression and association. It is only the latest government action to undermine basic human rights. In addition to the arrests without charge of activists, the government has restricted the political activity of nongovernmental organizations, such as the bar and labor unions. Opposition politicians have been placed under surveillance and been subject to criminal prosecution. There is no independent domestic press in Singapore and foreign publications have restricted circulations. Religious groups had been among the few still able to speak out.

Singapore's clean streets, booming economy, and efficient subway system belie a society whose citizens suffer proscribed political rights. At a time when many totalitarian states are moving toward democratic forms of government, Singapore is heading in the opposite direction. As government restrictions increase on those who speak out against government policies, whether from the pulpit or the soapbox, the possibility of reversing direction becomes more difficult.

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