By James D. Ross. James D. Ross is Asia Program attorney .
The Christian Science Monitor
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 preveng 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."
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. …