The constitution and some laws protect religious freedom; however, other laws and policies restrict this right in some circumstances. The constitution states that every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. There is no state religion.
The Societies Act requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unlawful society may be punished with a fine, imprisonment, or both.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, passed in 1990, establishes the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony. The president appoints its members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. Two-thirds of the members are required to be representatives of the major religions in the country. The Council for Religious Harmony reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act authorizes the minister for home affairs to issue a restraining order against any person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister is satisfied that the person was causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promoting political causes, carrying out subversive activities, or exciting disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. Any restraining order must be referred to the Council for Religious Harmony, which recommends to the president that the order be confirmed, cancelled, or amended. Restraining orders lapse after 90 days, unless confirmed by the president. The minister must review a confirmed restraining order at least once every 12 months and may revoke such an order at any time. The act prohibits judicial review of restraining orders issued under its authority.
The Administration of Muslim Law Act provides Muslims with the option to have their family affairs governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Under the act, a Sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over the marital affairs of Muslims, including maintenance payments, disposition of property upon divorce, and custody of minor children. Orders of the Sharia court are enforced by the ordinary civil courts. Appeals within the Sharia system go to the Appeal Board, which is composed of three members of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of seven individuals nominated every two years by the president. The ruling of the Appeal Board is final and may not be appealed to any other court. The Administration of Muslim Law Act allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to take additional wives in accordance with Islamic law, after soliciting the views of existing wives and reviewing the husband’s financial capability.
The constitution states that Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social, cultural, and linguistic interests.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-aided, religiously affiliated schools. Religious instruction is provided outside of regular curriculum time; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government, including madrassahs and Christian schools. At the primary level, the Compulsory Education Act allows seven designated private schools (six madrassahs and one Adventist school) to educate primary-age students, provided these schools continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams.
As part of the Ministry of Education’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encourage religious harmony and tolerance. In July all schools celebrate racial harmony day, which promotes understanding and acceptance of all religions and races within the country.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular racial or religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any racial or religious group that are referred to it by parliament or the government.
The Ministry of Community Development, Youth, and Sports and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) regulates all land usage in Singapore and decides where organizations can be located throughout the country. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercial space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply to all religious groups. Enacted in July 2010, the guidelines state that no more than 20,000 square meters (215,000 square feet) or 20 percent of a commercial complex’s gross floor area may be used for religious purposes. Activities are permitted no more than twice weekly. Religious groups are limited to using 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of commercial space.
June revisions to the guidelines also allow industrial areas zoned as “Business 1” (B1) to have a religious space that is non exclusive. Religious use of these industrial spaces must be limited to certain days in a week and occupy only part of the industrial premises. Religious activities should not cause disturbances such as noise, traffic, or parking problems to the public. Spaces within B1 industrial developments that can be used for non-exclusive and limited religious activities include auditoriums and conference rooms. Industrial space cannot be owned or specifically leased to a religious group; there can be no religious signage on the exterior or interior of the building. Religious groups must seek approval from URA before using industrial spaces. Land usage for building a religious institution is determined under the Master Plan, a planning regulation reviewed every five years to determine what types of buildings can be allocated in each area. Religious institutions are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking to build a new religious institution must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of Community Youth and Sports and the Urban Redevelopment Authority determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship.
The government considers religious, social, and racial harmony to be an important policy goal and consequently does not allow enclaves of religious groups to exist in concentrated geographic areas.
The government may prohibit the importation of publications under the Undesirable Publications Act. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to S$2,000 ($1,500 U.S.) and jailed up to 12 months for a first conviction.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Hari Raya Haji and Hari Raya Puasa (Islamic), Good Friday and Christmas (Christian), Deepavali (Hindu), and Vesak Day (Buddhist).