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 law 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 law establishes the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s 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 law 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 ascertains the person causes feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or excites 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 law provides Muslims with the option to have their family affairs governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Under the law, a sharia (Islamic law) 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 of Singapore. The ruling of the Appeal Board is final and may not be appealed to any other court. The law 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 government can review applications for polygamous marriages. Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam, including cohabitation outside of marriage and publicly expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law.
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 law 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) regulate all land usage in Singapore and decide where organizations can be located throughout the country. 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 Development, Youth, and Sports and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship.
URA guidelines regulate the use of zoned commercial space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply to all religious groups. 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.
The law allows industrial areas zoned as “Business 1” (B1) to have a religious space that is nonexclusive. Religious use of these industrial spaces must be limited to certain days of the 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 nonexclusive and limited religious activities include auditoriums and conference rooms. Industrial space cannot be owned by 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.
The government considers religious, social, and racial harmony to be an important policy goal. Ethnic ratios must be maintained in public housing and there are no enclaves of religious or ethnic groups in concentrated geographic areas.
The government may prohibit the importation of publications under the law. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to S$ 2,000 ($1,584) and jailed up to 12 months for a first conviction.