The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” There is no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported nine conscientious objectors remained detained as of December. A court convicted three Hindus in February on charges related to actions during the 2015 Thaipusam religious procession, including insulting a Muslim police officer’s religion. The government continued to ban all religious processions on foot, except for those of three Hindu festivals, including Thaipusam, and retained limitations on the use of music in these processions. In September the authorities introduced changes to the process for religious groups to acquire sites. The government said these changes aimed to reduce the cost of leases and increase the number of sites available. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences. Government organizations initiated regional interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives.
A visiting foreign preacher’s reportedly anti-Muslim comments at a Christian evangelical conference in March attracted public condemnation. The church responsible for inviting the individual initially filed a police complaint against reports on the preacher’s comments, but a church pastor later offered a public apology to the Muslim community and said that his church would be more vigilant in its selection of foreign speakers. The Mufti of Singapore accepted the pastor’s apology. There were numerous community-led initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.
The U.S. embassy engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders at a May iftar, during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech embracing religious diversity. The Charge hosted a round table on religious freedom with young religious leaders, and met with the Imam of Ba’alwie Mosque. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups to support religious freedom including the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), the government’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, humanist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, and Taoist groups. The embassy used social media to highlight its religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6 million (July 2018 estimate). Of the four million individuals the local government counts as citizens or permanent residents, 81.5 percent stated a religious affiliation in the General Household Survey. According to 2015 data, approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unification Church. Although estimates varied widely, the government estimated there were 2,500 members in the Jewish community.
According to a 2018 report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent Muslim, and 12.1 percent Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs and it does not prohibit restrictions on employment by a religious institution. The constitution states no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own.
The government maintains a decades-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds it nation was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish or import their literature. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.
The Presidential 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 president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of Council for Religious Harmony members to be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
The law authorizes the minister of 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. Restraining orders are at the discretion of the minister, depending on the situation, and prevent a person in a position of authority within a religious group from making or participating in additional statements. Failure to comply can result in criminal action. Any restraining order issued 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 law prohibits judicial review of such restraining orders. In addition, under the penal code, “wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” can result in detention and or imprisonment.
The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from the Sunni majority as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.
The government appoints all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board, and nominates four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards manage various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.
The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemptions. 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 unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.
Prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, are allowed access to chaplains of various faiths.
Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.
By law, a publication is objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses or deals with, among other things, matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will, or hostility between racial or religious groups. The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. For offenses involving the publication of objectionable material, an individual may be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 5,000 SGD ($3,700) or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both. A person in possession of a prohibited publication may be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and jailed for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.
The Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of National Development and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organizations or limited to religious use and must also be available to rent out for nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.
Registration with the MUIS is compulsory for all religious teachers and centers of learning. Registration requires adherence to minimum standards and a code of ethics, as well as fulfilment of certain training requirements.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools (mostly Christian but including three Buddhist schools). Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, however, the law allows only seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate Singaporean citizen students; these schools must continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. Public schools finish early on Fridays, which enables Muslim students to attend Friday prayers, or they allow Muslim students to leave early to attend prayers. Secondary school students learn about the diversity of Singapore’s religious and cultural practices as a component of their character and citizenship education.
The law empowers the Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate primary and secondary schools. MOE rules prohibit students (but not teachers) in public schools from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform, including hijabs or headscarves. Schools have discretion to grant a child dispensation from wearing the official uniform based on health but not religious requirements. International and other private schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, which are all under the purview of the MUIS, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.
The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law is used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over marriage issues where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance.
The law permits a person involved in a sharia court divorce case to apply for permission to begin civil proceedings concerning division of property or custody of children. Orders of the sharia court are enforced by the ordinary civil courts. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeal board, which is composed of three members of the MUIS, selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of seven individuals nominated every two years by the president of the country. 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 marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives and reviewing the husband’s financial capability.
Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam. This includes publicly teaching or expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law, which carries a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both. It is also a criminal offense for Muslims to cohabitate outside of marriage, but that law has not been enforced in decades.
Amendments to the Administration of Muslim Law Act that took effect on October 22 stipulate Muslim couples where one or both parties are under the age of 21 must complete a marriage preparation program and obtain parental or guardian consent before applying for marriage. Each party to the marriage must be at least 18.
According to legal experts in inheritance, Islamic law governs Muslims regarding inheritance issues by default, but under certain circumstances civil law will take precedence when it is invoked. Islamic law may result in a man receiving twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. A man may also incur financial responsibilities for women under Islamic inheritance law.
The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, including for religious reasons. Male citizens or second-generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group the parliament or the government refers to it.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses official website reported as of December nine Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing to complete national service on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, men who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They did not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.
A court convicted three Hindus in February of disorderly behavior and insulting a Muslim police officer’s religion during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in 2015. The trio was charged with assaulting several policemen after the officers stopped a musical troupe from playing traditional Indian drums in the Thaipusam religious procession. At that time, the government banned musical instruments from all religious processions on foot. The men were fined from 8,000 SGD ($5,900) to 8,500 SGD ($6,200) and one was additionally sentenced to one year and one week’s imprisonment. While he accepted his sentence, one convicted man attributed the group’s actions to the way authorities handled and spoke to them.
A group of Hindu participants in the Thaipusam foot procession in February said police officers and a representative from the Hindu Endowments Board had attempted to stop them from singing during the procession. Police said although the government has permitted singing religious hymns since 2011, the group’s portable loudspeakers were not permissible.
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam met with Hindu community leaders in March and addressed dissatisfaction over limitations on the use of live music at Thaipusam processions after police had permitted music at an event for St. Patrick’s Day. The minister said that other than three exemptions granted for Hindu processions on foot, only secular processions on foot were permissible. Authorities allowed the St. Patrick’s Day event to play live music because it was a secular event and religious elements, including attire, symbols, and music, were not allowed at the event, according to the minister. The minister stated he welcomed community proposals to increase the number of live music points along the Thaipusam procession route beyond the three that the government allowed, and the Hindu Endowments Board stated it was committed to working with authorities to achieve this objective. The minister’s comments followed online discussion by some individuals who questioned whether the government applied “double standards” on playing musical instruments to the two events. One person wrote on Facebook that saying St. Patrick’s Day was not religious was “a huge injustice” to the Irish Catholic community.
Media reported that MUIS counseled a couple in August after they were said to have started a new religion known as the Yayi faith. Yayi founder Paridah Jayos reportedly instructed her followers to treat her as a god and to ignore the tenets of Islam such as fasting during Ramadan and compulsory alms giving. Some individuals questioned online why Jayos was counselled under Islamic law, rather than being treated as a practitioner of a new religion.
Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam stated in parliament in January and March that it was important that no foreign religious preacher who could “spread ill-will towards other religions, whether in Singapore or elsewhere,” be granted permission to speak in Singapore. He said that the government would individually assess each foreigner’s request, based on his or her previous statements as well as his or her proposed talk. The government website said at least two months were required for processing. The Ministry of Home Affairs told media in April that foreign religious preachers could be issued an advisory to remind them of their legal obligations.
In January the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) banned a documentary, Radiance of Resistance, which was to be shown as part of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival. The IMDA stated, “the skewed narrative of the film is inflammatory and has the potential to cause disharmony amongst the different races and religions in Singapore.”
Media reported that during a retreat in March for the Muslim religious counseling organization the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) Shanmugam said, “younger self-radicalized individuals tend to rely heavily on the internet and social media for information, including religious teachings.” Shanmugam expressed his support for RRG launching a youth awareness program for individuals aged 16 to 25 that aims to engage, educate, and provide Muslim youth with a better understanding of Islam.
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim announced in parliament on March 8 the expansion of a project to combat religious extremism among Muslim youth. He also stated the government would stand against Islamophobia.
Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to quietly petition for a change in government policy.
The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. In September the authorities introduced changes to the process for acquiring long-term leases on government-owned sites that were designated for exclusive use as “places of worship.” The authorities said they aimed to reduce the cost and increase the availability of such leases, including for smaller religious organizations. The changes allowed certain sites to be used for multistory developments by multiple religious organizations “belonging to the same religion,” increased the number of sites to be designated for exclusive religious use, and restricted commercial entities from bidding on them. The government said religious groups would have to prove they had additional space needs, had adequate and sustainable local funding to finance the lease and development of the site, would not use foreign donations for the transactions, and would actively contribute to the community. The government said at least two church and two Chinese temple sites would be made available each year for the next “few years.” The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.
As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony.”
While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly as it reportedly deemed proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.
The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was set up to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam, as well as nine other major religions in Singapore. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religions. In March the Harmony Center and the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue held a seminar entitled, “Religion, Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity.”
President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multi-religious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. In May the president called for the government to host an international high-level interfaith dialogue. The president’s proposal, made during an interreligious iftar at An-Nahdhah Mosque, received support from local religious leaders and commentators.
Prime Minister Lee and four government ministers attended the consecration of the Hindu Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple in April. Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said the event provided “an opportunity to reinforce the multi-racial, multi-religious nature of Singapore.”
Ministers gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism. At the IRO Day in March, MCCY Minister Grace Fu called on religious communities to continue strengthening religious harmony by fostering interreligious social mixing, discussions on faith, and community service projects. (The IRO includes leaders of the 10 major religions in the country and has the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among various religious groups by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year.)
Local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for people of other religions. The country’s five district mayors launched a national interfaith initiative called Common Senses for Common Spaces in February, which included activities such as community dialogues on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
The government continued to support the operation of an “Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle” (IRCC) in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. Under the auspices of the MCCY, the IRCCs conducted local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities.
The government continued to engage religious groups through the community engagement program (CEP), and trained community leaders involved in the CEP in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony.
The government’s BRIDGE initiative, Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education, started in 2017 with funding of 3 million SGD ($2.2 million) for three years, continued to provide financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During a Christian evangelical conference in March, a visiting U.S. preacher reportedly said he would raise up a church to “push back a new modern Muslim movement” in Spain and “Muslims are taking over the south of Spain.” Cornerstone Church, which had invited the preacher, initially called the report on the preacher a “scurrilous attack” and lodged a complaint with police, but Pastor Yang Tuck Yoong of the Church offered a public apology to Muslim leaders one week later. Mufti of Singapore Fatris Bakaram accepted the apology and said Muslims “want to move on and look forward to more constructive and healthy relationships.” The Church committed to be more vigilant in its selection of foreign speakers, and in what Pastor Yang stated was an effort to improve its relations with Muslims, in July it hosted Imam Syed Hassan Al-Attas and a delegation from Ba’alwie Mosque. The minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs wrote on Facebook he appreciated the pastor’s apology because “words that sow discord and ill will among the various communities have no place in Singapore.” Police asked that the visiting preacher return to the country for an interview, but as of year’s end he had not.
Members of the public spoke out against reported instances of religious discrimination, such as when national football coach Fandi Ahmad commented about a Sikh journalist’s turban, and when Muslim Sephia Farid reported on Facebook that an interviewer at a government agency would not permit her to wear a hijab to work.
Sandwich chain Subway eliminated pork products and became halal certified in September. While some individuals threatened a boycott, other non-Muslims expressed support for Subway, and some Muslims argued against the move to become halal.
A group of approximately 50 churches launched the Alliance of Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches of Singapore (APCCS) in April. Chairman Reverend Dominic Yeo said the body would serve as a “unified and collective front” for talks with the authorities in relation to the needs of the churches, government-led initiatives, or “when there is a need to address various societal issues and concerns.” Some commentators and members of the public expressed concern religion could intrude in the public space, but Yeo said, “The APCCS is a strong advocate of racial and religious harmony in Singapore.”
Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques, and held intrafaith iftars during Ramadan.
Community-led programs to build understanding of others’ religions included the Ask Me Anything series, which encouraged younger individuals to raise sensitive issues related to religious practices. The Interfaith Youth Circle and Roses for Peace provided “safe spaces” in which young people could discuss race and religion.
Religious groups and humanists continued to promote interfaith tolerance. The Nanyang Confucian Association hosted lectures on links between Confucianism and other faiths; the United Hebrew Congregation held interfaith celebrations during Jewish festivals; and the Humanist Society Singapore collaborated to organize a multi-religious panel discussion on “Inter-Belief in a Secular Society.”
Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus cooperated at the local level. A group of Buddhists gave 12,000 free drinks each weekend in September to Hindu devotees at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and devotees were permitted to carry statues of the Chinese goddess of mercy, as well as of the Buddha, during the Tamil Hindu religious procession of Thaipusam.
Hash.peace organized Heritage Saturdays, during which tours were organized of religious sites such as a Jewish synagogue or the Baha’i Center, so the public could learn more about the history of different communities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In May at an embassy iftar, attended by Senior Minister of State for Defense and Foreign Affairs Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, religious leaders of numerous faiths, and others, the Charge d’Affaires gave remarks promoting religious freedom and embracing religious diversity.
The Charge and senior embassy representatives hosted a roundtable in September to discuss religious freedom with 10 young religious leaders.
U.S. embassy representatives interacted with a variety of religious groups, including the IRO, the MUIS, and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, humanist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, and Taoist groups, to reinforce the importance of religious freedom. The embassy used social media to highlight its religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.
The Charge in April met with Imam of the Ba’alwie Mosque Syed Hassan Al-Attas to communicate the embassy’s support for the country’s Muslim community. In May embassy representatives discussed the practice of religious freedom with the PPIS.