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Singapore: Bans on Two Clerics and Certain Books

(Nov. 9, 2017) It was reported on October 30, 2017, that Singapore has banned two foreign Islamic religious leaders from preaching during cruises and has prohibited the circulation of four foreign books in the country. The Islamic clerics have been denied permission to enter Singapore for the purpose of joining religiously themed sea cruises scheduled for late November. (Singapore Bans Two Islamic Preachers on Religious Cruises, JAKARTA POST (Oct. 30, 2017).) The two men, Ismail Menk of Zimbabwe and Haslin Baharim of Malaysia, were previously denied permission to preach in Singapore itself. The Ministry of Home Affairs stated that “[t]hey will not be allowed to get around the ban by preaching instead on cruise ships which operate to and from Singapore.” (Id.; 2 Foreign Islamic Preachers Barred from Entering Singapore for Religious Cruise, STRAITS TIMES (Oct. 30, 2017).)

According to the Ministry, Menk “has been known to preach segregationist and divisive teachings” while Baharim “has expressed views that promote disharmony between Muslims and non-Muslims.” (Singapore Bans Two Islamic Preachers on Religious Cruises, supra.) Menk, who has two million Twitter followers, has reportedly said that it is blasphemous for Muslims to extend greetings to non-Muslims during festivals of the others’ faiths. (Singapore Bans Mufti Menk from Entering Country, AL JAZEERA (Oct. 31, 2017).) It was also reported that Bahraim favors having non-Muslims be subservient to Muslims. (2 Foreign Islamic Preachers Barred from Entering Singapore for Religious Cruise, supra.)

The books, published in Indonesia between 2011 and 2016, were banned on October 30, 2017; as of the next day, it became an offense to own, distribute, or fail to surrender the books to the police. The works are considered to have “undesirable and harmful teachings. … [that] can cause social distancing, distrust, hatred and even violence among people of different faiths and religious views.”(Id.)

Background

Singapore has a diverse population, including 74.3% who are of Chinese origin, 13.4% Malay, and 9.1% Indian or Sri Lankan. Among the residents, 33.9% are Buddhist, 14.3% are Muslim, 11.3% are Taoist, 7.1% are Catholic, 5.2% are Hindu, and the remainder either follow a different Christian faith, another religion, or have no religion. (Singapore, WORLD FACTBOOK (last visited Nov. 7, 2017).) The official emphasis on harmony between the various groups, cited by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the case of the banned clerics, is reflected in some legal provisions.

Singapore’s Penal Code includes some infractions based on speech and publication that the city state considers criminal. The Code punishes the making, printing, possession, posting, distribution, or otherwise controlling of any document or electronic record that has “any incitement to violence or counseling disobedience to the law or to any lawful order of a public servant” or that is “likely to lead to any breach of the peace.” The sentence for those convicted of this transgression is up to five years of imprisonment and/or a fine. (Penal Code (Nov. 30, 2008 rev. ed.), art. 267, SINGAPORE STATUTES ONLINE.) In addition, anyone who deliberately utters a statement, makes a gesture, or places an object in the sight of a person designed to wound their “religious or racial feelings” may be subject to a term of imprisonment of three years and/or a fine. (Id. art. 298.) Furthermore, the same punishment can be applied to one who “knowingly promotes or attempts to promote” religious or racial disharmony or “commits any act which he knows is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different groups … .” (Id. art. 298A.)

Under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, all publishers are required to register in Singapore and have licenses; granting licenses is at the discretion of the government. (Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (as amended to Oct. 1, 2016), art. 3, SINGAPORE  STATUTES ONLINE.)