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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > International Religious Freedom > 2001 Report on International Religious Freedom > East Asia and the Pacific


International Religious Freedom Report
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in some circumstances.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government has banned Jehovah's Witnesses and the Unification Church. The Government does not tolerate speech or actions that could affect racial harmony.

The generally amicable relationship among the religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 254 square miles and a total population of 4 million, of whom 3.3 million are citizens or permanent residents. According to an official survey, 85 percent of citizens and permanent residents profess some religious faith or belief. Of this group, slightly more than one-half (51 percent) practice Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship, or other faiths traditionally associated with the ethnic Chinese. Approximately 15 percent of the population are Muslim, 15 percent are Christian, and 4 percent are Hindu. The remainder are agnostics or atheists. Among Christians, the majority of whom are Chinese, Protestants outnumber Roman Catholics by slightly more than two to one. There are also small Sikh, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Jain communities.

Approximately 77 percent of the population are Chinese, 14 percent are ethnic Malay, and 8 percent are ethnic Indian.

Virtually all ethnic Malays are Muslim and most Indians are Hindu. The ethnic Chinese population is divided among Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, or are agnostic or atheist.

Foreign missionaries are active in the country and include Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in some circumstances. The Constitution provides that every citizen or person in the country has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his religious belief so long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. There is no state religion.

All religious groups are subject to government scrutiny and must be registered legally under the Societies Act. The Government deregistered the Singapore Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses in 1972 and the Unification Church in 1982, making them unlawful societies.

The Government plays an active but limited role in religious affairs. For example the Government seeks to assure that citizens, the great majority of whom live in publicly subsidized housing, have ready access to religious organizations traditionally associated with their ethnic groups by assisting religious institutions to find space in these public complexes. The Government maintains a semiofficial relationship with the Muslim community through the Islamic Religious Council (MUIS) set up under the Administration of Muslim Law Act. The MUIS advises the Government on concerns of the Muslim community and has some regulatory functions over Muslim religious matters. The Government provides some financial assistance to build and maintain mosques.

The Constitution acknowledges ethnic Malays as "the indigenous people of Singapore" and charges the Government to support and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social, cultural, and language interests.

The Presidential Council on Minority Rights examines all pending bills to ensure that they are not disadvantageous to a particular group. It also reports to the Government on matters affecting any racial or religious community and investigates complaints.

The Government does not promote interfaith understanding directly; however, it sponsors activities to promote interethnic harmony, and, since the primary ethnic minorities are predominantly of one faith the Government programs to promote ethnic harmony have implications for interfaith relations.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government restricts certain religions by application of the Societies Act; it has banned Jehovah's Witnesses and the Unification Church. In 1982 the Minister for Home Affairs dissolved the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, also known as the Unification Church. In 1972 the Government deregistered and banned the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that its roughly 2,000 members refuse to perform military service (which is obligatory for all male citizens), salute the flag, or swear oaths of allegiance to the State. Although the Court of Appeals in 1996 upheld the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious belief, the result of deregistration has been to make meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses illegal. The Government also has banned all written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, both publishing arms of Jehovah's Witnesses. In practice this has led to confiscation of Bibles published by the group, even though the Bible itself has not been outlawed.

There are 26 Jehovah's Witnesses incarcerated in the Armed Forces Detention Barracks because of their refusal to serve in the Armed Forces. The Government regards such refusal as prejudicial to public welfare and order. Sentences are initially 15 months, to which 24 months is added upon a second refusal. Subsequent failures to perform required annual military reserve duty receive 40-day sentences; a 12-month sentence is usual after four such refusals.

Since the beginning of 2000, public secondary schools have indefinitely suspended 12 students who were members of Jehovah's Witnesses for refusing to sing the national anthem or participate in the flag ceremony. In April 2001, one public school teacher, also a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, resigned after being threatened with dismissal for refusing to participate in singing the national anthem. In 1998 another member of Jehovah's Witness lost a law suit against a government school for wrongful dismissal because he also refused to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. In March 1999, the Court of Appeals denied his appeal.

The 1990 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which was prompted by actions that the Government perceived as threats to religious harmony, including aggressive and "insensitive" proselytizing and "the mixing of religion and politics," gives the Government the power to restrain leaders and members of religious groups and institutions from carrying out political activities, "exciting disaffection against" the Government, creating "ill-will" between religious groups or carrying out subversive activities. The act also prohibits judicial review of its enforcement or of any possible denial of rights arising from it.

The Government does not tolerate speech or actions, including ostensibly religious speech or action, that affect racial and religious harmony and sometimes issues restraining orders barring persons from taking part in such activities.

The Presidential Council on Religious Harmony reports to the Minister for Home Affairs on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony that are referred to the Council by the Minister or by Parliament. The Council also considers and makes recommendations to the Minister on restraining orders referred to the Council by the Minister. Such orders are directed at individuals to restrain them from causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will, or hostility between among various religious groups or to restrain them from mixing religion with politics. The orders put individuals on notice that they should not repeat such acts, and advise them that failure to do so would result in prosecution in a court of law.

On December 31, 2000, police arrested and later charged 15 Falun Gong adherents for conducting protest without a permit; only 2 of those arrested were citizens. The 15 persons arrested had participated in an assembly of 60 Falun Gong members who sought to draw attention to the arrest and killing of Falun Gong members in China. The group had not sought a permit, asserting that police had not responded to their previous efforts to obtain permits.

In October 2000, the Government refused to grant a public entertainment license for a controversial play that depicted marital violence experienced by Indian Muslim women after the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore strongly objected to the play's content. The government rejected the application on the grounds that the play might inflame religious and ethnic passions.

Missionaries, with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses and representatives of the Unification Church, are permitted to work and to publish and distribute religious texts. However, while the Government does not prohibit evangelical activities in practice, it discourages activities that might upset the balance of intercommunal relations.

In October 1999, the Government proposed compulsory education for all children, which prompted concern from the Malay/Muslim community on the fate of madrasahs (Islamic religious schools). In response the Government exempted madrasah students from compulsory attendance in national schools when the legislation was enacted in October 2000. However, madrasahs were given 8 years from the time that the law goes into effect to achieve minimum academic standards or they will no longer be allowed to teach core secular subjects such as science, mathematics, and English. The date the law goes into effect had not yet been decided by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Women's Charter, enacted in 1961, gives women, among other rights, the right to own property, conduct trade, and receive divorce settlements. Muslim women enjoy most of the rights and protections of the Women's Charter; however, for the most part, Muslim marriage law falls under the administration of the Muslim Law Act, which empowers the Shari'a court to oversee such matters. Those laws allow Muslim men to practice polygyny.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Authorities briefly detained and questioned a man in 2000 and three others in 2001 for possession of banned religious material; none were charged with an offense.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations among religious communities in society generally are amicable. Virtually all ethnic Malay citizens are Muslim, and ethnic Malays constitute the great majority of the country's Muslim community. Attitudes held by non-Malays on the Malay community and by Malays on the non-Malay community are based on both ethnicity and religion, and are virtually impossible to separate.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Released on October 26, 2001

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