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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government bans some religious groups.

There is no state religion. However, all religious groups are subject to government scrutiny and must be registered legally under the Societies Act. The 1990 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act made illegal what the Government deems to be the inappropriate involvement of religious groups and officials in political affairs. The act also prohibits judicial review of its enforcement or of any possible denial of rights arising from it.

The Government plays an active, but limited, role in religious affairs. It does not tolerate speech or actions, including ostensibly religious speech or action that affect racial and religious harmony. The Government also 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.

Approximately 77 percent of the citizen and permanent resident population of just over 3 million are Chinese, 15 percent are Malay, and 7 percent are Indian. According to an official survey, 86 percent of citizens and residents profess some religious faith or belief. Of this group, slightly more than half (54 percent) practice Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship, or other faiths traditionally associated with ethnic Chinese, approximately 15 percent are Muslim, 13 percent are Christian, and 3 percent are Hindu. Among Christians, the majority of whom are Chinese, non-Catholics, mostly Protestants, outnumber Roman Catholics slightly more than two-to-one. There are also small Sikh, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Jain communities.

Two small Christian groups recently have come to public attention. In February 1999, the Straits Times newspaper reported on a self-proclaimed church group called "The Friends of the International Priestly Society of St. Pius X." The newspaper noted that the group reportedly had been excommunicated by the Vatican in 1988, and thus was operating in the country without the permission of the Archbishop of Singapore. Previously, another small group calling itself the Central Christian Church won a 1997 court victory, which was upheld on appeal in 1998, against three newspapers that had published reports describing the church as a cult.

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. Virtually all ethnic Malays are Muslim.

A 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. In June 1998, the Government established a select committee, at the request of members of the Muslim community, to consider the community's views on legislation that could affect the scope of Islamic courts.

The Government restricts certain religions by application of the Societies Act; it has banned Jehovah's Witnesses and the Unification Church. The Government deregistered and banned the Singapore congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in 1972 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. The Government regards such refusal as prejudicial to public welfare and order. While the Government has not outlawed the profession or propagation of the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and does not arrest members merely for being believers, 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.

In 1998 two Jehovah's Witnesses were convicted of possession of unlawful written materials. One of the two, who had a similar conviction in the past, was jailed for 1 week. The second person was fined the equivalent of $1,320. Also in 1998, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses lost his law suit against a government school for wrongful dismissal, allegedly because he refused to sing the national anthem or salute the flag. His appeal was pending at the time this report was prepared.

The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, also known as the Unification Church, was dissolved in 1982 by the Minister for Home Affairs.

In 1996 a number of members of Jehovah's witnesses were found guilty of holding a meeting of a "banned society" and publications in their possession were confiscated.

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.

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 (most Malays are Muslim, and most Indians are Hindu), its programs to promote ethnic harmony have implications for interfaith relations.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion 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 II. Societal Attitudes

Virtually all ethnic Malay citizens are Muslim, and ethnic Malays constitute the great majority of the country's Muslim community. The perspectives held by non-Malays on the Malay community and by Malays on the non-Malay community are made up of attitudes toward ethnicity and religion that are virtually impossible to separate.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999