New legislation protects LGBTQ community from religiously motivated violence but law is 'same for all'
Law Minister K Shanmugam said in a Facebook on Oct 12, 2019 that it has always been the Government's position that "no one should threaten someone because they were LGBTQ; and likewise, no one should threaten someone else, because of religious affiliation".
Under recently passed changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), it has been made clear that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community are explicitly protected against violence incited by religious groups or movements.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that this came after LGBTQ individuals gave feedback that they “sometimes felt targeted as a community”.
However, he emphasised that the law “is the same for all”, stressing that it is also an offence if the LGBTQ community, for example, was to target a religious group in the same way.
The Explanatory Statement to the MRHA, passed in Parliament last week, specifically refers to the LGBTQ community, stating that it will be an offence to use force or violence against them on the grounds of religion.
Last Saturday (Oct 12), Mr Shanmugam put up a Facebook post to say that he had been asked why the Explanatory Statement was included.
He explained that he had a dialogue with a group of LGBTQ individuals who told him how they felt.
“I told them that the Government’s clear position, was that everyone should feel safe in Singapore. We will not tolerate any threats made to physical safety. No one should threaten someone because they were LGBTQ; and likewise, no one should threaten someone else, because of religious affiliation. This has always been our position,” Mr Shanmugam said.
When the group asked if this position could be stated officially, he told them that it had been said “several times” and that was the law. “But nevertheless, I told them I will ask my officers to study and see how we can be more explicit.”
HOW AN EXPLANATORY STATEMENT WORKS
With the latest changes to the MRHA, a new section — 17E(1) and (2) — was introduced to deal with the offence of urging or using violence against a target group on the basis of religion.
The Explanatory Statement states that besides those who practise a certain religion, the target group may also be “made up of atheists, individuals from a specific racial community, who share a similar sexual orientation or have a certain nationality or descent like foreign workers or new citizens”.
Lawyers told TODAY on Monday (Oct 14) that this provision was merely there for greater clarity because the community is already covered under the law.
Read also: Govt must intervene early before hate speech disrupts racial, religious harmony in S’pore: Shanmugam
Law professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University (SMU) said that Explanatory Statements are typically appended at the end of a legislative text of a Bill.
“It seeks to explain in plain language what a proposed law sets out to achieve and the intended meaning and effect of specific provisions in the Bill.
“It may also describe the general impact of the proposed legislation’s financial and policy implications.”
While the Explanatory Statement is not part of the legislation after the Bill is passed, it allows those in the legal service to better understand the scope and meaning of a particular provision in an Act, Assoc Prof Tan added.
Lawyers interviewed said that while the inclusion of the Explanatory Statement has no legal significance, it helps laypersons to get a better understanding of the law.
Assistant Professor Benjamin Ong of SMU’s School of Law said that even without the Explanatory Statement, the law is already clear that any group, including those defined by sexual orientation, will be covered.
However, he said that the Explanatory Statement will increase awareness of the law and its significance in an easy-to-understand manner.
The statement made it “crystal clear” to the courts, Members of Parliament and laypersons that the group of people specified under the MRHA may refer to those defined by sexual orientation, Asst Prof Ong said.
It is also a way for the Government to demonstrate to the LGBTQ community that their concerns have been taken into account, he noted.
Assoc Prof Tan said that while the Explanatory Statement did not grant any group unique rights since it is not part of the law, it made clear that it is an offence for any faith-based group to target LGBTQ persons and vice-versa.
Lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, who is leading a court challenge against Section 377A of Singapore’s penal code which criminalises sex between men, said: “Mr Shanmugam has consistently maintained that the Government has a zero-tolerance policy towards those advocating harm or violence against others, including against LGBT persons.
“The legal inclusion of the LGBT community into the protective umbrella of the MHRA is a much-welcome step forward.”
LGBTQ COMMUNITY ‘ASSURED’
Members of the LGBTQ community approached by TODAY said that they were assured by the Explanatory Statement.
Ms Mandy Chng, the programmes and events coordinator for LBTQ group Sayoni, said that the explicit mention of the community is “momentous and significant”, especially so when discourse on the minorities in Singapore’s society is usually limited to race.
She said that in its research published earlier this year, Sayoni found that LBTQ women in Singapore faced higher risk of encountering physical and psychological violence, especially at home.
It also found that there are long-term consequences on the mental health and emotional well-being of women in Singapore who had “encountered religious-incited physical and psychological violence”, such that they had depression and thoughts of suicide, for instance, Ms Chng added.
She cited the example of families bullying LBTQ individuals with verbal abuse, harassment, and the performance of religious rituals and prayers over the individual to "correct" their sexuality.
Anti-LGBTQ acts have been ongoing on cyber space as well. Over the years, Mr Benjamin Xue, co-founder of LGBTQ youth support group Young Out Here, had observed online trolling, or online bullying, of the community on social media.
The Explanatory Statement thus “gives some sort of comfort and assurance” and allows space for young LGBTQ people to come out safely, he added.
Mr Leow Yangfa, executive director of Oogachaga, a non-profit community-based organisation that works with LGBTQ individuals, said likewise that religiously motivated violence is a “significant part” of the lives of many in the community, and it could come in the form of “forced religious conversion” and hate speech.
To Mr Leow, Mr Shanmugam’s statement is a “clear and unambiguous” signal recognising that the LGBTQ community has been targeted by religiously motivated violence.
The Explanatory Statement is also probably the first time in Singapore’s history where there is an explicit mention of the LGBTQ community as a minority group that is worthy of legal protection, he added.
“Knowing that this law provides such protection does provide some reassurance for the community. The next step is for the community to see the application of such law in future cases,” Mr Leow said.
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