The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality.
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 can apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits. 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 unlawful society may be punished with a fine, imprisonment, or both.
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 that two‑thirds of members be representatives of the major religions in the country, which are considered to be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism/Taoism.
The law authorizes the minister for 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 discretionary, depending on the situation, and prevent a person in a position of authority within a religious group from making or participating in additional statements, which can result in criminal action. Any restraining order 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 restraining orders issued under its authority. 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 law allows the Muslim community to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over the marital affairs of Muslims, including maintenance payments such as alimony and child support, disposition of property upon divorce, and custody of minor 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 Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (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. Additionally, under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam, including cohabitation outside of marriage and publicly expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law.
The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection. Men are required to undertake 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to armed service.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government‑aided, religiously‑affiliated schools. Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time; 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, the law allows seven designated private schools (six madrassahs and one Seventh‑day Adventist school) to educate primary‑age students, provided these schools continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. The law empowers the Ministry for Education to regulate schools, including prohibiting students from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform. The law prohibits the wearing of headscarves in public schools. International, other private, and government‑aided religious schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to determine it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group that the parliament or the government refers to it.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (previously Ministry of Community Development, Youth, and Sports) 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 can be located. Religious institutions are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking to build a new religious institution must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply equally to all religious groups.
The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to 2,000 Singapore dollars ($1,412) and jailed for up to 12 months for a first conviction.