SINGAPORE: Those wishing to form new societies will face more scrutiny after parliament passed amendments to the Societies Act on Wednesday (Oct 4).
New societies that would have been automatically registered can have their applications rejected if they are deemed to likely be used for unlawful activities or threaten Singapore’s security.
The Registrar of Societies will also be empowered to request more information from these applicants in the course of automatic registration.
Since 2004, new societies have registered through two routes: The normal route for “specified” societies in sensitive categories listed in the Schedule of the Societies Act, and the automatic route for “non-specified” societies.
The amendments will apply to the automatic route, where societies are registered as long as their application meets formal requirements like the payment of a prescribed fee.
Under the normal registration route, specified societies such as political associations will continue to be vetted and assessed by the registrar. This can involve several rounds of clarifications.
The Bill also introduces other amendments that clarify the registrar’s powers to require a new society to amend its rules as a condition for registration, and to reject an application by a registered society to change its name or rules.
The amendments also update penalties for offences under the Societies Act, such as if an officer of a society gives the registrar false, incorrect or incomplete information.
WHY IT MATTERS
Changes to the automatic registration process address two gaps, Minister of State for Home Affairs Sun Xueling said in her speech tabling the Bill.
There are times when more information is needed to determine if an application under the automatic route really does not fall within any sensitive categories, but the registrar is not allowed to request it.
Even if a new society does not fall within a sensitive category, it could still be of concern, but the registrar has no authority to reject such applications under the automatic route.
Ms Sun described how these gaps can be exploited using the hypothetical example of a group of people with criminal records who want to advocate for the interests of a racial group.
Knowing that their application for such a society would be scrutinised, they try to set up a society with an innocuous aim, such as a history interest group.
The group then applies to form this society through the automatic route. Without the amendments, their application would be approved automatically.
The Bill will strengthen the regulation of societies to safeguard national interests and security, and provide better clarity to the public on the registration requirements, said Ms Sun.
LAWMAKERS RAISE CONCERNS
Seven Members of Parliament (MPs) rose to speak on the Bill. They sought clarification on issues including:
The methodology and criteria the registrar will use to assess if societies are engaged in unlawful activities or threaten Singapore’s securityWhether the registrar’s powers over the rules of new and existing societies constitute overreachWhether there are any plans to address groups formed in virtual spaces, like chat groups or the internet
Mr Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) questioned the necessity of the Bill and asked for real-life examples of societies that exploited the gaps in the registration process.
“Groups nowadays can easily organise themselves over closed chat groups, and will likely avoid going through the hassle of registering a society if it is made more onerous,” he said.
The changes could have the unintended effect of driving groups and their activities underground, he argued.
Notwithstanding these concerns, Workers’ Party MPs voted for the Bill alongside MPs from the People’s Action Party at the end of the debate.
Ms Sun said the assessment of applications in the automatic route would look at factors such as the background of the applicants, the societies’ proposed activities and the nature of their foreign relations.
She said the registrar’s powers over the rules of new and existing societies do not mean it has unfettered discretion. The registrar’s decisions must “have a nexus” to the purpose of the Societies Act.
She noted that virtual and informal groups can indeed exist. But she said that without a legal entity, they cannot do things like open a bank account or rent property, which will likely constrain their ability to attract members.
On the necessity of the amendments, Ms Sun said that it was part of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) regular review of Singapore’s laws and regulations.
She said the ministry has come across three applications to the automatic route that triggered concerns as the applicants had some criminal antecedents. She did not provide details citing operational sensitivities.
For unknown reasons, these three applicants did not pursue their applications.
There have not been applications to form societies that were automatically approved which MHA thought should not have been, she said.
In the past five years, the registrar has received about 1,400 applications to form societies. About half were submitted through the automatic route.
Out of all the applications received in the past five years, 53 of them – or 3.7 per cent – were rejected.
Even with the amendments, the ministry expects the majority of applications through the automatic registration route to be approved without further inquiries, said Ms Sun.
She also said that genuine applications under the automatic route will not face a longer waiting period for approvals after the changes take effect.