ISLAM AND MUSLIMS IN SINGAPORE
Muslims make up about 14 percent of the population, making Islam the second-largest religion in Singapore after Buddhism. They are mostly Muslim Malays but also including some Muslims of Indian decent. Muslims have their own religious and civil organizations such as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and Registry of Muslim Marriages. According to the Financial Times government officials have said they have promoted Islam by paying for the building of mosques and subsidising Islamic schools. But critics note limits are placed on the number allowed to attend religious classes, while the state funding of Muslim organisations means greater government control over them.
The Singapore Muslim Religious Council (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura) played a very important role in the organization of Islamic affairs and therefore of the Malay community. Authorized by the 1966 Administration of Muslim Law Act, the council, composed of members nominated by Muslim societies but appointed by the president of Singapore, was formally a statutory board that advised the president on all matters relating to the Muslim religion. It acted to centralize and standardize the practice of Islam. The council administered all Muslim trusts (wafs); organized a computerized and centralized collection of tithes and obligatory gifts (zakat harta and zakat fitrah); and managed all aspects of the pilgrimage to Mecca, including registering pilgrims, obtaining Saudi Arabian visas, and making airline reservations. [Source: Library of Congress *]
The council also helped the government reorganize the mosque system after redevelopment. Before the massive redevelopment and rehousing of the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore's Muslims were served by about ninety mosques, many of which had been built and were funded and managed by local, sometimes ethnically based, communities. Redevelopment destroyed both the mosques and the communities that had supported them, scattering the people through new housing estates. The council, in consultation with the government, decided not to rebuild the small mosques but to replace them with large central mosques. Construction funds came from a formally voluntary contribution collected along with the Central Provident Fund deduction paid by all employed Muslims. The new central mosques could accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 persons and provided such services as kindergartens, religious classes, family counseling, leadership and community development classes, tuition and remedial instruction for school children, and Arabic language instruction. *
The government had regulated Muslim marriages and divorces since 1880, and the 1957 Muslim Ordinance authorized the establishment of the centralized Sharia Court, with jurisdiction over divorce and inheritance cases. The court, under the Ministry of Community Development, replaced a set of government-licensed but otherwise unsupervised kathi (Islamic judges) who had previously decided questions of divorce and inheritance, following either the traditions of particular ethnic groups or their own interpretations of Muslim law. The court attempted to consistently enforce sharia law, standard Islamic law as set out in the Quran and the decisions of early Muslim rulers and jurists, and to reduce the high rate of divorce among Malays. In 1989 the Singapore Muslim Religious Council took direct control of the subjects taught in Islamic schools and of the Friday sermons given at all mosques. *
See Separate Articles on RELIGION IN SINGAPORE
Madrassas in Multi-Ethnic Singapore
In 2009, AFP reported: “Nurlidyana, Darwisyah and Azeera are late for English class but the girls do not seem to mind as they giggle and chat about school and their hopes for the future. Their ambitions vary -- Nurlidyana wants to be a doctor, Azeera a teacher and Darwisyah is still undecided. Yet the 16-year-olds do agree they have gained a good foundation from their school, Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah. [Source: AFP, February 17, 2009 *-*]
“Madrassas are Islamic religious schools that in Pakistan, Indonesia and other Muslim states have sometimes been associated with militancy. But in multi-ethnic Singapore, madrassas -- funded mainly by the minority Muslim community -- stick strictly to the basics, focusing not only on religion but on academic studies as well. Nevertheless, many Muslim parents in the economically-developed city-state are reluctant to enrol their children at madrassas, concerned that the combination of religious and academic studies crowds out broader curricula activities. "I believe a secular school gives more exposure to other cultures and gives (my son) more opportunities to explore other endeavours" such as sports and art, said Juliana Buono, a mother of two. "I want him to go to a good school where it's not all academic, and madrassas have too many subjects," she said. *-*
“Students at Singapore's six madrassas spend six years in primary education and five more in secondary school. They take Islamic studies on top of regular subjects including maths and science, making the school day longer than in regular government-supported schools. But Al-Irsyad aims to lighten the burden using technology. The school recently moved into a new building with the latest technology -- interactive blackboards that react to touch; polling devices that allow students to enter answers for instant review by teachers; school-wide broadband; and MP3 players that aid in discussions and public speaking. *-*
“Still, Nurlidyana and her two friends said they do not plan to continue their studies in madrassas after finishing secondary school, despite their positive experience at Al-Irsyad. "I want to explore more, open up, understand the world instead of just the Muslim world," Nurlidyana said. The chairman of Al-Irsyad, Razak Mohamed Lazim, sees no problem if students transfer to the government system. "Yes, some of them do opt to go to national schools and we usually give them our blessing, because we want to make sure (the students) choose the best for what they want to be," he said. *-*
“Razak said his school's annual intake is more than 200, adding that Singapore's madrassas aim to draw the highest quality applicants in order to produce religious scholars. About 14 percent of Singapore's residents are Malay, most of them Muslim. "We are here not to provide academic education alone to the general public. We are here to develop potential religious leaders," Razak said, adding that madrassas complement government schools. Al-Irsyad's approach of combining academic and religious instruction in a high-tech environment has drawn attention from other madrassas in Asia, he said. Visitors from southern Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia have been impressed with Al-Irsyad's "progressive madrassa model," he said, adding that Indonesia had opened two madrassas modelled on Al-Irsyad. "They have taken lock, stock and barrel our system, the curriculum, and we have also done teacher training to ensure that they know how to run the system that we are running here," Razak said. *-*
“Mariam Sulaiman, a former Al-Irsyad student, said the school's dual emphasis on academic and religious education enabled her to pursue her dream of entering the research and development industry. "I need both, not just the academic side but also the spiritual and moral," said Sulaiman, a biological sciences undergraduate at a local university. The additional religious subjects had helped her develop moral fortitude, she said, adding: "When you're in a madrassa, there is a lesser chance for you to mix around with bad influences like drugs and gangs." For Nurlidyana, Darwisyah and Azeera, the best lesson of the nine years they have so far spent at Al-Irsyad is one they could not get at a national school. "The madrassa allows us to learn the guidelines on how to be a good Muslim," Nurlidyana said as Darwisyah and Azeera nodded in agreement. *-*
Anti-Muslim Sentiments in Singapore
In November 2011, Jason Neo, member of the Young PAP, the youth wing of the ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP), caused an uproar when he posted online a picture of a school bus which was ferrying children from a religious school, with a caption asking if the bus was carrying "young terrorist trainees". In March 2011, former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, raised eyebrows when he commented "Christians are less likely to riot" as ab explanation why the book “The Satanic Verses” was banned in Singapore while the film, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” was allowed.
In his book “Hard Truths” Lee Kuan Yew said to Keep Singapore Going: "I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam". He added that "we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came" and he called on the community to "be less strict on Islamic observances." He later retracted his statements but the damage, one feels, had already been done.
Andrew Loh wrote in Singapore Scene, While anti-Muslim posting are “undoubtedly deplorable, we should be asking if it is not a symptom of a wider malaise, particularly in whether such a stereotypical racist mindset has taken root among the populace and, if so, what the cause of this is. For the longest time, since our independence, in fact, Singaporeans have been told, warned, and threatened into not only staying away from discussing anything racial or religious, but to also trust the government in handling matters with regards to these. The use of certain terms in the media to describe terrorists — "Islamic extremists", "Islamic fundamentalists", "Islamic terrorist", etc — enjoins the religion with violent acts of destruction and murder, leading to perceptions that the religion and those who practise it are suspect. [Source: Andrew Loh, Singapore Scene, November 21, 2011]
Lee Kuan Yew Calls Islam a “Venomous Religion”
In 2005, Lee Kuan Yew called Islam a “venomous religion” according to Wikileaks-leaked US diplomatic cables leaked in August 2011. “I did not say that,” Lee said. Lee had previously angered Malaysians with his remarks about Muslim Malays in his book “Hard Truths.”
According to the cable which released after a meeting in July 2005 between Hillary Clinton, at the time a US Senator from New York State, and Congressman Charles Rangel with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, and then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (MMLee) : The problem of Islamic terrorism would not be easily extirpated, observed MM Lee. While Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant, they had been affected by radicalism emanating from Middle East and the spread of wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. Singapore’s Muslim leaders were rational and educated in English and the GOS kept a limit on madrassah-based education. He stressed that moderate Muslims had to be encouraged to stand up and speak out against radicalism. They needed confidence that they could win. We could get to the tipping point, noted MM Lee, but he didn’t know how long it would take.
MM Lee said Islamic terrorists would continue to use violence until shown that their methods would not succeed. If they were successful in Iraq, they would try to topple secular governments in other countries, such as Indonesia. PM Lee said Singapore supported U.S. efforts in Iraq; it was important to get the Iraqi government working, with a security force that could take over from U.S. forces and fend for itself. Asked by Rep. Rangel how organized terrorists were internationally, MM Lee responded that orthodox Islam was a powerful force capable of recruiting volunteers for terrorist groups. He noted Singapore’s experience in 2001 and 2002 in dealing with Jemaah Islamiyah’s terrorist plots in Singapore and characterized Islam as a “venomous religion.”
Online Taunting of Muslims in Singapore
In November 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported: “Singapore prides itself as being a harmonious multiracial metropolis, but a spate of controversial Internet postings hints at simmering tensions beneath its rosy façade. Police are currently investigating three offensive Facebook posts, all of which are directed against the island nation’s minority Malay Muslim community. The complaints have stirred public hand-wringing on the character of racial and religious relations in the city-state. [Source: Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2011 >>>]
“The former UK (British) colony, home to a broad historical migrant mix mainly from China, the Malay archipelago and India, retains bitter memories of racial turmoil in 1950s and ’60s, when deadly riots contributed to Singapore’s exit from Muslim-majority Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent state. Its current resident population of 3.79 million citizens and permanent residents is about 74 percent ethnic Chinese, 13 percent Malay and 9 percent Indian. >>>
“While no major ethnic violence has occurred here since 1969, discord has surfaced intermittently. Some incidents have even drawn the use of colonial-era anti-sedition laws, most recently in 2009, when a couple was jailed for eight weeks for distributing Christian tracts that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed negatively to a number of Muslim Singaporeans. Singapore law broadly defines sedition as acts agitating against the government and the administration of justice, fostering discontent among citizens, and promoting hostility between ethnic groups. Formal charges have yet to be brought in the latest complaints, which aren’t the first allegations leveled against offensive online postings. Nonetheless they have drawn attention to official policy on race and religious relations, and the travails of policing a fast-evolving social media landscape. >>>
“The first involved Jason Neo, a 30-year-old member of the ruling People’s Action Party’s youth wing, who posted on Facebook a photograph of Malay Muslim schoolchildren captioned: “Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?” The second involved a conscript in Singapore’s military, Christian Eliab Ratnam, who posted on Facebook an image criticizing Islam, including claims that it is an “authoritarian, political doctrine.” Blogger Donaldson Tan, 28, became subject to police inquiries last week after re-posting an image of a pig — pork is taboo in Islam — superimposed on the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic building in Mecca, prompting even the Ministry of Home Affairs to release a rare statement on the issue. In a similar case early last year, two teenagers were detained and issued warnings for malicious remarks made against Indians on a Facebook group. >>>
On similar posting In 2012, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “A senior executive of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Amy Cheong made a racially-insensitive rant on Facebook against Malays holding long, noisy weddings at public void decks. One posting was laden with expletives that have become all too familiar online these days. The Malaysian-born Australian was fired a day later as NTUC assistant director in the membership department despite her public apology. It drew criticism from ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who called on Netizens to show respect to each other. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, November 3, 2012]
“The right to free speech does not extend to making remarks that incite racial and religious friction and conflict. The authorities take a very serious view of all instances of racial and religious incitement,” a government statement on the matter said. “The public should let the investigations take their course and refrain from adding comments that may further inflame the situation.” >>>
Mr. Neo, who posted the photograph in February before he joined the Young PAP, has since apologized and quit the party, while Mr Ratnam offered a mea culpa and has deactivated his Facebook account. Mr Tan, however, denied wrongdoing, saying he re-posted the image to warn against such deliberately provocative acts. >>>
But some observers argue social media had less to do with the latest incidents than the government’s own paternalistic and restrictive approach to race and religious relations. “The real reason true harmony in Singapore has remained superficial is because the state does not permit mature discourse to address the reality of racism, choosing instead avoidance of any remarks on race- and religion-related issues,” sociopolitical blog the Online Citizen said last week in an editorial. >>>
Michael Barr, an academic and Singapore expert at Australia’s Flinders University, said official policies like the establishment of Chinese schools and the focus on ethnicity in public administration have undermined the government’s genuine efforts to promote harmony. “Through ignorance and lack of interaction, many young people in the Chinese majority actually don’t know any non-Chinese…the only way that many of them know anything about Malays and Muslims is through what they read and hear – and it isn’t a pretty picture,” Mr Barr said. >>>
Arrests and Jail Terms for Anti-Muslim Remarks in Singapore
In November 2005, AFP reported: “A 17-year-old Singaporean student was spared a jail sentence and instead placed on probation for two years for posting anti-Muslim remarks on his Internet weblog, his lawyer said. Gan Huai Shi, who had pleaded guilty to sedition last month, was also ordered to do 180 hours of community service, lawyer Edmond Pereira said. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 23, 2005]
Gan, who admitted posting inflammatory remarks about Malay Muslims, became the third person in October to be convicted under the Sedition Act, which dates back to British colonial rule. In a landmark ruling on October 7, two other ethnic Chinese men became the first persons in multi-racial Singapore to be punished for similar remarks against Muslims posted on their Internet blogs. Benjamin Koh, 28, was given two concurrent one-month jail terms while Nicholas Lim, 25, was jailed for one day and fined S$5000 (US$2960) after they pleaded guilty to making strong anti-Muslim remarks.
Koh and Lim's case was triggered by a letter to the Straits Times newspaper from a Malay Muslim Singaporean woman, Zuraimah Mohammed, who in a query to taxi firms expressed concern that uncaged dogs may drool on taxi seats or dirty them with their paws. Under the Shafi school of thought to which most members of the local Muslim community belong, contact with dog saliva is prohibited. The two men, who attacked Islam and its believers in reaction to the letter, issued public apologies after pleading guilty.
Muslims and Headscarves in Singapore
Devout Malay Muslim females were the tudung, a headscarf that is pinned under the chin and hangs down over the torso. It is the same kind of headcarf worn by Muslim females in Malaysia and Indonesia. In the early 2000s, a big deal was made about girls wearing headscarves.to school in Singapore. Several Muslim girls were suspended from school because they refused attend classes without a headscarf. A third girl was pulled from school by her parents rather than give in to the ban and was taught at home.
Parents of girls who wore headscarves to school contended that their right to practice their religion were violated. They asked why Sikhs could wear turbans to school and sued the Singapore government, hiring a prominent Malaysian Muslim lawyer to represent them. But critics say exceptions are already being made. Christian students are allowed to wear crucifixes.
In accordance with a national dress code students are required to attend school in a school uniform, in most cases standard-issue pinafores. The government said that the rules on headscarves and school uniforms were in place to promote harmony among Singaporeans of different faiths and ethnic groups. It argued that headscarves constituted an overt form of expression that could stir up hostility among other groups.
The government claimed the headscarf ban did not violate religious rights because the girls could wear their headscarves outside of school. The Sikh exception, the government claimed, was a legacy of the British colonial era and pointed out that Sikhs have not chosen to politicize the issue and many don’t wear turbans to school. Many Muslim Malays and Malay opposition parties criticized Muslims who criticized the ban on headcarves on the basis that it alienated Muslims from the mainstream and risked marginalizing their position in Singapore’s high-tech society and leaving them left out.
John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, “ Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister, suggested that Muslim "extremists" stirred up the tudong issue in an effort to radicalise the Malay minority. The government criticised Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, a local Muslim activist who has advised the protesting parents, as being unrepresentative of the mainstream Malay community. The state's highest Islamic body, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, has backed the government's stance.” [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, February 14, 2002]
Chandra Muzaffar, a former Malaysian politician and civil rights activist, warns that Singapore could alienate Muslims, just as France and Turkey have done, by banning schoolgirls from wearing the headscarf. He said the tudong decision would widen the chasm between a largely non-Muslim Chinese political leadership and a crucial religious minority whose relationship with the state has always been somewhat uneasy. "It will strengthen that erroneous perception within a section of the population that the Singapore government is unjust and unfair to the Malays and the Muslims," she said. By refusing to compromise now, Singapore may be storing up trouble down the road in a Muslim-dominated region that is becoming more turbulent. [Ibid]
Girls Wearing Head Scarves Turned Away at Singapore Schools
In early 2002, in a rare act of civil disobedience in tightly-controlled Singapore, the parents of four small Malay girls attending state primary schools challenged the longtime ban on Muslim headscarves by bringing them to classes dressed in tudungs (the Malay word for the traditional Muslim headscarves). Three of the girls were suspended, another one was withdrawn to study at home. [Source: John Burton, Financial Times, February 14, 2002]
Jake Lloyd-Smith wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Education officials yesterday (Feb 4) carried out their threat to bar two Muslim girls from state school for wearing Islamic headscarves. The decision came after a month-long standoff as the girls' families resisted repeated efforts by the authorities to persuade them to abandon the controversial attire. Nurul Nasihah Mohamad Nasser and Siti Frawizah Mohamad Kassim were told they could return to their primary schools if they did not wear the tudung to class. The scarves are allowed to be worn to and from school but have to be taken off during lessons. [Source: Jake Lloyd-Smith South China Morning Post, February 5, 2002]
One of the fathers, Mohamad Nasser, said: "What can I do? The government is not giving me any leeway . . . My daughter's education is as important as my faith, my religion." His daughter is seven. Civil disobedience in any form is extremely rare in Singapore and the parents' actions have ignited an intense debate about how moves to promote social harmony should be balanced against religious freedoms. Mr Nasser said he and his daughter were ushered into the principal's office as they arrived at the school and told about the suspension. "When I told her that it might be her last day she felt bad, she was crying. She was feeling very sad," he said. "The principal hugged my daughter and told us she could still return on condition that we complied with the rules. She said she will not erase my daughter's name from the rolls."
Mr Nasser was adamant his daughter would not comply with the government rule "at the expense of my religion". But he said he would allow her to remove the headgear if the government gave written assurance she would be allowed to resume wearing it as soon as she reached puberty or went to secondary school. Otherwise he would have to enrol her in a Muslim religious school, Mr Nasser said.
A third girl who had also tested the no-scarf rule, Siti Amirah Amir, was removed from her primary school by her parents a few days before. They said they would educate her at home, before sending her to a religious school. A fourth girl, Khairah Fourkh, who started wearing the tudung in her second week of term, has been given a deadline to obey the dress code or face indefinite suspension.
Officials say wearing the tudung curbs their efforts to foster inter-religious understanding among the young. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made clear he supported the dress rules, saying the girls would be suspended unless they conformed. He advised the parents to test the legality of the ban in court.
One ethnic-Chinese Singapore mother said she backed the schools' policy, fearing that distinctions between the races would become more pronounced if authorities did not draw the line at the tudung. "Singapore has so many races. You have to have some rules. Can you imagine if all the Muslims looked one way and the Chinese looked another. It would grow and grow," said the mother. But one small opposition party latched on to the issue. The Singapore Democratic Party said: "Such a myopic and insensitive ruling will only lead to greater resentment among those being coerced, resulting in an even more polarised society." The showdown has also triggered a war of words between Singapore ministers and their counterparts in neighbouring Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015