Speech By Minister For Social And Family Development, Second Minister For Health And Minister-In-Charge Of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli For MUIS’ Online International Seminar On Muslim Communities Of Success In The Context Of Secular Societies On Saturday, 6 November 2021
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh.
A very warm welcome to today’s seminar organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
I am glad that we can gather virtually, from all around the world, representing our respective Muslim communities, to share and learn from one another.
In June, we discussed essential traits that minority Muslim communities needed to succeed, and the importance of unity among our religious scholars. Today, we will build on these by illustrating how Islam provides the tools for minority Muslim communities to adapt and thrive in diverse, contemporary societies.
Religious Harmony – Parallels in Islamic History
Our Islamic history offers models of peaceful coexistence that can guide Muslim minority communities. Most of us would be familiar with the historical accounts when Muslims were an oppressed minority in Mecca and when they were subsequently in power in Medina. In between these two periods, a small group of Muslims migrated to Abyssinia, which is in present-day Ethiopia. Tradition tells us of their excellent behaviour and character in the court of the Christian King Negus which won them his protection. Many stayed on, even after Muslims successfully found a safe haven in Medina. I would like to share a photo of the Mausoleum of the Negus, taken during an official visit.
China was another place where early Muslims migrated to. I saw evidence of this when I visited Quanzhou in 2018. There were many ancient Muslim tombstones preserved. Chinese historians mentioned that the Sahabah Saad ibn Abi Waqqas came as an emissary of the 3rd Caliph Usman Bin Affan to the Tang Dynasty Emperor Gaozong in 650AD. The Muslim minority community flourished and experienced their Golden Age under the Ming Dynasty – and even adopted Chinese designs for their mosques. In fact, six of the generals of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty were Muslims. A luminary of the dynasty was the famous Admiral Zhenghe. At the end of this era, Ming Muslim loyalists Milayin, Ding Guodong and ally Turumtay fought the last major battle for the dynasty against the Manchurian Qings. They and 100,000 of their soldiers perished in the battle. A national monument in Guangzhou stands in honour of the “jiaomen sanzhong” – the “Three defenders of the faith”.
The backdrop of these early minority communities may be set against vastly different conditions, but they highlighted how the values of trust and compassion can be continuously nurtured for a shared future. They also reminded me of the Prophet’s response to a sahabah, whose tribe was non-Muslim, on whether he should migrate. The Prophet ﷺ said, ‘O Fudayk! Establish the five daily prayers, abandon evil, and live amongst your people wherever you wish to live.’ It can be inferred from the Prophet’s permission for him to stay that he need not feel that his religious identity prevented him from being loyal to his tribe.
Religious Harmony – The Singapore Model
Yet today, and after some 200 years since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there is still no consensus on how minority Muslim communities should live and practise Islam within diverse societies in the modern secular states. Some feel compelled to choose between their religious principles and secular values in absolute terms. Either they adopt wholly secular principles and the processes of a secular society, or reject such values altogether. I empathise with them. Because formal guidance is not available for them to know how to adapt religiously and meaningfully thrive in contemporary and diverse societies.
To this end, I would like to offer Singapore as a case study. Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse societies. All of us have pledged to be one united people, regardless of race, language or religion. Our shared principles of mutual respect, trust and harmony have allowed space for each community to express their own cultures and adapt their practices for the common good. One can both be a good Muslim and enjoy a modern life in Singapore, with good jobs and high living standards.
As Ministers, we pledged to carry out our duties to achieve these goals. We also made an Affirmation of Allegiance to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.
Singapore’s Constitution is our secular covenant and forms the foundation to build the three pillars of our social compact:
a. Justice and equality.
c. A cohesive and harmonious multi-religious and multi-racial society.
The first pillar, Justice and equality, guarantees that the Government will be impartial to all, and allocates public goods and develops policies based on meritocracy. The Government enables individuals through the building of strong families and creates a society of opportunities through access to affordable and quality education, housing and healthcare.
An incorruptible Government is a cornerstone for justice and equality. We are able to build trust between the Government and its citizens because the Government treats everyone fairly and deliver its duties impartially.
This is why Ministers in Singapore pledge that we will “at all times faithfully discharge our duties as Ministers according to law, and to the best of our knowledge and ability, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”.
The second pillar is self-reliance. Individuals have a duty to take care of themselves. This helps to engender trust between individuals in society because “from each his best” and “to each his due” would be for the common good.
The third pillar is a cohesive and harmonious society. “Trust” is again the operative word. In particular, engendering trust between majority and minority communities by building respect, care, and concern for fellow citizens. Let me elaborate on how this third pillar applies to the Singapore Muslim community.
Singapore’s founding fathers established multi-culturalism as the foundation of our independence. This was a deliberate decision. When independence was thrusted upon Singapore, the majority Malay/Muslims became a minority, and the minority Chinese became the majority - overnight. To address racial and religious tensions then, our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said on 9 August 1965, and I quote:
“We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore…This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”
This marked the start of our quest for social cohesion. This was not easy. The Singapore Government had to forge solidarity carefully and gradually. It was a fine and fragile balance. Achieved through the formulation of public policies, introduction of laws, and support for ground-up initiatives. Often, requiring a great deal of courage. To allow various religious communities to practise their traditions, while expanding the common space.
a. We shaped our public housing, schools, workplaces, parks and playgrounds to become common places. Creating opportunities for everyone to interact and to form close bonds with one another. Our children attend the same public schools together during their formative years, where they mix and interact. Most importantly, they recite the national pledge daily – “to build a democratic society, regardless of race, language or religion”; like what we see onscreen – both past and current generations. A vision that continues to bind them together throughout their lives.
b. To facilitate this interaction, the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was introduced in 1989 to ensure a better-balanced mix of ethnic groups in public housing, where 80% of Singaporeans live. Otherwise, we will live with racial enclaves, like what happens in most countries.
c. English became our working language, not Chinese, Malay or Tamil – even though the Chinese were the majority! No one group was privileged over another.
d. The two-year National Service for every male citizen and Permanent Resident, which is necessary to protect Singapore, helps to integrate males from different communities.
e. There are also safeguards to protect minorities, such as the Presidential Council of Minority Rights.
We are fortunate to have harmonious race and religious relations in Singapore. Race or religious-based riots have not occurred for decades. However, racial and religious harmony is neither a given nor permanent. The harmony we enjoy today did not happen overnight. It required the persistent commitment of all groups in our society, to work towards this common vision.
a. In the past, our focus was directed internally, about how we accommodate another, and not overly pushing for our own rights and respecting each other.
b. Today, our operating environment is different. External events influence how we relate to one another, and shape our racial and religious relations. We are more exposed to information shared on social media. Especially our youth. These transcend all physical boundaries, challenge the transmission of values, and widen fractures in societies. Be it the “Black Lives Matter” movement or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though far away, shape our views and could affect our relations with others as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. If we do not address this early, and effectively, it will slowly and silently erode the trust built over many generations. This is why religious harmony and social cohesion must be continuously strengthened and never taken for granted.
Muslim Communities of Success in a Secular Society
In Singapore, a key factor that has guided our Muslim community to adapt and thrive in a modern, cosmopolitan society, is the presence of credible and dynamic religious institutions.
a. We have steadily developed a pool of religious scholars, with more than 2,500 university graduates from Islamic universities. They are well trained in religious traditions, and sensitised to the needs of the Singapore Muslim community and the local context. They are our precious assets.
b. Muslims administer their own family and estate management (faraid and waqaf) laws based on Islamic principles through legislation that is equivalent to the national statutes. The Administration of Muslim Law Act also established the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) as the apex religious leadership that is responsible for our religious institutions like mosques and madrasahs. This Council has been essential in providing guidance and supporting the socio-religious needs of the Muslim community across a broad range of issues.
c. With a spirit of mutual understanding among the different communities, our mosques in Singapore manage the volume of the azan and in return, Mosques, like other places of worship, are built within our multi-racial housing estates. Different places of worship have co-existed next to each other for a long time. If you walk down Telok Ayer Street in Singapore, you will find a mosque, an Indian Muslim Shrine, a Chinese Temple and a Church, all along the same road. This is how they looked about one hundred years ago, and remain there today.
d. Together, these have yielded a long period of peace and harmony, which has enabled everyone, including our Muslim community, to benefit and progress in terms of education. Many Muslims have succeeded and improved their socio-economic status.
From time to time, our Government makes adjustments to respond to the evolving needs of various communities, while also preserving the peace and good-will between them. For example, while Muslim women can wear the tudung (or hijab) at most workplaces, they are unable to do so for some occupations with prescribed uniforms. Most recently, the Government allowed Muslim healthcare workers in the public sector to don the tudung or hijab with their uniform, if they wish to do so. Our religious institutions and leaders had been patiently engaging the Government on the issue, and understood the need for the Government to prepare the ground to accept this change graciously. Muis strengthened the process with a fatwa on the wearing of tudung in uniformed work, empowering Muslim women in Singapore to make informed decisions and provide reassurances to those who may be facing their unique personal circumstances. This could only take place because of the many decades of inter-faith dialogues to foster trust and cohesion. Not only between our apex religious leaders, but amongst our citizens. We didn’t let the pandemic hinder our efforts too, moving them virtually!
I hope that our approach can provide useful learning points for other Muslim minority communities, which make up one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population. Similar to Singapore,
a. Many of these Muslim minority communities live in open, modern and diverse societies in secular states.
b. Emerging uncertainties and challenges of the contemporary world usually impact these Muslim communities first. Often, there is no precedence in Islamic history and traditions to guide them. Their experience will be distinctly different from societies where Muslims are the majority.
c. These Muslim minority communities must have the ability to contribute to nation building while being able to live out their faith, like Muslims do in Singapore.
One example is the response of the Singapore Muslim community to the pandemic.
a. In Singapore, MUIS and its religious leadership made swift and necessary adjustments to our religious practices to protect our community from COVID-19.
b. We temporarily closed mosques, postponed Haj pilgrimage and exercised social distancing during Hari Raya festivities. At that time, we did not have any other jurisdiction to learn from or benchmark against. We had to adapt solutions based on our own situation. Our religious leaders stepped forward to explain and assuage concerns on the ground. Alhamdulillah, with the leadership and efforts of the religious and community leaders, these difficult measures were accepted by the community, and there have been no significant mosque clusters since the pandemic began.
c. These efforts and sacrifices not only saved our Muslim community from harm, but also earned the respect of other communities.
What role does the religious leadership play in such situations when business is not as usual? They need to help their communities find conviction and comfort, as they practise their religion in an evolving environment. Their religious guidance cannot solely be on the basis of “darurat” or temporary exigencies of circumstances, nor on the need to impose our beliefs and practices on others. It must also forge peaceful and successful co-existence with the majority as fellow citizens. Only then can we, as Muslim minorities, demonstrate citizenry with conviction.
We applaud Muslim individuals from minority communities, who participate in leadership roles in their nations.
a. These are Muslims who have been elected as political office holders in many western democracies. This is not an easy responsibility. Upholding the values of a secular political system, may mean performing duties that some segments of their own religious community may not agree with. Some notable examples include President Halimah Yaacob, the late Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
b. Muslim leaders in secular societies also have to be prepared to address inconvenient issues. For example, in my previous role overseeing Singapore’s food security, I had to ensure the flow of food supplies to meet the diverse needs of our people – even those that Muslims do not consume, such as pork and alcohol. This is because, as a Minister, as you may recall my affirmation, I must faithfully discharge my duties according to the law, and to the best of my knowledge and ability, without fear or favour.
c. It would benefit members of our community if there are clear guidance from our religious leaders on sensitive matters such as this.
While intuitively, we believe our Muslim communities can adjust and thrive in any context and circumstance, it is imperative that we develop a body of knowledge for Muslim minority communities within multi-cultural and secular societies. This body of knowledge will provide the guiding framework and lay the foundations for communities to thrive and succeed in their respective contexts.
With this in mind, I would like to offer some pertinent questions for us to explore in this seminar and beyond:
a. How can Muslims strive to integrate meaningfully in the larger society of such countries while keeping to our faith?
b. How do we agree on and preserve the common spaces where we interact with others in our multi-cultural societies?
c. How do we, as a Muslim community, benefit others in our modern and open society as Rahmatan Lil Alamin or blessings to all?
Before I end, let me say a few words in Malay:
Saudara saudari sekalian, masyarakat Islam minoriti di seluruh dunia sedang berdepan dengan pelbagai cabaran kontemporari. Kadang-kala ada kelompok merasa terpaksa memilih antara prinsip agama dan nilai sekular. Alhamdulillah, kami di Singapura berjaya berkongsi prinsip kebersamaan dengan masyarakat majmuk yang lebih luas dengan rasa hormat, saling mempercayai dan harmonis. Kunci kejayaan ini ialah Pemerintah yang prihatin serta iltizam teguh semua kaum untuk menyokong satu sama lain demi kebaikan bersama. Kami dapat keistimewaan mewujudkan institusi keagamaan, Muis, yang berwibawa dan golongan asatizah yang disegani dari segi ilmu dan tradisi keagamaan serta peka akan konteks kehidupan Singapura yang kosmopolitan.
Dari semasa ke semasa, Pemerintah Singapura membuat penyesuaian untuk memenuhi keperluan pelbagai kaum. Terkini, Pemerintah membenarkan pemakaian tudung bagi pekerja sektor kesihatan awam, jika mereka mahu. Ini adalah perubahan dasar besar yang mendapat sokongan kaum lain wujudnya kepercayaan dan perpaduan antara kaum. Muis juga mengeluarkan Fatwa supaya mereka yang terlibat merasa tenang dan membuat keputusan dengan yakin.
Inilah model pendekatan unik bagi Muslim Singapura. Kami tidak punya banyak bahan rujukan dalam tradisi keagamaan untuk dijadikan panduan. Justeru, kami sering menjadi penggerak utama apabila terjadi perubahan dasar, dan terus berperanan dalam pembangunan negara tanpa menjejas prinsip, nilai-nilai dan amalan keagamaan kami.
In closing, I believe that the success of Muslim communities within multi-cultural and secular states will require a continual pursuit of the common good together as a society.
As we strive to become Communities of Success, we recognise that different secular states have different contexts. Each of us will need to find our own specific approaches and solutions to meet the aspirations of our people. We will need religious leadership, who have mastery of the sciences of our religion, and able to collaborate with those who are experts in science, medicine, architecture, sociology and politics, and appreciate how societies organise themselves. Only then can we help our communities navigate contemporary challenges. This would contrast with some groups today who desire to pursue a legalistic practice of the religion, ignoring the spirit of the law or focusing solely on discussions of doctrinal religious rites and theological dogmas.
This seminar will therefore provide a platform for us to exchange ideas, gain new perspectives, and learn about other models of success where Muslim minorities have flourished as successful citizens within their own multicultural societies.
I wish everyone a fruitful seminar ahead.
Thank you. Wabillahi-Taufiq Walhidayah Wassalamualaikum Wr. Wb.