By: Zurairi AR
“Early this year we hosted some students from Malaysia. They said they heard often that the azan cannot be heard in Singapore,” said Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, a senior executive of the republic’s Harmony Centre, referring to the Muslim call to prayer which usually blares from a mosque’s loudspeaker five times a day.
“When they asked for recommendations on where to stay, we suggested Arab Street. So every day they could hear the azan from the Sultan Mosque. They were quite surprised since they thought azan could not be heard here,” he added, explaining that there is no such thing as a ban on the azan, even in such a secular country.
“Furthermore, now the azan can even be heard on radio,” added Zainul Abidin Ibrahim, a director at the centre, laughing.
That was one of the Malaysian Muslim misconceptions against their brethren across the Causeway, as told to a group of Malaysian journalists by Harmony Centre, an interfaith initiative by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).
One of us asked, is it true that in Singapore a Muslim can eat openly in public during Ramadan without fear of being arrested by religious authorities?
That one is true, and the Harmony Centre leaders were not too fussed by the fact.
“What we do, always we do it through education… At the end of the day, if the community as a whole can uphold the religion by itself, then some few individuals they will find it uneasy lah to lepak at kedai kopi.
“That’s the type of pressure [that we use instead]. As times go by, there is even an increase of religiosity,” claimed Muhammad Fazalee Jaafar, the centre’s head.
Imran shrugged off these misconceptions, explaining that they are opportunities for the centre to explain how Singaporean Muslims live within the multicultural context, especially in housing estates with dense populations.
Elsewhere during our visit to the city-state, hosted by its Ministry of Communications and Information, we found the same dedication towards inclusiveness, co-existence, and pluralism.
Among such initiatives was the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which has offered counselling services to terror detainees for at least 13 years now.
The group started out its work with members of Jemaah Islamiah in Singapore, the South-east Asian Islamist terror group bent on establishing an Islamic state in the region. The group was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing.
Now, RRG has even started working to rehabilitate self-radicalised lone wolves. Its message remains clear: violence is not acceptable at all in Islam.
“Is it an obligation for the rest of the Muslim world to join [in foreign fights]?” asked Ahmad Saiful Rijal Hassan, an ustaz, or religious teacher who works with the group when told that some Muslims used the Palestinian conflict and the Syria war as excuses to invoke the need for jihad, or holy struggle for self-defence.
“Jihad is not an individual obligation, it is a communal obligation,” he added.
What is more astounding about RRG and the work they do is the group is made up of volunteers — religious scholars and teachers — who decided to do something about Singaporean Muslims’ foray into extremism and jihadism.
It did not need government coaxing to galvanise itself. Instead, it has now grown into a valuable adviser to the government when it comes to the topic.
In an interview with our group, Minister of culture, community and youth Grace Fu assured us that the island’s youths identify themselves as Singaporean first, especially in the light of rising Islamism in the region that calls for Islam and its holy book to be the base of governance.
“Within the Muslim community, they’ve gone to some extent educating the followers to the true meaning of Islam, and what we call the Singaporean Muslim identity,” said Fu.
So, what is this Singaporean Muslim identity? I asked Imran, who earlier in the tour similarly emphasised the need for Muslims in the region to identify with the context of the multicultural countries that they live in, instead of aping wholesale the strain of Islam from its birthplace in the Middle East.
Imran pointed towards the pamphlet of “Building a Singapore Muslim community of excellence”, published by Muis in 2006 and available on its website.
In the pamphlet were 10 desired attributes of the Singaporean Muslim — a guide on how Muslims can be religiously profound but still socially progressive in the context of Singapore.
Holds strongly to Islamic principles while adapting itself to changing context.
Appreciates other civilisations and is self-confident to interact and learn from other communities.
Progressive, practises Islam beyond forms or rituals and rides the modernisation wave.
Well adjusted as contributing members of a multi-religious society and secular state.
Inclusive and practises pluralism, without contradicting Islam.
To have an Islamic authority actually recognising secularism and pluralism instead of demonising them as filthy words might seem astonishing, especially when you compare it to the Malaysian context. But it should not be.
It is undeniable that this brand of progressive Islam might just turn out to be a showcase by the Singaporean government to impress us Malaysian journalists. Perhaps the reality on the ground is much different. My experience with the Muslim community there is much too shallow to jump to concrete conclusions.
But in a way it might not matter at all. What is more important is the fact that this strain of inclusive and progressive Islam is the one recognised, endorsed and actively promoted by its government.
In Singapore, the mainstream Islam is one that is humble enough to stand on the same platform as nine other religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Bahá’í, and Zoroastrianism — in the 67-year-old Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore, instead of lording over the others.
It is not the Islam which uses its political superiority and standing to marginalise and oppress not only adherents of other faiths, but also its own.
It is not the Islam that ends up being a mere tool for the powerful to stay in power, and the powerless to gain more power.
Zurairi AR is an assistant news editor and columnist for KL-based Malay Mail Online, and an advocate of humanism and scepticism.
Article was first published in Malay Mail Online. Republished with permission. Original article here: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/zurairi-ar/article/the-singaporean-muslim-identity