Many may consider Singaporean Muslims to be a privileged segment of the Republic's population.
Muslims are served by a Minister in Charge of Muslim Affairs, a Mufti operating under the auspices of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) and, in some matters, are subject to Islamic law under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA).
The relationship between Singaporean Muslims (read Malay/Muslims) and the state is a delicate one. The sensitivities are generally due to the peculiar history of being a Chinese majority city-state which seceded from a larger Malay dominated federation.
For Singapore's Muslims, secularism must mean more than just the freedom to drink alcohol and/or eat during Ramadan
Perhaps that is why Singapore's legal relationship with Islam perplexes me at times.
Singapore is a secular state, theoretically. No one dare question me if I consume alcoholic drinks in public or private. That is my choice.
Yet, the AMLA has several conditions which impinge on the civil rights of Muslim citizens. For example, a Muslim is unable to write a Will assigning more than 33% of his wealth to his preferred heirs. AMLA forbids it.
Put another way, the law dictates that as a Muslim I cannot give 100% of my wealth to (say) my mother if I wished. I can only leave a maximum of 33% to my mother. Under Singapore law, the remaining 67% of my wealth must be distributed by MUIS (based on Islamic law).
I find this odd legislation for a secular state.
All citizens of a secular state have the right to hand down their wealth as they see fit. To take the choice away on the basis of religious law is, well, not secular!
While referring to the Singapore government's decision to allow casinos on the island, the Minister in Charge of Muslim Affairs, Dr. Yacoob Ibrahim said:
We understand that in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, it is not tenable for government policies to be dictated by the views of any one group or groups. If we go down that road, then should we ban abortion or the use of condoms because some religious groups are against them? Or should we ban the sale of meat in line with the convictions of groups who believe that animals should not be slaughtered for food? It is in the interest of all Singaporeans that policies are not dictated by the views of any group.
Choice is the bedrock of freedom within a secular society. Hindus exercise choice if they eat beef and Catholics if they use a condom. Similarly, Hindus exercise choice when not eating beef and Muslims when not drinking alcohol. Freedom of choice should prevail in all matters of personal conscience.
Wills are valid legal documents in many Islamic countries. This is a plaque commemorating the Will of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Founder of Pakistan, at the Sindh Madrassa in Karachi
Muslims deserve the same choices which other Singaporeans take for granted. One such (lack of) choice pertains to the law of inheritance. There are also other instances.
AMLA creates a parallel legal framework based on religious law which is applicable only to Muslims. By removing freedoms on the basis of religious law, AMLA defies the norms and liberties found in a secular society.
Secular freedoms permit all of us to order our lives on the basis of our own conscience and religion. To some that freedom may result in their foregoing the right to draft a Will or not gambling.
Personally, I want these freedoms for myself, not as a diktat from the state. It all comes back to choice.
Singapore is a harmonious multi-racial society. The various organs of state, including MUIS, play a valid role in maintaining a balanced society. For the most part, Singapore is a secular state.
I hope to rewrite this commentary one day without the phrase, 'for the most part.'
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore
The Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), also known as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, was established as a statutory body in 1968 when the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) came into effect. Under AMLA, MUIS is to advise the President of Singapore on all matters relating to Islam in Singapore.
The role of MUIS is to see that the many and varied interests of Singapore's Muslim community are looked after. In this regard MUIS is responsible for the promotion of religious, social, educational, economic and cultural activities in accordance with the principles and traditions of Islam as enshrined in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.
The role of MUIS is to see that the many and varied interests of Singapore's Muslim community are looked after. The Council of MUIS is the overall decision-making body and is responsible for the formulation of policies and operational plans. The Council comprises the President of MUIS, the Mufti of Singapore, persons recommended by the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs and other persons nominated by Muslim organisations. All members of the Council are appointed by the President of Singapore. (MUIS Website)