Friday, 9 April 2010

Singapore’s Islamic law and the inheritance imbroglio

In reality, Singapore's Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) is not complicated at all. There is even a spreadsheet on the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) website which calculates how a Muslim's assets are divided after death.
Unfortunately, most Singaporeans are not aware that religious inheritance laws are imposed upon Muslims. As non-Muslims, most Singaporeans are not concerned about the predicament either, despite the fact that civil law will increase the 'common space' among the diverse population.
It is in that context that the recent ruling by Singapore's Court of Appeals upholding the 'survivorship' principle was encouraging. The ruling also brought the AMLA situation into stark focus within the legal fraternity. It also highlights the potential for confusion at those points where Singapore's civil and religious law intersect.

Knowing full well that my comments are slightly aggressive within the Singapore context, I promptly despatched the following letter to the Straits Times.
The paper did not deem it worthy of publication but the Grand Moofti believes the text should be shared with a broader audience.
To the Editor:
The recent declaration by Singapore's Court of Appeals that "the general law will prevail against the Muslim law [Administration of Muslim Law Act] on this issue [inheritance law regarding assets jointly owned]" is encouraging. The precedent set by the court decision provides clarity over the distribution of a Muslim's jointly owned assets.
However, the Obeidillah Salim Talib case raises the important question regarding the validity of a Muslim's will if it relates to more than one third of his estate. 
Prevailing practice suggests Singaporean Muslims have no choice but to abide by the provisions of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore's (MUIS) interpretations of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) for disposing of assets following death; interpretations which the Court of Appeals declared to be no more than 'expert opinions.'
AMLA singles out Singaporean Muslims by not permitting them to bequeath assets, accrued over a lifetime of work, based on individual conscience and freewill. The situation is a denial of fundamental freedoms to a particular segment of Singaporeans purely on the basis of religion, freedoms readily available to all non-Muslim Singaporeans.
It will certainly be a step forward if Singapore's higher judiciary can confirm that a Muslim's duly registered will pertaining to his entire estate is recognised by Singapore's legal framework. The will, of course, may still voluntarily abide by the fatwa or religious guidance provided by MUIS for disposal of an estate.
Yours sincerely,
Imran Ahmed


  1. The framework of personal law coming under AMLA while the others come under Civil Law is well established and entrenched. There is little hope of this changing for the near future. The most viable way would be to live with the current framework while achieving your objectives.

    In my view, there are ways for Muslims to set up alternative structures for the eventual distribution of their estate notwithstanding the provisions of AMLA, in the same way non-Muslims use structures to put their assets outside of civil law of succession (through a will or Intestate Succession Act). The joint tenancy of real estate is one example. Insurance and trusts are other potential solutions.

  2. Hi Contrarian,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    As a pragmatist, I have no choice but to operate within the current framework. I do agree there are several (inferior) means available to Muslims to 'bypass' the inheritance law. You have touched upon joint ownership and trusts. I also referred to such mechanisms in my post dated December 14, 2009 entitled 'Whither Singapore's secularism: note to the Ministry of Law.'

    As an idealist and secularist, it bothers me that the law remains in place. Hence, my zeal in raising awareness about AMLA and acting as a catalyst, no matter how small, for change.

    I look forward to more comments from you in the future.

    Kind regards,


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