Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Singapore’s religious law and common space: time for a review

The recent arrest of full time national serviceman Muhammad Fadil under Singapore's Internal Security Act is a reminder that extremist Islamist ideologies can be nurtured in any environment. The Ministry of Home Affairs states that twenty year old Fadil actively sought out jihadist websites, even going so far as to try to contact a radical Yemeni cleric.
Undoubtedly, Fadil's arrest is an isolated incident among Singapore's Muslim minority population. (Muslim's comprise approximately 14% of Singapore's total population.) Like most Muslims, Singaporean Muslims are more interested in improving their quality of life rather than waging jihad against the non-Muslims.
Yet, Fadil's detention raises interesting questions about Singapore's Muslim community; questions concerning integration, self-erected barriers and the role of Sharia in a modern civil society.

Historically, Singapore's Muslims have been synonymous with the Malay community. Given the sensitivities associated with Singapore's break from Malaysia, a 'light touch' approach was adopted. In essence, Malays were given a relatively free hand to regulate themselves, even being granted a parallel legal structure via the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) in 1968.
Through AMLA, Sharia courts were established to regulate aspects of personal and family law for Singapore's Malays. AMLA led to the establishment of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) as a statutory body to "advise the President of Singapore on all matters relating to Muslims in Singapore."
Among other tasks, MUIS regulates Singapore's religious teachers and sermons. Both are important roles to minimize the influence of extremist ideologies within Singapore.
So, Singapore did what all Muslim societies have done since the advent of Islam: it subordinated organized religion to the state, basically by making Islam an (autonomous) organ of the state. The Malay community became a 'millet' within the Singapore state, much like the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
That was 1968. Today's Singapore has developed a national identity distinct from its regional neighbours. Singaporean Muslims are no exceptions, they too have benefitted from the transformation of the city-state into a wealthy and cosmopolitan global city.
Along with the disappearance of the kampong, the kampong mindset is also no more. Singapore's national personality is visible in the younger generation of Malay and non-Malay Muslims.
Singapore's cosmopolitan and largely secular atmosphere colours the nature of national debate, including within the Muslim community. For example, in Singapore, serious deliberations surrounding 'khalwat' or banning Muslims from drinking alcohol are non-starters. More important are discussions about the role of religion in Singapore's 'common space,' homosexuality, or single mothers.
Today's Singaporean rightly views religion as a matter of personal conscience. In a uniquely Singaporean paradox, she is 'religion-blind' while yet being supersensitive to religion, say in dietary matters.
Parallel religious legal frameworks eat into precious common space and potentially foster a communal identity, at the expense of a national Singaporean identity. Additionally, contentious issues relating to the interpretation of 'genuine' Islamic law will likely increase as Singapore's Muslim community becomes more diverse in character.
2010 Singapore is far removed from the Singapore of 1968. It is time the government establish an independent commission with broad terms of reference to evaluate the role of religiously inspired legislation within Singapore's primarily secular legal framework. A Sharia based legal system is an anachronism in modern Singapore.
As Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said, "Ours is a secular society. This allows us to treat all religions equally and no one religion is regarded by the state as superior to another."


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at

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