Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Social integration, Singapore’s shariah law and Minister Mentor Lee

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (MM Lee) did some straight talking recently. MM Lee is quoted as saying, "I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam... I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.[i]"
MM Lee's comments were certainly not straight from the hip. They were well thought out and designed to encourage discussion on a tricky issue. A social debate made more urgent by the resurgence of orthodox Islamic fervour within Southeast Asia's Malay-Muslim heartlands of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Examples of the region's flirtation with Sunni orthodoxy include the detention and arrest of Shi'ite worshippers in Malaysia following a raid on a Shia place of worship. (Shias have been declared 'deviants' by SE Asia's orthodox Sunni theologians.) Increasing attacks on followers of a 'deviant' sect, the Qadianis, in Indonesia. Finally, a polarizing debate about Muslims celebrating Valentine's Day underscores the shrinking space for secular thought within Malaysian society.
Undoubtedly, Singaporean Muslims of all sects and denominations may feel secure in practicing religion in accordance with their personal conscience. There exist both Shia and Qadiani places of worship in Singapore. Yet, MM Lee's comments provide cause for all Singaporeans to pause and consider the basis for his remarks.[ii]
Undoubtedly, one reason that Singapore's Malay community feels itself to be part of a distinct and separate community is because the Republic of Singapore confers such distinct legal status on the Malay-Muslim community through the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA).
For Muslims, AMLA is as much a part of Singapore's legal code as the Maintenance of Parents Act. AMLA is only applicable to all Singaporean Muslims, Malay or otherwise. No other religious or ethnic community in Singapore has a separate legal structure operating in parallel to Singapore's civil legal framework.
Muslims who disagree with any of AMLA's provisions have limited options to 'circumvent' AMLA. Hence, Muslims who do not conform to Singapore's interpretation of Islamic law, for reasons of personal conscience, must face the Republic's legal enforcement mechanisms.
No other religious community in Singapore must, by force of law, conform its behaviour to religious law. AMLA is enforced through separate shariah courts and its interpretations are 'guided' by an appointed religious statutory body.

There is considerable diversity within the Islamic world about the nature and interpretation of Islamic law. The above map illustrates the geographical influence of the main schools of Islamic law.(Source: Wikipedia)
Integration among diverse communities is carried out at a personal level. It cannot be forced upon individuals. Bonds created by a well designed school system and (for males) National Service work well in fostering linkages across class and ethnic structures. Nevertheless, social integration is a constant 'work in process.' There is always room for improvement.
Policymakers must respond to new challenges with creative solutions.
In the case of Singapore's Malay-Muslim community, one mechanism for reducing differentiation and perceptions of distinctiveness within the Malay-Muslim community is to repeal legislation specific to the Malay-Muslim community, i.e. AMLA. AMLA erects concrete boundaries between Singapore's various ethnic communities.
All Singaporeans must be subject to an identical legal framework, irrespective of religious persuasion. Religious law is not a solution for protecting Singapore's religious minorities. Civil law is sufficient.
Pious Muslims may choose to exercise state guaranteed freedoms in consonance with personal religious beliefs.
MM Lee's controversial comments on integration shed light on one peculiar aspect of Singapore's ethnic framework: the existence of Islamic shariah law for Singaporean Muslims. Policymakers must conduct a review of the need for shariah law within a theoretically secular state.

[i] The quotations have not been lifted directly from MM Lee's book. I am relying upon the blogosphere's accuracy for the quotations.
[ii] The Board of Directors of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) issued a formal statement about MM Lee's comments. The insertion of a link to the statement should not be construed as an endorsement (or otherwise) of AMP's views.


  1. Good blog post, very nicely analysed. But I have to ask, isn't AMLA part of the special priveleges that were given to the Malay community early in our time of independence because of makeup of the region and the claim that Malays have on Singapore? I say Malay specifically in this case because I am talking about the dispensation of rights and such to a specific racial group, and since they are made up mostly of Muslims, it's refering to the wants of the majority at the time. And after some posts I've seen from other people, how would the Malay-Muslim community in general react to the removal of AMLA? This is interesting stuff, and I am genuinely interested in hearing what you think. One thing, the bit where you says "Hence, Muslims who do not conform to Singapore's interpretation of Islamic law, for reasons of personal conscience, must face the Republic's legal enforcement mechanisms." What exactly you mean by the legal enforcement mechanisms?

  2. Hi Sean,

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

    Please give me a few days to respond. I would like to provide comprehensive answers as AMLA, etc. is a complex matter.

    Thank you for your patience.

    Best regards,


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