Monday, 22 August 2011

Charity, MUIS and being a Pakistani-Malay-Indian Singaporean

It is not often I am contacted by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). When MUIS does contact me it is almost certainly about donations.
Admittedly, I am not MUIS' best patron. I already contest MUIS' stake on my assets through Singapore's Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) as an unfair claim. I do not like the idea of MUIS forcibly determining the disposition of my assets following my death.
It is the holy month of fasting, or Ramzan, for Muslims. Zakat is often paid by Muslims during the holy month. Hence, it is no surprise that MUIS chose this month to inform me of my obligations towards the less privileged.
A wooden Tatar mosque in Kruszyniany, Northeast Poland
I was urged to pay zakat to MUIS so the funds may be used for the welfare of Singapore's Malay-Muslim community.
Zakat is one of Islam's five pillars or one of Islam's five 'non-negotiable absolutes.' Zakat requires all Muslims to annually donate 2.5 percent of net worth to charity. Surely, that is a simplification of the concept of zakat but the purpose is clear: a community's less well off must be supported by the larger community.
Charity is good and must be encouraged. Giving has its own rewards. Altruism's 'feel good' factor cannot easily be replicated by other activities. Nevertheless, there are a few principles about charity which guide my modest giving. These principles might be better referred to as 'priorities.'
Our first obligation is to help those near to us. Think of the Confucian ideal of 'filial piety.' Giving to support parents and family must precede donations for earthquake relief, cancer research, advancement of particular religious beliefs, etc. Of course, this ideal refers not simply to blood relatives but all persons who are a significant part of our life. 
Bronze statue of man carrying his aged mother up some steps at a shrine (Tokyo, Japan)
Next is an obligation to the immediate community. 'Buying' tissues or food from an elderly or disabled person who maintains a 'stall' near my building is more meaningful than writing a check to an established institutional charity.
It is only after community and family responsibilities are met that one may start apportioning money to other causes, e.g. animal welfare, disaster relief, etc.
But let's head back to MUIS and its solicitation of zakat funds. There are some MUIS specific ideas which are pertinent to me.
I am not Malay by ethnicity. Nor do I speak Malay. In fact, under Singapore law persons of Pakistani origin are legally classified 'Indian,' requiring monthly mandatory payments to the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA). I may voluntarily give zakat to MUIS but SINDA benefits from my legal classification.
My Housing and Development Board ethnic quota is 'Others' (not Malay) but I am subject to Singapore's Islamic law (AMLA) – legislation designed to fit into Malay religious and cultural traditions.
Being a cynic, I am convinced that were I ever to approach MUIS for assistance, I would politely be sent packing towards SINDA.
I am not a Tamil Indian. Nor do I speak Tamil. Consequently, I will most likely face similar problems convincing SINDA to assist me, especially once SINDA realizes I am Muslim (not difficult given my name).
I imagine there will be a few bouts of 'shuttle diplomacy' between SINDA and MUIS until a senior bureaucrat in some government ministry decides that being categorized Indian or Malay is not as important as being Singaporean, regardless of ethnicity.
Giving is one the easiest and most noble of acts. It is important to give. However, giving without thinking considerably reduces the impact of our efforts.
Nevertheless, giving trumps not giving on any day of the year.
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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 imran@deodaradvisors.com.

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