Being a Muslim Singaporean in the 21st century


Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli recently spoke at a forum organised by MUIS. He delivered a profound and insightful lecture, drawing from key historical events which shaped the Islamic world, and also used them to contextualise the Singapore experience with multiculturalism.

It is a speech that should be read widely, especially by those living in multicultural societies. It also clearly explained our Party’s approach towards forging a multi-racial, multi-religious society. Here is the gist of the speech and some reflections on Singapore’s own journey towards social cohesion.

The migration to Abyssinia

The Migration to Abyssinia in 613 / 614 AD chronicled the journey of the Prophet Mohammad’s first followers, who fled from the persecution of the ruling Quraysh tribe of Mecca. They sought refuge in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum (Abyssinia), present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Caption: Minister Masagos with the Archbishop of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church
Caption: Minister Masagos met the Mufti too.

King Negus of Abyssinia offered the persecuted Muslims peace and protection within his kingdom due to their excellent character and behaviour. Even when Medina was later established as the safe haven for Muslims, many of them stayed on in Abyssinia and lived within the Christian Kingdom as ethno-religious minorities.

Caption: The mausoleum of the Negus

Islam takes root in China

Caption: This is the restored façade of the 1000-year-old Ashab mosque in Quanzhou.

Four decades later in China, the Sahabah Saad ibn Abi Waqqas arrived in China as an envoy of the 3rd Caliph Usman Bin Affan, to the Tang Emperor Gao Zhong in 650 AD. Historians regard that event as the point in history where Islam began to take root in China in a deeper and firmer manner, and flourished in the centuries that followed. Gradually, it led to thriving ethno-religious Muslim communities, which include the Hui Muslims community, within a predominantly Han-Chinese society.

The Golden Age of Islam in China

800 years later during the Ming dynasty, what is sometimes known as the Golden Age of Islam in China, Emperor Yong Le bestowed the highest command of the royal fleet to the famous Muslim Admiral and diplomat Zheng He, who led the Ming armada on seven expeditionary voyages.

Caption: An ancient shrine of three holy men whom some claim to be tomb of Saad Ibnu Waqqas. A tablet by Zhenghe there showed that he paid homage to them before embarking on his journey.

Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, Muslims warriors loyal to Ming fought alongside Han Chinese compatriots against the invading Manchurian horde, and lost. 100,000 men perished during that bloody campaign, and the Qing dynasty was subsequently formed.

Muslim communities as ethno-religious minorities

These Muslim communities share something in common. They were integral to the societies in which they themselves were ethno-religious minorities. These recorded histories are instructive to how we can (and should) strive towards the forging a common national destiny between different racial and religious groups. Our shared national identity is richer because of our racial and religious diversity and our embracing of this diversity, not in spite of it.

For minority communities to exist and thrive in larger societal frameworks, we need trust and compassion between peoples. Prophet Mohamad’s was once asked a question by a follower named Fudayk, who asked if he was a Muslim but tribe was not, should he not migrate to someplace else?

To this, the Prophet replied ‘O Fudayk! Establish the five daily prayers, abandon evil, and live amongst your people wherever you wish to live.’. It can be inferred from the Prophet’s permission for him to stay that he need not feel that his religious identity prevented him from being loyal to his tribe.

Layers of identities, degrees of loyalties

The question by Fudayk may sum up one of the great social challenges confronting many multicultural multi-religious societies today. In the search for religious piousness and spirituality, are adherents of faiths required to shed other parts of their identity or reduce other loyalties? Is possible for one to be spiritually pious whilst being an active member of a secular, multicultural and pluralistic society? How do we weigh the layers of our identities and the degrees of our loyalties within each layer? How can a multi-racial, multi-religious and secular society make meaningful progress in the delicate matter of social cohesion?

One answer can be found in the Singapore experience.

The Singapore way to social cohesion

When Singapore separated from Malaysia on 9th August 1965, Malay/Muslims living in Singapore, who were hitherto the ethno-religious majority as part of the Malaysian Federation, became a minority in the newly formed nation state overnight.

Singapore’s founding leaders established multi-culturalism as the foundation of Singapore’s independence.

The founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said on 9 August 1965,

“We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore…This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”

How it was done

The quest for Singapore’s social cohesion began henceforth, and it was a difficult and complex task, especially given the fragile circumstances and racial tensions then.

Over the decades, the PAP government took great pains to forge national solidarity carefully and gradually through the formulation of public policies, introduction of laws, support for ground-up initiatives and provided steely political resolve to see them through. The aim is to allow various communities to practise their religions and traditions, while expanding the common spaces.

Great efforts was devoted to to build and strengthen Singapore’s social cohesion. These includes:

  • English became our common and neutral working language. This is despite Chinese being the language of the majority. There was no systemic or policy driven privilege.
  • Opportunities were created for everyone to interact and to forge bonds. Our children attend the same public schools together during their formative years, where they mix and interact. Most importantly, they recite the national pledge daily – “to build a democratic society, regardless of race, language or religion”.
  • The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was introduced in 1989 to ensure a better-balanced mix of ethnic groups in public housing, where 80 per cent of Singaporeans live. Otherwise, we will live with racial enclaves, like what happens in most countries.
  • The two-year National Service for every male citizen and Permanent Resident, which is necessary to protect Singapore, helps to integrate males from different communities.
  • There are also safeguards to protect minorities, such as the Presidential Council of Minority Rights.

Did we succeed?

It would be foolhardy for anyone to say that we have arrived on this front because the work never ceases, nor can it.

The course of human nature is dynamic, so too is the nature of societies; technology has made the pace of change relentless. But amidst all this, the value of trust remains constant. Trust is the cornerstone of all social relationships, between individuals, between groups of peoples, between the people and the government.

Over successive terms, the PAP government obtained the working trust of the majority of Singaporeans largely because of working competence and operational effectiveness. But the emotional trust of Singaporeans was earned by the moral decisions taken and the resolve to do what was right for the people and the country, no matter the political costs. This gave the PAP government the moral authority to push through policies and measures that were sometimes tough and unpopular, but necessary to achieve fairer and equitable outcomes for all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.

The contributions of our Muslim community

If progress was made, credit must be to all Singaporeans, especially those belonging to racial-religious minority communities, who played their part in this national priority. They allowed themselves to give up certain conveniences, setting aside individual preferences, being mindful of the cultural practices and beliefs of other races and religions, making the effort to connect with friends and neighbours from different cultures and backgrounds.

This spirit was amply demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

MUIS and its religious leadership made swift and necessary adjustments to our religious practices to protect our community from Covid-19.

We temporarily closed mosques, postponed Haj pilgrimage and exercised social distancing during Hari Raya festivities. At that time, we did not have any other jurisdiction to learn from or benchmark against. We had to adapt solutions based on our own situation. Our religious leaders stepped forward to explain and assuage concerns on the ground.

With the leadership and efforts of the religious and community leaders, these difficult measures were accepted by the community, and there have been no significant mosque clusters since the pandemic began. These efforts and sacrifices not only saved our Muslim community from harm, but also earned the respect of other communities.

A richer and fuller identity

To the question of whether it is indeed possible for one to be spiritually pious whilst being a part of a secular, multicultural and pluralistic society?

The Prophet’s beautifully simple yet profound reply to Fudyak offers us guidance.

‘O Fudayk! Establish the five daily prayers, abandon evil, and live amongst your people wherever you wish to live.’

You can read his full speech here.

Cover photo credit: Masagos Zulkifli Facebook page. All photos courtesy Masagos Zulkifli.