Islam & Democracy in Singapore: Dialogue towards a Multicultural Society

by James Gomez & Zulfikar Mohd Shariff

Dr James Gomez (left) & Mr Zulfikar Mohd Shariff (right)

A plurality of voices speaking on Islam is the best way forward for building democracy and a multicultural society in Singapore.

This was the main idea we took away from a one day conference on Islam entitled, “Conflict, Religion and Culture: Domestic and International Implications for Southeast Asia & Australia” on 17 February 2011 at La Trobe University, Melbourne.

About two dozen researchers and academics presented and debated the topic of Islam, democracy and civil society in Southeast Asia at this meeting organised by the Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University.

Agreement among the presenters emerged that a key factor for democratic transition in Muslim populated countries is the presence of civil society and political parties that openly engage each other over matters of ethnicity and religion.

Democratising Islamic engagements

This “engagement” takes place at various levels, with different groups recognising each others’ legitimate and lawful right to participate and be recognised as representing their community interests. However, this legitimacy is continuously negotiated within each countries legal and political framework.

It is this framework of engagement that allows for open debates and critique of the relationship between inter-ethnic dialogue and Islam’s relationship with the state in several Southeast Asian countries.

The volume of such discussions over inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue provides a critical mass towards democracy and fostering a multicultural society.

The different paper presenters noted that the democratisation of engagement has changed the dynamics of inter-ethnic relations.  These days community groups do not merely defer to the authorities to maintain inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.  Instead, they are now able to provide support to each other by developing trust based on open and honest engagements.

One example that was referred to by several speakers is the Catholic Herald’s “Allah” issue.  In the aftermath of the initial judgment allowing the Herald’s use of “Allah”, several individuals set churches and suraus on fire. In response, various Muslim NGOs stepped forward to offer protection to churches in Malaysia.

This development points to a maturing of inter-religious engagement in Malaysia, made possible through democratic inter-community engagement.  While problems may be expected to arise from time to time, continued dialogue provides the basis for matured and sophisticated conflict resolution options.

While this dialogue takes place on many levels, several states have developed a symbiotic relationship with Islam that provides greater engagement and authority for both, Islamic groups and state policies.  The outcome is contingent on the level of engagement and whether Islamic voices are sanctioned or democratised.

Singapore’s centralised managed of Islam

The examples from Southeast Asia and the findings of the conference suggest that in Singapore we need to move away from a PAP government controlled discourse of Islam and Malay issues to one that is open and plural.

Instead of open engagement that democratises the Muslim community, the PAP government has opted to centralise, manage and mainstream the Muslims through co-option, sanctions and delegitimizing independent opinions.

One presenter, Dr Michael Barr of Flinders University, argued, that the management and mainstreaming of Muslim voices in Singapore is based on a distrust and fear of the community.   This fear shapes the PAP government’s approach and action with regards to the Muslim community in the city-state. And the same fear of the community has been transferred onto sections of the Singaporean public.

While there are attempts to reduce active discrimination of the Malays and Muslims in Singapore, such efforts are contingent upon Muslims entering the “mainstream” and accepting the PAP government’s management of Muslim interests. According to PAP logic, Muslims in Singapore are required to first prove they have become part of mainstream society before discrimination can be removed.

In order to mainstream the Muslims, the PAP has centralised opinions by ensuring only officially sanctioned views and actions are legitimised.  Thus, only the Islamic Council of Singapore (MUIS) is viewed as the legitimate authority in providing Islamic opinions. Additionally, only organisations affiliated with the PAP government are deemed “legitimate” in providing social (but not political) views and only PAP Malay MPs are the community’s real political leaders.

Singapore’s centralisation of Muslim views has allowed the authorities to gain effective control of the Muslim community and has limited the democratisation of views and actions.  It has also prevented independent Muslim groups from undertaking their own inter-ethnic and religious dialogues with other groups in Singapore.

Instead, inter-ethnic engagements are undertaken either at the urging or organised by government linked organisations.  While it aids the government in ensuring continued support of its policies, the centralisation of opinions inhibits the maturing of society and for the different communities to naturally and spontaneously work with each other.

The centralised management of Muslim views is also evident in counter-terrorism measures in Singapore. Several states in Southeast Asia have found themselves with the Jemaah Islamic threats which are being tackled via community initiatives.

In Singapore, officially sanctioned actions are undertaken. The Muslim community here is not encouraged to develop their counter mechanisms.  Instead the creation of a Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and the Asatizah Recognition Scheme further points to a growing centrally mandated system.

Democratic path for a multicultural society

The central management of the Muslim community in Singapore has limited the possibilities for the growth of genuine inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue.

In fact, the different ethnic groups work within the central command of the PAP government, often with limited community input.  Engagement and space is therefore, dictated rather than negotiated.

While other neighbouring states has allowed or encouraged the democratisation of Islamic discourse and inter-ethnic and inter-religious engagement, Singapore has continued to resist such developments.  Instead, it is developing greater control mechanisms to ensure that the PAP remains as the core component of a centralised engagement process.

What is instead needed is a more democratic form of inter-community engagement if Singapore is to develop a genuine multicultural society.

In spite of challenges, emerging examples from Southeast Asia show that countries that have open inter-community engagement foster a more genuine multicultural society. By moving away from state centred management of communities, a decentralised approach has the prospect of also contributing towards political democracy as several cases from Southeast Asia show.

Since independence, the PAP government has centralised the management of ethnicity and religion to secure its position as the only viable political authority for Singapore. This has to change.

In order for Singapore to truly return to the path of a genuine multicultural society, the process of inter-ethnic and inter-religious engagement needs to be returned to civil society and the people. Only such engagement can contribute to a democratic Singapore.

Dr. James Gomez is Deputy Associate Dean (International) and an academic at the Centre of Islam and the Modern World (, Monash University. Mr. Zulfikar Mohd Shariff holds a Masters in International Relations, La Trobe University.

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