By Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir, Associate Professor of Sociology, Nanyang Technological University
It is well-known that Singapore is a multi-religious society. The 2014 report by Pew named our city-state as the most religiously diverse among the 232 countries studied. What is assumed in this discourse is that all religions are the same and subjected to similar state-society relations.
The fact is, Islam is the most regulated religion in our tiny island and this has been the case for decades. From the appointment of a Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs, to the creation of a statutory board called the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) where the Mufti is located, and to the Administration of Muslim Law Act that has regulatory powers over local mosques and madrasahs (Islamic schools), there is no doubt that Islam is given a unique attention by the state.
A stark under-appreciation of this social reality, especially among the non-Muslims, is apparent to me in the decade or so that I have been teaching in our local universities. I have always asked my students, that if all the Churches were made to say the exact same thing for their Sunday service with a text provided by an office of a statutory board, how would the Christian community react? The students could not even begin to imagine this! Will this then breed mistrust among the Christian community? This is but just one issue besieging the Muslim populace in Singapore.
When I had coffee with a top local social scientist of NUS a couple of weeks back, we agreed that Islam is the most hierarchical and bureaucratized religion in Singapore. Failure to understand how Islam is managed leads to a failure in understanding the reaction of its local adherents.
This distrust of the Muslim religious elites amidst the disciplining of Islam, from prescribed texts for the weekly Friday prayer sermons, to appointed instructors to “upgrade Islam” through the Asatizah Recognition Scheme that makes it mandatory for every religious teacher to be registered (even those teaching Qur’anic reading in the local neighbourhoods), impact heavily on the religious elites. Many scholars have called this age as one characterised by a crisis of religious authority. The situation can be especially dire in our local Muslim community, given the unique structures bearing upon them.
Distrust breeds distrust. It is not that Singaporean Muslims are predisposed towards being rude or as the Minister of Law put it, “kurang ajar”, towards the state-endorsed religious authority. It is the structures that have been put in place that create such an environment.
The recent issue regarding the police report made against an Imam for making alleged “incendiary” supplications against Christians and Jews that are outside the MUIS-endorsed text cannot be disentangled from the issue of the autonomy of the Muslim clerics. I have engaged the local religious elites numerous times over the last few years and have rarely met a group that is more in fear. The culture of fear among the religious class is often talked about and in one of the engagements that I had with a group of religious elites, one of them candidly lamented, “We are directed and scripted.”
It has often been mentioned that attitude reflects leadership. The angry reaction of the Muslim community in light of the Imam issue should be seen against this backdrop. The absence of the voices of the religious elites in the initial stages of the debacle created a void in the community who then went online to make sense of the matter.
Last week, Assoc Prof Khairudin Aljunied was singled out in parliament for encouraging the “vilification” of the whistle-blower, Terence Nunis. The fact is that hundreds of Muslims had begun pitching in their views on various platforms after Nunis’ pronouncements on Facebook. This was substantiated in a belated statement by the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs, Assoc Prof Yaacob Ibrahim, who mentioned that the video uploaded by Nunis had indeed “sparked a storm” and “generated many emotions both online and offline. Many in our community felt angry, because they believe that the postings could be used to cast aspersions on Islam and the asatizah in our Mosques”.
It is interesting to note that both Assoc Prof Khairudin and the Mufti appropriated a satirical and poetic style respectively, as means of social critique. However, it has been well-documented that the Singaporean brand of criticism is often manifested through humour, satire and poetics as seen in Talkingcock, Mr Brown, Yawning Bread, Jack Neo’s films and the like. Indirect criticism is characteristic of societies living under soft-authoritarian rule.
There are no differences in opinion that if the allegations against the Imam are proven to be true, his incitement has no place in our multi-religious society. But if it is not – and many among the Muslim community have come to this conclusion upon the explanations provided by numerous local religious scholars who have later gone public in discussing the meaning and context of the supplication – then sadly, the Muslim community will see this as yet another example of disciplining and an attempt to emasculate the local religious fraternity despite the state’s paradoxical pleas for Singaporean Muslims to give the local religious scholars their ears.
It remains to be seen in the aftermath of the Imam episode if the state would choose to go down the path of imposing further restrictions to ensure that the MUIS-endorsed texts be read to the letter, curtailing any creative license of preachers and punishing any dissent towards state-appointed authority. The more enlightened way must be to empower the religious scholars in the field and to give them ownership over their areas of expertise to prevent religious discourse from being co-opted, hijacked and subjected to ad hominem attacks.
The coming forward of a good number of religious elites, including its umbrella body, Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS), with regard to this Imam issue is a good development that needs to be applauded. The social media provides a ready platform for this. These attempts to speak truth to power should also be captured in the mainstream media. PERGAS’ need to again clarify their position after feeling that they were misrepresented in the Malay mainstream media regarding their statement towards Assoc Prof Khairudin is not a good sign. The perception that the Malay mainstream media is not balanced and selective in their reporting has also led many to turn to the cyber-sphere to air their perspectives.
In fostering this development of active citizenship, we need to keep an eye on encouraging diversity and not just promoting those with a certain kind of thinking that the state can easily manage. This is in line with what the PM had recently mentioned in his interview on February 24th in Today newspaper under the title, “Leaders must be able to take criticism, acknowledge mistakes”. Only then can we move forward as a nation.