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Religious teacher issues clarification and apology following remarks on Chinese hygiene practices in wake of novel coronavirus outbreak

Remarks referencing the hygiene practices of the Chinese in Singapore and mainland China were grounded in concerns related to hygiene in general, and were not aimed at undermining specific cultures or races, says ustaz (Islamic religious teacher) Abdul Halim Abdul Karim on Fri (7 Feb).

Mr Abdul Halim’s statement came on the heels of Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s public statement today, in which he said he had instructed the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to investigate remarks made by the religious teacher which were deemed to be anti-Chinese.

His concern, he stressed, stemmed from news reports suggesting that the coronavirus can now be transmitted through human faeces, and that it is thus important for Singapore to have more restrooms with bidet facilities, given “the context of this worrying development”.

“I understand different cultures may have different practices but my concern is hygiene not any particular race. This is consistent with Singapore government’s call to take care of hygiene and cleanliness in light of the outbreak,” he added.

Stating that there is “nothing” in his post — which he emphasised was written in Malay — “that is intended to be racist” in nature, the ustaz also said that he was merely referring to those who do not practice istinjak, which is the act of using soap and water to clean oneself after urinating or defecating.

Istinjak, said Mr Abdul Halim, is part of Taharah or “the basic principles of Islamic faith of purifying oneself from impurities”.

“I explicitly stated that the Chinese living in South-east Asia where there are many Muslims (who happens to be, in majority, Malay), know the proclivities of the Muslims (regardless of race) in washing themselves like that and that the Chinese of China may not know,” said Mr Abdul Halim.

The ustaz added that the practice of cleaning oneself only with toilet paper after defecating is not limited to non-Muslims of Chinese descent, but also to “other non-Muslims of other races” as “evidenced by the lack of such washing facilities in toilets around the non-Islamic world”.

“I also lamented that Singapore should have more toilets with such facilities like Malaysia and Brunei has.

“There is nothing racist about this at all and there is no intention to be racist whatsoever. It is about hygiene and health, the importance of which cuts across all race and ethnicities,” said Mr Abdul Halim.

“Concept and fact of punishment and retribution exist in all major religions including Islam”: Religious teacher Abdul Halim Abdul Karim

Commenting on his earlier remark on how “coronavirus was a form of retribution by Allah against Chinese for oppressing Muslim Uyghurs”, Mr Abdul Halim said that the post was meant to stress “the fact of an Islamic teaching that there is retribution for injustice and oppression”.

The “concept and fact of punishment and retribution”, he said, “exists in all major religions including Islam”.

“The Qur’an is replete with such warnings of retribution so that we should be Just to all mankind (Indeed such warnings of retribution are there in the Bible and the Torah too),” said Mr Abdul Halim, adding that “in Islam, God listens to the supplications of the oppressed whether they are Muslim or not”.

“It is well reported that the Chinese government has incarcerated the Muslim Uighurs and Muslims around the world has [sic] conveyed their deep concerns. The majority of Muslims including the Uighur Muslims can only supplicate to God,” he said.

Stressing that his post was not meant to be a celebration of “a calamity” that has befallen the people in mainland China — the outbreak reportedly began in Wuhan — Mr Abdul Halim said that to many Muslims, “the outbreak is consistent with the idea of retribution in Islam”.

He highlighted, however, that he is certain that many Muslims are helping those who are ill, and that there are “many Muslim medical staff involved in assisting in the outbreak”.

“The post is only a clarification to maintain that the teachings of retribution exist in Islam just as it exists in the other major religions in their own ways.

“I even made mention of Buddhism as a religion that is famous for the concept of karma, which is consistent with the idea of retribution as an expression of cosmic order (even without there being a clear concept of God in that great religion).

“Indeed, this is a theological issue which should not be politicised and was certainly not politicised in my post,” he said, adding that his post was clearly “maliciously misconstrued and misinterpreted”.

“Nobody should begrudge the Buddhist or any other religionist for thinking as such based on their own teachings of punishment and retribution – the same should be said of Muslims. Why must anyone assume malice in such statements which are in the theological purview of the respective religions?” He questioned.

Mr Abdul Halim in his statement today also apologised to those who were “genuinely offended” for hurting them, and assured that “there is no malicious intention against them”.

“I do hope there is no more escalation of this issue because as Singaporeans living in a multiracial and multi-religious society, braying for blood, being unforgiving and vindictive do not bode well for us all,” he said.

Private post made public possibly out of “ill intentions”, will not respond to parties giving “false commentary”: Religious teacher Abdul Halim Abdul Karim

Mr Abdul Halim also expressed his disappointment at how his post — which was set to “Friends Only” on Facebook — was turned into “a public circus” by parties who, according to him, have given “a twisted commentary” on his view.

“Apparently there is some-one in my FB friend list who made public my post about hygiene and Coronavirus which I have set to private. I can only surmise that it is with ill intentions against me.

“I am not going to respond at the website that quoted me and gave such a false commentary of what I said because I never made it public and never intended it to be so,” he said.

Prior to Mr Shanmugam’s instruction today, on Wed (5 Feb) had earlier reported on Mr Abdul Halim’s Facebook remarks, and reproduced — with translation — a screenshot of his post and the supplementary comment under the post. added that the post — which was set to private, as seen in the screenshot — was shared with the website by the SMRT Feedback by the Vigilanteh page.

The website also said that SMRT Feedback by the Vigilanteh did not disclose how they had obtained the screenshot.

Mr Shanmugam in a Facebook post on Fri (7 Feb) branded Mr Abdul Halim’s remarks as “silly” and “can be rebutted by reference to other examples”.

Noting that other preachers have been “taken to task” for making relatively “less offensive” statements, Mr Shanmugam said that Mr Abdul Halim’s remarks against the Chinese in general, including Singaporean Chinese, “are simply unacceptable” and “can’t be left alone”.

“Meanwhile, it is to be welcomed that MUIS, PERGAS, the Association of Muslim Professionals, the Religious Rehabilitation Group, Muhammadiyah Association, and Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League have spoken up to urge Singaporeans not to make insensitive comments,” said Mr Shanmugam.

It is unknown as to how Mr Shanmugam was made aware of the matter.

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