Clarification Against an Article in the Asia Sentinel Dated 15 Jun 2021 (“Singapore's Islamic Council Faces Potential Corruption Charges - Whose interests has the council been looking after?” by Murray Hunter)11 July 2021
On 15 Jun 2021, a foreign publication (The Asia Sentinel) published an article “Singapore’s Islamic Council Faces Potential Corruption Charges – Whose interests has the Council been looking after?” by the author, Murray Hunter. This article contained a series of allegations against Muis. This article was then reproduced on 16 Jun 2021 on two online platforms with additional allegations, which were then replicated and disseminated via WhatsApp, and also reposted in other social media platforms.
Many of the allegations in these articles include issues which have previously been addressed by Muis via social media, media releases, or in the form of answers to Parliamentary Questions, but none of Muis’ clarifications were cited in the articles.
In the spirit of openness and transparency, we would like to clarify and explain Muis’ position:
Muis has a robust system in place to uphold governance and public accountability, and follows through on areas of improvement identified by auditors.
1. The Asia Sentinel article alleged that “serious lapses, incompetence as well as dishonesty in handling Muslim affairs have been uncovered in Singapore’s Islamic Religious Council, indicating poor general self-governance and monitoring of internal procedures, systems, decisions, and standard of service and care to the community”. It also made reference to the 2018/2019 report by Auditor-General’s Office (AGO) to substantiate its allegations, as well as insinuating potential corruption practices within Muis.
a. As a statutory board, Muis is required by law to submit its audited financial statements annually to Parliament by 30 June which are published on our website. The latest Muis Annual Report (2020) has been submitted to Parliament, with an unqualified audit opinion for the financial statements. No fraud or illegal acts were surfaced by the auditor.
b. Muis has also put in place a risk-based internal audit programme where an annual audit review is conducted by an internal auditor to ensure compliance with internal controls and procedures. The audit observations and recommendations to improve the overall internal control is presented to the Muis Audit Committee1 chaired by a Muis Council member, and the Muis management is accountable to the Muis Council for any remediation action.
c. As a public agency, Muis is also subjected to audit by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO). Where there are lapses detected by AGO, Muis will provide a response to the AGO and explain to AGO how it will address any lapses.
d. The AGO 2018/2019 audit cited a number of areas which indicated weaknesses in Muis’ financial controls and administration in the areas of Procurement, Management of IT rights and Refund of Haj Administrative matters; it did not reveal any irregularities in Muis’ financial accounts or improper procurement and financial procedures. Muis’ follow-up investigations ascertained that the lapses were mainly due to human error and procedural weaknesses.
e. The article singled out observations in the 2018/19 AGO report regarding weaknesses in the zakat system. These were related to the management of IT rights in the zakat system which has since been addressed with the implementation of new IT systems in January 2019 to digitalize zakat payments. Muis shared this with the public through its media release in July 2019.
f. Following the 2018/19 AGO report, Muis established a taskforce chaired by Muis Chief Executive, to review and monitor the timely implementation of measures to address the findings of the audit. Muis has since fully remedied all the AGO observations, bar one which will be addressed by the implementation of a new IT system at end-2021. In the meantime, interim measures have been put in place to strengthen controls until the new IT system is up. Muis’ internal auditors are engaged to conduct a follow-up of AGO’s audit, which will be overseen by the Muis Audit Committee.
Muis' management structures are clear
2. The article alleges “confused lines of reporting” on the basis that Muis, a statutory board, “is placed under the directive” of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). The article further alleges that MCCY “has on occasion interfered directly into operational decisions made by Muis”.
a. Muis is a statutory body constituted under the Administration of Muslim Law Act which sets out Muis’ functions and powers. As a statutory body that falls within the wider Public Service, Muis is also required to comply with governance and other administrative requirements for public sector agencies. These are stipulated in the Government Instruction Manual (where applicable) and the Public Sector Governance Act.
b. Muis comes under the purview of the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. Muis therefore operates in line with policy directions set by the Minister who is supported by MCCY on Malay/Muslim matters.
c. Muis is governed by its Council which is constituted in accordance with the Administration of Muslim Law Act, while Muis’ day-to-day operations are led by its senior management team. MCCY is not involved in the operations of Muis, which is a separate legal entity.
d. In addition, Muis oversees the religious development of the Muslim community in Singapore, in terms of policies, programmes and services. In particular, the development of religious guidance for the community in the form of Irsyad and Fatwa are led by the Office of the Mufti and the Fatwa Committee respectively.
The authorities have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support allegations of corruption by officers from the Muis’ Halal Certification Unit.
3. The article highlighted claims of questionable practices by Muis’ Halal Certification Strategic Unit, existence of corruption within Muis, as well as the alleged wrongdoers being involved in the inquiry and preparation of the report themselves. It also mentioned that these claims “remain un-investigated”. At the same time, the article also alleges that the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs had “cleared Muis of any wrongdoing, even when investigations are still ongoing”. The article also claimed that two Muis officers who were the target of investigations were “heavily involved in the inquiry processes, and preparing the report”.
a. As detailed in its media release dated 15 Dec 2020, Muis established an Internal Investigation Team to investigate the matter, and an Independent Review Team (IRT), chaired by a Muis Council Member, that reviewed the findings of the internal investigations. Both teams carefully reviewed the submitted evidence and conducted interviews with the individuals connected to the allegations. Having considered all the information, the IRT did not find evidence to support the allegations. Nevertheless, in the interest of transparency and accountability, Muis referred the matter to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). Muis also submitted its findings to MCCY for review. Most recently, Muis issued a public statement on 30 Jun 2021 updating that the CPIB will not take any further action with regard to the allegations of corruption on the Muis officer, in view of insufficient evidence, based on the information submitted by various parties and their investigations.
b. The article alleges that two Muis officers who were the target of the allegations were themselves involved in the investigation. It also alleges that the full report was not surfaced to the ministry and minister, with only “short executive summaries …. without supporting documents”. Neither of these allegations is true.
c. The article also alleged that Muis’ management of halal was “dictated to by a non Muslim bureaucrat, with no expertise in the area”. This is untrue. The management of halal certification is exclusively within the purview of Muis.
d. In addition, Muis has also periodically addressed these allegations, via social media, media releases as well as on the Muis website, as and when fresh allegations have appeared over the past year. These clarifications can be found in the following:
iv. Update on CPIB Investigation on Muis Officer (30 June 2020)
e. The Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs also responded to a parliamentary question on 5 April 2021 on this matter.
Our Mosques and Madrasahs, with support from Muis and the community, have adapted well in the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. The article stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had “severely restricted crowds attending mosques for prayers“, and that “donations collected at Friday prayers are now much lower than before the pandemic, with donations often going directly to Muis, through an online system”. The net result of this was that “Singapore’s mosques are now facing a chronic liquidity crisis, where imams and mosque officials’ salaries, proportionately paid by the mosques and Muis, are not being subsidised by Muis during this time of financial stress for the mosques.”
a. The allegation that mosque imams and officers have not been getting their salaries due to this “liquidity crisis” caused by the drop in congregation contributions is untrue.
b. Mosques’ financial standing was discussed in Parliament on 5 April 2021 and again on 10 May 2021, where it was shared that mosques financial situation remain stable and healthy despite a drop in physical collection during the Circuit Breaker period.
c. In lieu of physical collection, Muis quickly developed a new digital collection platform to facilitate online donations to mosques during the COVID-19 pandemic. The community has responded very positively to this shift in mode of donation. As of June 2021, the ourMasjid.SG portal has raised nearly $6m, which has been distributed to the mosques on a quarterly basis, to fund their day-to-day operations.
5. To supplement the contributions from the community, mosques have also received $11m in wage support through the Government’s Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) as of March 2021.
6. The article also alleged financial impropriety in a madrasah, citing the $2 million transfer to Irsyad Trust Limited (ITL) that was done “under suspicious circumstances”, and how the sum was returned to Madrasah Irsyad Zuhri Al-Islamiah in January 2021 “only after the issue was make public”.
a. The Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs answered a Parliamentary Question on this and clarified the sequence of events on 5 April 2021. Muis detected the $2 million transfer after an annual audit of Madrasah Irsyad’s accounts in 2016. Muis immediately requested ITL to repay the monies to the Madrasah, which was returned in full in 2016.
b. Following a review in 2020, Madrasah Irsyad and ITL agreed that both institutions would no longer be affiliated with each other from January 2021, and ITL could no longer use Madrasah Irsyad’s branding for its projects. Subsequently, another review of the financial transactions between Madrasah Irsyad and ITL was commissioned. This review is ongoing. Muis will consider further actions depending on the findings.
c. The article also referred to “unauthorised documents … uploaded from the Madrasah Irsyad’s files to unknown entities, for unknown reasons” without mentioning that Muis had lodged a police report on 31 May 2021 regarding this leak of confidential documents, which was shared in an earlier media statement published by Muis.
Muis carries out its Wakaf mandate according to religious principles and in line with the wakif’s wishes.
7. The article cited AGO’s finding in 2013 of “irregularities in tendering for construction and repair of buildings”.
a. This issue was previously addressed by Muis. Immediately after AGO had made these observations, Muis informed AGO then that it implemented several measures to improve and enhance its procurement procedures, which include a procurement function in Muis to ensure compliance with Government procurement rules and procedures. This was reflected in AGO’s report published in 2013.
8. There was also an allegation that Muis has been criticised for “taking high management fees, where they are managing properties on behalf of families”. This is not true. Muis does not charge fees to manage properties. However, all properties, including wakaf, need to pay for the necessary services provided such as audit, legal, maintenance & upkeep of properties. In the case of wakaf, these costs are deducted from the annual returns generated by the wakaf, before being disbursed to the legal beneficiaries of the wakaf.
9. A reproduced version of the original article also alleges that some wakaf properties have been misused, including as a Chinese temple. This is untrue. Muis has clarified on 21 Jun 2021 that the wakaf in question had been migrated to another location, as part of a wakaf migration exercise (or Istibdal wakaf) that was supported by a 1985 Fatwa and is a common practice in other countries.
The burials of those without kin in Singapore are managed by Muis and burial companies in a timely, respectful, manner.
10. The article also alleged that “some people with no kin in Singapore have been refused, and/or given delayed assistance with burials”. This is a fabrication. Typically, burial companies will perform the service first for these individuals in need. The claim quantum will then be paid by Muis to vendors directly.
Muis manages the Haj funds responsibly and transparently.
11. The article makes allegations about the application fees collected by Muis from prospective Haj pilgrims.
a. The article alleges that “Muis collects application fees towards making this trip to Mekkah, in-order to pay for the trip to be made”. This is a misrepresentation of the purpose of the fees collected. The Haj administrative fees collected is a charge to defray the one-time registration cost, including maintenance and updates of pilgrims’ database in the queue. A clear and concise explanation of the fee collected can be found on Muis website.
12. The article also alleged that “[t]here has long been anger and frustration over delays in refunds for Haj fees paid by deceased family members” and “the AGO 2018/2019 annual report found that the funds deposited from 226 deceased Muslims between 2012 and 2018 had not been returned to their estates”, when it was the duty of Muis to return all payments made to Muis “if a depositor passes away before performing the Haj”. This is a misrepresentation as Muis has not deliberately withheld refunding Haj application fees.
a. Muis used to initiate a refund when Muis is notified of death of a Haj applicant by family members before processing refunds for deceased individuals. Muis would also check on the applicant’s status when his/her allocated Haj year is due. If the checks established that the applicant had passed away, Muis would refund the fee to the estate of the deceased applicant. However, AGO had identified instances where such refunds were not initiated, for instance if the deceased applicant was not due to travel on the Haj and/or Muis was not informed of the death. When the AGO report was published in July 2019, Muis issued a media release and informed public that the families of 181 deceased depositors had already received their refunds or were in the process of being refunded. The remaining no-response cases, where the families of the deceased were uncontactable, have been uploaded on the national unclaimed monies website. We invite family members of the deceased to approach Muis for a refund.
b. To improve the process and make more timely refunds, since Jun 2019, Muis has introduced and implemented a half-yearly review of all Haj applicants in the queue to proactively identify deceased Haj applicants, in order to process refunds.
Muis' actions in dealing with deviant Islamic teachings
13. The article also said that Muis did not take action against alleged reports of deviant teachings by members of the public. This is not true.
a. Muis issued a response and clarification on 1 Dec 2020 that it investigated the matter in 2018, and took the necessary actions, including interviewing the individual in question, and issuing a formal advisory for him to cease his activities. Muis’ actions were shared with Parliament on 5 April 2021.
b. Following the clarification, Muis invited the public, especially those who received these teachings, to come forward if they have credible evidence such as emails, documents, lecture notes, as well as audio and video recordings. An investigative team and the Fatwa Committee have interviewed key persons involved in the matter. Muis is concluding our internal investigations and will provide updates on the next steps in due course.
c. The primary role of the Fatwa Committee is to ascertain whether any teaching is deviant. The Fatwa Committee adopts a comprehensive and careful process in determining any claim of false/deviant doctrine or teachings. In a situation where the Fatwa Committee rules a teaching as deviant or false, Muis’ preferred approach is to engage and counsel the individual involved. Muis will then publish the findings of the Fatwa Committee rulings so that the public is kept informed and protected against the deviant teaching.
Muis has a merit-based HR system with checks against conflicts of interests
14. The article cited claims by activist Mohamed Jufrie that most senior officers at Muis have been in their positions for a long time. This is factually incorrect. Of the seven most senior posts within Muis, five officers have held their current positions for less than three years.
a. In addition, Muis’ staff rotation policy was explained in Parliament on 5 May 2021, where it was highlighted that 23% of Muis’ workforce was rotated, deployed and posted within and outside of Muis in 2020 alone. This rotation is part of Muis’ career development framework that supports Muis’ organisational needs while giving officers the opportunity to further develop their skills and knowledge. This policy is also in line with the Public Service Division (PSD) policy and guidelines.
15. The article alleges “[n]epotism is endemic” in Muis, citing examples of Muis senior officers who have multiple family members within the organisation.
a. As a public sector organisation, Muis is committed to a merit-based system for selection, performance appraisal and promotion just like all public agencies.
b. In cases where related officers are working together in an organisation, Muis adopts public sector guidelines such as deployment to jobs/functions to ensure that there will be no conflicts of interest.
16. The article claimed that “the auditor general has highlighted the absence of, or weak checks and balances in place to safeguard the organization against such actions” (nepotism). This is not true. The Auditor-General has not highlighted such weaknesses or absences in Muis, in its public reports or otherwise. Muis has several robust structures in place chaired by members of the Muis Council to oversee governance and management of processes, such as the Audit Committee, the Fitrah Committee and the Wakaf Disbursement Committee.
17. The article stated that there was wide disappointment over Muis’ attitude on the hijab issue, claiming that Muis (and the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs) “opposed women wearing the hijab within the workplace”. This is untrue.
a. While explaining the Government’s uniform policy in Parliament in March 2021, the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs did not say that he was opposed to allowing nurses to wear the tudung, but instead cautioned that “[p]ublic, aggressive pressure on such an issue can only make compromise harder”.
b. Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, in his letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “welcomed the update on the (tudung) issue” and shared that Muis has been in many conversations with asatizah over the past year; and that they agree that any policy change should be done sensitively without undermining Singapore’s social cohesion. Muis appreciates the opportunity to continuously provide feedback on national issues and to support the needs of the Muslim community. Muis will also continue with the public discussions and consultation.
18. The article also criticised Muis for being inept in dealing with the perpetrators of the online harassment on female asatizah.
a. The article failed to mention that Muis has already lodged a police report for the authorities to expedite investigations into the matter and bring the perpetrators to justice. Muis has also reached out to the victims and provided support as well as access to counselling services and reminded the public that the values and behavior of the perpetrators are abhorrent and against the teachings of Islam.
19. As a statutory board as well as a religious organisation tasked to look after the well-being of the Muslim community in Singapore, Muis holds itself to the highest standards of accountability and governance, as a public institution in Singapore as well as a key Muslim community institution. We provide updates to the community on a regular basis, including at our annual Workplan Seminar and submit our accounts every year to Parliament. We have in place various internal and external mechanisms to ensure compliance to good governance.
20. The Muis Council itself, which includes leaders from the community, is a key governing and governance mechanism for Muis. Where we have found ourselves lacking in the past, including through observations by independent checks such as by the Auditor-General’s Office, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth as well as feedback from the public, we have taken these observations very seriously and taken remedial actions to address all gaps in timely manner.
21. Muis acknowledges that there is room for improvement and will continually strive to do better. We remain steadfast in our commitment to support the needs of the Muslim community in Singapore and welcome constructive feedback so that we can continue to fulfil our responsibilities and amanah to the community.
1 Audit Committee (AC) is a standing committee of the Muis Council, made up of Council members and individuals with necessary expertise for a 3 year-term (2019-2022). The current AC is chaired by Mr Abdul Hamid Abdullah, a retired AGO Director. The term of reference of the AC include providing oversight of financial and policy efficiency and integrity as well as risk management, as well as advise Council on key findings of internal and external audit functions.