Speech by Minister Masagos Zulkifli for Muis' Online International Seminar on Muslim Communities of Success in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh

1. A very good afternoon and welcome to this online seminar organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

2. I understand there are participants from different parts of the world. Thank you for joining us and I pray that the COVID-19 situation wherever you are is improving. The pandemic certainly has impacted everyone everywhere and has not spared Muslim communities. The pandemic has also forced us to adapt our religious practices and priorities in as much as it has affected our lives and livelihoods. The Haj pilgrimage for example has been drastically limited for 2 years now. And this important pillar of Islam is enforced with strict rules and restrictions to those allowed to perform it. Today our mosques have to restrict their religious gatherings, but in the early days when the pandemic raged, they had to close their doors.

3. These are difficult adjustments. It affected our spiritual well-being. In some parts of the world, emotions flared and some rebelled and continued with religious gatherings to their detriment. Nonetheless, by and large, our scholars prevailed and Muslims worldwide remained steadfast. Our ulama quickly understood that medically sound guidance must prevail over religious imperatives in normal times. We therefore adapted our religious practices to safeguard the safety and well-being of our communities and our countries. Reluctantly, we performed our daily and Friday prayers at home with our families. We galvanised ourselves through charity to protect the vulnerable. Our scholars seized the digital opportunities to enhance our religious learning and spiritual well-being. In the process they fulfilled our longings and kept us in high spirits.

Dynamism of Islam and Muslim Traditions

4. Such is the dynamism of Islam and the Muslim traditions. They laid out for us the principles to respond to even for the most difficult and pressing issues. Timeliness, which is so crucial in responding to a pandemic like Covid-19 was amply demonstrated. Indeed, our body of Islamic jurisprudence and knowledge is replete with precedence of how Muslim communities adapted the practices of Islam according to the nature of society shaped by place and time. As an Islamic legal maxim goes, “it cannot be denied that with a change of time the requirements of law change.” We know how Imam Shafie himself had reviewed some of his initial religious pronouncements, or qaul qadim (old opinions), which he developed while living in Iraq, to qaul jadid (new opinions) after migrating to Egypt at a later stage of his life.

5. Scholars have long acknowledged the need to adapt and be agile so that their communities can thrive in various environments and as the environments themselves change. We have multiple schools of thought in the Islamic tradition partly because of this. Our past scholars from different parts of the world and era shaped knowledge and solutions that were relevant for the pressing needs and aspirations of the Muslim communities of their time and the socio-political structure where they lived. Instead, they harnessed the intra-religious diversity ethically and intellectually for positive ends.

6. These differences co-exist today, because the respect and solidarity between the great Imams transcended above and beyond their differences. It is this deep sense of mutual respect, that must guide the interactions between Muslim communities around the world today. We recognise that each Muslim community is distinct from one another shaped by different histories, cultures, and circumstances. It is our shared Islamic principles, values and tenets that ultimately bind the Muslim ummah together. Our differences in opinions and practices should not divide us.

Muslim Communities of Success and New Body of Knowledge

7. In fact, differences in practices do not only exist because of differences in time and place, they also exist between Muslim communities that are a majority or a minority. Today, about one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population live in countries where Islam is not the religion of the majority. These Muslim minorities face unique sets of challenges and needs that can be non-existent to Muslims living in countries where they are the majority. These communities have learned the need to adapt their religious guidance and practices accordingly as a norm but not on the basis of “darurat” or temporary exigencies of circumstances. For minorities, they need to forge successful and peaceful socio religious co-existence with the majority, without forsaking Islamic principles and tenets.

8. For those who live in open, modern and secular settings, emerging uncertainties and challenges of the contemporary world would also certainly have a distinct impact on these communities. Muslim minorities would have to grapple with emerging issues and questions on governance, social compact as well as science and technology:

  1. On the issue of law and governance: What guidance and framework can we offer to Muslim communities who live in non-Muslim contexts, where they have to abide by the secular law of the land? How can we encourage them to thrive and contribute positively in such modern and open societies? Can Muslims strive to participate meaningfully in the governments of such countries and not violate their faith?

  2. On the issue of social compact: Globalisation and pervasiveness of social media and online falsehoods have a strong impact on views pertaining to race, religion and nationality. As extremism and terrorism associated with Islam have been rapidly propagated by these new media, how do we counter such deviant doctrines which have tarnished Islam in that same space that has affected the attitudes of the other communities towards Muslims? Can we harness new media to navigate social and religious diversity to enrich our common space?

  3. On the issue of science and technology: We are also witnessing rapid technological and scientific progress which has raised several important issues and forced us to rethink our religious and ethical positions especially when laws are enacted by the majority in parliament to legalise them. One example is Social Egg Freezing which makes it possible for a woman to extract, store, and fertilise her eggs later in life. How can we navigate these uncertainties so that we can safeguard our community mores but understand what is in them that our religion allows us to seize the gains and opportunities from these advancements?

9. Our responses and solutions to new and modern challenges will still come from our traditions. It is crucial for us to examine these issues to guide us and Muslim communities worldwide. Specifically, the body of knowledge to help minority Muslim communities to face their unique challenges, is both inadequate and unorganised. This is both in theory as well as in practice. It is therefore an opportunity to be original. If we get it right, minority Muslim communities can have reference to relevant and sound principles to engender their participation with their fellow countrymen, with confidence and meaning. Where citizens regardless of race or religion work together to contribute to the common good. Where Muslim religious institutions are strong and competent and seen as an asset and not a liability of the country. We need this body of knowledge, to forge Muslim Communities of Success among our minority communities.

Singapore Muslim Community of Success

10. Like many other Muslim minority communities, the Singapore Muslim community aspires to live and succeed as contributing citizens in contemporary and plural societies. In fact, Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. We even had to grapple with the aftermaths of racial riots during the 1960s. It is fortunate we are able to enjoy religious harmony, peace and stability in Singapore today.

11. Many attributed our success solely to the application of rigorous economic strategies built upon sound fiscal policies. Indeed, we developed a competitive economy, creating as many jobs as we could for Singaporeans. Our immediate priorities then were also to develop our social infrastructure across three key pillars – education, housing and healthcare.

12. But we were also very deliberate in shaping the type of society that we wanted Singapore to be and developing our social policies to achieve it. Deliberate effort was put into fostering social harmony and understanding, ensuring that people of different races, faiths and backgrounds interacted with one another; having seen the devastations of the racial riots. We did this through the way we designed our housing estates, neighbourhoods, hawker centres, national service and more. So that we could resist the formation of social enclaves that plague many societies. Policies are formulated with families at the core of society. We let families determine what values they want their children to grow up with. For Muslims, our community of home-bred asatizah has been instrumental in shaping the mores of our community. Families in turn nurture resilient and moral individuals who work hard and do their best for themselves and their families. Together as a community, members play active roles giving back in supporting those with less. Our economic strategies had to go hand in hand with our social strategies.

13. Our Singapore Muslim community comprises 15 per cent of the Singapore citizen population. We take pride in our religious and social values while actively contributing to the country and the global community. We have been self-reliant in addressing our religious needs, working with the Government but not reliant on their funding. We did this by getting the Government to legislate so that the community can automatically contribute from their monthly salaries to fund mosque building and upgrading, to support our madrasah and to uplift our community through education. Slowly but surely, we have built a mosque in every town with our own funds neither needing charity from foreign countries nor our own Government. Through this fund, we have also strengthened important institutions such as our full-time madrasah to groom our own credible source of local religious teachers. Muis also established the Harmony Centre that Singaporeans can visit and understand the teachings of Islam while strengthening interfaith engagement between the different religious groups.

14. As the community became more affluent, other organisations were established. One of the most significant is the Rahmatan – lil – Alamin Foundation (RLAF). It was founded to get the community to contribute beyond our community and to help humanitarian causes across the globe. Just last month, RLAF galvanized the community’s spirit of giving to raise over $4 million towards humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza, in a space of 10 days. Other communities joined us and contributors came from all walks of life.

15. We want to walk the talk. The Singapore Muslim Community is one minority Muslim community which models itself to be a Community of Success. We want to make meaningful contributions to the wider society as dignified citizens. We have made the 3 C’s the beacons of our community values. As a Muslim Community, we embody good character, demonstrate active citizenry and contribute as a competent workforce. You will hear many more examples from our scholars during the seminar.

International Conference on Communities of Success

16. As we strive to be a Community of Success, we know there are many minority communities who successfully have strived and navigated contemporary issues in their respective countries. There is thus much we can learn from each other to find new solutions and develop new knowledge to new challenges. To do this, we need to meet and exchange ideas to broaden our horizons, gain perspectives and learn about other models of success where Muslim minorities flourish in non-Muslim majority societies as successful citizens and communities.

17. To this end, I have asked Muis to organise an International Conference on Communities of Success (ICCOS) in the near future. In the lead up to the Conference, Muis has convened this seminar. COVID-19 is the greatest challenge currently faced by humanity. I am confident we can, and have turned, the pandemic into a source of resilience and strength of our communities. But we also wish to learn how other communities have dealt with the pandemic, especially how the religious scholars have guided their communities in responding to unprecedented theological and juristic issues arising from the pandemic.

18. We are therefore very fortunate today to have esteemed ‘ulama and scholars from Australia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brunei and Singapore to share their insights and perspectives, particularly on how we as Muslims can emerge more resilient, confident and better prepared for more complex challenges in the future. More importantly, how we can harness our religious values and traditions and what are the necessary interpretations and re-interpretations to achieve these goals.

Research Programme in the Study of Muslim Communities of Success (RPCS)

19. These experiences during the pandemic, must be leveraged and developed further in our quest to help communities overcome future challenges and to spur our Muslim communities towards this holistic vision of success. It can also examine past issues with a fresh perspective. Especially relevant to Singapore, is the context of a minority Muslim community as citizens in an open, modern, progressive and secular country.

20. Hence, Muis will also introduce the Research Programme in the Study of Muslim Communities of Success (RPCS). The programme will facilitate the exploration of emerging issues related to governance, social development, science and technology and develop contextualised guidance that is rooted in the rich, multifaceted and complex traditions of Islam for such communities. In the process, we start to build the body of knowledge and when more complete, we hope it will initiate a reawakening of Islam as an asset for Muslims to thrive, contribute and live confidently as minorities in their countries.

21. The programme will provide a platform for the growth and development of Singapore’s own religious leaders, scholars and thinkers to guide the local Muslim community on important contemporary issues in the long run.

22. I invite everyone to pool our strengths, gifts and talents and work hand-in-hand towards the vision of Muslim Communities of Success. I look forward to a rich discussion and a meaningful seminar ahead.

23. Thank you. Wabillahi-Taufiq Walhidayah Wassalamualaikum Wr. Wb.