100 Singaporean students meet PM Lee, Masagos

(From left) MP Dr Intan Azura Binte Mokhtar, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli and Dr Albakri Ahmad, senior director at MUIS, speaking with Singaporean students in Jordan at the Grand Hyatt Jordan on April 16, 2016.
(From left) MP Dr Intan Azura Binte Mokhtar, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli and Dr Albakri Ahmad, senior director at MUIS, speaking with Singaporean students in Jordan at the Grand Hyatt Jordan on April 16, 2016. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Singaporean Amrullah Mohd Zain, 22, is in the middle of exams for his course in Islamic jurisprudence at Yarmouk University in Irbid.

But last Saturday, the undergraduate and 60 fellow students took a 90-minute bus ride to Amman to meet visiting Singapore leaders.

They were among 100 Singaporeans studying in Jordan who had a dialogue in Jordan's capital city with Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli and MP Intan Azura Mokhtar.

They also met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is on a visit to the Middle East, at a reception.

Mr Masagos told reporters after the closed-door session that the students are aware of their role in guiding the Muslim community in a way that contributes to social harmony when they return home.

Studying in the Middle East lets them deepen their technical understanding of Islam and builds their credibility, he said. And having gone through formal Islamic education in Singapore up to pre-university level, they are grounded in practising their faith in a multi-religious society.

Mr Masagos said returning students can contextualise Islamic teachings and inoculate the wider community against radical persuasions. He added: "Religion, when taught in context, will contribute towards harmony and respect for each other."

He noted that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has been actively engaging Singaporeans studying in the Middle East. Muis officers stationed in Singapore's missions in Cairo and Jeddah also ensure the students' needs are taken care of, especially in emergencies. They also update the students on happenings back home and "make sure they understand, and not just read things from the Internet and then interpret it any way the Internet is persuading them to", he said.

Several students raised concerns about Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim sentiment, gaining ground. Mr Masagos said it was in the community's interest to make sure it interacts with wider Singapore society in a meaningful way to build trust. He added that the students understand Islamophobia could develop in the light of recent events around the world, but are confident "we can change that, we can prevent that from happening in Singapore".

He also said the students, having lived in the Middle East and mastered Arabic, could work for Singapore companies in the region. He added that he has asked companies like Keppel, Hyflux and Sembcorp to look at tapping their expertise.

PM Lee urged the students to stay in touch with friends and family and keep abreast of developments in Singapore: "We are all part of the Singaporean family."

He spent 11/2 hours speaking to them, asking them questions ranging from their fluency in Arabic to how they coped with winter.

The students told him about the volunteer work they were doing.

Mr Amrullah said Singaporeans on his campus were raising funds to provide meals to children of Syrian refugees living near the city. Jordan has taken in a large number of refugees fleeing from conflict in neighbouring areas.

Ms Zahratur Rofiqah, 22, in her third year studying jurisprudence at the University of Jordan in Amman, said she teaches English to Palestinian children once a week. She hopes to go into social work when she returns to Singapore.

"Helping others helps us fulfil a spiritual need," she said. "As Muslims, it is important to be a voice for love, peace and restraint. There are things we can do to nurture mutual understanding and respect with Muslims and non-Muslims alike."

Zakir Hussain

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline '100 Singaporean students meet PM Lee, Masagos'. Print Edition | Subscribe