Singapore's madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools, will get a boost in their teaching of secular subjects such as mathematics and science.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday pledged the Government will work with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) to strengthen the teaching of these subjects.
It will also give financial aid to improve the skills of these teachers, and fund awards for students who do well in them.
LIVING IN A TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY
It's important for our religious scholars and leaders to have a good grounding in non-religious subjects. It prepares them to guide Singapore's Muslims to live in a modern, technological society.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG
"It's important for our religious scholars and leaders to have a good grounding in non-religious subjects," Mr Lee said in his Malay speech. "It prepares them to guide Singapore's Muslims to live in a modern, technological society."
While the Government will help with secular subjects, it will leave religious education in the hands of Muis and the community.
Mr Lee said he was happy to see that standards have improved.
The Government's support in strengthening the madrasah sector was welcomed by Mr Razak Lazim, Muis' senior director of madrasahs.
He said that while madrasahs have played a key role in nurturing leaders and teachers who understand the multi-religious and multiracial context, they have also turned out students who have succeeded in fields like medicine.
This, said Mr Razak, is a testament to the fact that the schools produce students with a strong grounding in secular subjects too, and who are ready "to contribute to the modern economy".
Later, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said the madrasah is an important institution to the community and is part of Singapore's secular society.
Proficiency in secular subjects is an important requisite for its graduands "to operate in our secular environment'', he added.
He also sees the community welcoming the Government's help for madrasah teachers, whose proficiency especially in the teaching of secular subjects has been a longstanding concern.
"We don't have the resources of the Ministry of Education," he said.
Mr Lee, in underscoring the Government's support for Islam's vital role in the community, said the community needs religious leaders who have grown up here and understand the society.
Also, they have to be familiar with Singapore's history and multi- religious context and appreciate the importance of tolerance and "give-and-take" among the different communities here, he added.
This will help shape a Singapore Muslim identity. Mr Lee said: "Because of the presence of such religious leaders in Singapore, we have protected ourselves from the threat of violent extremism.
"The Government will continue to work with and support the Malay/Muslim community in these efforts, and all the other communities should support them too," he added.
He thanked the Religious Rehabilitation Group, which counsels terrorist detainees, and the community for taking a united stand against violent extremism.
A decade ago, when the Jemaah Islamiah plot to bomb key installations in Singapore was discovered, "we handled it as one people", he said."We did not divide into Muslims and non-Muslims."
While race and religion are always sensitive matters in Singapore, he said they are in some ways more complex and difficult to handle now, with increasing religiosity and the virulent spread of extremist ideology.
"As a multiracial and multi-religious society, we are always at risk of deep fault lines opening up," he said, "and must never take our present happy state of affairs for granted."