Muslim community tackling various challenges

Mr Baey Yam Keng (at left), Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, observing a discussion between religious and community leaders at an exercise last year that was part of an ongoing effort to prepare such leaders to deal with tens
Mr Baey Yam Keng (at left), Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, observing a discussion between religious and community leaders at an exercise last year that was part of an ongoing effort to prepare such leaders to deal with tensions affecting inter-communal relations and harmony.ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore's Malay/Muslim community is concerned about the triple threats of extremist ideology, exclusivist beliefs and practices, and Islamophobia, and is taking a range of steps to tackle them, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday.

Measures include starting a local Islamic College and a new network of young religious teachers who will counter radicalisation and reach out to youth on social media.

Dr Yaacob, who is Minister for Communications and Information, told Parliament: "All of us, regardless of race or religion, must squarely face and defeat this trifecta of disunity and not let it take root in Singapore."

The Malay/Muslim community, as a minority in a plural society, is acutely aware of the challenges, he said, noting the intense scrutiny it had been put under after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks and the discovery of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) plots here. Yet community and religious leaders rallied together with others to tackle the threat of extremism.

Today, the emergence of ISIS-inspired ideologues has planted seeds of doubt and fear in non-Muslims, magnifying the challenge, he said, spelling out key community efforts.

One, it is working to develop religious leaders and teachers who can provide sound guidance to Muslims and act as a bulwark against extremist and exclusivist ideologies in a multiracial, multireligious society.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) have decided to make it a must for all religious teachers to register under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme. More than 3,000 have done so.

Central to this, the minister noted, is the need for all asatizah, or religious teachers, to abide by a code of ethics, which includes not denigrating any racial or religious group.

"Anyone who crosses the line will be dealt with decisively," he said, citing Singaporean preacher Rasul Dahri, who has been barred from teaching Islam here and whose books - containing "extremist views under the guise of religious guidance" - have been banned.

In a bid to develop future teachers who can provide Islamic knowledge appropriate for Singapore's unique context, Muis has started looking into the development of a Singapore Islamic College.

Two, the community is working to engage members effectively.

Hence, Muis has strengthened its part-time religious programmes to include elements to inoculate young people against extremist influences, and started seminars to advise parents on issues like authenticating online Islamic content.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group, set up in 2003 to rehabilitate radicalised individuals and terror detainees, has also expanded its role to organise dialogues and educate people about Islamic concepts that have been distorted by extremists. To complement its work, Muis has started an asatizah youth network that can be a "first line of response" for those seeking answers.

Dr Yaacob noted that recent years have been "a difficult and challenging journey" for the community.

"Sometimes the majority does not know what it feels to be a minority community. And for the Malay/Muslim community, this sense of being misunderstood is deeply felt, having been in the spotlight for quite some time," he said.

"It is not a pleasant experience when your religion and your religious orientation is under constant scrutiny. But we persevered.

"When other faith communities stepped forward to lend support to our struggle, it gave us comfort that we are not in this alone."

Dr Yaacob said Singaporeans recognise the battle against extremism is not just for the Muslim community, but for all Singaporeans. Strong bonds must therefore be built between the different groups to nurture understanding and respect, he said.

Several members have lauded the Muslim community for its efforts.

Singapore's Muslim leaders are in sync with the larger good of the community, said Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), who pointed out that their progressive approach to issues such as organ donation and the human milk bank "only serves to strengthen our social fabric".

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) said as the Malay/Muslim community fights extremism, members of the other communities have a responsibility to ensure radicalisation does not set in. "We have a duty to strengthen bonds and preservation of common space," he said.

Dr Yaacob said there must also be more individuals who step forward, online and outside of social media, to reach out to as many as possible.

"New media and the anonymity it lends have led to individuals denigrating other religions or sowing discord between communities over the Internet, inadvertently or otherwise," he said.

"We need netizens to speak up with moral clarity against injustice and stereotypes, and those who promote hatred and intolerance."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Muslim community tackling various challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe