The Government's desire to boost the teaching of secular subjects in madrasahs would resonate with all who are concerned about the national aim of bringing out the best in every child. Madrasahs represent a different pathway with a long history but share the need of mainstream schools to ensure all students have a sound grip of subjects like mathematics and science to equip them for life in a fast-changing world.
Madrasahs fulfil a vital function by helping to develop a core of Singaporeans capable of leading the Muslim community in religious matters. Considering this, an isolation of madrasahs would not be in the best interests of the community and the nation. For example, when madrasahs produce leaders rooted in Singapore perspectives, they also contribute to the strengthening of the national identity. Mastery of secular subjects can help to foster a wider perspective as such subjects enhance the capacity to communicate well and empathise with those from diverse religious backgrounds.
The better students of madrasahs might pursue higher studies at renowned universities such as Egypt's Al-Azhar and get a chance to interact with the creme de la creme of the Muslim intellectual world. A well-rounded education will help them to appreciate why Singapore's moderate approach works better here than ideas from elsewhere that they will be exposed to.
Of course, not all madrasah students will become religious teachers. Indeed, two former students are aiming to become doctors, having been accepted by National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. Hence the need for madrasah students to gain a good grounding in secular subjects. Muslim community leaders have understood the Government's concern that such students should be able to hold their economic own against their counterparts from mainstream schools. Consequently, there was wide community support for the move to make madrasah students take the nationally-benchmarked Primary School Leaving Examination within the purview of the Compulsory Education Act.
A renewed emphasis placed on achieving excellence in secular subjects is meant to ensure that madrasah graduates do not lose out in a globalised workplace that is becoming increasingly competitive for young people. Enhancing the critical pedagogical skills of madrasah teachers is an intrinsic part of the effort. The community's progressive stance will help it strike a new balance between timeless religious instruction and the temporal imperatives of succeeding in a secular economy. Working with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, Muslim community leaders should come together, as they have done before, to ensure that initiatives on the ground match official intentions.