SINGAPORE - Singapore's Malay/Muslim community recognises the triple threat of extremist ideology, exclusivist beliefs and practices, and Islamophobia, and has taken wide-ranging steps to deal with these issues, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said on Tuesday (Oct 3).
Measures include working to set up an Islamic college and forming a new network of young religious teachers who will be trained to counter radicalisation and reach out to young people 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. As a country founded on multi-racialism where all races live together in mutual respect and equality, this is a threat to our very existence as a nation."
"As a minority in a plural society, our Malay/Muslim community and its leaders are acutely aware of the challenges," he added.
Racial riots defined the fears of the founding generation, and the community's pioneers saw the importance of a united and strong society, where the diverse groups are well-integrated, said Dr Yaacob during a debate on the importance of standing together against terror, as he gave a recap of his community's efforts.
He noted how Malay/Muslim community and religious leaders - despite facing intense scrutiny - rallied alongside the rest of Singapore in the aftermath of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks and the discovery of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) network in Singapore to tackle the threat of extremism.
The emergence of ISIS-inspired ideologues and extremists have magnified the challenge, said Dr Yaacob.
"Their sophisticated use of the Internet, coinciding with the ubiquity of Internet access, influence and corrupt the impressionable and gullible. Similarly, such content help plant the seeds of doubt and fear in non-Muslims," he said.
Security agencies have put in tremendous effort to keep the country safe against the terror threat, stepping up vigilance and, detained radicalised individuals who planned to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS.
"But beyond law and enforcement, ultimately it is a battle for the hearts and minds of all Singaporeans, whether Muslim or non-Muslim," said Dr Yaacob.
And the Malay/Muslim community has on its part stepped up efforts to face the triple threat to social cohesion and national security, he added.
Developing strong religious leaders
For one thing, the community has worked to develop religious leaders and teachers who can provide the community with sound guidance, and who can act as a bulwark against extremist and exclusivist ideologies.
Last year, acting on views raised by the community, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association decided to make the Asatizah Recognition Scheme mandatory. This means that aspiring religious teachers or asatizah and Islamic education centres and providers must be accredited under the scheme before they can teach Islam in Singapore.
Central to this, noted Dr Yaacob, is the need for all asatizah 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 the example of Singaporean preacher Rasul Dahri, who has been barred from teaching Islam here and whose books - containing "extremist views under the guide of religious guidance" - have been banned.
Singapore now has more than 3,000 asatizah and Quranic teachers under the ARS scheme, for whom Muis organises training platforms such as counselling workshops and modules on moderation in religion.
And the community wants to do more to develop future religious teachers who can provide Islamic knowledge appropriate for Singapore's context, said Dr Yaacob, adding he was glad Muis has started looking into the development of a Singapore Islamic College.
Engaging the community better
Effective community engagement is important too, Dr Yaacob noted. He cited how Muis has strengthened its part-time religious programmes to include lessons to inoculate youths against extremist influences, started seminars to advise parents on issues such as authenticating online Islamic content, and developed an info-kit to teach parents how to identify tell-tale signs of a person at risk of radicalisation, and how to respond.
The Religious Rehabilitation Group, set up in 2003 to rehabilitate radicalised indivduals, has also expanded its role over the years, organising forums and dialogues to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about key Islamic concepts that have been twisted by extremist groups, and launching a resource and counselling centre.
To complement the group's work, Muis is setting up an asatizah youth network, whose members can serve as a "first line of response" for those seeking answers, he said.
Muis has also prepared Friday sermons that condemn ISIS, dispel the notion of the call for armed jihad, and encourage moderation in Islam, among other things.
Staying united as Singaporeans
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.
"So while Muslims have come under scrutiny in recent times, Singaporeans recognise that it is not only our community's battle; it is everyone's battle."
He cited the recent example of the Singapore Buddhist Federation lending its support to Singaporean Muslims who wanted to help those affected by the crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
"They did so despite sharing a common faith with the majority in Myanmar. Each and every one of us is a part of Singapore, and we are interconnected in many different ways - linked through history, living side by side in our neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces, recreational activities, and sometimes through marriage," said Dr Yaacob.
"These connections are the social glue that binds us together as a nation."
Strong bonds must be built between the different communities to nurture understanding and respect, he added. And there must also be more individuals who will step forward both online and outside of social media to reach out to as many fellow citizens 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. We need netizens to speak up with moral clarity against injustice and stereotypes, and those who promote hatred and intolerance," he said.