SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is investigating online posts made by a Singapore religious teacher about the coronavirus which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The teacher, Mr Abdul Halim Abdul Karim, said in a public Facebook post on Jan 29 that the coronavirus was retribution by Allah against the Chinese for their oppressive treatment of Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province.
Following news reports that the virus could potentially be transmitted through faeces, he wrote in a separate post, only accessible to his Facebook friends, that Chinese people do not wash properly after defecating and were not as hygienic as Muslims. This could have caused the virus to spread, he added.
In a Facebook post on Friday (Feb 7), Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam described Mr Abdul Halim's comments as "xenophobic" and "thoroughly racist".
The minister said such remarks are "quite unacceptable from anyone, let alone someone who is supposed to be a religious teacher".
Mr Abdul Halim's suggestion that the coronavirus was retribution by Allah is silly and can be rebutted by reference to other examples, he added.
Society has to take a clear stand against such comments, Mr Shanmugam said.
"Abdul Halim's comments against Chinese in general (including Singaporean Chinese) are simply unacceptable - and these can't be left alone."
He cited two pastors who were taken to task in recent years for comments which were less offensive in comparison.
"I have asked MHA to look into what Abdul Halim has said," he added.
On Friday, Mr Abdul Halim apologised on Facebook for his private post, which he said was never intended to be made public.
He said the post was not about any particular race and nothing in it was intended to be racist.
He added that there was "no malicious intent" and that his post had been misunderstood.
"It is about hygiene and health, the importance of which cuts across all race and ethnicities. As a matter of fact, cleaning only with toilet paper after doing their business is not just the practice of non-Muslims of Chinese decent; other non-Muslims of other races do that too," Mr Abdul Halim said.
In response to queries, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said it is aware of the public post which "expresses views that do not represent the Muslim community".
It is also investigating the matter.
"Islam does not allow its followers to hurt the feelings of others in the name of the religion," said a Muis spokesman.
"Given that the 2019 novel coronavirus does not distinguish between nationality, race or religion, we would like to urge all parties to express views with consideration, and show care to those affected.
"All of us also have a responsibility to maintain good personal hygiene, and follow the advisories issued by the Ministry of Health."
Other religious teachers have also spoken out against racism and xenophobia in the midst of the evolving coronavirus situation.
One such teacher, Mr Mohamad Ghouse Khan Surattee, said the virus outbreak is an opportunity to display unity and help each other overcome the crisis.
"Now is not the time to blame anyone, or to look it as a punishment or retribution to a specific nation or race," he said in a Facebook post on Thursday.
"Now the virus is already outside our doorstep, blaming the outbreak (on others) at this moment could delay the valuable help."
Mr Mohd Murat Md Aris, a member of the Asatizah (religious teacher) Recognition Board, said religious leaders and teachers "must counter the irresponsible practice of using the spread of the Novel Coronavirus in many parts of the world to spread divisive and xenophobic views".
"Such views are utterly wrong and do not represent the views of the majority of asatizah and religious leaders in Singapore," said Mr Mohd Murat.
"We do not tolerate such views and advise the community to exercise sound judgement and caution when making or sharing such comments especially on social media."
Mr Shanmugam also noted in his post that Muslim organisations in Singapore - including the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas), the Association of Muslim Professionals, the Religious Rehabilitation Group, Muhammadiyah Association, and the Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League - have spoken up to urge Singaporeans not to make insensitive comments.
"Racism exists in all communities in Singapore - but thankfully, I believe, it is exhibited by a minority in each community," Mr Shanmugam said.