SINGAPORE - A committee of Singapore's senior Islamic scholars established in 1968 has, through its religious rulings, helped in building a harmonious multicultural society over the years, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Saturday (Feb 11).
Mr Tharman was speaking at the first conference on fatwa in contemporary societies here, organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).
Since its inception, the Fatwa Committee has tackled difficult and complex issues in many domains, including biomedical issues such as stem cell research and therapeutic cloning in recent years, he noted.
It has also contributed to strengthening families, he added, citing how CPF and insurance nominations are now accepted as valid ways of transferring wealth within Muslim families, as are joint-tenancy agreements in relation to property.
Mr Tharman said he was "heartened by the committee's progressive outlook and its courage to offer solutions that are meaningful and practical".
At the same time, the committee has engaged the Muslim community to discuss the objectives and rationale behind its fatwas, or rulings, and explain why it may at times depart from the positions of religious bodies elsewhere.
Such engagement, Mr Tharman noted, is "how our Muslim religious leaders help engender trust and confidence in fatwas that are suited for Muslims living in Singapore".
"The committee's independent thinking, guided by their ethical and moral commitments and a keen eye on public interest, augurs well for the future of Islam in Singapore, and also for our multiculturalism in Singapore," he added.
Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, also spoke about Singapore's active and inclusive brand of multiculturalism, which he noted is unlike the "live and let live", passive approach many societies take.
"Live and let live has not worked, as almost everyone now has recognised around the world," he said, pointing to how generations of minorities in some European nations still feel like outsiders.
Different communities are still living apart - and growing apart. Even in Britain, where multiculturalism has fared better than much of Europe, almost half of all Muslims live in deprived neighbourhoods, he noted.
Singapore's multiculturalism involves a whole system of laws, an activist government, committed religious and community leaders, and values and norms that have been shaped over the years, he said.
This includes laws preserving freedom to practice one's religion and that protect race and religion from denigration, and policies to promote the common space in schools and offices. The country's journey of multiculturalism continues - but Singapore's active and inclusive approach means it starts from "a position of strength", said Mr Tharman.
The absence of ethnic conflict in Singapore, one of the most religiously and culturally diverse countries in the world, is an oddity and something precious, he noted.
But society must go further: "We must deepen multiculturalism in our next phase of nation-building."
This does not mean diluting or weakening the various cultures.
Neither does it mean merely focusing on strengthening each of the separate cultures - a move that will make Singapore "more vulnerable to the winds of religious and ethnic conflict that are blowing across the world".
"Those winds are getting stronger, and we need to build up our ability to withstand them," Mr Tharman said.
"We must keep each of our cultures alive, but also develop a keener interest in each other's cultures, and build stronger friendships and interactions, starting from young, between Singaporeans of different races and religions," he said. "Multiculturalism must become something we cherish in our hearts, not just something we accept in our minds."
This has to be done not just for defensive reasons. It is also an opportunity to develop a stronger identity and deeper pride in being Singaporeans together, he added.
Schools and individuals are doing their part, he noted, saying the learning of conversational Chinese and Malay should be encouraged.
New book on Singapore fatwas launched
Mr Tharman also launched the first volume of a book, Fatwas of Singapore, which aim to highlight the progressive nature of Islamic thought and how it evolves as society develops.
He hoped the book would be a source of education for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It covers 29 fatwas that deal with science, medicine and health and explains the thinking behind them, and can be downloaded from Muis' website. Since 1968, the Fatwa Committee has issued 577 fatwas to guide Muslims here on various aspects of their religious life.
The one-day conference was attended by over 300 Islamic religious teachers, scholars, academics and professionals from fields such as law and medicine.
Speakers included Singapore Mufti Fatri Bakaram, who chairs the Fatwa Committee. He delved into how these rulings are contextualised in today's society.
Professor Quraish Shihab, a prominent Islamic scholar from Indonesia, spoke on the crucial role fatwa play in the development of the Muslim community.
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, in his opening address, noted that as Muis marks its 50th anniversary next year,"it is timely to showcase how our fatwas have evolved, and take stock of the development of Islamic jurisprudence in our country."
The series of publications will explain the socio-historical context behind some of the fatwas in Singapore, he added.
"Importantly, the publication documents how our local religious leadership, ever sensitive to the needs and challenges of our community, has endeavoured to forge common ground while holding steadfast to their religious convictions and aspirations," he said.
He dwelt at length on the importance of developing fatwas with the society in mind.
Religious scholars after all take great pride in diversity, he noted, saying differences in scholarly opinion should be encouraged and embraced.
Dr Yaacob also highlighted how an eighth-century caliph's proposal to adopt the opinions of a single jurist as uniform law was declined by the jurist himself.
"Reportedly, he reasoned that the context was key," said Dr Yaacob.
Singapore's Administration of Muslim Law Act, enacted in 1968, recognises the importance of the local context, he noted, citing how it allows the Fatwa Committee to follow the tenets of various accepted schools of Muslim law - as long as these are not opposed to the public interest. And to safeguard public interest, the committee is allowed to re-examine rulings if new circumstances or knowledge comes to light.
He cited a 2007 fatwa which revised an earlier ruling that excluded Muslims from the Human Organ Transplant Act. The committee concluded that amending the act to include Muslims would ultimately promote public interest and welfare, said Dr Yaacob.
"Such dynamism inherent in Islamic jurisprudence enables the Fatwa Committee to adapt and provide timely and relevant guidance in an ever-changing world," he added.
Issues facing Muslim communities will only become more complex and multi-faceted. This means novel issues may arise for which no precedents exist, he said.
The committee therefore invites experts and professionals in diverse fields, from biomedicine to finance, to provide inputs.
Singapore must also have a viable pipeline of homegrown religious leaders anchored in its multiracial, multi-religious context, and this is why Muis is looking at setting up an Islamic college here, said Dr Yaacob. The plan for such a college was announced last year.
Having this college will help religious graduates appreciate the local context and constraints - "something only a homegrown institution can achieve". Muis will evaluate overseas models and practices, and adopt those relevant to Singapore's context, he said. "We will require time, expertise and the community's support to turn this idea into reality."