SINGAPORE - The Malay/Muslim community has managed the Covid-19 crisis well and is in good stead to overcome other challenges, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.
In order to help community members continue progressing further, he announced on Friday (May 13) enhancements to several programmes in areas such as education and health.
"We can draw many important and valuable lessons from the pandemic. In my view, we have reached where we are today because we did it with knowledge, care and discipline. Indeed, these are the fundamentals that the month of Ramadan has built in us for the many years that we have been fasting," said Mr Masagos, who is Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for Health.
He was speaking at his annual Hari Raya get-together for about 400 community and religious leaders, which was held at the Pan Pacific Singapore in Raffles Boulevard. This was the first time that the event was held physically after a two-year hiatus brought by the pandemic.
The community needs to be more concerned with the early education of its children, as well as life-long learning, stressed Mr Masagos. "Improving our knowledge is important as we face an unpredictable future due to the impact of Covid-19 and economic uncertainties following the war in Ukraine," he said.
But knowledge alone is not enough, and the community must be driven by a religious sector that is competent. The minister announced that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) will be expanding the Sheikh Isa Semait scholarship, which supports high-performing madrasah students to pursue undergraduate studies at prestigious Islamic universities abroad.
"A million dollars will be set aside every year to award the scholarship to undergraduate students with potential in the religious sector. The scholarship will be offered to the top candidates starting this year. Graduates with potential may be offered scholarships for their postgraduate studies," said Mr Masagos, adding that more details will be announced later.
Separately, a team from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), led by scholars, Dr Muhammad Nadjad Abdul Rahim and Associate Professor Yusuf Ali, is currently at work to develop youth talent from the community in the field of health science data, added Mr Masagos.
This initiative, which is being carried out through health programmes in Tampines and Choa Chu Kang, aims to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics among more students.
On the issue of families in rental flats, Mr Masagos said the recently-launched Project Dian@M3 will continue its work to empower the families to be independent and achieve social mobility in owning their own homes.
The scheme, introduced last year to address the issue of more Malay households opting to live in rental units, is managed by the Government's M3 programme - a tie-up involving self-help group Mendaki, Muis and People's Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council.
Census data released in June 2021 showed that the number of Malay households in one- and two-room Housing Board rental flats had more than doubled in the past decade, from about 9,100 in 2010 to about 18,600 in 2020.
Mr Masagos made an appeal on Friday for more volunteers to tutor school-going children or conduct home visits to families with children below the age of six in these rental flats under the Project Dian@M3.
"Through such targeted-based support and intervention to these families, we will make sure we leave no one behind, and move together stronger as a community," he said.
Turning to health issues, Mr Masagos said the community's discipline over the last two years in making adjustments to its way of life, which included taking prayer mats to mosques and wearing face masks, is an outstanding trait in overcoming the Covid-19 crisis.
With this level of discipline, the community can similarly overcome its current health trends, which the minister said are "very worrying".
He noted that based on national statistics, the Malay/Muslim community saw the prevalance of diabetes increase to around 14 per cent in 2020 - double the proportion of what it was in 2006. At the same time, the prevalence of hypertension among Malays in 2020 was 1.5 times higher than in 2017.
But the minister said he is confident that such trends can be reversed. "This is because we are a disciplined community - that overcame a very critical crisis.
"However, this requires us to limit and be conscious of our eating habits - similar to when we are fasting, and this should be complemented by the discipline in exercising regularly and resilience in quitting the habit of smoking. We will reverse the trend."
He announced that Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam will lead enhanced national healthcare efforts aimed at reducing symptoms of chronic diseases and that are catered to the Malay/Muslim community. Efforts are already under way, and he said that a workgroup has been formed with community leaders to look at nutrition, physical activity, health screening, smoking and mental health.
Malay/Muslims here should build on the lessons learnt from the pandemic as well as the recently concluded fasting month of Ramadan to overcome future challenges, said Mr Masagos
"Covid-19 and Ramadan have taught us a lot about the importance of knowledge, care and discipline in ensuring the well-being of our community.
"Let us take heed from these experiences that have taught us to (take) care of our health together for a meaningful future."