Minister Masagos points to historic first that puts a shine on progress of Muslim community

Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli during an interview with The Straits Times on the progress made by the Malay/Muslim community this year. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - Malay students in Singapore have achieved a historic first by outperforming the average international student in mathematics, the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results show.

As for reading and science, the students' scores are on a par with their counterparts in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes the United States, the United Kingdom and China.

The laudable maths score was disclosed by Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli in an interview with the local media on the progress made by the Malay/Muslim community this year. It was held on Dec 17 at the Environment Building along Scotts Road.

Mr Masagos, who is also the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said: "This is the first time the Malay community has surpassed the OECD average."

He made the point when he was setting out the various successes of the Muslim community, particularly how it was excelling in three key areas: competence, character and citizenry.

The maths feat was used to illuminate competence.

Overall, however, Singapore students were second to China in the Pisa study, which covers maths, science and reading. Done every three years, the study tests how well students apply knowledge and skills as well as solve problems.

On citizenry, Mr Masagos noted that while many Muslim minorities around the world struggle to be both good Muslims and good citizens, "we don't find that in Singapore".

He cited how in June (2019), Singapore mosques and Malay/Muslim organisations like Mendaki signed a commitment to safeguard religious harmony in the wake of growing inter-ethnic tensions across the globe. A total of 250 religious organisations in Singapore had pledged to build strong bonds across religions.

"As diverse as we are, we know that diversity is something that works, especially in Singapore," he said.

On character, he held up the high volunteerism rate in the community.

In the past year, more than 1,400 Muslims, including professionals such as lawyers and accountants, have volunteered in various M3 initiatives.

Three growing areas of success

M3 is a collaboration among three institutions to improve how they help uplift the less well-off in their community. The trio are: the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), self-help group Mendaki and the People's Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council (Mesra).

The M3 initiatives are categorised under three areas of focus.

The first, led by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development and Education Faishal Ibrahim, aims to provide support for marriage, parenthood and early childhood development.

Its initiatives have been well-received, said Mr Masagos.

One of them is the Marital First Responders programme, which has trained 128 mosque leaders as well as religious and community leadersto provide basic marriage support to couples. It was launched in March.

Another is the Bersamamu marriage preparation course in which the person solemnising the union engages and journeys with a couple through the first two years of marriage.

Since its launch in July, more than 2,500 couples have completed the course.

The second focus area lends a hand to vulnerable people and their families.

Led by Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin, more than 320 volunteers, including religious counsellors, have been recruited to support inmates and former inmates under the Family and Inmates Through-care Assistance Haven (Fitrah) initiative.

The third is dedicated to empowering youth.

MP Rahayu Mahzam is building a network of mentors under a structured programme "to address the whole spectrum of youth needs, from the lowest end where youths need mentoring because they are at risk... to the very highest end for people who can do better because they have a network of professionals they can rely on," Mr Masagos said.

More than 500 mentors have been recruited to mentor youths aged 14 to 16, and more than 100 of these teens have been identified for pilot projects.

Praising the youths' achievements, he noted that the number of students who got the Anugerah Mendaki award for attaining First Class Honours has increased 10-fold, from seven to 70 in the last 10 years.

But in uplifting the community, the important role of community institutions is paramount, said Mr Masagos.

He dug into history to make his point, quoting founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's opening speech at the 1982 Mendaki Congress.

The late Mr Lee had said government-run schemes on its own cannot achieve the results of Mendaki, a "voluntary, spontaneous effort by Malay/Muslims to help themselves".

He added: "You (Mendaki) can better succeed because you will be more effective with the Malay/Muslim parents than the government school teachers and principals. You can reach them through their hearts, not simply their minds."

New year, new programmes

In 2020, M3 will launch Ciptasama@M3, an initiative that aims to include the community in co-creating policy changes with the Government.

Also, the findings on how Muis can better develop religious teachers professionally will be released by the Committee on Future Asatizah (Cofa) next year.

The committee is led by Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman.

Mr Masagos said that in future, the M3 agencies will work with community stakeholders to reach out directly to eligible children and families.

"Right now, we are scaling up the programmes. The next stage must be targeting," he said.

"The real outcome we want, is to move the needle. That means not only to do programmes and be effective for those who come to the programme, but to reach out in a targeted manner to those who really need the programme - and make a difference."

He added: "If you look at the areas where we have been successful, they really are important building blocks upon which we can do even better."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.