SINGAPORE - Mr Kadir Maideen, 54, joined the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) in January this year in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic, and one of the things he could not do was meet the many stakeholders in the Malay-Muslim communit face to face.
When he assumes his role next Monday (Nov 1) as chief executive of the statutory board that looks after the administration and interests of Singapore's Muslim community, ramping up engagement will be one of his top priorities.
He takes over at a time when Muis' work behind the scenes to push for nurses to be allowed to don the tudung has borne fruit.
From next Monday, nurses will be allowed to wear the headgear as part of their uniform, in a policy change announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech in August.
Mr Kadir, speaking to The Straits Times in an interview earlier this month, said that he has geared himself to deal with any community issues that may crop up in future.
He said: "I think what is important is when we have community issues, we must learn from what we've done in the past, we must communicate, we must not rush into making decisions.
"Sometimes the communication can be open, sometimes the communication needs to be closed and within specialist groups, and the community out there should not rush to get decisions on outcomes... because rushing would not give us the best solutions."
Mr Kadir spent 26 years at the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), where he had served as an assistant commissioner and been commander of the Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team.
His appointment to the head of the council has raised some eyebrows among detractors, who question his lack of religious credentials.
In response to this, Mr Kadir noted that the Office of the Mufti already gives religious guidance on policies, and Muis is essentially a statutory board, so those in leadership roles will need to perform administrative and governance functions.
He said: "I don't think there is a need for a religious personality to helm Muis at this stage."
He added that he hopes to ensure high standards of governance at the council.
He said: "One of the other things I wanted to also ensure internally within Muis is we maintain high standards of governance and accountability of our systems... This is one of the important things I have to look at.
"It's already in there, and I think if I can do that, and the people in the organisation could follow suit, I think we have something good."
Muis faced allegations of questionable halal certification practices and corruption in the past year, but an internal investigation determined that they were unfounded, and a probe by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau also concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
While he had not expected to be entrusted with the responsibility of helming Muis, Mr Kadir feels he is prepared for the role, not least because he has a good team at the council supporting him.
He thanked outgoing chief executive Esa Masood, 42, for his work in helping Muis adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought severe disruptions to the socio-religious life of the Malay-Muslim community.
Mr Esa, who will be taking up another appointment in the public service, was also at the interview. He described the work during the pandemic as the most challenging period of his four years at Muis, including as chief executive from 2019.
To curb the spread of the coronavirus, mosques had to be closed, and the circuit breaker period from April to June last year had also come during the religious month of Ramadan.
"We had to react to the situation in a very fast manner, which I think added to the complexity of the situation," said Mr Esa.
But how the community responded to the challenge had also brought a great sense of pride, he added.
Despite the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic, the community last year contributed a record $51 million in zakat, or alms, allowing Muis to channel the money to those in need of help, he noted. In 2019, the amount contributed was $46.5 million.
Looking ahead, Mr Esa sees two big challenges for the community. There is the issue of opportunity and social mobility for certain segments of the Muslim community, and the infiltration of religious teachings and ideology from abroad which may not be suitable in Singapore's multi-religious context.
Ultimately, maintaining the trust of the community is the most important, he said.
This can be done by being responsive to the changing needs of the community and keeping communications channels open, he added.
"We are here to serve the Muslim community, we are here to ensure that the Muslim community succeeds as part of a multicultural, multiracial society. And when the Muslim community succeeds, it will help ensure a successful Singapore as well," said Mr Esa.
In the 11 months Mr Kadir has been at Muis, first as deputy chief executive then chief executive-designate, much of his work has centred around achieving some kind of normalcy for the community amid the pandemic, and this has involved getting the community to trust in Muis.
"So for me, to come into the organisation at this stage where we are still grappling with Covid-19 and transiting into an endemic phase, I think the challenge is to rally the community that these are challenges that we can always overcome if we work together," he said.