Source: Global Islamic Economic Gateway
By Zuzanita Zakaria
It’s mid-day on a Friday in Singapore and the usually efficient traffic police are turning a blind eye to lines on lines of illegally-parked cars. By 2pm, ‘order’ is restored after thousands of Jumaah congregants across the island spill out of mosques and clear the streets once more to traffic.
Muslims are a minority in Singapore, but a significant one – they make up around 15 percent of the nation’s 5.6 million population, just under 4 million of whom are citizens and permanent residents. Within this group, the narrative to identify as Singaporean first and then ethnically Malay and Muslim, is prominent. It’s a formula that props up the country’s nationalism and citizen loyalty.
Singapore’s Muslim population is served by a statutory board that overlooks religious affairs, such as with the administration of halal certifications, umrah and hajj, waqf, zakat, and mosques. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, better known by its Malay acronym MUIS, also administers the six full-time privately-run madrasahs that currently operate from primary to pre-university levels.
By taking care of the religious needs of Muslims as a collective, the work of government body MUIS also maintains the social fabric of a multi-cultural and multi-religious nation that sits at the heart of Muslim Southeast Asia challenged by the threat of Islamic extremism. Further, Singapore’s government and many of its senior citizens—who make up around 13 percent of the resident population—still remember the racial riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays in the 1960s.
In this context, Singapore’s government recently announced it was mulling the establishment of the nation’s very first tertiary-level Islamic College. The idea was first mooted in 2016 and was brought up again this year. Details about the Islamic College are scant as planning has just started, but minister in charge of Muslim affairs, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, told Salaam Gateway it’s fundamentally about aligning Singapore’s national interests with the need for a strong Islamic school curriculum.
The minister explained that the government has a role in Singapore’s privately-run full-time Islamic school system, saying that if the madrasahs were purely a religious institution, the government would not be able to step in. However, it comes into the picture for what the minister calls the “non-religious component”, which serves “a national interest”, he said.
“There is a context to everything that we do,” was Dr. Ibrahim’s response to why Singapore needs an Islamic College.
In the study of Islam, he said, a particular law is interpreted in and by context. “We can study from the Fiqh books and so on but how you interpret the laws is shaped by your context, right?”
Graduates of Singapore’s madrasahs who choose to go on to tertiary Islamic institutions traditionally head to neighbouring Malaysia, where the International Islamic University Malaysia was established in 1983, or they head farther abroad to various countries in the Middle East with reputable institutions such as in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Some also head to Indonesia, where there are also Islamic schools and universities funded by the Saudi government.
Singapore’s own Islamic College would ground graduates in local context to better serve the country’s needs. “That ‘context’ is very important so that our madrasah students who go to the Islamic College can then operate in Singapore and guide our community within the context and also in the region,” said Dr. Ibrahim.
“One very important need is we need to make sure that our students who eventually become asatizahs (Islamic religious teachers) are anchored in the local context,” added the minister.
“That local context is so important because we know that how Islam is practised in the Nusantara (the Malay world in Southeast Asia) is different from the Middle East and other parts of the world,” he added.