Thursday 21 January 2016

Government looking at new steps to protect social harmony: K Shanmugam at 2nd SRP Distinguished Lecture and Symposium 2016

Changes will take place this year to deal with acts that sow discord between races, faiths
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2016

Singaporeans can expect new policies to tackle acts that denigrate other races or religions, preach intolerance, or sow religious discord.

The impending changes will take place this year to protect secular Singapore's racial and religious harmony, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"The Government has got to come forward, mobilise the community in a very substantive way so that the message gets understood," he added.

Mr Shanmugam made the point at the opening of a conference on expanding common space for people of various faiths, held by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

In a 40-minute speech, he explained in detail how South-east Asia had become fertile ground for terrorism owing to the mixing of religion and politics that has, in turn, fuelled sectarian tensions.

The rise of militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has also led to much violence, as well as intolerance online.

These developments threaten peace in Singapore and have given rise to four types of threats that confront the country.

They are: a terror attack, the radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population, some Singapore Muslims growing more distant from the rest of society, and Islamophobia - or intolerance towards Muslims.

Mr Shanmugam said it was worrying that some younger Muslims believe they should not wish Christians Merry Christmas, or Hindus Happy Deepavali, as such greetings contradict their faith.

If such sentiments become widespread, there will be serious long-term implications. This is why foreign preachers with such views are sometimes disallowed from entering Singapore to prevent them from building up a following here.

Also worrying is the threat of Islamophobia, he added.

Hate crimes against Muslims have risen in Western cities such as London and Paris. Singapore is not immune, and Mr Shanmugam cited two cases.

Last September, a Malay woman walking to a bus stop heard a man of another race utter "suicide bomber" at her.

In November, a week after the Paris attacks, the words "Islam murderers" were found scribbled at a bus stop in Bukit Panjang and on a toilet seat in Jurong Point mall.

While such acts are few and far between, they put Singapore's harmonious society at risk, he said.

"How our non-Muslims treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. If we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will feel isolated.

"It is important that we ensure Muslims in Singapore enjoy good opportunities, that there is no discrimination in schools, in jobs, in society as a whole," he added.

"Islamophobia will tear our society apart. We have to guard against it. It is completely unacceptable."

He noted that various religions in Singapore have taken steps to preserve the common space.

Muslim leaders, for example, have identified principles to guide the community to preserve and protect its moderate way of life.

But as extremism and exclusivity grow in the region, both the Government and people must make a greater collective effort to safeguard harmony, Mr Shanmugam said.

Specifically, it needs religious leaders to counter ISIS ideology, community leaders to help unite Singaporeans, and the Government to stay vigilant against all attempts to spark divisions.

"The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create sharp and violent divisions between 'us' and 'them'. If we remain resolutely 'us', one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, no force can divide us, and terrorism will be defeated," he said.

Today, Catholic Archbishop William Goh and Mufti Fatris Bakaram will address the conference, which is organised under RSIS' Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme.

Doing harm in name of religion 'not unique to any one faith'
Shanmugam relates history of conflicts over religion to explain rise of ISIS and threat posed to Singapore
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2016

Religion as a force for good and a tool for terror is a phenomenon with a long history and, yesterday, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam dug deep into the past to show the evil that men do today is not unique to any organised faith.

Whether it is the Christian Crusades in the Middle Ages, the conquests of the Muslim Mughals on the Indian sub-continent between the 16th and 19th centuries, or the Hindu-Muslim-Buddhist conflicts in Asia in more recent decades, their justification boils down to one factor: religion.

While religion did play its part, often it is just a vehicle and an excuse to achieve very old human urges, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister.

"Look closely and you may often see the real reason for the conflict was the basic human lust for power, profit, control of people and lands," he said in a speech to open a symposium that explores how religion can expand the common space for all.

The two-day meeting attended by more than 500 people, including religious and community leaders, is organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Mr Shanmugam, in relating the bloody history of religions causing untold suffering to millions, was seeking to explain, among other things, how the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group can be traced to charismatic preachers exploiting issues of concern to Muslims to achieve political power.

This poses a severe threat to Singapore's racial and religious harmony.

In the neighbouring countries, Islam in particular has been used over the last few decades as a tool in political power play and to cultivate an us-versus-them mentality, he said.

Citing Malaysia, Mr Shanmugam noted that it has become more Islamic and politics led the change.

A survey last year showed 60 per cent of Malays identified themselves as Muslims first, rather than as Malaysians or Malays, and more than 70 per cent of Malays support hudud laws that punish theft by chopping off the criminal's hands, and adultery by stoning.

In Umno-controlled Terengganu state, Muslims who skip prayers are paraded in a hearse around the city centre, while in Kedah they face criminal sanctions.

"The current situation (there) has been shaped by deliberate choices made over decades, about how public discourse on religion should be conducted," he said.

Against the backdrop of such changes, some Malaysians have begun to support extremist terrorist ideology. A recent study showed 10 per cent of the Malays had a favourable opinion of ISIS. "Consider the nature of the threat posed, if even a small fraction of these become radicalised," said Mr Shanmugam.

In Indonesia, Islamic boarding schools and madrasahs are suspected to have links with terror networks and serve as conduits for money to the Middle East, he added.

Also, the country's lack of preventive detention laws has led to hundreds of terrorists linked to Jemaah Islamiah being released back into society (or who will be this year). They include those previously involved in plots against Singapore.

Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar face the possibility of inter- religious strife too, he said, adding that the socio-economic conditions of their respective Muslim populations have added to the potency of the terrorism threat.

Mr Shanmugam believes the region becoming ripe for an explosion of religion-based terrorism points to three ways leaders have failed their people.

These are: the cynical exploitation of race and religion by some secular and religious authorities; the relative lack of focused development and education by governments in the past; and a lack of strong commitment to multi ethnicity.

Coupled with developments in the Middle East, these have resulted in the rise and spread of dangerous ideas such as killing people is doing God's will and the killer will go to heaven, he said.

"These ideas will not win," he added. "But the cost in terms of blood and misery will be high."

Muslim leaders concerned about extreme leanings
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2016

Muslim leaders have, in recent years, noticed a disturbing trend among a section of the community.

Some of the young feel it is against their faith to wish Christians "Merry Christmas" or Hindus "Happy Deepavali".

Some also preach that it is wrong for them to recite the National Pledge, sing the National Anthem or undergo national service.

They also believe the democratically elected Government in Singapore is not compatible with Islam, and they should live in a caliphate.

That such marginal, exclusive sentiments are held worries Muslim religious leaders interviewed by The Straits Times, who say these have not taken root here.

"Like it or not, members of our community have been influenced," said Ambassador Mohammad Alami Musa. Mr Alami, who heads the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, added that such ideas are "alien to the Islamic ethos in Singapore".

"Muslim leaders teach what it means to be a Singaporean Muslim - to be faithful, good members of the society and to be loyal citizens," he said. But the sanctity of these values is threatened by mutilated and erroneous messages from outside, spread through social media, he added.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam flagged the exclusivist tendencies yesterday in a speech where he also noted that Singapore Muslims have been a successful model for the modern world for their moderate worldview and practices. But intolerance by others towards Muslims is also a threat to social harmony, he said.

"The community must continue to preserve and protect their way of life, despite challenges within and without," he added.

Community leaders have sought to develop a Singapore Muslim identity and strengthen ties with other religious groups. Some are active in the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) that counsels terror detainees and counters radicalism.

The leaders have also initiated the Asatizah Recognition Scheme to accredit religious teachers and ensure that divisive and extremist teachings do not gain ground.

Going forward, the SRP will work with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and religious scholars' association Pergas to help religious teachers apply their knowledge to Singapore's context.

Ustaz Mohamed Ali, the RRG's vice-chairman, said it is important to teach young Muslims to be more discerning about information they gather online. Efforts to deepen trust are also key, he said, adding that places of worship like temples, mosques and churches can play a bigger role in "organising inter- faith activities and engagement that specifically deals with the threat of religious extremism".

Madrasah Al-Ma'arif Al-Islamiah student Nur Ardini Mohd Khafidz, 18, welcomed Mr Shanmugam's citing recent examples of Islamophobia as a reminder that discrimination must not take root here.

"I remember watching Al Jazeera - they interviewed female Muslims in America afraid of leaving their homes without wearing disguises such as caps," she said.

"It's good that really specific examples were brought up, because being politically correct all the time will not solve this problem."

Muslims here growing ‘somewhat more distant’: Shanmugam
Local Muslim population a successful model for its moderate practices, he says
By Siau Ming En, TODAY, 20 Jan 2016

Amid increasing religiosity among Singaporeans as a whole, a developing trend is being watched with concern by the Government: A sentiment among some younger Muslims that sending greetings to friends on other religious festivals or reciting the National Pledge and serving National Service are at odds with their faith.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam warned of this trend in his opening address yesterday at a two-day symposium organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

As religiosity sweeps the world, the Muslim population here is also growing “somewhat more distant” from the rest of the community, partly due to influences from the Middle East. Some people also feel that the democratic elected governance system here is “incompatible with Islam” and Singapore should be part of a caliphate, he added.

“These are worrying trends, and if these sentiments become widespread, the Muslim community that grows apart from the mainstream is not good for the Muslim community and not good for Singapore, with serious long-term implications,” said Mr Shanmugam.

"The Muslim community that grows apart from the mainstream is not good for the Muslim community and not good for Singapore," says K Shanmugam Sc.
Posted by TODAY on Tuesday, January 19, 2016

While he said that the Government is watching the development closely and will take steps to address the issue, the minister commended the Muslim population’s stance so far.

“You are a successful model to the modern world for your moderate, respectful worldview and practices. The community must continue to preserve and protect its way of life, despite challenges within and without,” he added.

There is a “fine line” between gaining a better understanding of religion and celebrating the country’s diversity by identifying as Singaporeans first; Chinese, Malay or Indian second, versus believing that “our religion requires us to be separate”, said Mr Shanmugam. The latter belief is indifferent at best, and more often intolerant towards other faiths, he added.

Taking this approach will spell trouble for Singapore, and “the exceptional multiracial, multi-ethnic society that we have here will be destroyed”, said Mr Shanmugam.

He cited the words of the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had spoken about the Singaporean Chinese, Singaporean Malay and Singaporean Indian as opposed to the Chinese Singaporean, Malay Singaporean and Indian Singaporean.

Mr Shanmugam also said that foreign preachers are, at times, not allowed to enter Singapore to preach.

“Why? We will not allow anyone, of any religion who preaches that people of other faiths should be shunned or that people of other faiths should be ignored,” he said.

This is not limited to what he preaches in Singapore, but also outside the country as his teachings would be available online and it would be wrong to allow him to build up a following in Singapore, added Mr Shanmugam.

While the Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion, it has to step in to protect Singapore’s racial and religious harmony, he said.

“We cannot allow someone to preach values which are contrary to our multicultural, multi-ethnic harmony,” said Mr Shanmugam. “We take a firm, clear stand on that and make no apologies.”

Responding to the minister’s speech, Mr Malminderjit Singh, secretary of the Sikh Advisory Board, said inter-religious dialogues would help foster and build bonds and better understanding among different communities while a national narrative would be powerful in a secular country like Singapore.

“Every religion is different, but if we have common shared values on who we are as Singaporeans, what we want to preserve as our Singaporean identity, I believe that can be a huge deterrent (against divisions) and bond different segments of society,” added Mr Singh, who is also President of the Young Sikh Association.

Mr Alla’udin Mohamed, vice-chairman of Geylang Serai Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, said he understands why Mr Shanmugam came out “very strongly and directly” on the possible threat of the Muslim population growing apart from the mainstream.

“He wants the whole community to understand that this is a very grave situation that we are facing. He’s trying to (put across) a strong (message) to Singaporeans that it can happen ... so we have to be very vigilant,” he added.

Additional reporting by Toh Ee Ming

Religious heads work to build trust, maintain harmony
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2016

Just two hours after the Jakarta blasts, about 30 religious and community leaders of the Braddell Heights' Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle received information about what was happening on the ground there.

They were also asked by the authorities to look out for reactions in their communities.

Said Venerable You Guang, adviser to Puat Jit Buddhist Temple and a member of the circle: "Most times, the sentiments people express after such an attack are harmless. But if they take sides along racial or religious lines, we must intervene."

He was among religious leaders of all stripes interviewed yesterday who agreed with Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam that they can help Singaporeansbetter understand terrorist ideology and ensure Singapore remains united.

One way, said Sikh Advisory Board chairman Jarmal Singh, is to help people see the actions of one misguided individual do not represent the entire community or faith.

Master Lee Zhi Wang, president of the Singapore Taoist Mission, added that given the credibility and influence of religious leaders in their community, they need to be proactive in preventing conflict between their group and others.

He suggested telling followers not to be over-sensitive and be conscious not to discriminate against other groups, he added.

Ven You Guang said leaders should also urge their followers not to speculate or put blame on any community.

Many religious leaders like Reverend Gabriel Liew of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church also agreed with Mr Shanmugam that any spread of Islamophobia is a threat to Singapore's peace.

"Ignorance breeds fear - fear of people we do not know," he added.

Countering such ignorance requires understanding and empathy which comes from personal friendships with Muslims, he said.

Ms Murshida Mohd Kadir, acting assistant head of the Muslim Converts' Association of Singapore, said that with the attacks in Indonesia and arrests of ISIS suspects in Malaysia, it was timely to state publicly that most Singapore Muslims reject the ideology of violence and extremism.

"Many of us feel more has to be done for non-Muslims to understand that we are not violent people, we are for religious harmony."

She also feels it is a good time for an interfaith dialogue and more exposure to what Islam stands for.

The comments by these religious leaders were in response to a lecture by visiting professor Julius Lipner of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Dr Lipner, an expert on interreligious understanding, had called for deeper and more sustained dialogue between people of each faith, between different religious groups, and with those with no religion.

This will help expand the common space for all Singaporeans.

Such dialogues need to be inclusive and tolerant, with a readiness to change one's views when given new insights about the values, rights and responsibilities that constitute social well-being for all who share the public space in a liberal, secular democracy, he said.

Otherwise, he added: "There is no prospect of arriving at even a semblance of viable public order and a common good."

Religious leaders call for more inter-faith dialogues
This will help counter threat of exclusivity among some young Muslims, and Islamophobia too
By Walter Sim, Zhaki Abdullah and Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2016

As Singaporeans become more religious, there are concerns that some segments of society are becoming more distant from others.

One strong antidote to this exclusive tendency, religious leaders said, lies in their followers reflecting on what their respective religions teach. This is crucial, they added yesterday at a conference on building inter-faith relations.

The leaders also called for more inter-faith dialogues to promote understanding, in the light of sectarian strife and terror attacks around the world.

Such moves will counter the threats posed by some young Muslims in Singapore distancing themselves from mainstream society, and Islamophobia. These threats were highlighted by Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam the day before when he opened the two-day symposium on religions held by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Yesterday, the leaders presented ways in which organised religions can help expand the common space in Singapore for all people. The Mufti of Singapore, Dr Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, cited the Quran to show that forging a common space - where people live together harmoniously amid their differences - is a religious obligation for Muslims.

Archbishop William Goh said that Catholics, when engaging with people of other faiths, should look at what they have in common rather than their differences.

The two men also pointed out that different religions preach the same positive values such as peace, love, unity and tolerance. These qualities are all key to being a good Singapore citizen, they added.

Venerable Dr Chang Qing, an assistant professor at the Buddhist College of Singapore, said: "If your religious values and mindset are right, then you will naturally be a good citizen. But it is also important to align ourselves with the national values as a country, if not there will be divides."

But carving out this common space will not be a straightforward endeavour in a multi-cultural society, the leaders acknowledged.

Said Dr Fatris: "Each individual and each community has its own preferences, demands, aspirations, hopes and requests. So there will be times, and they come quite frequently, when these opposing demands will happen."

Hence, there was a need for give and take among the religions.

Hindu Centre president N.Varaprasad said, among other things, that people must decide whether it was important for them to attend ceremonies of other faiths, like weddings or funerals of their friends or loved ones.

So, the way forward, said Dr Fatris, is for inter-faith dialogues to help the different communities understand one another. But this may cause "some sense of discomfort or lack of confidence" among some Singaporeans.

Archbishop Goh said that one way to kill such dialogues is to start comparing religions.

"Don't say mine is better (and) yours (is) not so good. I've the fullness of truth, you've got half a truth," he said. "We cannot talk like that. If you begin a conversation like that, the dialogue finishes."

Dr Fatris pointed out that already, there are many physical common spaces for different faiths and these can be found in Housing Board estates, offices and schools.

As the right ingredients are in place, he said: "If we do not start now with a serious and constructive inter-faith religious dialogue, I think it will be a waste for Singapore as a nation."

As religious tensions rise across the world, he said Singapore should aspire towards having mutual respect among religions flourish for years to come.

He cited the case of Prophet Muhammad welcoming a delegation of Christians and letting them pray in a mosque. "I am not suggesting that we turn mosques into churches or temples, or otherwise, but these institutions can offer space for communities to understand each other a lot better," he said.

Religious and government leaders have also pointed out such examples of inter-faith cooperation in Singapore.

Master Lee Zhi Wang, president of the Singapore Taoist Mission, said the Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor in Telok Ayer has worked with the next-door Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre to run events and share resources.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last October that a church in Sembawang opens its carpark every Friday to the Muslim congregation of a neighbouring mosque for Friday prayers.

Various religious groups had also extended invitations to members of other religious bodies for their SG50 celebrations, he added.

But Archbishop Goh said more could still be done. He suggested that secular schools teach their students about all religions in Singapore, so that from a young age, they can understand the beliefs of other faiths. "With greater appreciation comes greater unity," he said. "Otherwise, when we shield people from other religions, there will be a lot of misconceptions."

He also acknowledged the challenges in holding dialogues that can reach entire congregations - "many" of the 360,000 Catholics here do not go to church, he said.

"If we can't even get (followers) to attend the courses we offer, how to ask them to come for inter-religious courses? I mean, when you hold a course about your own faith, they don't want to come. When you offer a course on inter-religious faith, will they come?" Archbishop Goh wondered aloud.

"This is an experience felt by all the other religions," he added.

Still, the dialogues and joint events are a good way to build inter-faith friendships.

"When we are friends, we begin to treasure and cherish each other and appreciate our differences. These differences enrich us."

Additional reporting by Lim Yan Liang

Religious leaders on harmony


Several examples in Islamic scriptural sources, which together with historical records, clearly suggest that Islam, like all other world religions, aims to develop a productive and prosperous life for its followers, in the context of the diversity of human societies.

We can thus see how forging a 'common space' became a religious obligation as it was critical in developing a sense of community, confidence, acceptance and mutual respect, so that humans could live together, despite their differences.



The reason why I'm a good Singaporean, a patriotic person, the reason I give my life for Singaporeans is because of my faith. If you are a good Catholic, if you are a good Muslim, you should be the best Singaporean... (because) you will really promote peace, love, unity and tolerance.

- CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM GOH, who said because religion defines how faith believers live and act, it would by extension make them better Singaporeans if they are instilled with the right teachings and values.


Common space is created by the common man: It is the common man who decides who his friends are.

It is the common man who decides whether to attend the wedding of his friends' children in a church or a temple, and it is the common man who decides whether to attend a birth ceremony or funeral, in spite of whatever religious edicts might be placed on him.

He's the one who finally decides whether it is more important for him to do that, and by enlarging his own friendships, he enlarges the common space.



The Dhammapada, one of the scriptures in Buddhism, teaches us not to do any evil, to cultivate the good, and to purify one's mind.

To purify one's mind isvery important in Buddhism, and is actually common to many religions.

Once you purify the mind, you have the right mindset, a positive attitude and I believe this can contribute to what we call the common space.

- VENERABLE CHANG QING, assistant professor of Buddhist College of Singapore.

Singapore stable because religions treated equally, says expert
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2016

At a time of rising religiosity in the region, Singapore has to firmly protect its religious harmony, said an expert on inter-religious understanding yesterday.

Professor Julius Lipner told The Straits Times that various measures, such as barring foreign preachers who spread divisive messages from coming here and ensuring views on sensitive issues are aired responsibly, show the Government is very conscious of this fact.

Prof Lipner is a visiting fellow of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The ban on divisive foreign preachers is a Singapore policy for which the Government makes no apologies, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam had said the previous day.

Mr Shanmugam made the point when he opened a conference on expanding the common space among people of various faiths.

He had said that, while the Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters of each religion, it will not allow anyone to preach values contrary to Singapore's multicultural, multi-ethnic harmony.

"We will also look at what he preaches outside Singapore. As his teachings would be available online, it is wrong to allow him to build up a following in Singapore," the minister had said.

Yesterday, Prof Lipner said Mr Shanmugam's speech showed that maintaining religious harmony remains a government priority. It is also an acknowledgement of the sensitive geopolitical situation Singapore is in, he added.

Singapore, he said, has enjoyed peace and stability because all religions are treated equally under the law, a concept that, together with secularism, is enshrined in the Constitution.

"The moment we depart from these terms, we go on a very different trajectory, with a very different prospect for the future," said Prof Lipner, who is also emeritus professor of Hinduism and comparative religion at Cambridge University.

Singapore's firm stand on not allowing unfettered speech has been vindicated by the experience of countries such as Britain, he said, noting that his home country has had to deal with the consequences of not preventing hate speech.

"Great Britain made the mistake earlier on when they decided that anyone should be allowed to say anything in the name of free speech," he said.

This has given rise to controversial preachers such as Trevor Brooks, also known as Abu Izzadeen, who built up a following because he was able to deliver inflammatory speeches openly from a central London mosque.

"They finally realised that free speech has to be responsible speech, and there was not enough stress on the responsibility part, and are now doing what Singapore has been doing all this time."

These radical Islamist preachers took their extremist message to the streets of London and got shut down again and again by ordinary Muslims.
Posted by Channel 4 News on Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Unity is the best defence against fundamentalist tendencies
By Kumar Ramakrishna, Published TODAY, 12 Feb 2016

In a wide-ranging policy speech last month, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam identified four interconnected challenges to Singapore’s multireligious and multicultural harmony: Direct terrorist attacks, radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population, the Muslim population growing “somewhat distant” from the rest of society and Islamophobia among the non-Muslim communities.

Much analytical ink has been spilled in recent months over the direct physical threat posed to Singapore by the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its South-east Asian affiliates, exemplified by the recent attacks in Jakarta; and the sharpening concern over young Singaporean Muslims being radicalised, via exposure to slick ISIS ideological narratives online.

Where Mr Shanmugam arguably broke new ground was his candid analysis of the remaining two worrying trends: The apparent social distancing of some Muslims from the wider community and anti-Muslim prejudice, fanned by 15 years of the ongoing war against violent Islamist extremism. The notion of “social distancing”, in particular, deserves further unpacking.

Mr Shanmugam noted that “Singaporeans, as a whole, are becoming more religious” and that “[i]nfluences from the Middle East have had an impact on our Muslim population as well”.

He added that some “younger Muslims feel that we should not wish Christians ‘Merry Christmas’ or Hindus ‘Happy Deepavali’”, while apparently some “groups preach that it is wrong for Muslims to recite the National Pledge, sing the National Anthem and serve National Service”, as engaging in these actions “would contradict the Muslim faith”.

The point is this: Not just Muslims, but Singaporeans, have been deeply affected by the ongoing collision between cultural globalisation and one powerful countervailing force worldwide — religious fundamentalism.

As what Thomas Friedman called the Three Democratisations of information, finance and technology deepen and intensify linkages between societies everywhere, traditional societies have not stood still. Fearing the erosion of long-held cultural values and religious mores, some religious communities within and outside the West have responded to the synchronising effects of globalisation into a generally Western social, economic, political and cultural model by developing a defensive variant of religion: Fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is related to, but is not quite, religion per se. While mainstream religion emphasises universal harmony, fundamentalism emphasises policing of interreligious boundaries to prevent “contamination” by contact with outsiders. Moreover, fundamentalism insists on a literalist, inflexible adherence to scriptural rules, regardless of contextual factors.

No surprise, then, that while devout but mainstream believers are largely able to function optimally within globalised, multicultural societies, religious fundamentalists encounter emotional dissonance.

They tend to feel out of place, retreating into insulated religious enclaves for fear of “polluting” themselves by mingling too closely with other religious and cultural communities. Minister of Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli has alluded precisely to this trait among a few local Muslims.

In an interview published yesterday, he observed that “some of us begin to isolate ourselves — they do not want to eat with other people because they do not eat halal food”. Fortunately, he added, local Muslim scholars have debunked such an attitude.

Conversely, fundamentalists may adopt a more assertive stance, forming pressure groups and political parties to secure the power to transform the entire societal structure into a form they would feel more “comfortable” with.

Islamist political parties in Malaysia and Indonesia are largely driven by such an impulse.


Such fundamentalist tendencies —whether displayed by Muslims, or for that matter Christians, Buddhists and others — if left unchecked, could become an even bigger problem downstream. Scholars of religious conflict have long cautioned that there are “violent potentials” within the “fundamentalist mindset” that — when twinned with extremist ideologies fuelled by inclement socioeconomic and political factors — may well be consummated.

To be clear, one is not suggesting that all religious fundamentalists are violent or that the problem is Islamic fundamentalism per se. Buddhist fundamentalists in Myanmar have long incubated a climate of intolerance that arguably contributed to anti-Rohingya Muslim violence in recent times.

Thus social-distancing produced by intensifying religious fundamentalism in Singapore, and in the region, is hardly harmless. Over time, they will only entrench the fundamentalist mindset — “obsessed with the differences” with other faiths, rather than the “many common things we have together”, as Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean recently put it — and which, in certain conditions, may further transmogrify into a violent extremist outlook. This is no exaggeration.

In Indonesia, the Jemaah Islamiyah militant network emerged from a Middle Eastern-oriented fundamentalist tradition that — abjuring prevailing tolerant faith-forms that were both authentically Islamic and Javanese — promoted, instead a starkly reductionist interpretation of Islam.

Significantly, JI founders had urged their socially-insulated followings to reject the national ideology of Pancasila and avoid flying the Indonesian flag. The bombings of Bali in October 2002 were ensuing bitter fruits — to reiterate, in tandem with other enabling drivers — of such a stark us-versus-them outlook.

Mr Shanmugam assured his audience that while the government will introduce new measures this year to “tackle acts” that “denigrate other races or religions, preach intolerance, or sow religious discord”, it “will not interfere with doctrinal matters within each religion”. Nevertheless, “doctrinal matters” pertaining to fundamentalist religion require attention, as they remain a challenge to Singapore’s social harmony. Hence as some local Muslim scholars argue, intensified intra-faith dialogue, to complement interfaith initiatives, are probably in order.

Rigid fundamentalist constructions of the faith that are often purveyed by some foreign clerics are hardly suited to the pressing needs of an utterly ventilated polyglot society like Singapore’s. These need to be identified and delegitimised. Instead, theologically authentic initiatives honestly contextualising sacred obligations to local realities, like the Singapore Muslim Identity project first mooted in 2005, deserve further exploration.

Finally, non-Muslim Singaporean communities, as Mr Shanmugam pointed out, must stamp out Islamophobic tendencies, mindlessly tarring all Muslims with the same ISIS-stained brush. Right-thinking Muslims loathe ISIS, and what it is doing to the image of Islam.

Thus scribbling “Islam murderers” at a Bukit Panjang bus stop, and on a toilet seat in Jurong Point mall — as Mr Shanmugam recounted — only weakens social cohesion and strengthens the hand of ISIS.

If non-Muslim Singaporeans could collectively support their Muslim brethren as they navigate delicate internal matters of deeply-held belief, the downstream benefits — for both social cohesion and the ongoing struggle against ISIS extremism — are likely to be profound.

SRP Symposium 2016 “Common Space: Can Religion Contribute to It? ”
The 2nd SRP Distinguished Lecture and Symposium 2016 - Opening Address by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law
Religion, terrorism and threats to Singapore, the region: K. Shanmugam
Jakarta attacks could mark start of ISIS campaign in South-East Asia
27 radicalised Bangladeshis held under the Internal Security Act
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