Friday 12 February 2016

Religion must be practised based on local context: Masagos

In an exclusive interview with current affairs programme Bicara, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli discusses the threat of terrorism and the role of the Government in religious and racial issues.
Channel NewsAsia, 11 Feb 2016

Religion must be practised in context and Muslim scholars here understand how certain religious teachings should be taught in Singapore's context, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

In an exclusive interview with Malay-language current affairs programme Bicara, Mr Masagos discussed the threat of terrorism in Singapore as well as the danger of preachers who impart divisive teachings. Mr Masagos was speaking in response to Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam's recent speech on the issue of terrorism and security of Singapore.

Q: Minister Shanmugam’s speech on the issue of terrorism and security of Singapore - among other things - also raised the issue of the Muslim community growing somewhat more distant from the others, which is viewed as one of the threats to Singapore. As former Second Minister for Home Affairs, can you help to clarify what does the Government mean by this?

Masagos Zulkifli: If we examine the speech, we know that Minister Shanmugam recognises that the Singapore Muslim community is a model community that we can be proud of. This is an important context of the speech, that he recognises the Malay/Muslim community has been able to live together with other communities through thick and thin without causing any conflicts, though they may arise from time to time. This is an important context which we have to bear in mind of the speech.

But today, there are new external threats, especially the Islamic State ideology that has influenced many of our young people - through social media - to do one or two things. First, to join them to form an Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and if they are not able to go there, then they can cause mischief or perform some killings to create troubles by doing whatever they can in their respective countries.

So, we are concerned, in case Singaporeans do not understand about these new threats which may influence some people easily. They might be influenced to undertake violent acts without understanding that we have been able to live with each other in harmony.

If you look at the threats in the last two years, they have become bigger over time. In the past, it was only radical ideology that the radicals wanted to spread to their friends, whether through social media and so on. Today we see a situation where acts of violence are becoming more common in cities - like the Paris attacks, and more recently, the attack on our neighbours in Jakarta. And we should not rule out the possibility that it could happen here.

We have already arrested several young men who had been influenced and wanted to go to Syria or Iraq to join the fight with Islamic State, but they obviously wanted to conduct acts of violence including on our Prime Minister and the President. This shows that radical ideology has been able to sow the seeds of violence that can be used to manipulate a minority in the community to conduct the acts of violence which can undermine the harmony in our country.

Q: Speaking of the "seeds of violence", the Government has also picked up on some young Muslims who now think it is wrong to greet others by saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Deepavali", as they consider it un-Islamic. We are also told there are also those who believe that it is wrong to recite the National Pledge or sing the National Anthem. Surely these are just symptoms of a problem. What is the larger problem here?

Masagos Zulkifli: The Malay/Muslim community has all along been guided by our local scholars. Despite the various problems that arise from time to time, we can solve them by taking into account the interest of our society, our religion and at the same time, we can build a developed country together with other people.

Now we begin to see influences that can come to our country through social media and so on, and this has been widespread in our society. If we look at some of the features of these influences which are disturbing, among those is the belief that we should create a situation or environment which is so pure and perfect, resembling utopia. And this is something imposed on us to implement it hastily.

For example, if in the past we can have a meal together with others without thinking of what to eat, now some of us begin to isolate ourselves - they do not want to eat with other people because they do not eat halal food. But, thank God, through the guidance of our local scholars, we know that this is not right.

Similarly, on the issue of the threats of radical ideologies that have come through social media and have influenced some of our young people, we need our local scholars to address them so that the young people know what to accept and what to reject.

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Q: How effective are our local religious scholars in tackling negative foreign influences?

Masagos Zulkifli: We are fortunate that we are able to produce our own scholars through our local madrasahs. This is important. If they come from foreign countries, even from Mecca or Medina, they may also carry contexts or cultures that may not be suitable for the life and needs of the Muslims here.

Religion must also have its contexts and many of our scholars from the local madrasahs and guided by other local ulamas, they understand better how certain religious teachings should be taught in our context.

Among other things: How we highly value the harmony with other people, how we have to respect the rights of others who have their own practices and how we should tolerate the religious practices of others and do not see them as something that should be banished. This is the context most suitable to us, which is now being threatened by views coming from places that are now being fought by Islamic State.


Q: Recently, the Singapore Government also firmly stated that it would ban foreign missionaries, who are intolerant to the situation here, from preaching in this country. Is there a particular trend that the Government is worried about, concerning foreign preachers gaining attention in Singapore?

Masagos Zulkifli: Actually, this is a long-standing practice and does not only apply to Muslim preachers. It applies to all religions and anyone who comes to Singapore and rakes up issues concerning language, religion or race which can cause unhappiness among the different races and lead to racial unrest. We have been able to eradicate and prevent all this.

So, if anyone who says wonderful things while in Singapore, things that are appropriate to our religion, but in their own country or through social media, they say things that can sow the seeds of terrorism or intolerance towards other religions, including forbidding "Merry Christmas" greetings and so on without taking into account its context, without taking into account the teachings of our religious scholars that allows it, and they reject our religious scholars - this is very dangerous.

If we cannot trust our own religious scholars, who else can we trust? We have to rely on our religious scholars, we must trust our religious scholars who understand the context of living as a minority in Singapore so that we can continue with our right to practice our religion, as a Malay, as a Muslim.

Q: We would like to get a full clarification from you as a Cabinet Minister. Lately, we have been seeing a lot of discussion on the Internet that Mufti Menk of Zimbabwe, for instance, has been banned in Singapore because of - among others - his opinion that Muslims should not wish others "Merry Christmas" and so on, and such attitudes are quite contrary to the spirit of religious and racial harmony in Singapore and because of that, he is not allowed to preach in this country. What is your response?

Masagos Zulkifli: We have the guidance of our local religious scholars who allow and even encourage us to develop the spirit of harmony and be compassionate to other communities. In fact, when we wish others "Merry Christmas", we know that we are not Christians and will not become Christians by saying "Merry Christmas".

So, this is important and we do not need opinions which are not only contrary to what we uphold but can also create a situation that is not harmonious. As I have said earlier, the ban on foreign speakers is not just applicable to Muslims. This applies to all, whether they are Christians or Buddhists and so on.

We recognise that the Government wants to create a harmonious, peaceful environment for everyone. Anyone who threatens it, whether they are in this country or overseas, we will stop it.


Q: What is your response to calls by two Malay Members of Parliament in recent Parliamentary debates for bigger spaces on the discussion of identity and religion, including the wearing of the tudung, and whether the Government can be more flexible on the issue?

Masagos Zulkifli: I have two comments. Firstly, religion, language and race are very sensitive matters. We may feel that the time is right for us to discuss it among ourselves or with the other races. But it can also easily lead us to open old wounds that can instigate riots, and we do not want this to happen.

Just look at what happened to our neighbour. Our neighbouring country (Malaysia) saw the Bersih demonstration being held as a protest against an issue. But incidentally, due to the presence of many Chinese, it nearly ignited a racial problem over there because of those images. Therefore, when a rather sensitive matter is being debated openly, those who are speaking, as well as those who are listening, may not be rational. If emotions have been rattled, people can do something unthinkable.

Secondly, we should also see that - as I have said earlier - religious matters belong in the domain of scholars. These scholars not only possess deep knowledge, but they also practise and impart religion wisely. This happens in all religions. When we teach our children, we know that there are certain levels that are suitable for their age, suitable for their level of maturity and it will not be forced upon them. The same goes for religion - we need to do things gradually, and in any religious issue, religious scholars know the best solutions.

I think that some people like to interfere in such matters, especially if they can politicise it. This will turn a particular issue into something more complicated than what it was initially.

Q: What are your thoughts on MP Zaqy Mohamad’s call to see the wearing of tudung as part of a new normal, and whether the Government can re-look its approach on religious issues within the context of this new normal?

Masagos Zulkifli: In any social change within society that happens to a particular community, we must be careful because it not only impacts that community, but also society’s perception of that community.

This happens not only for the tudung issue, but we can also look at how the Government views the gay issue, for instance, or sexual relations between people of the same gender. The Government also did not budge on this matter. If we begin to budge, we know that there are groups who still cannot recognise the consequences of having the freedom to do whatever they want, just like the other religions.

Therefore, we should not just be concerned with what we want. We should also know that every community wants its rights to be met. But, we also know that in Singapore - as mentioned by DPM Teo Chee Hean - we have remained as a harmonious society not because every community is given its rights, but because each community has sacrificed something that is very precious to them for the sake of that harmony, and this is something that we truly hold dear.

Hence, I hope that in all these matters, we must be wise, we must think long and hard, we must go with those who are learned in these matters. What is the religious issue, its impact on religion, its social impact, its impact on society and so on? Think it over carefully because when we solve an issue, and if the issue is a complicated one, we must tread lightly.

Q: So are there any developments in the discussion about the tudung, religion or race?

Masagos Zulkifli: All matters pertaining to any religion are often discussed in the Cabinet and we do look at ways to lead society to be more open, more accepting - but we are careful in doing this.

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