Saturday, 12 January 2019

Singapore's flourishing religious minorities a lesson for the world

By Peter Welby, Published The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2019

In a decade of work in the field of religion and global affairs, I have never come across a religious minority so comfortable in its own skin, and so conscious of the vital role it plays in the wider national tapestry, as Muslims in Singapore.

A conference held last November marked the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), jointly organised with the Forum for Promoting Peace, led by Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, one of the world's leading Islamic scholars. Its theme was the engagement of Singapore's Muslims in the country's unique secular, plural system and whether there were lessons for the rest of the world.

As Shaykh Abdallah said: "Every citizen has exactly the same rights and responsibilities as every other citizen." This is a phenomenon to be praised - but also to be emulated.

MUIS is an unusual body, virtually unknown in other similarly minority contexts: It is indisputably a government organisation, set up by statute in order to advise the President on Islamic affairs and administer the key areas of Muslim religious life - charity, worship, religious education and pilgrimage. But at the same time it is a service body, set up for the benefit of the country's Muslims, not as a means for their control; and a community body, largely funded by Singapore's Muslims and managing community assets.

This set-up could be a consequence of history: Muslims in Singapore have not always been a "minority community". The brief period of Singapore's merger with Malaysia put those who follow Islam in the national majority. MUIS was set up three years after the end of the merger experiment, and the trauma of the experience makes the current set-up all the more impressive.

The recent conference was the culmination of years of activity - a culmination that reaffirmed the Muslim community's integral place in the state. The keynote speech was given by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in testimony to the good relationship between Singapore's Muslim community and the state.

What made this conference unique was the picture it painted of Singaporean society: a society at ease with itself. In much of the Western world, societies are increasingly ill at ease with the interaction between citizenship and identity, particularly around religion and culture. Islam in particular is seen by many, both inside and outside the faith, as something alien to Western society - to be kept at arm's length and possibly even dangerous. Debates around securitisation and extremism are often perceived as part of this alienation.

Not, seemingly, in Singapore.

The Republic is unique for a host of reasons. For one thing, there are few remaining fully independent city states in the world and Singapore is the only one of those to have emerged from colonialism. The end of the colonial period and the early post-colonial era were times of great hardship for the country. Out of that, its leaders determined that the answer to its external weakness must lie in internal strength: a nation made up of many ethnicities and religions, but in national vision, one.

Many claim to be defined by a principle of unity in diversity; in Singapore, it feels real.


Given, then, the difference of Singapore to much of the rest of the world, what is there for the rest of us to learn? One area is shared values. The UK, after 2010, briefly had a counter-terrorism strategy that defined extremism as the "rejection of fundamental British values". As a definition, this was pointless - for one thing, it had little cross-border efficacy, being focused on the UK.

For another, all it defined was what extremism is not. But it did speak to something of a need in a cohesive society to have something that all citizens can unite around. In the case of the British definition, these values were democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of others.

I wouldn't suggest that these aren't good things, but they do seem a slightly odd collection (not least because individual liberty should broadly cover tolerance of others). Perhaps a different approach would be to consider the sources of shared values as a nation.

The UK, for instance, is characterised in law and (changing) culture by a historically Christian world view. Even in an increasingly secular society, this brings a certain amount of common understanding. Much of Islam's approach to ethics, when stripped down to its fundamentals, is not that different.

From those sources, then, the concept of "fundamental British values" could be revisited. Why believe in democracy and individual liberty? Because of what the Christian tradition teaches about the inherent, God-given dignity of the human being - a view shared by Muslims. Why believe in the rule of law? Because in the Christian tradition, God demands justice - a view shared by Muslims.

This approach to identifying the source of national values rather than simply stating them will help with unity - and will help minority groups feel that they have a stake in the national identity.

Singapore's pluralism already follows this approach. The values that are apparent, such as a deliberate aspiration to national solidarity, are derived from values all its constituent parts can justify on their own terms.

Singapore's national solidarity is to the benefit of all of its communities; it allows religious freedom without allowing any one to dominate another. This isn't secularism driving religion out of the public sphere; rather it is the needs of the various constituent communities working together for mutual benefit.

Other countries should learn from this lesson.

Peter Welby is a London-based consultant on religion and global affairs, specialising in the Arab world. His clients include the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. He was managing editor of a think-tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.

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