Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at 2nd Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies on 2 February 2024.
Minister Masagos Zulkifli and fellow Cabinet colleagues,
Mr Mohamed Sa’at Abdul Rahman,
President of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore or MUIS,
Ustaz Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, Mufti of Singapore,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good evening, it is my pleasure to join you at this second Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies.
Let me first extend a warm welcome to the eminent religious scholars, policy makers, and interfaith leaders who are joining us from around the world.
As we navigate a rapidly changing and more divisive world, we must double down on our efforts to share experiences and exchange views across borders and regions.
This will help us to deepen our understanding and expand our perspectives on issues faced by society, especially those shared across communities globally.
So I encourage everyone to make the most of these next two days to learn from, and build stronger relationships with, one another.
The Singapore Way
Across different societies, the fatwa plays a pivotal role in guiding Muslims to fulfil their religious obligations as well as their civic responsibilities as citizens of their countries.
Understanding how our identities as members of a religion, and citizens of a country, can and must co-exist, will enable us to balance the responsibilities that come with both.
Historically and even today, religion has been a fault line in numerous societies.
This erodes trust and confidence between communities, sometimes even leading to strife and violence.
This, in turn, can undermine the development and prosperity of the country.
As a small, multi-racial and multi-religious country, Singapore pays close and careful attention to sustaining this harmonious duality between our citizens’ civic and religious identities.
This applies not only to Muslims but also other religious communities.
We take a proactive approach to preserving social harmony and cohesion, which we treasure immensely.
Indeed, Singapore’s brand of active and inclusive multiculturalism is core to our national identity.
Many of you may know that Singapore is one of the world’s most religiously diverse countries.
15% of Singaporeans are Muslim. Our population also comprises Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Jains, Zoroastrians and those of the Baha’i faith.
In fact, we are so diverse that no single religious community constitutes a majority of the population.
Over the years, we have built a nation where citizens of different races and religions treat and interact with one another as equals.
In fact, the exact phrase “regardless of race, language or religion” is enshrined in our National Pledge which students recite daily in our schools.
We take pride in how our many religions and cultures form a rich tapestry that is our collective Singaporean identity.
People of different communities live and work alongside one another, with mutual respect and appreciation for their respective beliefs and practices.
This is the foundation of our stability and harmony which, in turn, has enabled us to pursue economic development that uplifts all communities.
We do not take our multiculturalism for granted. That is why we have institutions and legal frameworks that recognise and uphold the interests of individual communities, while at the same time, safeguard social cohesion and harmony.
For example, the Administration of Muslim Law Act, or AMLA, allows Singaporean Muslims to apply Islamic law in their marriage, divorce and estates.
AMLA enables Muslims in Singapore to practice their faith with confidence within Singapore’s diverse, multi-religious fabric.
Concurrently, to safeguard against extremism, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows authorities to take action against those who incite hostility between different religious groups.
One major development in the recent past is the proliferation of online platforms like social media.
These platforms have helped to connect people across the world. At the same time, they have also been exploited by some to propagate falsehoods and spread ill-will across different communities.
To address this, we enacted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act in 2019 to strengthen our defences against misleading and divisive online content.
Besides laws, we have also established institutions to protect the rights of minority groups, such as the President Council for Minority Rights, or PCMR.
The PCMR advises our President on safeguarding the interests of minority communities by ensuring that any proposed legislation does not disadvantage any racial or religious community.
In fact, Mufti Dr Nazirudin Nasir was appointed to the PCMR yesterday and will lend his expertise to continue upholding racial and religious harmony in Singapore. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate and thank Dr Nazirudin Nasir for his service.
While laws and institutions are important, maintaining religious harmony rests upon the norms, values and beliefs of every member of our society.
I earlier mentioned that we subscribe to a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural society. This is underpinned by mutual respect and fellowship across different communities.
How do we achieve this?
Some of these are designed by policy.
For example, through the Ethnic Integration Policy in our public housing estates, Singaporeans of different ethnicities and religions live side-by-side and mingle with one another especially in common spaces.
There are many heartwarming stories of neighbours of different races and religions decorating their common corridors and partaking in one another’s festive celebrations.
When these become our way of life, we naturally deepen cross-cultural respect and understanding.
Equally important is the role that our religious leaders play in shaping the norms and behaviours of their communities.
As respected and influential figures within their communities, religious leaders must impart lessons on how to interpret and act on principles of faith, and how these sit alongside their responsibilities as citizens.
Here in Singapore, our religious leaders walk the talk and serve as role models for how different communities can build trust and respect one another as fellow Singaporeans.
Take, for example, the Inter-Religious Organisation or IRO.
For 75 years, successive generations of IRO leaders from 10 religions have led their communities in learning from one another and treating each other with respect.
IRO leaders regularly gather together in prayer at key celebrations in Singapore as well as in moments of collective grief.
In doing so, our religious leaders serve as a powerful symbol of harmony and unity, reinforcing Singapore’s precious cohesion.
The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan starts in about five weeks’ time. Here in Singapore, leaders of different faiths often join our Muslim community to break their fast.
Gestures like these, and the neighbourhood celebrations I spoke about earlier, build a reservoir of trust and understanding that holds us steady when we face events or occurrences that could create tensions.
We saw this most recently after the Israel-Hamas war broke out last October and tensions spiked in the Middle East.
In the early days after the war started, Mufti Dr Nazirudin publicly exchanged letters with Singapore’s Chief Rabbi.
In their letters, the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of solidarity and co-existence between religions, even in the face of differences.
In leading by example and encouraging members of their faith to do likewise,
our religious leaders therefore amplified our shared values as a society, and the common commitment across communities to fostering a harmonious and inclusive Singapore.
A Community of Success, Today and Tomorrow
In Singapore, the Muslim community thrives as a Community of Success, participating actively in the country’s social and economic development.
Guided by the 3 ‘C’s – Character, Competency and Citizenry – the community practices their faith confidently, while contributing to wider nation-building.
Through their teachings and progressive fatwa thinking, our Muslim religious leaders and teachers, or asatizah, have developed confident individuals with good social and religious values in sync with Singapore’s multi-religious, multicultural ethos.
Our local asatizah are well-regarded and recognise the importance of working with the Government and civil society to strengthen social cohesion and promote active citizenry.
These efforts have fostered Singaporean Muslims who are confident, constructive and respected members of society.
Importantly, our Muslim religious leaders have also played a critical role in guiding the community through challenging times, and in responding to complex issues in the context of Singapore’s multiculturalism.
During the COVID pandemic, for example, the Fatwa Committee headed by Mufti Dr Nazirudin sought practical solutions that addressed community needs while also safeguarding public health and preventing the spread of the virus.
This included important and timely guidance on the closure of mosques, holding multiple Friday prayer sessions, and deferment of Haj during the pandemic.
Muslim religious leaders and asatizah also acted swiftly to guide the community in responding meaningfully to the ongoing situation in the Middle East.
They came forward to engage and encourage Muslims in Singapore to pray for peace, and to guard against the divisive rhetoric emerging in other parts of the world.
As I mentioned earlier, Mufti Dr Nazirudin himself notably led the way in encouraging Singaporean Muslims to act with respect and dignity towards those of other faiths.
Guided by such decisive religious leadership, Singaporean Muslims – and Singaporeans more generally – have responded to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with solidarity, compassion and empathy.
Singaporeans from different faiths have contributed to fundraising campaigns by the Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation, a charity dedicated to promoting community development and social harmony.
To date, more that S$6 million has been raised, the highest amount ever for a donation drive organised by the Foundation.
The efforts by our Muslim religious leaders to foster an inclusive, empathetic community and to strengthen Singapore’s social and religious cohesion have drawn international attention.
In 2022, our Fatwa Committee was conferred the Imam Al-Qarafi Award by the General Secretariat for Fatwa Authorities Worldwide based in Egypt.
Significantly, Singapore was the first recipient of this award from a minority-Muslim country.
The award recognised that Singapore’s Muslim community is a model for others to emulate – in how different religious communities could co-exist peacefully and harmoniously while preserving their own identities.
Importantly, as we explore the importance of institutions like the fatwa in contemporary societies, Muslim religious leaders in Singapore are also guiding the community towards new solutions that deal with evolving social and community needs.
For example, progressive fatwa thinking over several decades has led to proposed amendments to the Administration of Muslim Law Act for a new community fund called the Wakaf Masyarakat Singapura.
This will enable estates to be bequeathed and pooled into an Islamic endowment fund to better support the Muslim community’s future socio-religious needs, such as developing asatizah and upkeeping mosques.
The development of this new fund is a welcome step that will enable the Muslim community to thrive further in the years ahead.
Let me conclude. Since independence, Singapore’s approach to religious matters recognises that faith has the potential to be a positive force for society.
To realise this potential, it is critical that we preserve trust among the different ethnicities and religions and build a cohesive society where every community has a place and feels it belongs.
Our religious leaders and teachers, across all faiths, play a fundamental role in imparting not only religious values but also civic ones – like equality, mutual respect and fellowship among Singaporeans.
Many of our foreign friends here today also hail from diverse, plural societies.
As I mentioned at the start, there is much that we can learn from one another as we look to how religious leaders and teachers can help to shape more confident communities and cohesive societies.
In this regard, I am delighted that MUIS is also launching Volume 2 of the “Fatwas of Singapore” today.
This publication documents the inclusive approach and consultative nature of fatwa thinking in Singapore, including with regard to fatwas on wakaf.
It will be an important contribution to scholarship, as well as a source of public education for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Let me once again congratulate MUIS for convening this second edition of the Conference on Fatwas in Contemporary Societies.
I wish all of you fruitful and interesting discussions, and to our guests from around the world, an enjoyable and meaningful time in Singapore.
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