DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies organised by MUIS

SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam | 11 February 2017

DPM and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke at the Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies organised by MUIS on 11 February 2017. In his speech, he recognised the role of the fatwa institution in helping Muslims in Singapore understand their religious and civic identities, and in contributing to a harmonious multicultural society.


Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, Minister-in-charge of Cyber Security, and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs

Hj Mohammad Alami Musa, President, MUIS

Hj Abdul Razak Maricar, Chief Executive, MUIS

Dr Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, Mufti of Singapore

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a privilege for me to join you at this Inaugural Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies.

MUIS has organised this Conference to throw light on how the fatwa institution addresses contemporary issues. It is an institution with a major responsibility: that of guiding Muslims on issues of everyday life and in society.And underlying this, a question of deeper significance: the intersection of religious and civic identities in the life of the citizen in a modern, multicultural nation-state.

I thank MUIS for inviting me to speak at the conference and to participate in launching the Singapore Fatwa Compilation Series. I will not speak on the substance of the fatwas as I am not a Muslim, let alone an expert in the thinking and considerations behind the fatwas. I was obviously not invited on that basis.

I speak instead as a government leader, a member of a Cabinet that recognises and appreciates the role of the fatwa institution in helping Muslims in Singapore understand their religious and civic identities, and to balance the obligations inherent in these identities. In so doing, the Fatwa Committee has contributed greatly to the Muslim community. It has also, over its nearly 50 years, contributed to a harmonious multicultural society.

Ours is a brand of active and inclusive multiculturalism, that we must keep developing and deepening

DPM Tharman

Multiculturalism the most valuable part of our Singapore identity

The most valuable part of our Singapore identity is our brand of multiculturalism. It has made us a nation-state where citizens of all faiths and cultures accept each other as equals - and more than that, where we take pride in the fact that our many religions and cultures are part of our collective identity as Singaporeans.

It is quite different from the brand of passive multiculturalism that we see in many societies. It is not simply ‘live and let live’. Live and let live has not worked, as almost everyone now recognises around the world. Even the second and third generations of minority youth in some European nations feel they are not accepted by the majority. People are still living apart, and are growing apart. Even in Britain, where multiculturalism has worked out better than in much of Europe, almost half of all Muslims live in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods.

Ours is a brand of active and inclusive multiculturalism, that we must keep developing and deepening. It is a whole system of laws, an activist government, committed religious and community leaders, and values and norms that have been shaped over time:

  • Laws to preserve the freedom to practice one’s own religion, but which also enable you to be free of insult or denigration because of your race or religion;
  • Policies that promote the common space in our schools and workplace, and integration in our neighbourhoods, so that everyone grows up together and our everyday lives involve each other;
  • And most importantly, the norms and values that we shape together: to encourage every citizen to respect our different faiths and cultures and allow them each to thrive, but also to embrace each other as fellow Singaporeans. These norms and values are not as visible, but they are at the heart of what it takes to sustain our multicultural society. They are also continuous work. Our religious and community leaders, educators and parents, and all of us as citizens, play important roles in deepening these values of respect and fellowship as citizens in our next phase of making history.

Role of Fatwa

Since its inception in 1968, the Fatwa Committee has braved difficult and complex issues in many domains. In recent years, contemporary issues in the biomedical field such as therapeutic cloning and stem cell research have come to the fore. I am heartened by the Committee’s progressive outlook and its courage to offer solutions that are meaningful and practical.

The Fatwa Committee has also contributed towards strengthening our families. CPF and insurance nominations are now accepted as valid ways of transferring wealth within Muslim families, as is a joint-tenancy agreement in relation to property. These bold moves by the Committee have helped remove ambiguities and enhanced the financial security within the community.

The Fatwa Committee also recognises the need for sustained engagement within the Muslim community to discuss the objectives and rationale of these fatwas. Through this engagement, the Committee is able to explain why it may at times decide to depart from the positions of religious bodies elsewhere in the Islamic world. It is also how our Muslim religious leaders help engender trust and confidence in fatwas that are suited for Muslims living in Singapore. The Committee’s independent thinking, guided by their ethical and moral commitments and a keen eye on the public interest, augurs well for the future of Islam in Singapore, and also for our multiculturalism in Singapore.

I would like to commend MUIS for the publication that will be launched today. This compilation records the inclusive approach as well as consultative nature of fatwa thinking in Singapore. It is an important contribution to scholarship, as well as a source of public education for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Multiculturalism must become something we cherish in our hearts, not just something we accept in our minds.

DPM Tharman

Deepening Our Multiculturalism

Our journey of multiculturalism continues. Because we have taken an active and inclusive approach to multiculturalism as I mentioned earlier, we now start from a position of strength. The absence of ethnic conflict in Singapore,  one of the most religiously and culturally diverse countries in the world, is in fact an oddity. It is something precious in today’s world.

But we have to go further. We must deepen multiculturalism in our next phase of nation-building.

I do not for a moment mean that we should dilute or weaken our various cultures in the hope of developing a single, common culture. If we do that, we will very likely end up with a weak and confused cultural identity. And without strong cultural identity, it is very hard to have a strong national identity.

Neither should we merely focus on strengthening each of our separate cultures. Doing that will keep our individual identities alive, but will not foster a strong national identity. It will also make us more vulnerable to the winds of religious and ethnic conflict that are blowing across the world. Those winds are getting stronger, and we need to build up our ability to withstand them.

To deepen our resilience as a society, we must deepen the multiculturalism that makes us Singaporeans. We must keep each of our cultures alive, but also develop a keener interest in each other’s cultures, and build stronger friendships and interactions, starting from young, between Singaporeans of different races and religions. Multiculturalism must become something we cherish  in our hearts, not just something we accept in our minds.

We have to do this not just for defensive reasons - not just to guard our society fromthe winds of religious and sectarian conflict. It is also an opportunity for us to develop a deeper and stronger identity, a deeper pride in being Singaporeans together.

We have to try many ways to encourage this deeper multiculturalism, but we cannot force it. It has to evolve because people like it that way, and feel enriched by it. But there are already examples around us of how it is being encouraged, starting with our schools. They are often simple examples, but we have to grow them and make them a more regular part of growing up in Singapore.

  1. Temasek Secondary arranges for all its Secondary 2 students to attend a two-day camp which they call Camp Culture. Working with OnePeople.SG, the students get to deepen their understanding of Singapore’s cultural landscape through conversations with faith practitioners in their visits to different religious sites.
  2. Likewise, our madrasahs are trying to promote inter-community understanding. Madrasah Aljunied partners Nanyang Girls High, where students from both schools participate in combined activities during festive seasons and national events. Madrasah Arabiah introduced a service learning component in their school curriculum where the students are encouraged to design and organise community projects for residents from all backgrounds in the neighbourhood.

  3. Sports and other CCAs too are very useful ways to strengthen interactions and build friendships from young. At Dunman Secondary School, the boys’ and girls’ teams for both basketball and volleyball have non-Chinese players each year, several of of whom are key players in their team..One of the Volleyball teacher-cum-coaches, Mr Hari, is an Indian, and was himself an ex-Volleyball player from the school. There are other such examples in school sports -Jurong Secondary, Loyang Secondary, Shuqun Secondaryin basketball or volleyball for eg.

  4. And need I say: almost everyone agrees we shouldbring football back to where it was in the 70s and 80s, when it was more ethnically diverse. It can be done, starting from young and sustaining the interest in our youth.

We should encourage learning of Conversational Chinese and Conversational Malayin schools. For our younger generations, English is a common language in the classroom, and at many workplaces. But it helps if we can speak at least a little of each other’s languages.

The Conversational languages are not part of the formal curriculum, and not examined, so they cause no stress. Some schools have made learning of these Conversational languages lively and interesting, and combined it with other activities in the school.But across our schools, the proportion of students taking Conversational Malay or Chinese is not high. It should not be too difficult to make it attractive to students, and to weave it into activities outside the classroom so that it is not an added burden on the curriculum. MOE is looking at how they can help resource schools for this, to engage appropriate instructors.

  • Some schools have gone beyond the norm. For example, Chung Cheng High Main has collaborated with the Malay Heritage Centre for students in its Malay Special Programme (MSP) to be trained as student docents. (The MSP is offered as a Third language to Secondary School students, like the Chinese Special Programme). The student docents are not only building up their language proficiency, but also deepening their appreciation of Singapore’s multi-cultural richness.

We have to try every way to strengthen interactions from young, and deepen interest in each other’s cultures. Keep each of our cultures alive, but more than that, help everyone take deeper pride in our multiculturalism.

We must all take responsibility for this. Our religious and community leaders play a key role in shaping the values and norms that uphold the Singapore brand of multiculturalism. But ultimately it is up to each of us as individuals, to take an interest in each other in our everyday lives, care for each other regardless of race or religion, and build friendships.

  • Like Mdm Noriza Mansor, who helped clean an elderly Chinese man who had soiled himself while buying groceries with his wheelchair-bound wife at a supermarket, and subsequently kept visiting them at home. Many of you would know of Mdm Noriza because she won the inaugural Singaporean of the Year award last year.

  • Or Hamzah Osman and Roslinda Mohamed Taib, who treat their neighbours as part of an ‘extended family’, in Roslinda’s words. Hamzah put great effort into decorating the lift lobby with Chinese New Year decorations to help them enjoy the arrival of the Year of The Rooster together.


We are not a model that any other society can or would want to simply replicate. But other nations do take note of our progress and innovations, just as we learn from their experiences. There is interest in what we do in various areas of public policy and administration. There is also growing interest in the ways in which we have developed social harmony. The inspiring efforts of our Muslim community in this regard are I am sure being noticed and discussed.

On this note, I wish you productive discussions and reflections for the rest of the Conference.