Transcript of speech delivered by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the opening ceremony of the MUIS 50 International Conference 2018 on 7 November 2018.
Hj Mohammad Alami Musa, President, MUIS; Dr Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, Mufti of Singapore; H.E. Shaykh Hamza Yusof; distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am very honoured to join you this morning at the International Conference 2018.
MUIS Golden Jubilee
MUIS is jointly organising this Conference with the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations this year. I congratulate MUIS on this golden jubilee.
MUIS was set up in 1968 to look after the interests of Singapore Muslims. In the early days, MUIS had to convince the community of its value and capability. But over the years, MUIS has won trust and confidence by diligently ministering to the community’s religious needs. It has provided vital services such as haj management, halal certification, wakaf management, and zakat collection. It oversaw religious education to strengthen the younger generation’s understanding and practice of Islam. It helped our Muslim community to build new mosques and upgrade existing ones to become modern, vibrant centres of activity that the community cares about and is proud of.
The mosque building programme has been one of MUIS’ standout successes. I have personally visited many of them – most recently Masjid Yusof Ishak in Woodlands and Masjid Ma’arof in Jurong. They have beautiful architecture and facilities, but even more impressive are the mosque management teams and committees and volunteers, who contribute their time and effort, and energy, to leading the community.
Apart from serving religious needs, MUIS plays an important role guiding the practice of Islam in Singapore’s unique context. We are a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Different communities live side by side, each practising their own faith and customs peacefully. The places of worship of different religions coexist, sometimes in close proximity to one another. There is give and take between different races and religions. For example, recently, a Chinese temple held an event on a common site that they shared with the neighbouring mosque. Because the event was held during Hari Raya Haji (Id Al-Adha), the temple leaders decided to build their shelter earlier, so that they could share it with their Muslim neighbours, to use for their prayers too.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayyeb visited Singapore earlier this year, and praised Singapore as a "role model" where Muslims can practise their faith in a modern plural society. Living together sometimes means having to manage difficult issues, and doing so sensitively. For example, we watched the video just now, it was about the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA), an Act which the Government passed several years ago, which introduced opt-out rules for organ donations. At the time, many Muslims had reservations about the opt-out rules. So initially the Government excluded Muslims from HOTA. But over time, Muslims saw how the Act operated, and understood that it saved lives. After careful deliberation, the then Mufti and the Fatwa Committee concluded that including Muslims under HOTA should be justified and authorised. MUIS played a key role to clarify public misconceptions and concerns. It held multiple dialogues, and helped to persuade the community. Only then did we amend the Act, to bring Muslims under the opt-out regime for organ donation.
More recently, MUIS has had to deal with another difficult issue – the growing tendency towards religious extremism and terrorism. It was important for MUIS to take a strong stand against terrorism, which it did. It is also necessary to reassure the wider community that government security actions were not targeted at Muslims, but at terrorist. At the same time, MUIS acted to inoculate Muslims in Singapore from the extremist ideologies.
We introduced the Asatizah Recognition Scheme and started a register for asatizah, to help the community engage bona fide asatizah, and to support them in their professional development. Today, we have a cadre of moderate asatizah who work hard to combat extremist ideologies and exclusivist teachings. MUIS brought in many eminent thinkers to speak authoritatively about Islam. It kept in touch with Muslims pursuing religious studies abroad to sensitise them to the dangers of extremist influences, and it supported the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), a group of eminent asatizah who counsel radicalised individuals, and brought them back on to the right path.
Because MUIS has been willing to confront and act on difficult issues, it has become a respected institution in Singapore. It works closely with Mendaki, the self-help group, and MESRA, the People’s Association group which organises Malay/ Muslim cultural activities, as part of the larger M3 framework, so that our Muslims are also connected to the wider society of grassroots and community leaders. MUIS also actively supports the Government’s efforts to foster friendships, understanding and trust across religious lines. For example, it participates in Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles in every constituency, and holds interfaith dialogues to address misconceptions about the concept of jihad. As a result of MUIS’ efforts, Muslims in Singapore are thriving, making good progress in all fields, and contributing as good citizens too.
Importance of building interfaith understanding
Religion plays a vital role in every society. It is a source of spiritual strength and moral guidance. Religious groups also make significant contributions in education, community and social work. But religion is a deeply personal matter. Frictions and misunderstandings can arise, if religious sensitivities are ignored or offended. Especially at a time of heightened religiosity in many societies, where people are more conscious of their religious identities and convictions.
Therefore, fostering good interfaith relations is critical for multi-religious societies like Singapore. All religions teach certain universal human values. But every religion also has its unique core beliefs and practices that distinguish it from other faiths. And most religions have a tradition of proselytization, preaching to and converting others to the true faith, in order to save souls and grow their flock. The monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – worship one God, and repudiate any other. The Jewish and Christian Bibles say “I am a jealous God” and that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. And similarly in Islam, according to the Qur’an “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Faiths like Hinduism are more open to syncretic practices, but even then some of their followers take hard views against other faiths. But belief in one religion does not and should not preclude tolerance and respect for other faiths. Especially in a multi-religious society, everyone, whichever God or gods they pray to, must live side by side in harmony with one another.
Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly committed to the goal of religious peace in India. Gandhi once declared that he was, in the same moment, “a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi and a Jew”. To which Muhammad Jinnah, the Muslim League leader who went on to found Pakistan, retorted, “only a Hindu could say that”. This exchange between Gandhi and Jinnah highlights that in the real world, the starting point for interfaith accommodation and understanding must be to recognise and accept that every faith is different. Even as we emphasise their common teachings and the shared humanity of every one of us.
In Singapore, we have established social norms of compromise and accommodation. We were not always like this, but through a long period of sustained effort and socialisation, we have got here. We have also established a legislative framework – the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. This Act sets out the ground rules on the give and take essential in a multi-religious society, in order that all faiths can coexist peacefully and harmoniously together. It allows Government to take prompt action against anyone whose actions or words cause feelings of enmity and hatred between religious groups. It creates a Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, comprising representatives of major religions and distinguished citizens, to advise and report on matters affecting religious peace in Singapore.
This legislative framework has existed now for three decades. Fortunately, the Government has never had to invoke the powers it has under the Act. Nevertheless, by its very existence, the Act has made an important contribution to our religious harmony. We will have to keep the Act up to date, to deal with new threats to our religious harmony that will emerge from time to time.
Maintaining religious harmony requires unremitting conscious effort and attention. It also requires religious leaders who understand the broader social context, support the Government’s efforts to build common ground, and guide their followers on the right path. By creating opportunities for interfaith interaction and strengthening interfaith ties, we protect ourselves against forces which might otherwise one day, tear our society asunder.
This conference brings together religious leaders with public officers, community leaders, and students, to exchange ideas on how to do this in a practical way. To build on these efforts, Singapore will hold an international conference next year, to bring together prominent thinkers, policy-makers and practitioners too, in order to exchange views on the theme of social cohesion, with a central focus on building inter-faith relations. In Singapore, most religious leaders are instinctively conscious of the need to build bridges and reach out to others, and do good outside of their own communities. I hope the next generation will emulate their elders, further broaden our common space, and make their own contributions to our social cohesion.
Once again, let me wish all of you a fruitful conference, and congratulations to MUIS on your 50th anniversary.
Thank you very much.
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