Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Written Interview With Berita Harian

11 July 2009

1) Since the past four decades, MUIS has been playing the role of taking care of the religious affairs of the Singapore Muslim community. In your opinion, what were the commendable aspects of MUIS work, and what were the areas you think MUIS could have done better?

MUIS has worked hard to gain the trust and respect of the Muslim community. In its early days some Muslims doubted whether MUIS could really provide religious guidance to the community, but no longer.  MUIS has taken the lead in difficult issues like the mosque building programme, inclusion of Muslims under the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA) and guiding the community after the discovery of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group.  MUIS is also active in promoting social cohesion and bridge-building between faiths, for example through the Harmony Centre and the Rahmatan Lil Alamin initiative.  MUIS has established itself as an integral institution in the Singapore Muslim community.

2) MUIS was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1968. There are some who felt that this is against the policy of secularism which Singapore subscribed to. What is your take on this?

The state is secular, but our people belong to many religions.  The government recognises the positive role of religion in our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, and supports the development of all communities.  Before independence, there were already the Hindu, Sikh and Mohammedan Advisory Boards advising the colonial government on religious matters for each community.  When we became independent, we preserved the Advisory Boards as we saw value in their work and role in society.  Today, the Hindu and Sikh Advisory Boards and MUIS serve as consultative platforms on issues affecting our social harmony, and are effective channels for policy consultation. 

3) During the early days of MUIS, there was a perception among the Muslim community then that MUIS was formed to serve the interests of the government rather than advising the government on Islamic matters. This perception is now more or less eradicated. What do you think accounts for this shift in perception?

Such perceptions arose at a time when our state was very young and Singapore was undergoing rapid development.  Many Singaporeans including Muslims were affected by the resettlement from kampongs to HDB housing.  Places of worship like mosques, churches and temples had to make way for development.  It took time to build up mutual trust and confidence, and for the Muslim community to appreciate more fully what the government and MUIS were trying to do.  This contributed to wrong perceptions of MUIS among some segments of the community.

MUIS has worked hard to build up its credibility. It has undertaken many initiatives to benefit Muslims in Singapore. One example is the Singapore Islamic Education System, aL.I.V.E, which provides customized religious education to Muslims of different age groups, especially children and youth.  Almost 6,000 Muslim children and youths have attended at least one aL.I.V.E programme, and MUIS is now exploring an adult version. (See Annex A for background). MUIS also helps underprivileged and needy families to set their lives in order and become economically independent. 

4) How do you see the development of MUIS vis-à-vis the development of the Muslim community? Do you see it as moving in tandem towards their objective in building a community of excellence?

MUIS is an integral part of the community.  It works closely with other Malay/Muslim organisations to help the community progress towards excellence.  MUIS provides services such as haj management, halal certification, wakaf management, zakat collection, mosque building and religious education, to raise the community’s understanding and practice of Islam. 

Community support is instrumental to the success of MUIS.  There might be hiccups now and then, but on the whole the Muslim community has given MUIS full support, and looks to MUIS in many aspects of religious life.  We must continue this excellent partnership.  The community rightly expects much of MUIS, but it must work together with MUIS to fulfil these high aspirations.

5) In relations to question 4, do you see MUIS’ efforts in promoting the Singapore Muslim Identity vision as a move in the right direction?

Yes. It is important for Singapore Muslims to understand the context in which they practise their religious life.  Muslims in Singapore live in a secular state, together with other religious groups.  Like all other religious groups, Muslims are free to practice their beliefs and customs, but their activities should not cause problems for other groups, or affect social cohesion.  We want our society to be integrated, with citizens living together in the same housing estates, attending the same schools, and patronizing the same markets and eating places. This calls for restraint and tolerance by all groups.  These values to be inclusive and adaptive are encapsulated in the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI).  They are aligned with our national priorities.  (Please see Annex B for background).

6) We are seeing an increase in the number of Singapore Muslim graduates from Islamic universities. In what way can they contribute to the community and the nation as a whole?

Graduates from Islamic universities play an important role.  Most of them become religious teachers or asatizah, providing religious guidance to the Muslim community.  Our asatizah guide Muslims to understand Islam correctly, to live as good Muslims in a progressive modern society, and not be led astray by radical and extreme ideologies. They have worked together with MUIS to launch the INvoKE.SG website targeted at youths and young working adults, and the website to guide Internet users to recognise and eschew radical or extreme ideology and misinterpretations about Islam. 

Religious graduates also play a critical role in social services for the community.  Currently, 32 asatizah serve as resource persons with 16 Family Service Centres (FSCs) and Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) to provide marital counselling to Malay/Muslim couples. 

7) The Mosque Building Fund has been very well received and supported by the community. The Muslims are proud of the many modern mosques in Singapore, their facilities and their programmes. The government has been very supportive of the MBF. Why?

The government recognises that mosques are an important institution for the Muslim community.  The Mosque Building Fund (MBF) has been an effective way to mobilise and coordinate the resources and efforts of the community to build modern mosques. The Fund reflects the community’s self-help or gotong-royong spirit, and its determination to overcome challenges.  The programme has been very successful since its launch in 1975.  A total of 23 mosques have been built in our housing estates.  The latest addition is Al-Mawaddah Mosque in Sengkang New Town.  These beautiful mosques are a clear sign of the community’s support for MBF, and an achievement that our Muslim community can be proud of.

8) What are your hopes for Singaporean Muslims as they - like their fellow Singaporeans - face the challenges of the current economic downturn?

Just like other Singaporeans, Singapore Muslims should become life-long learners and go for training and retraining.  All of us need the right skills and attitude towards continuous learning to survive in difficult times.  The government will continue to invest in worker training and manpower development, to help workers pull through.

9) In what way do you think MUIS can further expand its roles to help the community achieve better progress?

Our society is changing, and so is the Muslim community.  The new generation of Singaporeans are more exposed to new ideas and influences, and more confident in expressing views and debating issues.  We are also seeing an influx of new immigrants, both Muslims and non-Muslims.  MUIS must help Muslims integrate into the wider Singaporean community and cope with the changes brought about by globalization. 

MUIS has been quietly managing the diversity within the Singapore Muslim community.  There are different sects and ethnic groups, including among new migrants who follow different schools of Islam.  Unity within the community is vital.  This is one aspect of MUIS’ work which the public may not be conscious about.

Singapore has attracted international attention and admiration because of the way our different communities live in harmony in a turbulent world.  MUIS can share its model of self-administering Islamic affairs with Muslim communities in other countries.

Annex A

aL.1.V.E. is an Islamic education programme developed by MUIS to ensure that local Muslim children (teens and youth) receive progressive, current and relevant Islamic values and teachings.

2. The programme emphasizes Islamic values such as diligence, hardwork and responsibility as well as encourages them to appreciate the richness and diversity of cultures and traditions in Singapore. The children are also guided to communicate with others and face challenges in their teen years.

3. The contents of the aL.1.V.E. programme include topics such as Beliefs & Practices and Quranic Literacy Skills, Life Skills & Character and Social & Civilization Islam and Choosing Your Partner' & 'Money for the family'.

4. aL.I.V.E is targeted at children and youth between the ages of 5 and 24 and was piloted in 2004. It is currently being run in 22 mosques and 2 centres. MUIS hopes to implement this programme at all mosques by next year.

Annex B

The Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI), with the 10 desired attributes of the Singaporean Muslim, helps articulate the local Muslim’s aspirations and practice of his religious life, which promotes a progressive, adaptive and inclusive practice of Islamic religious life in line with Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society. 

The attributes are:
• Holds strongly to Islamic principles while adapting himself to changing context;
• Is morally and spiritually strong to be on top of challenges of modern society
• Is progressive, practices Islam beyond form/rituals and rides the modernization wave
• Appreciates Islamic civilization and history and has a good understanding of contemporary issues
• Appreciates other civilizations and is confident in interacting  and learning from other communities
• Believes that good Muslims are also good citizens
• Is well-adjusted as a contributing member of a multi-religious society and secular state
• Is a blessing to all and promotes universal principles and values
• Is inclusive and practices pluralism, without contradicting Islam
• Is a model and inspiration to all