Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
Tel: 6837-9666

 

SPEECH BY DR YAACOB IBRAHIM, MINISTER FOR COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT AND SPORTS AND MINISTER IN-CHARGE OF MUSLIM AFFAIRS AT THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE MUSLIM SOCIETY 40TH ANNIVERSARY TEA ON 29 MAY 2004, 4PM AT HILTON HOTEL

 

�NURTURING AND SUSTAINING A THINKING MUSLIM ELITE�

  

I am happy to be here this afternoon to celebrate the 40th anniversary of an organization that was close to my heart as an undergraduate.

Forty years ago, the University of Singapore Muslim Society (USMS) was formed when the University of Malaya in Singapore became the University of Singapore. In fact, I should think the intellectual discourses and activism among Malay/Muslim undergraduates probably goes back much further, at least to the post-WWII period.

Whether the Muslim Society existed before 1964 is an interesting thought. But that is not an issue I want to cover today. Forty years is already a very long time. And from what I know and believe the university�s Muslim Society was and can continue to be a key platform that nurtures the idealism and aspirations of our young Malay/Muslim undergraduates.

But in those forty years, every generation appears to have taken different approaches that came with the different circumstances of their times. I am told that in the late 60s and early 70s, the society was keenly interested in the emerging social problems facing the Malay/Muslim community. Mayor Zainul Abidin Rasheed, then a leader of USMS, together with other USMS leaders attempted to form a co-operative in Geylang Serai that would help lower income Malays. The mid-70s, on the other hand saw the oil crisis and interest in Islamic revivalism. The 80s saw the society occupying itself with Islamic rituals and practices. In fact, one day in the early 1990s, when I had come back to the university as a lecturer, I saw in the canteen a Muslim Society poster that advertised a talk on how to pray. I wondered if our undergraduates needed to be taught how to pray and if this indeed was the society�s role.

But I digress. Let me get back to the Muslim Society as I had known it. I entered the University of Singapore in 1976. It was immediately apparent that the Malay/Muslim population in campus was very small. But despite this, there was strong consciousness among the students then of the challenges facing the Malay/Muslim community. We knew that the leaders preceding my generation had been involved in discussions with Dr Goh Keng Swee on Malays in National Service. When I was in the society, there was a sense that Muslim communities in several parts of the world were facing severe developmental problems. We wanted to know why. The writings of modernist thinkers such as Iqbal, Jamaludin Al Afghani, Fazlur Rahman and many others became the diet for the members of USMS. Even the works of Maududi were read widely. We formed discussion groups called usrah groups to debate these works and to find solutions to the problems facing the community. We were deeply engrossed in discussions relating to the reasons for the decline of the Muslims in various parts of the world and we wanted to find solutions for our own community back home. When the formation of Mendaki was debated, a group of USMS alumni contributed a paper on the educational upliftment of the Malay/Muslim community. Hence despite being university students we remained connected to the wider community and very often were involved in discussions with community leaders. Forgive me for reminiscing like this, but my involvement with USMS was one of the defining moments of my life.

Our engagement was a part of the wider movement of student involvement. At that time, and I agree with Mayor Zainul, Singapore was still very much in the nascent stage. The undergraduates and the tertiary educated felt obliged to be participants in the blueprint for Singapore�s future. My interest in the affairs of our community and that of my cohort were certainly boosted by the climate then. But more importantly, it helped anchor my commitment more concretely. Thus, while we were interested in the affairs of the Malay/Muslim community, we were connected to the larger Singaporean enterprise aimed at development and progress. Activism and action needs to be geared for a purpose; it was not a bellyaching exercise for its own sake.

My concern and engagement with the community started in campus where I became aware of the role that I can play to help our community move forward. Equally important, that experience also helped to shape my orientation towards life and my attitude towards learning and knowledge. I remember the day when we invited Prof Syed Hussein Alatas to a talk and he was critical of our activities. He then challenged us to write a paper on the real problems facing the Malay/Muslims. We did not baulk. Instead we chose to engage him. That engagement has remained till this day. But more importantly it brought about a consciousness among my batch of the need to look towards contemporary knowledge and take a scientific approach in our attempt to help our community. Our batch became aware that after graduation we had to remain engaged in the community by being involved in the many projects organised to help the community. Many of us later became actively involved in Mendaki.

When we were in campus the one dream we had was to create a thinking elite within our community. We recognized that the many challenges facing the community required deep analysis and reflection. Reflection that will identify root causes and lead up to solutions. At that time, there were already calls by some in the region that the solution to the problems facing Muslims lies in our Islamic texts and these only. Despite these calls, we came to be convinced that without contemporary knowledge and scientific thinking we cannot move forward. Hence we saw the need for the growing and constant replenishing of a thinking elite that remain rooted in Islamic principles but at same time comfortable with the modern world. It was such an elite that would shine the light and help the community navigate the demands of the modern world.

Today we face another challenge � that of destructionism and terrorism perpetrated by groups using the banner of Islam. We can continuously condemn such actions and emphasize the peaceful nature of our religion. But is this enough? Many commentators and thinkers have defined the challenge as one of the moderates versus the extremists within the Muslim world. This is just one piece of the solution needed for the Muslim world. But it is an important piece primarily because it will set the tone for the kind of society or community Muslims want to be. Speaking up and disagreeing rationally to statements that defy logic or defile humanity have deep ramifications for the Muslim world. It serves to check extremist or regressive or plain ridiculous tendencies. It sends a powerful signal that such ideas have no place in our society. Hence when a certain political group suggested that by voting for it, voters would be guaranteed a place in heaven, a chorus of rational voices should emerge to extinguish this view. Not only does that statement have no basis in Islam, it was an idea that misused religion for a political motive. What is our basis for choosing leaders? The basis cannot just be the religion professed by those who govern but most importantly the values of those who govern. Are the leaders capable? Are they clean? Do they support social justice? Do they promote the good society? These are the questions that should be asked when we decide who we want as leaders.

With globalization, ideas and actions are no longer the sole dominion of a privileged few. There is a democratization of ideas; no longer can one put forward paths of action in isolation and without the support of a like-minded majority that favours the same outcomes. However, there would always be a need for someone, or some people to plumb the depths and take the lead on issues. You are in a position to do so, benefiting from the various strands of thoughts and value positions that are abound in university.

Thus be conversant with Islam, acquaint yourselves with contemporary knowledge and further it for the benefit of mankind. Develop, strengthen, and put to use your ability to rationally argue against ideas and suggestions that would stall or worse push the community backwards. For example, when a group recently advertised the sale of a certain currency as the basis for some transactions within the Muslim community and stated the use of this currency as a religious obligation, our alarm bell should have been triggered. We should have questioned this position and argued why this is erroneous. If we don�t, unsuspecting members of the community will be confused. More importantly if such ideas are allowed to settle or multiply, it would imply that the Muslim community is unable to adapt to the ways of the modern economy. Such efforts at trying to create a system primarily for the Muslim community reflect a certain desire to reject the modern world and an insistence that we are different because our religion apparently demands it. Taken to its logical end, it means the Muslim community should be cut off from the rest of the world. Is this what we want?

The challenge posed by such ideas that are floated by those who aim to benefit themselves is not new. But given the current climate there is greater urgency to develop capabilities within the community to speak up against statements that have no place in our community. Thinkers such as Prof Syed Hussein Alatas have argued strenuously against attempts to "Islamise" knowledge as being illogical and irrational. To this day, we find people suggesting that the social ills facing the community is the lack of Islam. When pressed for clarification, they suggest more religious classes. Hence they would argue that because parents are not aware of their Islamic responsibility in raising children, we now face many social ills. While being responsible for one�s children is an Islamic value, a deeper analysis would be required in order to understand why such a value is not dominant among certain sections of in our community. Repeated calls for more Islam do not solve the problem. Would we take the advice of someone who peddles the same pain-killer for every health problem? Sociologists and social workers will tell you that the solution lies in getting such families to better cope with the demands of the modern world. Using sociological tools and social work techniques, we can better understand the problems faced by struggling Muslim families. Only then can we offer practical solutions to their predicament. Clearly it is not important from whom the knowledge comes from but whether it is progressive and relevant.

As the world progresses rapidly, new challenges will emerge. Our response to these will define the kind of community we will become. Issues such as bioethics and Muslim poverty worldwide are currently being debated. While we belief Islam has the answer to all these, we should not be reluctant to resort to use modern knowledge to understand these challenges. Hence when a Bangladeshi entrepreneur used the idea of micro-financing to help poor families in his country, it was the Islamic thing to do. But micro-financing is a modern economic tool. While we can all agree that human cloning is wrong, issues such as the farming of organs for human transplant requires a careful understanding of science and its role in alleviating human misery. Certainly to save a human life is the Islamic thing to do. But organ transplant is a modern tool and organs can now come not from a human body but from the laboratories. What is our response to this new development?

The university�s Muslim Society has an important role in shaping an environment of critical thought and purposeful action. Campus days offer the best time for our bright ones to explore and reflect upon the issues facing the community. It is the time to build up your powers of inquiry and equip yourselves with progressive ideas that can help our community and humanity in general. It is my hope that NUSMS continues on this path of helping our top minds become better thinkers and idea merchants. Like the challenge posed to my batch to come out with a paper identifying the problems facing the community then, I would like to pose a similar challenge to our current undergraduates. What are the key problems facing our community? What are the solutions? This is not a test. It is a call towards excellence in thinking and reflection among our undergraduates.

Thank you.