Singapore Government Press Release
Media Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
OPENING REMARKS BY PRIME MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG AT THE DIALOGUE WITH YOUNG MALAY/MUSLIM PROFESSIONALS ORGANISED BY MENDAKI CLUB, ON SATURDAY, 2 FEBRUARY 2002, AT 4.00 PM, AT CSC-IPAM AUDITORIUM
First, let me thank Mendaki Club for organising this dialogue. I find such interactions with the younger generation useful. They give me a better understanding of your aspirations and concerns.
Today's dialogue was not organised as a response to the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) arrests. We were supposed to meet last year, but I had to postpone it because of the General Elections.
However, since we are now meeting after the JI arrests, and as harmonious inter-racial, inter-religious relations are critical for Singapore, I will make it my theme today. I would like to follow up on my discussion with community leaders at Kallang Theatre on Monday. I want to discuss how you, as young members of your community, can advance your community’s interests in the context of a multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore.
Spotlight on the Malay/Muslim community
Some Singaporeans feel that the Government and media should not have focussed the spotlight on the Malay/Muslim community in the wake of the JI arrests. They fear that it puts the entire Malay/Muslim community in the dock, when the JI operatives were only a small, isolated group of extremists whose misdeeds, in fact, were condemned by the community.
Yes, we could have swept the racial and religious implications of the JI arrests under the carpet. We could have refrained from any such discussion. We could have pretended that all was well. But that would be the wrong approach.
Like it or not, some non-Muslims now view Malay/Muslim Singaporeans more suspiciously. There are also Malay/Muslim Singaporeans who over-react, and read ill intentions into some of the actions of non-Muslims. Such unspoken distrust can harm our multi-racial, multi-religious society.
That is why I have decided to openly and publicly address these pockets of disquiet.
One Chinese civil servant told Yaacob Ibrahim how her elderly mother was relieved that they had moved out of Geylang Serai. They had been living there comfortably for many years, but the JI arrests brought back bad memories of the 1964 racial riots. Such thoughts show the extent to which distrust can grow, if we do not do more to build confidence and increase understanding between the communities.
It is, therefore, better to get any irrational fears off our chest. The open and frank dialogue which I held on Monday has helped to reassure everyone of our commitment, Muslims and non-Muslims, to build a harmonious multi-racial, multi-religious society. After that dialogue, the People’s Association received feedback that many Malay/Muslim participants were happy about the reassurances of the non-Muslim community to protect the minority against any chauvinism of the majority. The non-Muslim participants, on the other hand, were relieved that many Malay/Muslims spoke up against the radical views espoused by some of their members.
Strengthening race and religious relations
To strengthen race and religious relations, every community in Singapore must look within itself, and prevent developments that pull the community away from the larger Singapore society. We must also reach outside our own communities, and build bonds of confidence, friendship and trust with others.
Let me elaborate.
Speak up against extremist voices
First, every community must speak up against extremist voices that sow racial and religious discord among Singaporeans. Such extremist elements seek to determine the agenda for their community, often against the interests of the community and the larger society. If you do not disown such views, in time, they will gain legitimacy. Others will also come to associate these extreme views with the community, and distrust will set in.
But we should not only speak up against extremist views. We should all participate in important debates about how our religion should co-exist with others in our country. Malaysia's New Straits Times published an article earlier this week, urging the "silent majority" of Muslims - the moderates - not to leave the conservatives to shape Islam in Malaysia. According to the article, many moderates do not want to engage in public debate against the conservatives, for fear of being branded "unIslamic".
I suspect that this is partly true in Singapore as well. Many Malay/Muslims who hold pragmatic views about the practice of Islam in our multi-racial, multi-religious society, hesitate to air their views. But you should. Otherwise, you will find that Singaporeans will not get a balanced view of Muslims here.
Our Muslim MPs speak up and ensure that their colleagues get a balanced view of Islam. In fact, Abdullah Tarmugi has suggested, and I have agreed, that Ministers be given lectures on Islam by Muslim scholars. This will help Ministers to understand better the thinking and practices of Singapore Muslims.
Weed out deviant religious teachings
My second point is that the religious communities in Singapore should take upon themselves the responsibility of weeding out deviant teachings. Many militant groups recruit people for their cause on the pretext of religious instruction.
In the JI episode, for example, the group's leader was an ustaz, or religious leader. He recruited members for JI through his religious classes.
In the light of this, the Mufti of Singapore has cautioned the Muslim community to be careful in their choice of religious teachers. They should only approach people who are known to be knowledgeable and responsible in their teachings.
I am also told that all foreign religious teachers are required to get approval from the Office of the Mufti, before Immigration Department or the Ministry of Manpower will approve their applications to stay, work or give talks in Singapore. MUIS also keeps a register of religious teachers who teach in our madrasahs and mosques.
I would strongly encourage our Muslims to heed the Mufti's sound advice. Before engaging a local or foreign religious teacher, check first with MUIS for its assessment of that teacher. This way, you will not unwittingly subject yourself or your children to deviant teachings.
To be effective, MUIS might also need to expand its registration mechanism. For example, religious teachers who teach in homes, and not just those who teach in the madrasahs and mosques, should preferably be registered with MUIS.
Had such a registration mechanism been in place, Halimah Yaacob would probably not have made the mistake of employing Ibrahim Maidin, leader of the JI operatives, to teach her two boys the Quran.
Another Malay MP told me that his friend pulled his daughter out of her Islamic class recently. The ustaz had been teaching his students not to mix with non-Muslims. The daughter told her parents about this. She was confused, and said that she had to lose her many Christian and Buddhist friends in school. Her parents, wisely, pulled her out of the ustaz’s class. But this does not solve the problem. The ustaz should, in fact, be the one to be pulled out of the class.
I think it is timely that all religious communities in Singapore, and not just the Muslim community, step up self-policing to weed out deviant and extremist elements. You must prevent them from doing harm to the interests of Singapore and your community.
Remove practices that reduce common space
My next point is, lower or remove any barriers between the communities. Some of these barriers may be the result of innocent and well-meaning intentions. Take, for example, kindergartens run by mosques. I am told that because of the curriculum at these kindergartens and the dress requirements, you cannot find any non-Muslim students there. On the other hand, many non-Christians attend church-run kindergartens.
Another example is halal food. Non-Muslim Singaporeans do not mind eating halal food to accommodate their Muslim friends. But if more and more Muslims demand to see the halal certificates of the caterers or restaurants before they agree to join non-Muslims for a ‘makan’, you send the signal of a community that wants to be exclusive. When that happens, the other communities will keep their distance.
The question of exclusiveness is most critical in schools. Schools provide the common space for us to mingle and socialise as Singaporeans, and not as Chinese, Eurasians, Indians, Malays, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Muslims.
As the Ministry of Education has explained, every country has to find its own way forward to build a nation. Our national school system enables young Singaporeans to mix, and study and play together, without being conscious of their race, religion or social status. The schools are our common, Singapore space. Let us not shrink it by each community carving out a separate space for itself there.
If we insist that our children dress differently on account of our religion, we must allow other communities to do likewise for their children, based on religious as well as cultural practices. Then, our schools will become polarised along racial and religious lines, as children will tend to mix with those who look and dress similarly. The common space in schools will be reduced, and we will go back in time when many schools were run along ethnic and religious lines. Our efforts to build a nation will be severely set back.
This is not a theoretical fear. It has happened.
Religious Knowledge was made compulsory at the Secondary 3 and 4 levels in 1984. The thinking was that religious studies would help to reinforce the teaching of moral values. A better understanding of the different religions would also help to promote religious harmony.
But we soon discovered that the teaching of Religious Knowledge emphasised differences among the religions, more than it achieved its intended objective of religious harmony. It encouraged students to proselytise. Students began to mix more among those of the same religion, those who went to the same Religious Knowledge classes.
After six years, we had to withdraw the policy. From 1990, Religious Knowledge was taught only as a non-compulsory elective subject outside curriculum time.
Inter-Racial Confidence Circles
Fourthly, I had earlier proposed the formation of Inter-Racial Confidence Circles, or IRCCs. Their primary purpose is to provide a regular platform for leaders of the various racial and religious communities to interact and get to know one another. This will build confidence, friendship and trust among them.
We will set up an IRCC Steering Committee at the national level. We will set up one IRCC in each constituency at the CCC level. In addition, I would also encourage the formation of similar circles in schools, work places and other social organisations. These are informal circles, like Quality Circles in companies and factories. I will call them "Harmony Circles" to distinguish them from the constituency-level IRCC. This will help spread the movement of inter-racial confidence-building more extensively at the ground level.
Some Singaporeans have argued that racial and religious harmony cannot be forced, and hence, these artificial IRCC mechanisms will not work. But some things need prodding. In the absence of external stimulus, the natural tendency is to congregate among our own kind. Over the years, because our race and religious relations have been smooth, Singaporeans have drifted towards this more natural pattern of human behaviour. It is timely to give Singaporeans a gentle jolt, to remind them they are living in a multi-racial, multi-religious society.
Interaction in daily life
Last but not least, apart from institutionalised mechanisms such as the IRCCs, all of us should make a conscious effort to reach out to the other communities in our daily lives. To build a successful multi-racial, multi-religious society, every community in Singapore must try to include other communities in a large majority of their activities.
For example, I know of community clubs that organise trips for their Chinese senior citizens to mosques and churches. Buddhist associations regularly contribute money to Muslim organisations. The Hokkien Huay Kuan Clan Association gives out scholarships to needy Malay students.
Likewise, I would urge more Malay/Muslims, in particular mosque committee members, to volunteer for events organised by non-Malay/Muslim organisations. Persuade more of your Malay/Muslim friends to join constituency activities. Get the Malay/Muslim organisations of which you are a member, to invite your Chinese, Indian and Eurasian friends and colleagues to their functions. Send your children to multi-racial kindergartens, and encourage them to make friends from all walks of life.
In conclusion, always keep in mind that we are living in a multi-racial, multi-religious country. Each community does not exist in isolation, but as a member of the larger society. Its success and progress depend not only on its own efforts, but also on how well it gets along with the other communities, and how well we all manage to work together as a nation. So there must be give and take in our interactions.
Most important of all, while we are different from one another in many aspects, we must not assert our separate identity at the expense of the common space. It is a slippery road to take. Once we retreat into our own enclaves, and put up barriers against others, Singapore will become a failed, fragmented country, instead of a successful, multi-racial, multi-religious society.
In this regard, do not let others outside Singapore influence your views and actions. Race and religious relations in Singapore are matters for Singaporeans to decide, not foreigners. They do not understand our social context, and that we are trying to build a nation. You should let them know that our Malay/Muslim community does not welcome such interference.
In our dialogue after this, I hope that we will be able to address issues as Singaporeans, rather than as Malay/Muslims.
. . . . .