People’s Association Kopi Talk – Harmony and Resilience – Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Ministry for Home Affairs and Ministry for Law

Published: 13 September 2017

I will try and cover the progress of the Malay Muslim community, because you've got to see where we've come. Otherwise you don't have the context to any other discussion. What is the vision that we want for the Malay Muslim community and what are the challenges? I made similar remarks at an earlier talk to the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), but I want to talk to you all about a broader goal here because you are in the position of being in all the different constituencies. And we can then work with you to try to achieve that vision


  1. So let's start with the first point, education, because that is fundamental in the modern world. How is the Malay community doing? If you go back to 1995, roughly 20 years ago, 45 percent from the Primary One cohort went on to post-Secondary education. It was 93 percent in 2015. So nine out of ten Malay kids go to post-Secondary education. That to me is real progress

  2. When we talk about issues, or when we talk about problems, we often get into emotions, but we have got to get the facts. What are the facts? There has been a very substantial improvement in the way our kids are performing, and it's across all races, all over 90 percent, so that's good. But it means that the Malay community kids have caught up with the rest.

  3. Next, if you look at the proportion of Malays with polytechnic diplomas, professional qualifications and university degrees, in 2010 it was 15 percent. In 2015, there was significant improvement – a proportion of 21 percent. So one out of five. If you look at the improvement, it is a 30 percent improvement over five years, which is substantive.

  4. Next, if you go back 40 years, we used to have a problem of dropouts. Today, and this is not just the Malay community but across the entire cohort, less than one percent, or about half a percent, drop out. Basically our kids are staying in school, they are completing primary education, and most kids are going on to post-Secondary education. So the base is set. Once they've got that kind of education, from there there's much more they can achieve. 

  5. What about jobs? If you look at 1980, 37 years ago, the number of Malays in administrative, managerial, professional, technical jobs (PMET jobs), it was 7 percent. It was 28 percent in 2010, and I'm sure it has gone up further. So it has increased by four times. You take income, between 1990 and now, it has more than doubled in real terms, adjusting for inflation. The other good thing is that about 90 percent of Malays own their houses. And in Singapore if you own a flat, you know how much that is worth. So nine out of ten own their flats. And 70 percent live in a four-room or bigger housing. So to me, the definition of the middle class in Singapore is if you can own a four-room flat. Because if you take a four-room flat, the average cost in the market is more than $300,000. If you look at the cost to them, it's much less once you take into account the grants, the subsidies, and of course over time you would have paid up. So actually, on average, at least seven out of ten Malay families are sitting on equity between anything from $150,000 to $200,000 or more, in terms of value. Seven out of ten in four-room flats or bigger, and nine out of ten have their own house. These are all very significant achievements.

  6. There have been many arguments about the way we should proceed in Singapore with our minority communities, both Malay and Indian. While you can take quick fixes through transfers, the real solution is not to give you a fish, but to teach you how to fish. And that is the solution we took, So we have taken that longer route, but that longer route has left us with a community that is resilient, that is better-educated, that has got more assets, and can face the future with confidence, as opposed to one where our minorities rely on taxpayer-funded subsidies for day-to-day living. 

  7. So what is next? The vision that I put to AMP, and which I put to you, is that we should look to make the Malay community one that is confident, that is modern, that is vibrant, and integrated with the rest of society. That should be our aim. That should also be the aim for the Chinese community, and the Indian community. Each one confident about themselves, and confident within Singapore, modern, vibrant and integrated. I wanted to talk about some examples of how our approach is now leading to tangible results. In the interest of time, I am just giving you two or three.

  8. You look at Faizal Abdul Kadir, First Class Honours in the National University of Singapore. It is very difficult to get First Class Honours for Law. He went to Harvard Law School for his Masters, became an Assistant Registrar in the Supreme Court and then Deputy Senior State Counsel at the Attorney General's Chambers. He was an international lawyer in international law firms, and a recipient of the President's Voluntarism and Philanthropy Award, and various other awards, and also lectures in the Mediation Centre. He can stand on his own.

  9. Long ago in 2003, fourteen years ago, I spoke in Parliament that every community needs its outstanding stars and the Malay community needs icons of success. This is an example of how you can succeed, how the community is succeeding. As an illustration of this system, look at Esa Masood. He is an Administrative Service officer, and was in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Masters in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He was President of Mendaki Club, and is now a Director in the Early Childhood Development Agency. 

  10. If you look at Siti Nur Diyanah Hardy, she was a madrasah student who became the first Malay to graduate with First Class Honours in social work from NUS. She initiated what she called the Maarig Maths Mentoring Programme to coach madrasah students and she also worked with Mercy Relief to educate children from Cambodia. So, she is confident and outward looking, confident about being Malay and Muslim, confident about working in Cambodia, helping out, going back to help madrasah students, giving back to society. There are many more like her. We will have a broad group who are doing well and we will have stars also. But this can only come about if we carry on in this path. The community has got to work hard, and the Government has got to support, first of all by making sure that there are equal rights for all. Do not take that for granted, because if you look around the world, whether it is, what they call the first world democracy of the United States or in this region, you know that what wins votes is to talk about race. What is the basis on which voting takes place in the US today? What is the basis on which political discourse take place? It is race and religion. In Singapore, I tell the minority communities the easiest way for the Government to come into power, and stay in power, is to appeal to the majority community, not the minority communities. To win power, you appeal to the majority. A lot of minority communities in the context of Singapore forget the reality of politics. I think we must always understand the reality of politics, and then make sure that we have in power a Government that will move away from that reality of politics to one of supporting equality for all. 

  11. So, if we carry on this path, we have stability, and we can work closely with the Malay community. What is it that we can achieve? What can a successful Muslim society look like? It can be a beacon in these troubled times. The Muslim society in Singapore can be the example on tolerance, on success, on education, emancipation, in every way, we can be the example. Because you look around other societies in the world. How many other societies have these kind of successes, economic as well as education successes. So we can actually be the example. 

  12. So there are two parts to it. One, the inner strength comes from one's own culture. Religion can be part of it, culture, access to our own customs, confidence in one's own skin. Confidence in being Chinese, in being Malay, or confidence in being an Indian, and whatever religion you practise, or there are people who do not believe in religion either. Whatever it is, be confident in yourself. That is the inner soul, you can call it spiritual, it is about yourself.

  13. That alone is not going to be enough. You have to also succeed in the world, and that comes from education, attitude towards work, skills, relationships. But if you only have that, the outer world, but the inner confidence is not there, you will also not succeed. So you need both. 

  14. So the question you have to ask is, does our definition of ourselves become the foundation which allows us to launch ourselves upward to a higher trajectory, like a rocket, or do we use it like a tent and stay inside and do not dare to come out. So which of the two? Obviously to be confident within ourselves, our culture and our religion and use that as a launching pad for success is the way the community can succeed. This applies to all the communities. 

  15. We have the ingredients of success here. A stable place, a strong Government, guarantee for minorities, a developed Malay middle class and stars in the community. So if you ask whether we have succeeded, whether the glass is half full or half empty, I would say it is three quarters full. But the work is not yet done and we have to continue working. At the same time, we have to be very honest about the challenges and deal with them. 

  16. The challenges have become much less today compared to thirty years ago, forty years ago, but they remain and we have to deal with them. What are they? One is terrorism and radicalisation, second is employment for Malay Muslim PMETs, particularly those in their forties and so on who lose their jobs. Third, over representation in prisons and drug statistics. The total numbers may not be high but in terms of percentage, it is too high and I hope we can work together to do something about that. Let me deal with each challenge. 

  17. First, we talk about terrorism and radicalism, if you look at the broader picture, you know what is happening in the Middle East. ISIS was seeking to establish a caliphate. It has received setbacks in Syria and Iraq, its territory is shrinking. As they lose ground, as they get defeated in that area, what is going to happen is they are going to go beyond the Middle East and look for recruits and converts. Southeast Asia is attractive because it is an area in the world with the largest concentration of Muslim populations, so they will look for recruits in this region, because they are losing ground there.

  18. If you look at their influence in Southeast Asia, they have openly announced that they want to set up a caliphate, covering Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines. 1,000 people from this region have travelled to the Middle East to fight, and some of them will come back. They have formed the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit in the Middle East to fight, they are battle-hardened, they are trained, and they will come back. Some of them have died, but the rest will come back. 

  19. If you look at Malaysia, over 300 people have been arrested in the last three to four years. They include military people such as commandos, Police officers, senior civil servants, aircraft technicians and people working in airports. Every day we have 400,000 people crossing the checkpoints. So you look at our own situation. They have also arrested immigration officers who are supposed to be checking for terrorists. Last year, there was a first successful attack and Malaysian Police have stopped at least 18 other attacks. 

  20. If you look at Indonesia, there were different shootings and stabbings and bombings in Indonesia, just in 2016 and 2017. Fighters returning from the Middle East have already started getting involved. A Police officer was stabbed and killed by a returnee fighter from Syria, in June this year.

  21. In Southern Philippines, of course, the conflict between the Christians and Muslims has been going on for more than a hundred years. It hasn't been solved, but now the ideology has changed to an ISIS ideology. ISIS funds them, ISIS sends weapons to them and Philippines is such a big place, it is not easy for the government to control all the parts. Southern Philippines has become an area where fighters and people who want to join the fight from all over the world, and of course, Southeast Asia, are going. They are going there to fight and to be trained. Once they are trained, and they know how to fight, they will come back.

  22. But so far, our approach has been successful in arresting people before they leave. We have picked up some who wanted to leave. We take a zero tolerance approach. For example, under Indonesian law, if you are thinking of going to fight, if you are thinking of doing a bombing, you cannot be arrested. You have to do something before you can get arrested. In our case, if you think about doing it, we will arrest you. We will talk to you, we will see how radicalised you are. If we think that you can be reformed, we will place you on a Restriction Order, where you cannot do these things but stay at home, carry on with your work or study, and hopefully will be reformed. We will ask you to go for religious counselling with the imams. If we think you are beyond a certain stage, then you will be detained. During detention, the Religious Rehabilitation Group, which is a group formed by the community itself, will talk to them, and try and counsel them and get them to change their views. Many have been released. For example, last year, we had four people from Indonesia coming to Singapore. They wanted to go over to the Middle East to fight. The Immigration Officer, a Malay lady, was very sharp. She realised something was wrong with these people, assessed them, asked them questions and then found out various things about them, including from their phones. They didn't do anything in Singapore, so we can't arrest them. We gave them to the Indonesians, who had to release them because there was nothing they can do. So they released them and waited for them to do something. In fact, one of them then tried to do something.

  23. And you know what's happening in Marawi. Unfortunately, more than 350,000 people, almost all Muslims, are suffering. They have had to move, they are displaced, they are living in very poor conditions, and their children are suffering. People, mainly women and children suffer when something like this happens - 350,000. 600 militants and terrorists have been killed. Among the fighters, at least 90 are from outside of Philippines. It has become a major fight. And we know, intelligence reports suggest, that the militants are trying to open up new areas of combat in the Philippines, not just Marawi, but other areas. And because they have such long coastlines, it is very easy to travel between Philippines and other places, fighters can slip in and slip out. So you can be sure, the region will become more violent, because of what is happening in the Philippines. Already, many Indonesians have gone to fight, more are going and many will come back, so the violence is going to increase in the region.

  24. The implication of Marawi is also that the radicalisation is going to increase. They issued a video, and there are many such videos floating around, in Indonesia, Malaysia. The video says "this is a message which we direct to our Muslim brothers in East Asia, specifically those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore: Come forth to the land of jihad, perform the hijrah, come forth to dar al-Islam in Marawi, Come and fight with us, kill more women and children." That is not Islam, we know that, but young people don't know this. They listen to this, and usually these videos would be linked up with something that they say is happening. People get self-radicalised and get angry about this and then say "I want to go and fight and kill, because, if I die, then I go to heaven." It's a wrong teaching but that's how many people believe. 

  25. In a survey on attitudes towards ISIS in various countries, 11 percent in Malaysia actually have a favourable opinion of ISIS, while 25 percent say they don't know. You have seen what ISIS does. There are some young people who think that everything is propaganda, but I think most people have seen what ISIS does – rape, killing, setting the Jordanian pilot on fire, burning him alive, tens of thousands of people killed, massacred. Now, if there are 2 million who are having a favourable opinion of ISIS, even if 1 percent of them are prepared to do something, that is a lot of people. Whether they do it in Malaysia or they cross over the Causeway and do something here, it is a potential for violence. 

  26. If you look at foreign preachers, and you look at the preacher Zakir Naik, he travels freely in this region. He preaches in Malaysia and Indonesia. More than 50 terror suspects have been picked up around the world and they all traced their inspiration to him. If you look at him, he will say, "Muslims should not vote for non-Muslims (over Muslims) in elections."

  27. There are many other verses and chapters in the Quran which show Muslims have co-existed in Ethiopia, even in Arabia. At that time, there were many Christians and Muslims who were minority communities in many of these places. The prophet has acknowledged that and has given guidance on how they can live together peacefully, harmoniously. But if you are a young man and you see images of Muslims being killed around the world, and you don't know your Quran so well, then this sounds credible because he speaks well. He is a preacher, and then you start believing these things. Unfortunately in the region, nobody is stopping this kind of preaching. Every day, you are getting more and more of such teachings. 

  28. Another example, Mufti Menk, who is a very powerful speaker, very charismatic. Let's take a very practical example in Singapore. If the Muslims stop greeting the Christians, the Chinese, the Indians "Happy New Year" or "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Diwali", they will also stop greeting you. What do you think will happen? Is that really what was intended in religion? To put fences, to create gulfs, to not talk to each other and not have a friendly community? Doesn't it make much more sense to be confident about your religion, free to practice your religion, have your mosques, temples, churches – go, pray, come back. 

  29. On top of that, there is another identity- a Singaporean identity, where we greet each other, we value each other as friends, as neighbours, people we live close to, people we work together with, study with, as human beings. There is a fundamental spirit of humanity in all the religions. 

  30. I'm not an Islamic scholar but I've talked to people and these teachings can be debunked by referring to other verses which makes much more sense. The way Islam developed in the 6th, 7th century shows how Muslims lived with non-Muslims. This is not restricted to Muslims preachers. You would have read the news last Friday when we announced that we had rejected the applications of two Christian preachers – one described Allah as a false god and asked for prayers for those held in captive in the darkness of Islam. That Islam as a whole is dark. The other made remarks like calling Islam an incredibly confused religion, a religion based on adhering to uncompromising and cruel laws focused on warfare and virtual slavery. So we looked at this and we said no, we are not going to allow them to come here. Some people asked why we didn't name these two Christian preachers whom we banned. MHA's practice is not to name anyone whom we ban. However, many people in the Malay community know we banned Mufti Menk. Of course, Zakir Naik would not be allowed to come. But we have never announced that we banned them. Some people in the Muslim community come up to me and asked why did I ban them?  If he comes and preaches this, and we allow Christian preachers to come and preach this, if the Government takes a hands-off approach and these two circles clash, which circle do you think would win and does that make sense? The Government stands in the middle as a referee, holds the ring and says this is what is allowed and this is what is not allowed. You can say good things about your own religion, you can encourage people to convert into your religion. But don't run down somebody else's religion. And we apply that equally to all. 

  31. So what are the trends of concern here? If you look at the seven years from 2007 to 2014, we detained five persons. If you look at the two years from 2015 to 2017, we detained 11 persons. So you can see the change. It is not 300 like Malaysia, it is not like thousands in Indonesia, but it is still of concern. 11 detained, 6 under Restriction Orders just in two years. The process of radicalisation, before ISIS came on the scene, our assessment was that it takes about two years for you to become radicalised. Now you can become radicalised within one month, within two months. From the time you start going into it, to the time you take to say "I want to go and take knife and kill someone or take a bomb and throw at someone" can be as short as one or two months. So it makes it very difficult for the security agencies. So the community has to play a big part. 

  32. You know the incident in the MRT station where somebody looks at a painting of a women in tudung and writes "terrorist". Another example is what happened in London where there was a series of attacks by Muslim extremists, and then you had a right-wing extremist taking a car and driving into people outside a mosque in Finsbury, killing people. Such attacks, counter-attacks, they are cyclical, which is why we take a very strict approach. Because the moment we go down this route, it's trouble. So no attack, no counter-attacks, government is in the middle, you can talk about freedom of speech, but it doesn't extend to encouraging violence. It doesn't extend to running down somebody else's race, or religion. We have zero tolerance.

  33. Now, over the last year and a half, the trends in the region and the world have become quite dangerous, so we have also been moving. For example, we started the Asatizah Recognition Scheme. Otherwise, anybody can become a religious scholar and teach whatever they like, including some of the things that Mufti Menk and Mufti Zakir Naik have been saying. So, with the scheme, we subscribe to a certain set of values. Then there's a code of ethics for Asatizahs, and MUIS provides stronger support for Islamic teachers to practice Islam in the context of Singapore. RRG, MUIS, and other community organisations are increasing and stepping up their engagement. Booklets are being distributed in the different languages on radicalisation, to try and educate our community. We also have a number of programmes to counter exclusivism, counter extremism, support networks of parents, students, we try to form these things. Because in the end, it's not just statements, you've got to go and network in the community. 

  34. Many of you would know about this case earlier this year, when we charged an Imam. What did he say? He read a supplication which is not in the Quran. He did this supplication in Arabic, he learnt it from India, and it comes from the Ottoman Empire when the Ottomans were fighting with the Jews and the Christians, and he repeated it. And it says basically, "God grant us victory". The Arabic word can be translated as "victory" or "help." So let's take the lower meaning of "help." Even so, "God grant us help over Jews and Christians", to me that's bad enough. 

  35. I will give another example. In the patrol cars, they have three officers. One could be Muslim, two could be Christians. So every Friday the Muslim goes into the mosque, and the Imam asks God to give him victory over Christians. He has a weapon, the Christian officers have weapons. After the Friday prayer, he gets back into the car and they are Christians. What would the feeling be? 

  36. Likewise, if you look at the Bible, there are passages that exhort Christians to kill those who are not of the same religion. They don't mention Islam because at that time Islam was not yet around, because Islam came 600 years later. But if you look at it, Deuteronomy for example, has a chapter "go out and kill the non-believers." I told them, if a bishop in Singapore stands up in a church and reads this passage out, "Christians, your duty is to go out and kill non-Christians," how would you feel? Should we allow this? I talked to the bishops, and I said we take a strict view of this. Equal treatment for everyone. Many of the texts were set out 2,000 years ago, and you have got to take it in context, and contextualise it to a society where there are many different religions and all living peacefully with each other. 

  37. I think Mufti Fatris Bakaram's sermon on 11 August 2017 carried a very important message. He said "Ultimately, as Muslims, we can thrive in a plural society by recognising the diverse responsibilities – responsibilities to the community, the society, and humanity-at-large." And that includes social harmony, security, growth and stability of the homeland. It's all part of our duties. Not just the duty of any one community. I've spent some time on this area because I think this is a very dangerous situation in the neighbourhood. It can affect our young people, and we need you, as leaders of the community, working with PA, working with grassroots, working with the advisors to inoculate and try and make sure the younger people come up, are brought up in an environment where they understand the multiracial nature of our society. 

  38. We have the duty, you have the duty, you have to help us. Without the community, this cannot be done. And if this is not done, and we get more radicalisation, ultimately, on the one hand you will get more radicalisation, but on the other hand you will get more Islamophobia. And all of us will lose, and the country will lose. 

  39. Now, the second topic of Malay-Muslim PMETs. As you know, because of the new economy and because of the changes to the economy, PMETs in their 40s and so on are finding it difficult. The numbers are still low but it is there, and there is tough competition from other countries. In March this year, there was a specific committee that was formed, by Amrin and Faisal specifically to look at the issue of Malay PMETs and working with MOM and all the other groups we have set up to help the PMETs. We have to help people who have lost their jobs in their 40s, early 50s. They may not be able to get the same kind of job, they may not be able to get the same kind of salary, but we must come out there, offer them other jobs, and see what can be done.

  40. The third point I wanted to talk about is the drug situation. In 2006, Malays formed 32 percent of all persons arrested for drug abuse. But by last year, the percentage was 53 percent. If you look at the new drug abusers, first time drug abusers, in 2006 it was 22 percent, now it's 54 percent. So this is a very worrying statistic. One out of every two persons we are arresting for drugs is a young Malay, usually a Malay boy. How can we do something about it? At MHA, I have been very focused on this, because when a person is arrested for drugs, his future is affected, his family's future is affected, and then when he is released, often he gets back in trouble.

  41. So we must save their lives. We are working with MUIS, PERGAS, AMP. We want community organisations to come forward, because the Government and CNB saying drugs are bad by itself is not going to be enough. We have to have the message from the mosques, that this is haram. We need to have the message through community organisations. We need volunteers to come and work with them in prison, in DRC. Talk to them, counsel them, encourage them to kick the habit. We need a lot of help. So in 2015 PERGAS designed a specific rehabilitation programme for Muslim inmates, and this year it launched the "Dadah itu Haram" campaign, advocating why it is wrong to abuse drugs. 

  42. AMP started a programme this year for drug inmates, so that when they get released, they do not meet the people who got them into trouble in the first place. We need to break that cycle and get them to meet AMP, Pergas and others. Find them jobs, we will help, but we need the community to come forward. 

  43. I have talked about you helping. Specifically, how can you help? Let's put it in concrete terms. First of all, you can link up with Malay Muslim residents, not just Malay Muslim but Muslim residents in your community. Encourage them to take part in community activities, organised by PA. These are the easiest, cheapest, often at no cost, at the community clubs. They can do things. The moment they do things, first of all, you stop them from idling. Second, when they are mixing with other people, then they become more integrated, they feel a sense of mission and a sense of purpose and then they are less likely to become radicalised. So encourage people to come forth. The Malay participation in community activities is lower than the national level. We need to increase that. So this is a concrete thing you can do. There are a lot of things that PA does, which is very good, and free. We are not using that enough.

  44. Second, identify the Muslim residents who are in need, and the many community programmes that the local MP and PA can help you organise. If you say, at the end of our lives, we want to ask how have we lived. You want to look after your family, you want to have made some money but you also want to help some other people to lead a meaningful life. That is something you can do. 

  45. Third, you can work with Malay Muslim organisations and mosques on health related activities, SkillsFuture, anti-drug advocacy. My ministry is working with MUIS and through MUIS, with the mosques. 

  46. And of course, you can encourage people to take part in SGSecure. Why did we launch SGSecure? If there is a terror attack, the Police will respond. We have our emergency response troops, there will be bloodshed because today's terrorists are not interested in negotiation. They are interested in killing people and then taking a small number of hostages for TV purposes, maximum propaganda. You have seen this happen everywhere around the world. So that is what they are interested in. So people will die, the terrorists will also be killed. But the day after, if the Chinese and the Indian communities point fingers at the Malay community, then the terrorists have won because they have created a trap of gulf. But if we can come together as one community, one Singaporean community, and isolate the terror and say the majority of us, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian are peace loving, then we have won. They can never win. 

  47. The Police will take care of the kinetic part, but the community part, only you and I can take care of. Therefore, you need to come forward. SGSecure, at the lowest level, if something is happening and you are caught in the middle, do you know what to do, how do you take care of yourself? 

  48. Second, do you know a little bit about giving first aid to somebody else? These are all very important skills. If you are interested in doing a little bit more, are you able to become a Community Responder, getting people to come forward and help others? 

  49. At the third level, the highest level, are you able to mobilise the community. It is not good for us if all the mobilisers are Chinese and Indians. You need Malays represented throughout the chain, so SGSecure is extremely important. What can you do about it? 

  50. First of all, you can download the SGSecure app on your phone, which is very easy. It gives you alerts on any terrorist incident that happens and it allows you to take a photo and send to the Police immediately of anything that is happening, pass messages. It is very simple, very easy to use. For a start, you can do that. 

  51. The bottomline is we have to work together to build a community that can work for us. A community regardless of which race, which religion, that wants a multi-cultural, multi-religious society. A community with strong bonds, united in the face of all the challenges that we are facing, and respected for the contributions the community is making to society. Being able to practise our religion without any fear, without having to worry whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu. You must be able to practise your religion the way you want to, and nobody should be entitled to tell you how to do it. But your values, the way you practise it must be consistent with the underlying overall, multi-religious, multi-racial society. 

  52. Thank you very much. 


Community Engagement