07 Oct 2017

Seminar on Strengthening Religious Resilience of the Singapore Muslim Community - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

I.     INTRODUCTION

1.     Our respected Mufti of Singapore, Ustaz Ali, Ustaz Hasbi, Chief Executive of MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), friends, ladies and gentlemen. 

II.     THREAT OF TERRORISM AND RADICALISATION

2.     As I was listening to the speeches of Mufti and Ustaz Ali, I was thinking to myself this can only happen in Singapore. A group of very senior religious scholars, community leaders, gathered together and two speeches which come from the heart, which have very powerful messages and the messages of inclusivity, messages of peace, messages of tolerance and trying to bring the community together. And that, I think, exemplifies the success of the Muslim community in Singapore and the success of Singapore as a whole and our approach. You are gathered here to discuss an extremely important topic which is strengthening religious resilience. This is particularly important in the context of everything that is happening around the world and as you know, what is happening in the region.

 

III.     CONTRIBUTIONS TO COUNTER-RADICALISATION EFFORTS

3.     Earlier this week, we had a debate in Parliament – there was a Motion. Many Members of Parliament (MPs) spoke, across all races and religions, on strengthening ourselves, united against terrorism. MP after MP spoke about the strength and the resilience of the Muslim community in Singapore, how it has stepped up its efforts to counter extremism, put in the safeguards and reached out to the other communities. This did not happen by accident. How did this happen?

4.     It happened because of MUIS, the leadership Mufti and MUIS provided, as well as the Malay/Muslim organisations, Association of Islamic Scholars and Teachers (PERGAS), Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and others. They stepped up, made significant contributions and said what is right and what is wrong. That is not easy because in the context of everything that is happening in the world, it is easier to keep quiet.

 

5.     MUIS has provided guidance on religious issues, how the community interacts with the larger society, how we need to contextualise some of the thoughts and our respected Mufti has been speaking at his Friday sermons. I read them sometimes, in the newspapers as well, on how Muslims can thrive in a multi-racial, multi-religious society. After the release of the ISIS video on Megat Shahdan, Mufti called on the Muslim community to be wary of messages which misquote the Quran to justify acts of violence. I thank MUIS and Mufti for speaking out clearly on this.

 

6.     PERGAS represents the local Asatizah community. It has helped to give clear guidance on the interpretation of religious texts and it has ensured that religious extremism does not take root. It has encouraged tolerant Muslims to come forward and stand up.

 

7.     The RRG has brought together highly respected, experienced scholars to understand the mind of radicalised individuals, what ideologies are resonating with them and reached out to the wider community. It has expanded its role, and is also a touch point for the community. People sometimes are not clear on whether this or that can be done, so the RRG helps provide guidance. They can reach out to the RRG – it has got a resource centre, it has got a phone application, it has got a helpline and it has got a website. So there is much to be proud of.

 

8.     Before the seminar, I spoke with the leaders privately outside and I put it this way. Over the last two years, particularly since the attacks in November 2015 in Paris, we in Singapore have been taking a number of steps. I have spoken about it before.

 

9.     First, in terms of how our troops can respond, it is no longer possible to have say, one operation centre and try and have Special Operations troops move from one centre to somewhere all over the island. It could take 30 minutes and 30 minutes is too late because today, terrorists do not take hostages. They want to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. So our troops have to be on the ground within a few minutes. That requires a high level of training, that requires decentralisation, that requires deep understanding of the buildings. They are going to go to the malls, cinema theatres, kindergartens, schools, these are the areas that will be attacked. People will die, because we cannot protect everything everywhere but we can be there quickly. So that is one area my ministry has been working on very hard, how to get our troops there within a few minutes.

10.     But there is a second aspect and we have talked about it quite a bit. Community resilience, the role of the religious scholarship to say no to extremism, to say no to practices which divide our communities, to bring together our communities. We can be a good Muslim, we can be a good Christian, we can be a good Hindu, or there are many who say "I do not believe in God". Whatever you want to practise, you must be able to practise according to your beliefs. At the same time, we can live together happily, interact and be good neighbours and accept each other and not just tolerate each other, but celebrate each other. Join hands, come together. What are the teachings that are going to bring that about, how can we achieve that? Because that is the only way to ensure peace, because when an attack happens, we do not want the Chinese or the Indians to say all Malays are like this. We want everyone to be able to come together and say this is the act of a small group, one or two individuals. Our Malay brothers and sisters are with us and we are together as one community.  How do we ensure that?

11.     We have been working on it for a long time and over the last two years, many including myself, I have made many speeches on this. Sometimes it has been uncomfortable because it has put the spotlight on the community. Most of our Muslims are peaceful, most of our Muslims are moderate so sometimes there is the thinking, why do you keep talking about this? Because we are not extremists, we are not people who support any of these ISIS ideology, why do you keep talking about terrorism?

12.     There is a reason, to get it into people's minds, beyond the religious scholarship, to the broader community, to understand that we cannot accept this. And not only can we not accept it, how do we move to have a more inclusive approach? We need to look at our practices, our social and religious practices. How do we interact more, how do we make sure we have friendships across communities?

13.     It is to create that awareness. I would say that over the last two years, even though it was uncomfortable at times, even though we talked about it many times, I think it has had an impact, because if you go today and you talk to the average Muslim on the streets, I think they will tell you what is and what is not acceptable. It is sinking in, it is accepted and the small groups of people who advocate a more extreme view are also keeping quiet. Maybe for a while, but at least they are keeping quiet now, for the time being. So, I think we have achieved a certain level of psychological resilience.

 

14.     I think it is time to move towards talking about values. Building resilience is today's topic. From the Government's side, I think it is time to start talking about values and it does not just impact on the Muslim community. It also impacts on the other religious communities and this is something that we need to talk, try and get everybody to accept over a period of time. So I think we can spotlight unless events change. We can spotlight a little bit less on terrorism and a little bit more on values and a Singaporean identity, which I think is more comfortable for everybody as well. And that is the journey that I hope to take off, from next year.

15.     You just have to look north, look south, look everywhere, and you will see the kind of religious and political discourse that is taking place elsewhere. It is based on race, it is based on religion, it is based on dividing people and it is leading to potential violence in many places. You have violence in the Philippines, you have violence in Southern Thailand, you have violence in Myanmar, directed at Muslims, dividing people along religious lines - Buddhists, Muslims. It is not a very good thing to see, young children dying, women being raped, people being killed. All in the name of religions, all of which are peaceful. It is very sad to see.

16.     We are not able to control these events. If some of our other neighbours are not careful, it could also happen in their countries. All we can do is to give some help to the people who are affected. I went to the Philippines, talked to the senior generals and ministers and said what is it that we can try and help for the poor people – 500,000 people, mainly Muslims, displaced. Myanmar, of course, we discussed when our Foreign Minister went to see the senior people in Myanmar. We are Singapore, we are very small, we need to know our place. So we cannot be giving advice, but we can try and help in a quiet way. That's why you don't see much publicity, but we try talking to them, try to ask what is it that can be done to try and create a different environment and have ASEAN issue a statement. And you see some moves to try and make the situation a bit better.

 

17.     But I worry about the other countries in the region too, and we in Singapore have to try and maintain what we have and improve on what we have. And a critical part of that is going to be your task, because as the learned Mufti and Ustaz Ali said just now, our community looks up to you. They listen to you, what you say to them matters, and therefore, we have to be on the same wavelength. And not just that. The young people today don't accept just because it comes from an older person. Because your hair is grey doesn't mean they accept. We have to work with the young millennial generation and try and persuade them, and that means being able to be tech savvy, going online, competing for their hearts and minds. They want their hearts and minds to be won, they are not going to say, so and so is a scholar, he says it and I accept it. So we have to try and approach them as well.

18.     We looked at some statistics this week, at my Ministry, put together with some other Ministries. MUIS was there. The older Muslims go to mosques, they listen to the sermons, they get their religious instruction from the mosques. The younger people are not going so much. So how do we bring them into the mosques, how do we give them the mainstream teachings? These are all going to be challenges. We will do what we can to work with you to achieve the end result, which is we want people to be religious, we want people to be good and we want them to be confident about themselves. Because I believe that in Singapore, we can have a Muslim community that is a model for the rest of the world.

 

 

IV.     WORKING TOGETHER TO BUILD A CONFIDENT, VIBRANT, MODERN & INTEGRATED MUSLIM COMMUNITY

19.     I have talked about it at the Association of Muslim Professionals, I have talked about it at other places. If you look at our Muslim children's education and achievements, and this is by international standards, the average Muslim child in Singapore does better than many of the average European children, and many of the average American children. So our Muslim children are now world-class. That's the base. And I also say 65% of the Muslim population in Singapore live in 4-room flats or better, that means middle-class. 90% go to at least ITE, so they are no longer falling out of school. They are going to Primary schools, Secondary schools, and then they spend a few more years either in University, Polytechnic, or at least ITE. At ITE, we need to push them towards more of the technical skills. And then after that, the Government still continues to provide money, if they are prepared to take a job that requires technical skills. The Government gives them money, gives the companies money to train them to become better technicians. And we need to work on that.

20.     Our Muslim community can be a beacon and a model for Muslim communities around the world. On how you can be a strong, confident Muslim, practicing your faith, being happy about your faith, and at the same time, being strong and confident in the external world and being successful. We can marry the two and we can show the rest of the world that that can be achieved. For that, we, the Government, have to work in partnership with you, and the community leaders, and the religious organisations. So I hope we can walk the journey together. Thank you very much for inviting me here, and I think we can look forward to a bright future. Thank you.

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