Economic Success Helps Maintain Harmony

With the Religious Harmony Act, Singapore's centralized government has tried to integrate the country's Muslim minority. In the interview with Mike Millard, Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Muslim Affairs, talked about economic success and religious radicalism in the city state.

The Singapore government announced in January 2002 it had jailed thirteen terrorists, many of whom had trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, charging they were members of a regional Islamist organization called Jemaah Islamiyah.

The group had carried out surveillance and was planning to bomb Western embassies, including that of the United States, as well as a mass transit station where they would have killed many ordinary Singaporeans, including Muslims, presumably.

They were linked to militants in Malaysia and Indonesia, and some had escaped capture. They would be heard from later in connection with a bombing that would kill more than 200 people in Bali, and a suicide blast at a Jakarta hotel.

An Islamist state in Southeast Asia

The intention of Jemaah Islamiyah, according to Rohan Gunaratna, head of Terrorism Research at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and author of the book, "Inside Al Qaeda", was to create an Islamist state in Southeast Asia.

Singapore's security service identified an Indonesian cleric, schoolmaster and supporter of Osama bin Laden named Abu Bakar Bashir as the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. Bashir admitted that he had taught some of the detainees, but denied any personal involvement in terrorism. The guru of the Singapore cell was a formerly innocuous apartment manager named Ibrahim Maidin.

There had also been recent controversy in the press over several young Muslim girls wearing the tudung, or headscarf, in primary schools, which in its efforts to achieve religious and ethnic harmony, Singapore does not allow.

In the aftermath of these developments, I visited Singapore's Ministry for Muslim Affairs to meet Minister Yaacob Ibrahim. He was trained as an engineer, with a doctoral degree from Stanford University, and not without a grin and occasional laughter, although it was obvious his duties weighed on him. I asked if he found this a difficult time to be the minister for Muslim affairs.

"The Malay community was not prepared"

Yaacob laughed. "I might say it's difficult because I want to give some importance to my job, but it is difficult because we are coming to a point in the community where we are trying to grapple with certain issues and how those issues should be seen in the context of modern Singapore. We never expected these things, and the Malay community was not prepared."

What developments had not been anticipated?

"We didn't expect the tudung matter to be such a big issue. We've had requests in the past, one or two families, and schools had even allowed it on a case-by-case basis. But all of a sudden it became what it is. What we are really dealing with is the issue of pluralism," Ibrahim said.

Muslim traditions and modern science

"We've been in Singapore for the last thirty-seven years, never had any problem with this notion of Muslim identity vis-à-vis our national identity, and I don't think we have any problems now, in that we've evolved a lifestyle that gives us the opportunity to have our religious life and to be a part of modern Singapore," Prof. Ibrahim explained.

"We have our mosques to do our daily prayers, we can go to Mecca to perform the haj every year if we can afford it, every fasting month we can go to do our prayers and our kids can be sent to the mosque to receive religious instruction, yet at the same time, they have opportunities to learn about science and technology in the national mainstream schools."

Malay-Muslims' lack of education

What were the most important problems that Singapore's Malay-Muslim community faced today?

"The problem still remains a lack of education, because it is the key to all opportunities. Whether we like it or not, we still face some social problems. We make up most of the bottom 30 percent."

This was what I had read in the scholarly works on Singaporean society, although there seemed to be different reasons given for it. In Yaacob's opinion, why was this?

"I think to a large extent, many Malay families have not been able to overcome the cycle of poverty, which is passed on to the next generation."

Was that partly an effect of colonialism?

"Several books have been written that suggest the colonial policy of divide and rule did not benefit the Malays, and Malays at that time were only given opportunity for vernacular education. Malay access to English education came very late. After Singapore became independent in 1965, there was a huge debate about the future of Malay schools," Ibrahim explained.

"Malays made a conscious effort to switch to English, the working language, because they realized that that was the way to move forward. We were starting from a low base, because not many of us were highly educated. You had a new nation that was racing forward, so it was a matter of trying to catch up.

"One hypothesis I have is that if you look at the 1970s, that was a time when social problems in the Malay community began to creep up: We had high numbers of drug addictions, and it was a time when women left home to work in factories and we suddenly had dual incomes, the family structure changed, and we couldn't adjust to the industrial state," Ibrahim answered.

"Children dropped out of the educational system prematurely. However, at that time, at that stage of economic development of the country, there was enough work to absorb Malays into the labor force: We could work in factories, become dispatch riders, and so forth, but we cannot continue in that way today."

Mendaki – Singapore's Muslim support organization

The great upheavals of the 1970s, it seemed, had been felt worldwide. Was Mendaki, Singapore's Muslim support organization, at least a partial solution to these educational and social problems?

"It started out right, which was to focus on education. I would like to ascribe the successes our community has enjoyed to the presence of Mendaki. We managed to plant the idea that education is important. You can see it now in every Malay family, especially those who've been able to make it, that the next generation has an interest in education. Many low- and middle-income Malay families are spending a lot of money on education."

I told Yaacob that I had a young colleague who had been tutored by Mendaki and had gone on to do very well in university and now professionally as well.

"Good. I've redirected Mendaki, because I think we have to focus attention now on low-income families. Increasingly, I think the middle income and upper middle can take care of themselves. They're smart enough to find out where the opportunities are, but if you have a low-income family with both parents working, the situation becomes problematic if they have young children."

Breaking the chains that reached through generations?

"That's the whole idea. With our new Mendaki structure we are working with other partners as well. We work with mosques, community development councils, and community clubs. We go wherever we find low-income Malays, and look at the local service providers, who can be Chinese, Indian, Malay, it doesn't matter. If there is a center that is offering tuition, and your son needs tuition, send him there. If you have a problem with finance, we'll step in. We'll help lower the barrier, but you must make the effort to get over it."

Singapore's Muslim are a minority

Singapore was small enough that he could accomplish some of these things. There are about 3 million Singaporeans, who are roughly 75 percent ethnically Chinese, 15 percent Malay-Muslim and 6 percent Indian. The Malay-Muslim community numbers around 400,000 people.

"Yes, we have an advantage of size."

I wondered how he viewed the wave of fundamentalism that had arisen amid the spread of modernity. What was Yaacob's perception of Singapore's position within what was sometimes characterized as a global awakening of Islam?

The Wahhabi influence and the internet

"It is a historical phenomenon. Southeast Asian Muslims are also affected by events across the world. Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia has touched Indonesia and influenced us here in Singapore. Nowadays, with the Internet, things move fast. We are exposed to these influences. The question arises then, what is our response? I'm keen for the Malay community to reflect on this. I think we have to decide once and for all, what will our identity be in Singapore?" Yaacob Ibrahim said.

"My reply to that question is that we have already decided to become Singaporean. We have also decided that we want to be good Muslims and Malays as well. We want to have the best of everything, and we have that here. We can fulfill our religious life, and we can also fulfill whatever we desire for ourselves and our children in terms of development and technology. We have done this, so what's the problem? Well, someone comes in and says, 'You people are not practicing Islam correctly,' and we must be able to say they are wrong, we have got it right, don't tell us how to do it."

Yaacob's rationality was admirable. At the quiet center of powerful, conflicting forces, he remained calm and stable. Perhaps he brought an engineer's appreciation for motion, speed, and mass to the political currents that swirled around him.

"It's for God to judge"

I wondered aloud why the potential for conflicts between national and religious identity become such an issue these days?

"I think there are voices outside the community who feel that what we are doing so far is not Islamic. I beg to differ. It's not for them to judge. It's for God to judge."

What did he think of the idea of combining Islam with government, a concept that had spread lately to Indonesia, Malaysia, and throughout the region?

"My personal feeling about an Islamic state is that it is a new movement. If you look at the late nineteenth century, the idea wasn't to create an Islamic state, but for us to embrace Islam in its original form so that we could produce the scientists and thinkers and philosophers that we once did, to revitalize the glory of Islam," the minister explained.

"You don't need an Islamic state to be a good Muslim"

"Somewhere during the twentieth century the political attitude shifted and it became necessary to have an Islamic state before you could do this. My view is that you do not need to have an Islamic state to have good Muslims. Also, while a certain amount of Islamic teaching is necessary to produce good Muslims, we also need to think about food, jobs, and economic success."

When the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists were arrested in Singapore, was he surprised?

"Killing innocent people is wrong"

"I was worried and angry. I hoped this was not a trend. I was also worried that such an event could cast doubt on our community. We needed to condemn them very quickly, we needed to distance ourselves from them, because if not, people would doubt us. Any such ideas are wrong. Killing innocent people is wrong."

What could possibly lead people with families and good jobs to commit acts of terrorism?

"I think they were misled, that perhaps they believed by doing something of that nature they were promised a place in heaven. You see, in any society, there are always people who believe in the idea similar to that of those seeking the millennium. These thirteen people tended to be a closed group, like a cult, not ordinary Singaporean Muslims. There was a central figure who was very charismatic and may have convinced them of the righteousness of his plans."

It was a pattern that was becoming predictable, I realized. At the center of each web there was a militant cleric bringing believers under his spell, convincing them to hate outsiders, to slay the "crusaders" of the modern world.

The hatred and dread oozing from the clerics was becoming comprehensible. The powers they exerted over other Muslims were eroded by modernity, with its secular education, its music, its movies and videos, its lifestyles and its freedoms. Above all else, they feared freedom.

Text/Interview: Mike Millard

© Mike Millard 2004

Mike Millard is an American journalist and author who has lived in Asia for 15 years, currently residing with his family in Singapore after a decade in Japan. His most recent book, "Jihad in Paradise," was published this year by M.E. Sharpe.

To find out more about "Jihad in Paradise", click here.