This will be a blog post that summarizes, based on my own interpretation and with addition of my own opinions, the article titled: Islam, state and Society in Singapore by Suzaina Kadir. The paper sought to explore the state of Islam in Singapore, its relationship with the secular state of Singapore and the government’s role in it. Without any regard to the structural flow of the article itself, I shall begin with the explanation of some fundamental concepts involved, such as secularism.

Understanding how Secularism became what we practice today
To understand Secularism, we must first understand the role that religion had in our political structure in history.  Based on my own understanding, religions played both a cohesive and divisive role in our societies in the past because they provoke the “us vs them” mentality. States in the past were generally religiously intolerant, instituting an official religion and persecuting non-believers in an attempt to “purify” their own and even other societies. A few of these prominent examples include: the Roman Catholic Church execution of Copernicus by burning him on a stake for proposing the church-defying idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the Prophet Muhammad’s Conquest of Arabia. The era of pervasive religious intolerance in political structures, fortunately, is in the past now. After the Dark Ages, many in Europe stood up against the violence that pervasive religious-based politics had perpetuated and instituted the separation of state and religion, which was the main feature of the Enlightenment. This divorce meant 2 roads that can be taken: atheism or secularism, the former rejects all religion and the latter embraces all, equally. The victory of democracy over the atheistic ideology of communism at the end of the Cold War in 1991 meant that secularism was the only way forward, which is why modern states are generally secular. A key pillar of secularism is religious tolerance, which necessitates both freedom to practice all religions and religious neutrality in the government. On one hand, Malaysia does not fit these criteria because it institutes Islam as its official religion. On the other hand, Singapore is, by definition, secular as it fits both criteria.

The Problem with the mix of Secularism and Islam, especially in Singapore
Just like any other ideas, Secularism isn’t perfect. This problem stems from the fact that some religions, especially Islam in its current state, cannot be isolated to the private sphere of life. Islam, in its current state, is still a doctrine that dictates how its believers should live their lives holistically. It is therefore easy to see how Islam would clash with the state in the public sphere, leading to vertical contestation. In the case of Singapore, this clash can be even more intense for 2 reasons. Firstly, Singapore’s government is largely paternalistic, which means that state policies often intrude the private sphere, leading to inevitable clash in both spheres of life. Secondly, as an open society, ideas flow into our society with great ease. This ease of flow meant that, to a large extent, the Islamic ideas in Singapore are influenced by the Islamic ideas in the rest of the world. The main source of ideas that all Muslims will look to comes from the Middle East as the region is historically a beacon of the Islamic faith. Unfortunately, the state of Islam in the Middle East only became more intolerant and radical since Singapore’s independence due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism since the 70s. Lastly, Islam has become the religious device used by the global threat of terrorism. This meant that the government must intrude in the private sphere that Islam holds control over in order to monitor against and prevent the seed of radicalism from being planted. This need was further emphasized and publicly justified by the subversion of the terrorist group’s, Jemaah Islamiyah, plot to bomb Singapore in 2001. These 2 features of Singapore: paternalism and openness and the external factor of Islamic terrorism only serve to make the challenge of integrating Islam into Singapore’s secular structure much more challenging in the context of Singapore.

Exclusivity of Islam in and the unresolved state of the issue between Islam and secularism
The reason why, among the major religions in Singapore, Islam is the only religion that faces the problem of harmonizing with secularism is that Islam never had the Enlightenment (refer to the previous^2 paragraph if you’ve forgotten what the Enlightenment is). The Enlightenment was largely confined to the continent of Europe. During the Enlightenment, Christianity and Catholicism – the dominant religions in Europe – undergone the phase of public discourse and refinery, generating a consensus on the role that these religions should have in secular societies. In the Islamic world, there was no Enlightenment. Islam was so widely accepted that it defined the law of the land. The much delayed Enlightenment in Southeast Asia only came about during the anti-colonial struggle when the colonial powers imposed secular, colonial bureaucracy on the Muslim population as the clash between secularism and the Islamic ways happened. Till today, the clash between Islam and secularism continues as evidenced by the recent Ahok controversy in Indonesia. In Singapore, we see this clash in the Tudung Controversy in 2002. Evidently, Islam hasn’t been fully integrated into the secular structures of Singapore.

The state of Islam in Singapore now: transitioning into progressivism. 
So we know that Islam hasn’t been integrated into our secular structure yet, so where exactly is it at right now? The answer to this requires the understanding of how this issue can theoretically be resolved. Public discourse is the mean to resolve this. We need to talk it out, debate, agree to disagree, compromise and ultimately come to a consensus on a single version of Islam that can satisfy both the Islamic community’s and the secular government’s needs. To understand where we are right now in this public discourse, we must also identify the diverse viewpoints in this discourse and it will be useful to look at the profile of Imams (Islamic scholars) in Singapore as they are the ones mainly participating in the public discourse on this matter. The ideological profiles of the Imams can be summarized and grouped as such (this is a lot to absorb, so prepare yourself):

The evolutionary interpretations of Islam in Singapore

1st generation:

The traditionalists. Imams have accommodative attitude towards local traditions and customs

2nd generation:

The revivalists. Imams who went to study in the Middle East and became exposed to the idea of Global Islamic Revivalism, the idea that calls for all Muslims to purify itself and go back to its more conservative version. The Imams in Singapore focused more on purifying the Islamic practice in Singapore instead of directly engaging the state to change laws.

3rd generation:

This is the diverging point that created 6 different profile of Imams:

  1. Imams educated purely in local Madrasah ( local Islamic schools)
  2. Mix of Madrasah and government’s secular education
  3. Students of 1st generation Imams
  4. Students of 2nd generation Imams
  5. Imams educated in the Middle Eastern universities, especially in Medina which makes them more Shariah-minded. Unlike the 2nd generation of Imams, these Imams seek to change laws to fit their religions
  6. Fully secularly educated Imams that are also exposed to western ideas due to globalization. These Imams interpret the Quran from the secular perspective, seeking to integrate Islam into the secular society.

These 6 profiles of Imams possess interpretations of Islam that can be streamlined into 3 ideological profiles:

Revivalists / Fundamentalists

These 3 ideological profiles are not only just profiles, they also represent the 3 stages of Islamic consciousness. This is based on my synthesis of above-mentioned information (so take it with a grain of salt): The traditionalists dominate the Islamic consciousness during the pre-colonial era in Southeast Asia but waned after that due to the revivalists’ dominance during the colonial struggle. Till today, due to the revivalists’ ideal still going strong today in the Middle East contributing as the “pull” factor, the “push” towards progressivism only produced limited results. This results in Singapore’s Muslims still in the transitioning phase from Revivalism to Progressivism. The “push” factor towards progressivism is effected by the Singapore’s government through centralizing of Islamic activities in a progressive-leaning agency called MUIS. The “push” is also effected by secular education provided by the government and also globalization, which essentially spills secularism and other western ideals into the Islamic consciousness. Although we are still in the transitioning phase from revivalism to progressivism, I believe that there is a net push towards progressivism – slowly, but surely. When the Islamic consciousness reaches the progressive stage, it would have completed its Enlightenment. That would mean the dominance of a version of Islam that harmonizes well with Singapore’s secularism, allowing Islam to be properly integrated, just like the other religions, into Singapore’s secular structure.

Moving on from here…
Now that we know where Islam in Singapore is at and where it should at least be headed towards, we need to look at the issues that are hindering Islam’s progressivism, what the state has contributed to facilitate this process, and the potential problems that come with the state’s policies. Hence, for the rest of the blog post, I will be talking about the horizontal contestation of Islamic interpretations as a result of a pluralistic 3rd generation Imams, the vertical contestations that the horizontal one spawns, the pressure imposed downward by the government in order to maintain the balance between security and Islamic religious interests, and finally, whether the government is going too far in this aspect.

Horizontal Contestation and Unity of Islamic interpretations
As mentioned, the 3rd generation of Imams diverge into 6 different profiles. Although the 6 different profiles equates to 6 different viewpoints, the 6 viewpoints can be streamlined into 3 different ideological stances as the 6 are mere variations of the 3. The 3 ideological stance of Islamic interpretations, namely: traditionalist, revivalist and progressives are the dividing lines among the pluralistic, 3rd generation Imams. The differences between these 3 camps of interpretations are the driving force behind the conflict, or horizontal contestation, between different Islamic groups in Singapore. In the following paragraphs, I will quote (yes, quote because the issues were already well-analyzed in the paper, so there’s no point in attempting to re-word factual information) how some of these conflicts occur. The 2 main conflicts are: The Tudung Controversy and The Madrasah Issue. While there are conflicts between the different Islamic groups, there is also a point of interest – the bomb plot on Singapore by Jemaah Islamiyah – which instead illustrated unity instead of conflict among the Islamic groups.

The Tudung Controversy

“On 4 January 2002, Singaporeans witnessed what several news agencies described as ‘the most potent act of civil disobedience this tightly controlled nation had seen in years when four seven-year old schoolgirls defied the Ministry of Education’s warning and attended the first day of school wearing the Muslim headscarf or ‘tudung’. Local and foreign media carried scenes of the four girls clutching their father’s hands as they walked into the school compound in a modified uniform. Fear and uncertainty registered on the girls’ faces while the fathers looked ‘deviant’ and school officials watched uncomfortably. In interviews with local media one of the fathers admitted that his daughter was reluctant to attend school but insisted that ‘my religion is an important to me as education [so] why do I have to choose between them? The four schoolgirls were subsequently suspended from attending public school. The incident represented the height of what is now referred to as the ‘tudung controversy’ in Singapore politics. It sparked intense discussions between representatives of the Muslim community and the government. The Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) was forced to issue a public statement to defuse tensions, pointing out that Islam did not require girls to cover their hair at such a young age. There were also heated debates on internet discussion groups as well as protests from international non-governmental organizations. For example, KARAMAH, the Association of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights sent an official letter of protest to Singapore’s ambassador to the United States. They insisted that the Singapore government abide by its constitutional guarantee to uphold religious freedoms of its minority communities.” (Kadir,2004).

My add-on comment: Featuring not just the horizontal contestation between the progressive-leaning Islamic group of MUIS and Revivalist-leaning Islamic group of KARAMAH, the Tudung Controversy also highlighted a vertical contestation between the state and the revivalist strand of Islam.

The Madrasah Issue

“There are six full-time Islamic Schools or madrasah in Singapore. These madrasah predate Singapore’s political independence. After independence, madrasah education grew increasingly less popular as Malay-Muslim parents opted to send their children to national schools. However, in the mid-1980s, a growing number of parents opted to send their children, in particular young girls, to the madrasah. Government officials expressed their concern about this trend in August 1999. This sparked off heated discussions within the Muslim community and between the representatives of the madrasah and the government. Much of the debate occurred within the now inactive PERGAS website, CyberUmmah with accusations that the state was intent on eliminating the last bastion of autonomous Islamic activity in Singapore. When the government announced its intention to introduce Compulsory Education (CE) for all children from ages 6 to 10, PERGAS was compelled to issue a stern warning that it would not allow any effort to undermine or shut-down Islamic education in Singapore. This caught many by surprise; for the first time it indicated willingness to confront the state openly. PERGAS officials explained that they had little choice but to express their views directly with the government on the issue. Meanwhile, others from outside the ulama community argued that if public schools would allow for Muslims to adhere to Islamic practices, including the headscarf for women and scheduled prayer times, madrasah education would be less attractive. Yet, others agreed with the government position that madrasah were not performing up to the mark and called for greater coordination of madrasah curriculum and teacher training by MUIS. The madrasah debate appeared to have opened a Pandora’s Box on the struggle for meaning and representation within Islam and in the relationship between the Muslim community and the state. Government officials appeared surprised by the emotional responses from the ulama community while the debates clearly showed that Muslims themselves were quite divided on the issues. In the end, the government appeared to have backed off and exempted students enrolled in the six full-time madrasah from compulsory education in a public school. The state insisted however that the six madrasah would have to prepare their students for the Primary School Leaving Certification Examination and that it had the right to review the performance of these students at the end of the 6 years.” (Kadir,2004).

My add-on comment: Similar to the Tudung Controversy, there were both vertical and horizontal contestations, with differing views on the issue among the Islamic groups and a direct conflict against state policy.

Concluding remark on the 2 issues of conflict

The 2 issues demonstrated not just the horizontal contestation that I’ve mentioned, but also a vertical contestation that was bound to occur due to government’s support of the progressive camps and vice versa. This lack of neutrality of the government is understandable as the push for progressivism is, as I’ve mentioned, the way forward for Islam to be properly integrated into Singapore’s secularism. Admittedly, the progressive stance that I advocate favors the government as it places Islam as secondary to the state’s interest. Accepting this as the only way forward reveals my bias towards secularism and thus against religion. Nonetheless, I maintain that history has taught us to never put religion above statehood as it is the prescription to sectarian strife and bloodshed. However, states’ interests should not be placed too high above the religion’s interest as it risks alienation of and backlash from the religious community. The challenge for the government is, therefore, to find a proper balance between state and, in this case, non-progressive Muslims’ interest. One of the issues that had the potential to test this balance is the bomb plot of Jemaah Islamiyah which I shall also quote.

Jemaah Islamiyah

“Between December 2001 and August 2002, the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested 34 Muslim men for planning bomb attacks throughout Singapore. These men were leaders and members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) regional terrorist cells linking Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Their aim was to create a Daulah Islamiyah (Islamic state) in the region through the use of violence. The JI are also linked to the bombings in Bali in October 2002 and the more recent Marriott Bombing in central Jakarta. The discovery of JI proved shocking for the government as well as citizens of Singapore. It reinforced the emerging dominant discourse of a growing Islamic consciousness among Muslims and suggested for the first time a link with religious extremism. To put it another way, it reinforced the notion of an increasingly homogeneous fundamentalist Islam growing on Singapore soil. It raised the question of incompatibility between Islam and secularism as much as old questions regarding the marginalization of minority communities by Singapore’s predominantly non-Malay and non-Muslim state…It is also important to point out that the reaction of the Muslim community towards the arrest and imprisonment of the JI members was fairly uniform. From shocked disbelief that such a network had evolved in Singapore, Muslim organizations came out in support of the arrests. All condemned the planned actions of the JI members and pointed out that such actions were not Islamic. Most felt that JI members had been let astray by external or foreign elements. Hence, the focus turned to erroneous teachings in Islam with calls for a tightening of religious teaching. In many ways, JI quickly became a non-issue among Muslims in Singapore. The primary concern for many was how JI would adversely affect the state’s perception towards the community, including concerns about labelling of Muslims into categories such as ‘radical’, ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ Muslims.”(Kadir,2004)

My add-on comment: From this example, we can see that, despite the conflicts between different Islamic groups in Singapore due to their differing ideological stance, they are united against the crossing of the line of radicalism. This is a heartening discovery as it demonstrated that the pluralism of the Islamic community isn’t so diverse that it encompasses the radical strands. Although the government did not go as far as to label Muslims as radicals (unlike a certain powerful politician somewhere with a bad taste for equating Islam to terrorism), the threat of terrorism is real. This meant that, to some extent, the government must intrude and regulate the religious activities of Islam to prevent the seeds of radicalism from being planted furtively. How far our government goes in this regulation depends on how it defines the balance between state’s and the Islamic groups’ interests that I’ve mentioned in the previous^2 paragraph.

Government’s policies to guard against terrorism at the expense of the Islamic revivalists in Singapore

So what exactly has the government done thus far to put the state’s interest above the religious needs of the non-progressives Muslims? Firstly, intensified centralization of Islamic teachings and administration in MUIS. Previously, MUIS had limited authority over the madrasahs as they were under the purview of Ministry of Education (MOE). Through legislative means, the government transferred the authority over to MUIS. Although it might seem counterintuitive as you might think that the government would have a greater control over the madrasahs through MOE, the fact is that MOE does not have the legitimacy to interfere much in the religious teachings in Madrasah since it is a secular institution. This limitation can be clearly seen by the government’s compromise in the Madrasah Issue as quoted above. By transferring this power over to MUIS, which the government has a reasonable control over and MUIS also being an Islamic organization, the religious content of the madrasahs can be monitored and tailored to prevent radical content from being taught without much legitimate protest from the revivalist camp. Secondly, bureaucratic resources were also expended to help MUIS undergo restructuring. The purpose of this is to increase organizational efficiency of MUIS, allowing it to become more effective in its jobscope of administering matters pertaining to Islamic education and mosque development. As the government has a considerable control over MUIS, this indirectly gave the government greater control over the Islamic matters under the purview of MUIS. Other than these 2 methods, the only other method is the pre-existing usage of laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) to keep radical Islam from perpetuating. Conveniently there is a recent example in the news about the arrest of an Imam who recited a prayer which said: “Grant us help against the Jews and Christians.” and he was charged for violating MRHA. Other than that, the government did not do much else explicitly. Of course, there is the possibility of that there was a depressed clearance of Muslims or some form of profiling of potential Islamic extremists in the Internal Security Department’s database but we will never know. Treat this as a speculation but we must be brave enough to admit that it is not inconceivable.

Going too far to guard against terrorism?

Has the government gone too far in its shift of the balance that favors the state’s interest over Islam? Maybe. The restructuring and empowerment of MUIS was tactical as the government knows that it does not have the religious legitimacy to flex its muscles on the Islamic community, especially given the seemingly unambiguous worded constitutional guarantee to protect freedom of religion. Hence, it flexes its muscles through MUIS, a government-appointed Islamic institution that has the religious legitimacy to help the government monitor against Islamic extremism. Is doing so intrusive? That is difficult to answer but it does serve as an effective solution for the state to keep homegrown extremism at bay as it tackles the very root of the evil: indoctrination. It is of my opinion that the government hasn’t gone too far nor too intrusive but my opinion matters not because I am not part of the Muslim community. As long as I’m not a stakeholder, I cannot answer this question with conviction. You might think that a 3rd party objectivity would give me the conviction but it does not work that way. In this emotionally-charged issue (as religion and politics always make issues emotionally-charged), neutrality only works if the arbiter is a member of both as he/she is then able to empathize with both sides and legitimately carry out a compromise that is emotionally acceptable to both sides. In any case, I digress.

Going too far to push for progressivism?

Continuing, although the question of whether the government has gone too far to rein in terrorism remains unanswered, we can instead attempt to address the question of whether the government has gone too far (or too fast) in pushing Islam in Singapore towards progressivism. The empowerment of MUIS, which is progressive-leaning, meant a greater imposition of progressive Islam on the rest of the Islamic community. In the article: Islam, state and Society in Singapore, Kadir argued that the government should provide more breathing space for the pluralistic Islamic community. What she was essentially saying is that the government is pushing too hard and too fast, perhaps so fast that the non-progressive Muslims may be feeling attacked. This feeling of being attacked may serve as a precursor to religious backlash that mirrors the one that occurred in the Middle East in the 70s, leading to the ISIS that we have today. I might be getting ahead of myself there but that would be an interesting thought. There is a contextual difference that might help in the case of government not going too far: The Muslims are the minority in Singapore compared to, say, Iran in 1979. This meant that they do not feel psychologically empowered enough to carry out political rebellions on the national scale. Of course, this can be offset by the fact that our neighbours are muslim-majority countries which can easily interfere in the name of religion. Such an action is conceivable because UMNO of Malaysia has recently condemned Aung San Suu Kyi for not doing anything to help the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar against religious persecutions. My opinion is that it is safe to keep pushing because we must not forget that Islamic extremism is still at large in our world. As an open society, we cannot erect physical barrier (Ahem, Mr Trumpet) to keep extremism out. This meant that we are constantly in an ideological battle between Islamic extremism and progressivism. To offset the strong extremist ideology that threatens to enter our society, progressivism must ultimately dominate the Islamic realm so that no room can be left for extremism. At the end of the day, I still maintain that we go back that one argument: progressivism must rule in the end. Of course, at the end of the very same day, I am bias and unqualified to answer this question with much legitimacy as I am not a Muslim and a politician at the same time. If I am a traditional or revivalist Muslim, my opinion will probably be the polar opposite.


In this blog post, I explained how humanity has come to a conclusion that secularism is the best solution (for now) and concluded that Singapore is secular while Malaysia isn’t. After which, I’ve also explained how secularism isn’t really the best after all because it involves the separation of politics and religion into the public and private realm respectively. This causes a problem because Islam, as a religion that has always been all-encompassing as a life doctrine because it didn’t have the benefit of undergoing refinery through an “Enlightenment” phase, cannot be isolated into the private realm. This is made more difficult by Singapore’s paternalism, openness and Islamic extremism. As part of the essential solution to this problem, Islam must undergo the same parallel phase of “Enlightenment” to refine its religion so that it can harmonize with secularism in Singapore. The process of “Enlightenment” can be broken down into 3 stages: traditionalist, revivalist and progressive. Singapore is currently in the transitioning phase from the revivalist to the progressive stage. It is of my hope that Islam in Singapore can quickly reach the final stage so that it can, just like other religions, be properly integrated into our secular structure. The current transitioning phase that Islam finds itself in, however, is inevitably plagued by intra-faith conflict, or horizontal contestation simply because the 3rd generation of Imams diverged into 6 different profiles, leading to greater pluralism and differences in the opinion of what the meaning and representation of Islam should be in Singapore. The division, however, also spills over to manifest friction between the state and Islam. In spite of the conflicts, the faith unified against Islamic extremism, signifying the absence of radicalism in the midst of greater pluralism. Nonetheless, the case of JI bomb plot necessitated greater control over Islamic activities as preventive measures. In doing so, the government mainly flexes its muscles through MUIS, which possesses the religious legitimacy that the government is constitutionally denied of. Doing so may be seen as going too far and too intrusive but I am of the opinion that it is necessary. The exercise of greater control through MUIS also serves a hidden, secondary purpose of accelerating the process of “Enlightenment” by giving MUIS greater means to further its progressive agenda. Is this also going too far? Again, I think it is necessary. But who cares what I think because I do not have stakes on both sides. Only if I am a both a Muslim and a part of the government, which our Minister of Muslim Affairs; Mr Yaacob Bin Ibrahim; is, then do I have the legitimacy and the empathy of both sides to carry out a proper compromise that is acceptable to both sides.

Suzaina Kadir (2004) Islam, state and society in Singapore, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 5:3, 357-371, DOI: 10.1080/1464937042000288660

Image credit: straits time

Notes to Cleo:
1) I am sorry for such a long and convoluted post, I tried my best to structure it to make as much sense as possible
2) to get a better sense of the whole structure, read the conclusion first
3) I omitted the content about the conflation of Malays and Muslim identity because I feel that the problem is in fact a non-issue. The conflation of both identities is completely justified because Malays are almost always Muslims. The only link that the author draws the conflation to her argument is that there is a need for an alternative leadership. The argument was that PAP has malay ministers to speak up for the muslim community but she felt that a religious leader would fit the bill better. However, the minister we have, Mr Yaacob Bin Ibrahim, is a minister that is muslim, Malay and is also the minister of Muslim Affairs. My argument is that we need someone who has a stake in both the faith and the government to be the best speaker for both camps and the Minister of Muslim Affair already fits the bill. If we are to have a non-political religious leader to take charge, then the state’s interest will be compromised. The state’s interest must always be put above the religion one because history has shown that putting religion above the state’s interest is a prescription for sectarian strife and bloodshed. So even if the minister puts his party allegiance above his religion, that is perfect. This is my rebuttal against the author’s suggestion of an alternative religious representation in politics. Use as you see fit, if, in the unlikely case that you think the same way.


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