, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 08/26/2005 11:44 AM | Opinion
Muhamad Ali, Manoa, Hawai
Singapore is a unique example of how Islamic moderation could be made possible by a politically and economically secular environment. It is commonly held that global modernity has nothing to do with tradition and religion. But if one more closely observes, religious lives can be interrelated to the ways in which a country modernizes itself in economy and education.
It is true that Singapore remained one of the most tightly controlled, though nominally democratic, states in Southeast Asia. With a total population in 2000 of four million -- 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay and 8 percent Indian -- Singapore faced sensitive issues relating to ethnicity, though there was little overt unrest.
With a highly urban character and its predominantly Chinese population, Singapore became Southeast Asia's most thriving entrepreneurial state and a major regional -- and global-communications center by the early 1990s, though it was done at some cost in personal liberties, self-expression and stringent controls continued on information and the media.
But paradoxically, most Singaporeans seem to be quite happy about their religious lives. The question arises: Is that because economic development has actually transformed in positive ways the pragmatic, thus tolerant minds of the religious peoples? Is the religious freedom that they have been experiencing made possible by their prosperity? What is the relationship between religious observance and global modernity appropriation?
In Singapore, where (mostly Malay) Muslims constitute a minority living in a society undergoing far-reaching secularizing changes, some 68 mosques stand as an important bulwark of Muslim identity and community integrity. Though the main function of a mosque is as a place of prayer, the mosque plays a variety of roles. Many such satellite mosques have also madrasah (modernized Islamic schools) and pre-school centers. Mosques also provide diverse services, mostly religious, educational, social and economic ones. Religious development and economic modernization seem to support each other.
Islamic organizations such as PERGAS (Union of Singapore Islamic Teachers) and MUIS (Council of Islamic Religion in Singapore) have been actively engaged in educational and social activities. Singapore has conditioned MUIS, for example, to have a vision of reaching towards ""a community of excellence that is religiously profound and socially progressive.""
MUIS further spells out the desired attributes of the Singapore Muslim community with respect to socio-religious life, namely to hold strongly to Islamic principles while adapting itself to changing contexts.
Unlike Indonesian Muslims, Muslim communities in Singapore are comparatively ""conservative"" in their religious beliefs and practices, but ""progressive"" in terms of economic and social behavior.
The kind of Islamic ""conservatism"" can be easily recognized (headscarves and Arabo-Malay attire) due to the influential role of the particular kind of Middle Eastern Islamic preaching, publications and organizations. In fact, Singapore used to be the center for Islamic publication in Southeast Asia. Although they are conservative in religious belief and practices, they are against radicalism and terrorism.
For example, a Singaporean Malay Muslim woman said, ""We as Muslims should not be defensive about the misperceptions linking Islam to terrorism; it is our responsibly to explain that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism; if the terrorists claim themselves as Muslims they have misinterpreted some of the Koranic verses; but for us the terrorists are not truly Muslims because the meaning of Islam itself is peace.""
It is also very interesting to understand the extent to which Singaporeans experience religious freedom of its own. When I attended a Global Education Convention at the National University of Singapore in which international educators and students shared their knowledge and experiences in an attempt to promote global citizenship and education, I observed and talked to some of the Singaporeans about their religious lives.
Most of them are proud of being Singaporean and of the ways in which religious beliefs are being practiced. In places of worship, it appears that different peoples of religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) are quite content with the development of their religious lives.
Thus, when a country prospers, radical Islamism becomes less possible. Singapore provides a case in which Muslim minorities can actually live peacefully and prosperously in a secular, globalized country. Despite the imminent threats posed by Southeast Asian terrorist networks, Islam in Singapore can coexist with economic and political secularism.
The writer, a lecturer at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University of Jakarta, is pursuing his Ph.D in History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa under the East-West Center Fellowship. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org