Social Order and Religious Harmony in Singapore

Observations in the Muslim Quarter

With a gentle hand which can occasionally turn tough, Singapore tries to ensure harmony between its religious communities, but the Muslim quarter remains in many ways is untypical of the rest of the city-state. By Manfred Rist

Two Muslim women on a Singapur bazaar during Ramadan (photo: AP)
The headscarf, which is part of the city scene in Kuala Lumpur and causes controversy elsewhere, is only occasionally to be seen in Singapore's Arab quarter

​​When asked why he has pictures of terrorists like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin hanging on the wall, the owner of the elegant Samar restaurant responds with a relaxed and self-confident smile. He points to the oriental decorations in his restaurant, to the many hookahs, and the pictures of Arafat and Nasser. A look at the menu, in which a few Western dishes are outnumbered by specialities from Yemen, removes one's last uncertainties as to the political mood in Singapore's Baghdad Street: "Free Palestine" is written clearly on the menu in big letters.

Malays and Arabs

The style of the restaurant, with its excellent lamb dishes, in the heart of Arab quarter, would scarcely stand out if it were in a city elsewhere in the region. But for Singapore, where free expression of opinion is restricted and the relationship between ethnic and religious groups is closely watched by the government, "Samar" attracts attention. The owner, a lawyer, has often received visits from inquisitive officials.

The Muslim quarter along Arab Street, where traders from "West Asia" settled in the nineteenth century, is untypical for Singapore in a number of ways. The buildings are not Singapore's typical consumer palaces; two-storey shop-cum-houses and the huge Sultan mosque dominate the scene.

Malays and Arabs, who otherwise make up 15% of the city-state's population, are clearly in a majority. And the atmosphere is that of old Singapore, from the time when the country was clearly part of the Third World and belonged to Malaysia. The national pressure to modernise, which elsewhere has created an industrious and obedient population and led to widespread de-politicisation, is scarcely noticeable here.

Different from its neighbours

But there are differences between Singapore and its two big neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, where Muslims are in the majority and the state has pushed secularisation less consistently.

The loudspeakers in the mosque in Singapore, over which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, are turned low out of consideration for those of other faiths. The headscarf, which is part of the city scene in Kuala Lumpur and causes controversy elsewhere, is only occasionally to be seen in Singapore's Arab quarter. English, which one hears elsewhere in South-East Asia only by chance, is spoken everywhere here, even if with a strong admixture of local slang.

Singapore's attempts to build up a nation and to create a sense of nationality seem, even forty years after the state was founded, to be somewhat hectic, artificial, and even chauvinist. But, as in no other country, Singapore attempts to create its sense of identity while working to ensure harmony between the various religious communities and ethnic groups.

Government, military leadership and business may be dominated by the Chinese, but the country's leaders know, at least since the racial unrest of 1964, which spread quickly from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, that such conflicts threaten the existence of the state and that the Malay and the Indian minorities must be kept happy.

Racism not tolerated

Recent events have shown how the authorities do not hang around when faced with the first signs of public racism. Following a letter to a newspaper from a Muslim woman complaining about how taxi drivers allowed dogs to be transported freely on the back seats of their cabs, two Chinese dog lovers were annoyed and expressed their views in an internet chat room. The prosecutors considered that their comments were likely to encourage enmity between the ethnic groups and brought charges.

Under the terms of the Sedition Act of 1948, which was used in this case for the first time, the two face prison sentences of up to three years.

How difficult it can sometimes be to maintain the balance between religious and ethnic groups can be seen in another recent example. Breaking with a long tradition which was upheld to the end of his life by Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, the new government has recently approved the building of two casinos.

In making that decision it was taking account of business considerations and the desire to position the country as being open to the world. But the decision has called forth the disapproval of the highest Muslim organisation in the country, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. The minister responsible for religious affairs, Yaacob Ibrahim, ran a verbal tightrope as he tried to convince his fellow-Muslims to distinguish between public and private morality.

Uncompromising position

A while back, the ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in primary schools also gave rise to controversy. The debate emerged after a father demanded that his two girls be allowed to wear the Tudung in school. The two girls were sent home.

While the rules in Malaysia and Indonesia are more open, in Singapore, families who want to hold strictly to Islamic custom can send their children to Madrasahs, local Muslim schools. Those who want to visit state schools up to college level may not wear clothes which emphasise or deepen religious differences. School children up to university wear uniforms.

By far the biggest challenge to the harmonious relations between religions and ethnic groups in Singapore nowadays comes from the threat of terror by Islamist extremists. As an ally of the United States with a relatively large Muslim minority, Singapore has to act firmly against terror without hurting the feelings of its ethnic Malaysian citizens.

While on the one hand local religious leaders are actively encouraged to propagate a non-violent Islam, the country's security services clamp down hard on possible terrorist cells, using an emergency law from colonial times. Under the Internal Security Act, suspects can be held in prison without trial for several years.

Manfred Rist

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/ 2005

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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