Muslim religious leaders' swift action helped guide S'poreans amid ongoing Middle East conflict: DPM Heng

Singapore's religious leaders "walk the talk", Heng said.

Julia Yee | February 02, 2024, 10:09 PM



"Here in Singapore, our religious leaders walk the talk and serve as role models for how different communities can build trust and respect one another as fellow Singaporeans," said Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, Heng Swee Keat.

He was speaking at the Conference on Fatwa in Contemporary Societies 2024, centred around the theme "Empowering Muslims Communities of the Future Through Fatwas.

This was the first major conference on fatwas in Singapore since the Covid-19 pandemic, and hosted by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

Heng's speech was delivered on Feb. 2, the first of two days over which the conference took place.

In light of the shifting tides of modern societies, the conference covered topics such as how contextualised fatwas can cultivate intellectual and ethical empowerment in Muslims, as well as how fatwa institutions can address the evolving needs of the Muslim community. 

Heng gave the opening speech as guest of honour, where he spoke about Singapore's approach to maintaining a "harmonious duality between our citizens’ civic and religious identities".

He also lauded the efforts of Muslim religious leaders in helping to strengthen social and religious cohesion.

Singapore's Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir also spoke at the event, touching on topics including the need to embrace change, and the challenges faced by Muslims living as minorities.

Interacting as equals across race and religion

"Over the years, we have built a nation where citizens of different races and religions treat and interact with one another as equals," Heng said.

He spoke about the institutions and legal frameworks that "recognise and uphold the interests of individual communities, while at the same time, safeguard social cohesion and harmony".

One such framework is the Administration of Muslim Law Act, which allows Singaporean Muslims to apply Islamic law in the areas of  marriage, divorce, and estates.

Another would be the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which lets authorities take action against those who incite hostility between different religious groups.

Heng spoke about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, enacted in 2019 in response to how online platforms have been "exploited" to propagate falsehoods and spread ill will across different communities.

He also highlighted the President Council for Minority Rights (PCMR), which advises Singapore's President on safeguarding the interests of minority communities by ensuring that proposed legislation does not disadvantage any racial or religious community, and noted that Nazirudin was recently appointed to the PCMR.

Heng said that while laws and institutions are important, maintaining religious harmony rests upon the norms, values and beliefs of every member of our society.

He noted the important role that religious leaders play in shaping their communities.

Balancing religious and civic roles

Heng said Muslim religious leaders are important in guiding the community through challenging times, and in responding to complex issues in the context of Singapore’s multiculturalism.

He cited examples from the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Fatwa Committee sought practical solutions that addressed community needs, while also safeguarding public health and preventing the spread of the virus.

This included crucial and timely guidance on the closure of mosques, holding multiple Friday prayer sessions, and deferment of Haj during the pandemic.

Maintaining social cohesion and harmony

As respected and influential figures, Heng said, religious leaders greatly shape the norms and behaviours of their communities.

He went on to talk about the country's success in building a "reservoir of trust and understanding" during times when tensions between communities might run high.

Heng pointed to the Israel-Hamas war that broke out in October 2023, with tensions spiking in the Middle East.

In the early days after the war began, Nazirudin publicly exchanged letters with Singapore’s Chief Rabbi.

In the letters, the religious leaders reaffirmed the importance of solidarity and co-existence between religious, even in the face of differences.

Muslim religious leaders and asatizah also stepped forth to urge local Muslims to pray for peace and to guard against the divisive rhetoric surfacing in other parts of the world.

This decisive leadership was what helped both Singaporean Muslims and Singaporeans to respond to the crisis with solidarity, compassion, and empathy, Heng stated.

He also noted that Singaporeans from different faiths have contributed to fundraising campaigns in response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Singapore's model Muslim community

The efforts by Muslim leaders to strengthen social and religious cohesion have even garnered international recognition, Heng pointed out.

In 2022, the Fatwa Committee was conferred the Imam Al-Qarafi Award by the General Secretariat for Fatwa Authorities Worldwide based in Egypt.

The award acknowledged Singapore’s Muslim community as a model for others to emulate, in how different religious communities could co-exist peacefully and harmoniously while preserving their own identities.

Singapore was the first recipient of this award from a minority-Muslim country.

Having acknowledged the achievements of the religious community both past and present, Heng then turned to face the future.

He brought up the important role of Muslim religious leaders in guiding the community towards new solutions that deal with evolving social and community needs.

For instance, progressive fatwa thinking over several decades has led to proposed amendments to the Administration of Muslim Law Act for a new community fund called the Wakaf Masyarakat Singapura.

This will enable estates to be bequeathed and pooled into an Islamic endowment fund to better support the Muslim community’s future socio-religious needs, such as developing asatizah and upkeeping mosques.

Adapting to modern times and challenges

Nazirudin too spoke about the need to embrace the changing times.

He remarked:

"It is my hope that this conference, and Singapore, in particular, can contribute meaningfully to a reset and refresh in the ways we think of fatwas and religious guidance."

Nazirudin noted that the Fatwa Conference had taken place before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the pandemic being a period of global emergency and suspension of normal life, it reinforced the belief that the faith community can overcome difficult challenges with the right commitment and preparations, he said.

The pandemic served as a reminder that the community must similarly be prepared for new realities to come, in a world "where geopolitics have become more uncertain and turbulent, where peace is under serious assault, and the environment is truly in danger."

"Some of the new realities require minor adjustments, but some require significant shifts in our mindset and approaches," Nazirudin said.

He cautioned that fatwas could be both a source of strength or weakness for the community.

It could either nurture "dynamism, confidence, hope, and resilience in religious life" or breed "ambivalence, complacency and pessimism".

Nazirudin went on to acknowledge the challenge faced by Muslims living as minorities, where the nature of their societies mean they often encounter complex questions and challenges, and have to contemplate difficult adjustments to religious life.

Without as many historical references to fall back on, this challenge is more pronounced.

Nazirudin said the unique situation of Muslims living as minorities was such that he would "go so far as to argue that their experiences are a linchpin to Muslim law", adding that these experiences add to and reinforce its richness and dynamism.

Important for Muslim community at large

Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development, Second Minister for Health and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs spoke to the media after the event on Feb. 2, saying the conference was important for the Muslim community at large, and not just for religious students and scholars.

He said:

"It's important for them to know that in order for us to navigate the challenges that communities like ourselves will face in terms of the changes in technology, circumstances, environment, fatwa is one of the best means to contemporise those issues and to find solutions in order for us to thrive in such an environment.

So they must also understand that it takes expertise. It takes a lot of deliberation in depth and mastery of the knowledge in the areas that fatwa will need to be produced."

Masagos expressed his hope that understanding this process would allow the Muslim community to appreciate "not just the difficulty, but the impact that fatwa will make in their lives."

Other events

The conference also hosted the launch of the second edition of the Fatwa Compilation Series, titled "Fatwa of Singapore: Inheritance, Estate Planning and Distribution".

The text focuses on matters concerning inheritance, estate planning, and wealth distribution.

Day two of the conference on Feb. 3 will see various international scholars giving keynote speeches.

These will touch on topics such as the evolution of fatwas in contemporary contexts, the building of trust and community with community-centred fatwa issuance, and collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches in making contextualised fatwas.

Fatwa Lab will also be hosting various sessions on food technology, artificial intelligence, medical technology, and finance.

Top photo via Heng Swee Keat on Facebook