Strict, less strict, restrict: the diatribe on Muslim integration in Singapore

In the last few days the debates about religion, and in particular Islam, has unusually increased in Singapore thanks to the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, whom has urged Muslims to ‘be less strict’ in his new book “Hard Truths”. This has provoked strong reactions within not only the Malay Muslim communities but also among all Singaporeans. I have no space here to go into detail about the complex social alchemy of Singapore’s multiculturalism. Yet allow me to highlight some of the main aspects needed for my observations below. One of the main factors to remember is that Singapore multiculturalism  is affected by a rigid administrative classification of the population according to the categories of race (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others or CMIO) and religion (mainly Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism). Such bureaucratisation of ‘race’ is a legacy of the British colonial period, although it has been reengineered to serve the ‘hard multiculturalism’ model under which Singapore has flourished after its dramatic split with Malaysia in 1965 (Vasu 2008). In this model of multiculturalism, management of communities is essential to avoiding dangerous friction that may threaten the religious and ethnic harmony within the city state.  It is clear that the historical memory, which the government reinforces and maintains, of the racial tension which shook Singapore from the 1950s to the 1960s (the so-called Maria Hertogh Riots in 1950 and the Prophet Muhammad Birthday Riots in 1964 for example) has linked the survival of the city state to the level of ‘tolerance’ achieved among its ethnic components.

Similarly to race, religion is an important yet delicate matter within the city state. Islam in Singapore is represented, and in a way controlled, through social political institutions such as The Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, MUIS), which is a statutory board in Singapore.  Furthermore, a Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs has been part of the Cabinet of Singapore since 1977 and is a unique case among Singaporean religious communities. Although these institutions certainly provide protection to the Malay/Muslim minority, one should also acknowledge that they inevitably end in managing Islam. The management, and in a certain sense the ‘restriction’ of the many possible ways of embodying Islam, aims to facilitate religious harmony, security for Singaporean residents and businesses and the integration of minorities, in this case Muslims, within the larger population (mainly Chinese Buddhist/Taoist).

Yet what exactly did Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew say in his book?

I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam […] “I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration — friends, intermarriages and so on…I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.

With the essential background information that I have provided above, I think the reader can grasp how such comments may have surprised and hurt many Malay/Muslims and attracted criticism (see for instance AMP’s statement or PERDAUS’s) as well as provoked strong feelings, sometimes expressed in a violent and questionable way.

My aim here is not to discuss or reject Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s personal opinion, since personal opinions are just that: personal. I instead wish to emphasize how my research in Singapore can show that he is not alone in his opinion, views, and perceptions of Islam and Malay/Muslims in Singapore as they are also shared by a part of the non-Muslim population. At the same time, the issue at hand is not limited to the case of an important Singaporean political figure whom has raised questions about the ‘integration’ credentials of Islam as the religion of a minority(s).

Rather, such comments and perceptions are a trend, growing since the 1979 Iranian revolution and reinforced in the aftermath of 9/11, which has reached the level of ‘common sense’ and hegemonic rhetoric internationally. To illustrate with some international examples: in Germany, France and Britain, leaders, such as Tony Blair, have emphasized, often with stronger words, similar ideas. We have to recognize that Mr Lee, in contrast to western leaders, acknowledged that “Muslims socially do not cause any trouble”, an observation which is very relevant.

What I wish to discuss here are some keywords and concepts that have been used in discussing Muslims and Islam in Singapore (and in many European countries) as well as how a certain epistemology about Muslims has been formed.  Let’s start from the sentence, “I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam”. This is not a sentence for which Mr Lee can claim copyright as it is a very widespread sentiment among non-Muslim Singaporeans (and, as we have seen, even more so in western countries). It is helpful to analyze some aspects of it.

First of all, we need to reconsider our (often based on ‘common sense’)  epistemology and acknowledge what Bateson referred to as ‘mistakes of logical typing’.

  1. As I have discussed elsewhere, we cannot have in our mind, for example, a real refrigerator but rather only an abstract categorization–i.e. a concept, a prototype–of what a ‘fridge’ is. Similarly, we cannot meet “Islam” in the street – we can only encounter mental representations held by individuals, Muslim or not. Hence, the affirmation that religions other than Islam may be integrated means that what we are discussing is a mental representation of ‘Islam’, an abstract, conceptual formation within a particular mind(s) and not ‘Islam’ as a real entity represented by the different, heterogeneous (sometimes to the point of contradiction) practices, embodiments and beliefs of millions of Muslims. Said in other words, the Islam which Mr Lee speaks of (or whomever holds similar views) is a map, and one of many maps possible, of Islam and not the real territory.
  2. Another interesting aspect in the above sentence is “all religions and races except Islam”. Here there is more than one factor that needs to be deconstructed. A logical fallacy affects the above statement since it mixes orders of abstractions: the class of race is of a higher (i.e. more general) logical type than the class of Malay (i.e. Muslims), and similarly the class of religion is of a higher logical type than the class ‘Islam’. It is clear, from a logical viewpoint, that comparing race to religion, and religion to Islam does not make sense. So what are we discussing? How may race and religion integrate? It is clear that only people integrate, and these people are individuals who may be part of a group, and yet are not ‘the group’ itself, since ‘the group’ can only exist in the mind of the person conceptualizing it.
  3. Lack of integration: this is one of the main key terms that politicians, in the west yet also in Singapore, use to represent Muslims. We need to start again to analyze the word ‘integration’. The word derives from the Latin integrate “to make whole” from integer “whole”, the components are in “not” and the Indo-European root tag “to touch”, so that integer means literally “untouched, intact”. If this is the meaning of ‘integration’, hence, surely all the different communities and groups in Singapore have been and are integrated. All of them have been ‘left untouched’ by the very successful multi-race system that Mr Lee, by updating and improving the former colonial British model, has implemented. In this, in Singapore, we can say that Malays/South Asians/Arabs/converts/Singaporean Muslims (as a conceptual category) are integrated as much as the Chinese Buddhists/Taoists/Christians/Atheists and the Indian Hindus/Sikhs/ Muslims/Atheists (as a conceptual category). Yet I suppose that what Mr Lee, together with many western politicians, wished to mean was not just ‘integration’ but rather ‘assimilation’.

This is a completely different conceptualization and idea and has to presume a new step–and in the case of Singapore, a revolutionary and potentially dangerous one. Assimilation is the, more or less, gradual absorption of differences within the conceptual idea of an undifferentiated majority.

Assimilation has one main characteristic: tolerance is only a methodology and not a way of life. The final result is indeed a total intolerance for what the state perceives as ‘different’, which inevitably becomes ‘deviant’ and can end in being persecuted. The best example of assimilationist ideology is represented by France. However, in addition to this model proving itself to be even more unsuccessful than multiculturalism, it has one pernicious side effect: conflict. It facilitates and fosters conflict, resistance, and, ironically so, provides space for the formation of strong, radical and alienated enclaves. I do not know if Mr Lee might today agree with German Chancellor Merkel’s views that multiculturalism has failed, but I do not expect Singapore to change its current policy to an assimilationist one any time soon.

Now that we have discussed these points, we can move briefly to analyze Mr Lee’s invitation to the Muslim communities that has, apparently, particularly surprised them and attracted strong criticism. Mr Lee has expressed an idea which, particularly in western countries, is widespread. This idea claims that Muslims are more pious (i.e strict) in their practice and beliefs than the believers of other religions. Again, it is helpful to start from some observations:

strict versus non-strict: like the other points, we have an issue of logicality at hand. The point of these ‘comparative’ terms is obviously to create comparisons. Yet to have a correct comparison we need 1) a point of reference and 2) similarities among the categories. I am sure that many of us remember our school teachers telling us how apples and oranges cannot be summed together. Likewise, we cannot compare whether the practices of, say, Catholicism are more or less strict than those of Islam or Buddhism. Indeed, in the case of religion we have another issue in this process. What we are comparing are ‘values’ and values can only be understood within contexts. So ‘less strict’ in what, where, and when?

I have the impression that in this respect Mr Lee, and many western politicians, are referring to ‘practices’ and ‘symbols’ more than to doctrines. But again, there is no single ‘Islamic’ practice in Singapore but rather as many as there are Muslims living here, and those practices will be interpreted as ‘strict’ or ‘less-strict’ according to the people witnessing them. Just a simple example to illustrate: in England, shaking hands, outside business meetings, is not very common and kissing people (especially those whom you may have met only recently) is quite rare and generally discouraged. Italians, on the other hand, shake hands with anybody (sometimes even keeping the hand of the other person for a pronged time) and it is not rare to kiss a friend (or even a new acquaintance) twice on the cheeks (both male and female). Some Muslims do not shake hands. Surely, then, the practice of not shaking hands will appear ‘stricter’ to the Italians than to the British.

In other words, ‘strict’ and ‘less-strict’ are not isolated absolute values and categories – they instead develop, form and change within systems. Values and categories have likewise changed in Singapore, together with respect and space for religious practice, which has successfully increased over the years. For instance, when Mr Lee was young and mixed with Muslims, halal certification did not exist, and Muslims did not need to look for the ‘green stamp’ in order to decide where or what to eat.  Instead, they would rather simply select the food, as many do in Arab countries or in the west, according to the dietary rules they knew. Today, many Muslims in Singapore will refuse even a pot of vegetable noodles, which from the ingredients list may be halal for most, if it lacks the green stamp that many Singaporean Muslims find crucial today (so much so that a few even check whether bottled water is halal certified!).

Hence, values and considerations of what may be strict or not do change with time. I am sure that Mr Lee, twenty years ago, would have never expected Singapore to compete internationally as a gambling hub with the  completion of two new casinos. Had Muslims in Singapore been strict in their practice and beliefs to the extent that it prevented a generalized integration of their community, we would have witnessed stronger protests against the two casinos built in the heart of Singapore. By contrast, the reality on the ground, as usual, is more complex and varied. For instance, my research can confirm that some Muslims in Singapore who would reject for lunch anything that is not halal certified, may forgive the lack of a halal license for his (or her) favorite casino slot machine. Furthermore, a recent governmental report shows that a surprising number of Muslims had gambled in the last 12 months. Indeed, assimilation is not necessarily always a positive thing.

Finally, although I may devote another post to this issue, I can agree with Mr Lee that individuals exist within Singaporean Muslim communities, although still a minority, who use certain interpretations of Islam that may facilitate segregation and enclavement. I have many examples from my fieldwork, such as those few Muslim mothers who refuse to allow their children to play with their Chinese friends since, ‘they eat pork and their breath is contaminating’. I can provide further examples, but all of them deal with single individuals or a small number of individuals, and not “Muslims in Singapore”.  And yes, if one looks to the believers of other faiths, both in Singapore and elsewhere, similarly anti-socially minded people can be found.

12 thoughts on “Strict, less strict, restrict: the diatribe on Muslim integration in Singapore

Add yours

  1. Dear Dr Marranci,

    Your talk on tuesday was truly interesting coming from the viewpoint of a foreigner and an academic living in Singapore. Having said that, this blog entry of yours helps to reinforce the points made in your presentation.


  2. Not sure if I will be off the mark but I believe that Mr Lee’s comment about Muslim observence is linked to a perception that Muslims do not adhere to the “monoculture”. I am not sure about the situation in Singapore but I have noticed that most ancient religions have “modernized” while Islam seems to have stuck to its traditional outward spiritual customs. (fasting, clothes for women mainly, beards for men, prayer…ect)

    1. I see it differently. While most ancient religions have faded out as the faiths have been unable to stay relevant, Islam has held strong – and it has been the fastest growing religion in the last decade or so, as more people get curious, learn the true teachings and accept its continued relevance today…

  3. Thank GOD I stumbled upon this blog.
    Nice article.
    Understanding Islam through tradition & how one is brought up, sometimes tend to differ from the true teaching.
    Being the religion of peace, action taken through burning sentiment, often makes the followers look extremists.
    Spread knowledge, not imposing man-made law, to suit one’s agenda.
    Even though S’pore & M’sia are close neighbours, there are differences in our Islamic approach.

  4. Dr. Marranci,

    I would like to ask your opinion on my view:

    If we look at colonised communities through history who then became minorities after gaining independence. Malays in Singapore hold the unique position of being the only indigenous Muslim minority? I think this presents an interesting situation since the British left Singapore to chart its own course. Does my view deserve special mention? There is no serious effort to present a fair view of Singapore’s Malay and Muslim past. As you have mentioned, the situation on the ground is complex and varied. It is important to note that the Muslim community in Singapore is diverse although a significant majority speaks Malay. I’m an optimist, but by looking at the response from non-Muslims online, I think Singapore has a long way to go if she wants to achieve better.

    One Love

  5. Hi

    Regarding your interpretation of the MCYS report that “at least 13% of gamblers in Singapore are Muslims”, your interpretation of the statistics is wrong.

    Page 7/14 of the PDF has the “Gambling Participation Rates by Demographic Groups (%) in the last 12 months” (aka Appendix 2), and the 13% figure for Islam means that 13% of Muslims had gambled in the last 12 months.

    This is very different from “at least 13% of gamblers in Singapore are Muslims” (a statement which I was very surprised to read)

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