In a global climate of mounting suspicion and distrust of Islam, Singapore has not been exempt.
Despite efforts to promote multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue, many say that an undercurrent of ignorance and prejudice against Muslims remains.
“Our interfaith harmony is strong,” says Dr Razwana Begum Abdul Rahim, a senior lecturer in criminology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences. “I believe, however, that there is always a tension between the races and this can lead to misunderstanding of the religion, Islam” she adds.
Indeed, the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) is increasingly seeing anti-Muslim sentiments posted on local social media, says a spokesman for the research arm of the AMP (formerly known as the Association of Muslim Professionals).
She says: “We are also seeing more instances of microaggression and of discrimination towards the community, though these are harder to track and crack down on.”
Last week, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters that societies must “face squarely” the fact that Islamophobia is rising around the world.
“Just as we come down hard on terrorists who say that they attack on behalf of Islam, you’ve got to come down equally hard on Islamophobic people, and also you’ve got to deal with the ideology,” he says. “It’s not just dealing with specific incidents.”
WHAT FUELS THE FLAMES?
In 2016, three madrasah students on their way to school were attacked by a Chinese man in separate incidents near Paya Lebar MRT station. The man was jailed six months.
The following year, the word “terrorist” was scrawled outside the upcoming Marine Parade MRT station, over the picture of a woman wearing a tudung.
And two months ago, a man was arrested over another vandalism incident, in which racial slurs like “Malay mati” (meaning “Malay die”) were written outside Aljunied MRT station.
While these incidents have been few and far between, observers say they illustrate certain biases that some Singaporeans may have against Muslims and Islam. But why, in the multicultural society that Singapore has been for decades, do such attitudes still persist?
First, there is still a lack of understanding about the faith, says Nominated MP Abbas Ali Mohamed Irshad. This is compounded by a reluctance to discuss religion in general.
Mr Mohamed Irshad, who founded interfaith organisation Roses of Peace, says: “Religion is a very sensitive topic and people tend to shy away from it.”
Miss Siti Noor Mastura, who co-founded non-profit organisation Interfaith Youth Circle, says Singapore may take its diversity for granted. “Just like in any relationship, you have to keep working on it,” she says. “People need to actually seek each other out.”
She points out that Muslim women are often the victims of such attacks because their tudung is a visible symbol of their faith.
Second, social media has been used to promote negativity and generate hate, as pointed out by SUSS’ Dr Razwana. “We need to be careful not to be complacent,” she says. “Education is extremely important, in the digital era, for all to differentiate the facts from fake news, propaganda and extremist views.”
A RIMA spokesman says an over-representation of extremist Islam – for example, in the mainstream media – can also contribute to Islamophobia.
Dr Paul Hedges, an associate professor in inter-religious studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), says the silver lining is that Singaporeans have a greater understanding that terror attacks carried out in the name of Islam are not related to the faith per se.
“Nevertheless, the global situation – fed by certain media and various commentators – all adds to a public discourse on fear of Islam and hence, Islamophobia.”
Another issue is that some religious groups are also expressing views that are increasingly conservative and border on religious vigilantism, RIMA’s representative says. This may be because they feel that their identities and beliefs are under siege from external forces, including “liberal cultures and ideologies”.
And although this pushback may not be violent or pose an immediate threat, the upshot is that in the long run, they can erode ties between religious and community groups here, she says.
Dr Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, an assistant professor at RSIS in Nanyang Technological University, says that new immigrants may bring with them certain stereotypes which shape how they see Muslims. So it is important that new citizens and immigrants are made familiar with Singapore’s cultural and religious context.
“This is especially so when we put in context the rise of religious nationalism in Myanmar, India and Malaysia, and its potential spillover to diaspora communities – including in Singapore,” he says.
CAN MORE BE DONE?
The key piece of legislation governing religious harmony in Singapore is the 27-year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which has never been invoked.
The Government has also long stressed the values of multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue. Mr Shanmugam last week outlined plans for a “proper debate” on issues such as hate speech, race and religion in Parliament next month.
As a general rule, Singaporeans tend to rely on the authorities to settle disputes arising from differences in religion, says the Rima spokesman.
Although this approach helps to prevent violence and dissent and is effective in rooting out problematic groups in society, it has its drawbacks, she says.
“What is missing is the element of dialogue and learning, both of which can help in clarifying the misconceptions surrounding faiths and their people.”
Mr Mohamed Irshad suggests that the Government can do more, especially in mainstream schools, to equip students with the skill sets to have constructive dialogues about sensitive issues like race and religion.
Miss Noor adds that in navigating such “minefield conversations”, people need to first recognise their own biases.
“These are the prejudices and biases that we grow up with,” she says. “We have to be honest with ourselves. It is the first step.”
Through such dialogue comes the appreciation of common ground, says Mr Dean Wang, a member of the Inter-Religious Organisation.
“The more we talk about these things, the more similarities we see – in the teachings and even in the rituals,” says the Taoist.
Mr Mohamed Irshad recounts how he once conducted a combined activity where two groups of pupils came together – some from a madrasah, the rest from a Special Assistance Plan school emphasising Chinese language and culture.
It did not take the pupils long to warm to each other, despite their different backgrounds.
“They talked about the music they listened to and their favourite bubble tea flavours. They were worried about the same things, like their exams and grades,” he says.
They had, in effect, realised they were not so different after all.
Source & Photo credit: The Straits Times