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Tuesday, April 28, 1998 Published at 01:53 GMT 02:53 UK

Singapore's Muslim schools under threat

Does religion adequately equip Muslims schoolchildren for life in Singapore?

In Singapore, a debate over the merits of Islamic schools has highlighted the status of the country's Malay Muslim community. The schools, known as madrasah, have been flourishing lately with more and more parents preferring their children to receive an Islamic education rather than attend state schools. The BBC's South East Asia correspondent, Simon Ingram, reports from Singapore that government criticism of the schools has concerned some Malays who feel their identity may be coming under threat:

While government ministers have many duties, there can be few who would count the sacrificial killing of farm animals as being among them. But Abdullah Tarmugi, Singapore's Minister for Community Development, displayed little obvious unease or compunction when, butcher's knife in hand, he prepared to slice open the throat of the squirming sheep being held prostrate on the ground in front of him.

The occasion was the recent feast of al-Adha, when Muslims in Singapore - as elsewhere in the Islamic world - marked the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca by slaughtering sheep, cows and goats.

The daily Straits Times newspaper carried a large colour photograph and report on Mr Tarmugi's personal contribution to the ritual, performed at a local mosque.

The prominence given to the event in the semi-official media was not entirely out of keeping.

Even though Muslims make up only about 14% of Singapore's total population, there is an evident desire on the part of the authorities to ensure that the interests of the Muslim community - like those of the various other religions represented in this diverse, multi-ethnic country - are properly respected.

That respect means, among other things, that the portfolio held by Mr Tarmugi, the only Muslim in the cabinet, includes responsibility for Islamic affairs.

It means too, that the tourist board proudly lists the gleaming domes and minarets of the 70-year-old Sultan mosque among the island's major tourist attractions - just as it does the major Buddhist and Hindu temples.

The Sultan mosque stands in the Arab quarter, where in Singapore's early days, Middle Eastern traders ran small businesses in streets that they named nostalgically after reminders of home - Baghdad Street, Haji Lane and Muscat Street among others.

A century on, the shops stocking gold, jewellery, leather bags and bolts of brightly coloured cloth, are still there in profusion. So too is the al-Sagoff School for Girls, an imposing building in the oriental style dating back - according to the inscription it bears - to 1912, when Singapore was still a British crown colony.

In a crowded classroom on the upper floor, the school proprietor, Abbas al-Sagoff, is supervising a computer studies class. From under the fringe of their identical white headscarves, the girls peer at computer screens offering such applications as "Koranic recitation " and "World of Islam".

Mr al-Sagoff, a dapper man with a goatee beard, tells visitors with obvious pride that the curriculum is little changed from that devised by his great-great grandfather, the school's founder: 70% Islamic studies and Arabic, plus 10% each of English, Malay and Mathematics.

The heavy religious bias is meant to serve as spiritual fortification for the children against what Muslims see as the unhealthy distractions of modern society - alcohol, drugs and promiscuity. Such evils are apparently of sufficient concern even in clean-cut Singapore that more and more Muslim parents are choosing an Islamic education for their offspring, whether at the al-Sagoff or one of five other full-time Islamic schools.

Muslim numbers attending state schools, by contrast, are dropping. The parents may only be exercising their right to choose, but the trend has got the government worried. Ministers have been questioning publicly whether a schooling which consists of little but religion is really able to equip this generation of Muslim schoolchildren for a working life in thoroughly secular Singapore.

Already, the Malay population is perceived as slipping behind the majority Chinese in educational standards, and therefore in their ability to find jobs. The government's barely disguised worry is that the sense of disadvantage among the Muslims could one day translate into discontent, and trouble.

The concern is an understandable one, especially at a time when the whole of South East Asia is experiencing its worst economic turmoil in decades.

Singapore has fared better than most of its neighbours, but with the economy slowing, and unemployment and company bankruptcies on the increase, the potential for communal tension is evident.

Few Singaporeans need reminding of the race riots which erupted here in the early 60s and which precipitated the island's expulsion from an uneasy and short-lived federation with Malaysia.

Memories like those feed into the island state's deepest anxieties, the nightmare that would pit small, vulnerable Singapore against its two giant Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. No surprise then, that Singapore should have been working so assiduously to curry better relations with those countries.

But the government's attitude towards its own Muslim community is in danger of misinterpretation. The ministerial criticism of the Islamic schools has led some Muslims to wonder what the government's next target might be.

Before we know it, they'll be telling us it's wrong to fast, or to go on the haj, one angry senior Muslim told me - a sentiment shared, on the face of it, by the throng of worshippers leaving Friday prayers at the Alawi mosque, as they did so, stuffing banknotes into a collection tin for donations to a leading Islamic madrasah.

These schools are part of our identity, one cleric murmured. Let's hope the government realises it.

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