Transcript of Masagos' interview with Malay current affairs programme

Published: 8:30 PM, February 11, 2016
Updated: 8:34 PM, February 11, 2016

Singaporeans must think long and hard, and act wisely when it comes to changes concerning sensitive issues like religion and race, says Mr Masagos Zulkifli, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources and former Second Minister in the Home Affairs and Foreign Ministries.

In an one-on-one interview on Malay current affairs programme Bicara, he also addressed concerns about radical groups who try to influence and recruit from within Singapore’s Muslim community. We reproduce below an edited, translated transcript of the interview, which was conducted in Malay and aired on the Suria channel today at 8.30pm.

On the threat of terrorism and concerns that the Muslim community is ‘growing somewhat more distant’.

Q: In his recent speech on terrorism and the security outlook in Singapore, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam raised concerns about the Muslim community growing somewhat more distant from other communities. As the former Minister of State for Home Affairs, can you help to clarify what the Government means by this?  

If we examine the speech, we know that (Minister Shanmugam) recognises that the Singapore Muslim community is a model community that we can be proud of. This is an important context of the speech, and he recognises that the Malay-Muslim community has been able to live together with other communities through thick and thin without causing any conflicts, though they may arise from time to time. This is an important context which we have to bear in mind for the speech.

Today, there are new threats from outside, especially the Islamic State (ISIS) ideology that has influenced many of our young people through social media. The youths are influenced to do one or two things - first, to join (ISIS) to form an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq; and (second) if they are not able to go there, then cause mischief or create trouble in their respective countries. (These youths) might be influenced to undertake violent acts without understanding that we have been able to live with each other in harmony.  

If you look at the threats over the last two years, they have become something bigger over time. In the past, it was only the radical ideology that the radicals wanted to spread to their friends, whether through social media or elsewhere.

Today, we see a situation where acts of violence are becoming more common in cities, such as in Paris, and now in neighboring Jakarta recently. We should not rule out the possibility that (such attacks) could happen here.

We have already arrested several young men who had been influenced and wanted to go to Syria or Iraq to join the fight with ISIS. They also wanted to commit acts of violence against our Prime Minister and the President.

This shows that (radical ideology) has been able to sow the seeds of violence. That can be used to manipulate a minority in the community to conduct acts of violence, which can undermine the harmony of our country.

Q: Speaking of the ‘seeds of violence’, the Government has also picked up some young Muslims who now think it is wrong to greet Merry Christmas or Happy Deepavali, which they consider un-Islamic. We are also told there are those who believe that it is wrong to recite the National Pledge or sing the National Anthem. Surely these are just symptoms of a problem. What is the larger problem here?

Our Malay-Muslim community has all along been guided by our local scholars. Despite the various problems that arise from time to time, we can solve them by taking into account the interests of our society and our religion.

But now, are we beginning to see (different) influences coming to our country through social media and so on. Some of these influences are disturbing, such as the belief that we should create a (religious) environment that is pure and perfect.

In the past, for example, we can have a meal together with others without thinking of what to eat. Now, some of us have begun to isolate ourselves. They do not want to eat with other (non-Muslims) because they do not eat halal food.

Thank God, through the guidance of our local scholars, we know that this is not right.

We similarly need our local scholars to address the threat posed by radical ideologies being spread via social media so that our young people know what to accept and what to reject.

Q: How effective are our local religious scholars in tackling negative foreign influences?

We are fortunate that we are able to produce our own scholars through our local madrasahs. This is important. If they come from foreign countries, even from Mecca or Medina, they may bring contexts or cultures that may not be suitable for the life and needs of Muslims here.

Religion must have its (local) context. Many of our scholars are from the local madrasahs, and they are guided by other local ulamas. They better understand how certain religious teachings should be taught in our context, such as how we highly value the harmony with other people, how we have to respect the rights of others who have their own religious practices, and how we should tolerate the religious practices of others and not see them as something that should be banished.

This is the context that is most suitable to us, but which is now being threatened by views (propagated) by ISIS.

On the banning of foreign preachers

Q: Recently, the Singapore Government firmly stated that it would ban foreign missionaries who are intolerant of the local situation from preaching here. Is there a particular trend that the Government is worried about, with regards to foreign preachers?

Actually, this is a long standing practice and does not apply only to Muslim preachers. It applies to all religions. Anyone who comes to Singapore and rake up issues concerning language, religion or race can cause unhappiness among the different races and lead to racial unrest.

We have been able to prevent all this. So, if anyone who says wonderful things while in Singapore, things that are appropriate to our religion, but in their own country or through the social media, they say things that can sow the seeds of terrorism or intolerance towards other religions, including forbidding Merry Christmas greetings and so on without taking into account its context, without taking into account the teachings of our religious scholars that allows it, and they reject our religious scholars, this is very dangerous.

If we cannot trust our own religious scholars, who else can we trust? We have to rely on our religious scholars. We must trust our religious scholars who understand the context of living as a minority in Singapore so that we can continue with our right to practice our religion, as a Malay, as a Muslim.

Q: Lately, we have seen a lot of discussion on the Internet that Mufti Menk of Zimbabwe, for instance, is banned in Singapore because of his opinion that Muslims should not wish Merry Christmas and so on. And since such attitudes are quite contrary to the spirit of religious and racial harmony in Singapore, he is not allowed to preach in Singapore. What is your comment on this?

We have the guidance of our local religious scholars who allow and even encourage us to develop the spirit of harmony, and be compassionate to other communities.

In fact, when we wish others Merry Christmas, we know that we are not Christians and will not become Christians by saying Merry Christmas. So, this is important and we do not need opinions which are not only contrary to what we uphold but can also create a situation that is not harmonious.

As I have said earlier, (the ban on radical foreign preachers) is not just applicable to Muslims. This applies to all, whether they are Christians or Buddhists and so on. We recognise that the Government wants to create a harmonious and peaceful environment for everyone. Anyone who threatens it, whether they are in this country or overseas, we will stop it.

On the tudung issue

Q: Speaking in Parliament recently, two Malay MPs called for more space for the discussion of identity and religion, including the wearing of the tudung and whether the government can be more flexible on the issue.

I have two comments. Firstly, religion, language and race are very sensitive matters. We may feel that the time is right for us to discuss it amongst ourselves or with the other races. But it can also easily lead us to open old wounds that can instigate riots, and we do not want this to happen.

Just look at what happened to our neighbour. (Malaysia) saw the Bersih demonstration being held as a protest against (corruption). But due to the presence of many Chinese (protestors), it nearly ignited a racial problem over there because of those images (of large Chinese crowds). Therefore, when a rather sensitive matter is being debated openly, not only those who are speaking, but those who are listening may not be rational. If emotions have been rattled, people can do something unthinkable.

Secondly, we should also see that religious matters belong in the domain of scholars. These scholars not only possess deep knowledge, but they also practice and impart religion wisely.

This happens in all religions. When we teach our children, we know that there are certain levels that are suitable for their age, suitable for their level of maturity and it is not forced upon them. The same goes for religion, we need to do things gradually, and in any religious issue, religious scholars know the best solutions.

I think that some people like to interfere in such matters, especially if they can politicise it. This will make a particular issue turn into something more complicated than what it was initially.

 Q: MP Zaqy Mohamed has talked about the increase of religiosity and issues like the wearing of the tudung as part of a “new normal” in governance and society in Singapore. He asked whether the Government can re-look its approach on religious issues within the context of this “new normal”. 

In any social change that affects a particular community, we must be careful because it not only impacts that community but also society’s perception of that community.

This is not unique to the tudung issue. We can also look at how the Government views the gay rights issue, for instance. The Government did not budge on this matter.

We should not just be concerned with what we want. We should know that every community wants its rights to be met. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has said, we have remained a harmonious society not because every community is given its rights, but because each community has sacrificed something that is very precious to them for the sake of that harmony. This is something that we truly hold dear.

Hence, I hope that in all these matters, we must be wise. We must think long and hard, we must go with those who are learned in these matters - what is the religious issue, its impact on religion, its social impact, its impact on society and so on.

Think it over carefully because when we solve an issue, and if the issue is a complicated one, we must tread lightly.

Q: Are there any new developments in the discussion about the issues concerning religion, race or the wearing of the tudung?

All matters pertaining to any religion are often discussed in the Cabinet and we do look at ways to lead society to be more open, more accepting. But we are careful in doing this.