Citation for The Muslim Minority in Singapore

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Musa, Mohammad Alami . "The Muslim Minority in Singapore." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Nov 29, 2021. <>.


Musa, Mohammad Alami . "The Muslim Minority in Singapore." In Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Nov 29, 2021).

The Muslim Minority in Singapore

Issues of identity and development have preoccupied the Muslim minority since Singapore’s independence fifty years ago. The early Muslims were Malays by ethnicity. Nevertheless, sociologist and scholar Richard Schermerhorn’s definition of an ethnic group as having symbolic elements can also be applied to a religious community when there is a conflation between ethnic and religious categories. However, colonization and globalization have led to the heterogenization of the Muslim minority community in Singapore. The early twenty-first century has seen an assertive religious identity within the Muslim community that is the outcome of a revivalist Islam that has swept the Southeast Asian region. The Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) is a project that attempts to deal with all the above issues. As a societal group within a conservative state, the Muslim minority understands that for it to achieve a respectable coexistence with other communities, its success in the economy will be the decisive factor. Its agenda for development is therefore critical.

Ethnicity and Religion as Identity Markers

An ethnic group is defined as a collectivity within a larger society having common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on symbolic elements such as physical contiguity, religious affiliation, and language forms. A necessary accompaniment is some consciousness of kind among members of the group (Schermerhorn, 1996). The Muslim minority community in Singapore has been historically Malay in ethnicity. Malays are the ethnic majority, making up roughly 85 percent of the Muslim community. The remaining 15 percent of non-Malay Muslims are still categorized within the same societal group as the Malays through the hyphenated term of “Malay-Muslim Community.” The early Malay settlers in Singapore are believed to have come from the Malay Archipelago, mainly Malaysia and Indonesia through migrations. They therefore have common symbolic elements from a shared history that characterize their identity today.

The other significant common symbolic element is religion. Conversion of Malays to Islam appeared in numerous ways from the twelfth century onward. This marked the beginning of the conflation of the ethnic category of Malay to the religious category of Muslim (Nasir, 2012).

Singaporean Muslims have multiple identities that are not mutually exclusive. They embody the dialect subgroup identity, ethnic identity, Nusantara (Southeast Asian) Muslim identity, the global Muslim identity, and the Singaporean Muslim Identity. All of these different identities have bearing on one other.

Identity based on geographical origin exists at the most basic level, where Muslims can be divided into dialect subgroups depending on the part of the Malay Archipelago or region in India from which they came. Nevertheless, the lines that divide these dialect subgroups are blurring, or have already been blurred, and the community is being identified according to broader ethnic identities, such as being Malay or Indian, where the idea of unity comes from their respective shared language and culture (Mutalib, 2012). Similarly, the migration of Arabs from Hadhramaut to Singapore added to the growing heterogeneity of the Malay-dominated Muslim community (Khoo, 2006). There were many intermarriages and, as a result, Malays who form the majority of Muslims today are not like what some see as the “pure” Malays of the past as the “pure” Malay personality and identity have been blurred (Mutalib, 2012). Besides the above factors, the Singapore Malay-Muslim community is further diversified to include converts from other local communities (particularly Chinese and Eurasian) and Muslims from other nationalities who have settled in Singapore. There is therefore a wide ethnic diversity within the Singapore Muslim community. This has given rise to peculiar sensitivities. For example, competition has arisen within the community when minority subgroups expect to have the autonomy to interpret the understanding of doctrines or to regulate behavior without their rights being impinged on by others (Kong, 2016). However, the risk of competition escalating to conflict has been neutralized through legislative, institutional, and policy measures. For example, six mosques in the central parts of Singapore have been recognized as Indian-Muslim mosques and are managed autonomously by leaders from the Indian-Muslim community.

Ultimately, what binds all these sub-groups in the community is their affiliation to Islam. This Islamic identity is dominant and it subsumes all other sub-identities. In this respect, Muslims in Singapore do share common elements of identity with global Muslims. Nevertheless, more attention is being given to the evolving identity of “Muslim” in the Singapore context. It is a Muslim identity acculturated with national or Singaporean values. It provides an opportunity for the diverse groups to forge a consensual Muslim identity based on the principle of “keeping the faith strong as Muslims and embracing values to live as participative citizens in a modern, multi-religious and secular state” (Roy, 2002, p. 117). Islam therefore remains a strong identity marker which unites the Muslim community.

Another historical factor that impacted the formation of the Malay-Muslim identity was the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. Singapore Malay-Muslims used to be part of the majority Malay community in Malaysia, thus separation immediately made them into a minority. To alleviate the anxiety brought about by this change, several privileges that they enjoyed when they were part of Malaysia were carried over to the newly independent state of Singapore. These include the establishment of a quasi-government body (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or MUIS) in 1968 to manage the various Islamic institutions, administer the community’s assets, and dispense religious services to Muslims. Furthermore, the Parliament of Singapore enacted a set of Islamic laws (called the Administration of Muslim Law Act or AMLA) to facilitate the proper functioning of MUIS.

The Islamic tradition that came to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, exuded graciousness and instituted an adaptive way of life. It embraced local ways and subsequently reinforced the local Muslims’ adaptive attitude toward a changing social context (Meuleman, 2005). This changed, however, with the advent of the reform movement in the nineteenth century, during which Muslims fixated on legalism and doctrinal correctness in their view of Islam. Interestingly, modernists were part of the reform movement and Singapore served as the focal point for modernist discourse to flourish (Mydin, 2006).

Shaped by these historical factors, Singapore Muslims today are generally conservative in religious outlook; they adopt a ritual-based practice of religion, as well as possess a fiqh-based Islamic orientation and a rigid understanding of doctrines. Nearly all are from the Ahl al-Sunnat wa-al-Jamāʿat sect and most adopt the Shāfiʿī school of law, while the remaining follow the Ḥanafī school of law (Azra, 2005). In spite of these commonalities, they embrace different Islamic orientations. Tariq Ramadan’s framework in describing the Islamic orientations of Western Muslims has been used with adaptation to describe the Islamic orientations of Muslims in Singapore (Ramadan, 2004). Those with the Legalist-Traditionalist outlook form the majority. The other orientations (Salafī Literalist and Ṣūfī) are peripheral with regard to influence. There is an emerging group of Islamic clerics who are actively engaged in thinking about issues of the modern world. In this sense, they embrace a Progressive Reformist orientation.

Singapore Muslim Identity

The opportunity for rethinking Islamic life in Singapore came in the aftermath of 11 September. Many fundamental questions were asked, including the way in which a minority Muslim community should understand and practice Islam in the secular, multicultural, religiously plural, and modern context of Singapore. Religious scholars and leaders of different orientations were involved in the thought process, but the conversation was Progressive Reformist leaning. By and large they adopted a dynamic relation to the scriptural text and applied the faculty of reason to reinterpret text to deal with the contemporary issues of the modern world (Saeed, 2005).

The areas of renewal cover Islamic thinking, the modernization of religious institutions, updating of policies, and legislation for a more inclusive, progressive, and adaptive religious life. The process of renewal was undertaken through a discursive approach that provided space for members of the community to convince themselves of the need to embrace the values of inclusivity, progressiveness, and adaptability to support the process of Islamic rethinking. These values form the core of the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) that is rooted in strong Islamic faith as well as in the ethos of being a participant in the Singapore nation-state (Musa, 2005). The SMI is a project initiated in 2003 and participated in by Muslim leaders to discuss issues of Muslim identity in a secular state, such as the reconciliation of Islam with secularism.

The community is beginning to embrace a more adaptive outlook in practicing Islam in spite of its historically conservative and traditionalist orientation. A study was conducted by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) in 2010 on the Religious Outlook of the Singapore Muslim Community (ROS) that involved a thousand respondents. It found that a high percentage (95.5 percent) felt that they could adapt to the context of a non-Islamic country and live as good Muslims, meanwhile 60.4 percent of them felt that Islamic rulings (fatāwā) could be changed according to changing circumstances (MUIS Academy, 2011). For example, said respondents had no qualms about limiting the call of the azan to within the mosque compound, so that the sound emitted would not disturb nearby non-Muslim residents, especially during the dawn (fajar) prayers.

Many Muslims are also prepared to change and keep up with the complexities of living in a religiously plural society. The ROS showed high scores for progressiveness. For example, 75.7 percent of respondents supported donating to an organization of another religion for a social cause and 84.6 percent had no issue with offering prayers (doʾa) for non-Muslims who are victims of calamities (MUIS Academy, 2011). This progressive Islamic thinking was also manifested through reconciliation of farāʾiḍ (Islamic inheritance) laws with three pieces of existing civil laws of the state. They are the Joint Tenancy law, the CPF Nomination Law, and the Revocable Insurance Nomination Law. The Fatwa Committee of the MUIS Council issued three fatāwā stating that these civil laws are in fact aligned to the spirit of the Sharīʿah and can be applied (instead of farāʾiḍ) to protect those, especially widows, who may be susceptible to injustice. The fatāwā are based on a progressive reinterpretation of the concept of ownership found in the classical text of Islamic jurisprudence (MUIS).

The progressive-reformist orientation is also manifested in the modernization of religious institutions. Madāris have been upgraded to deliver a curriculum that contains a strong balance of the religious and modern sciences, employing a pedagogy based on critical thinking and issue-based learning. The institution of awqāf (endowment properties) worth about USD$500 million has been reformed with an innovative fatwā of asset migration—low yielding awqāf properties are disposed and the revenue is then reinvested in other higher yielding awqāf properties.

Prospects and Challenges of Development

The Malay-Muslim community has benefitted from the economic success of Singapore. Two indicators, among many, can illustrate this point: 1) the number of Malay-Muslims with a minimum of a post-secondary (high school) qualification has increased from 18 percent (2000) to 36 percent (2010), and 2) the average Malay-Muslim household income has risen from USD$2,425 (2000) to USD$3,520 (2010) (MENDAKI, 2016, pp. 9, 27, 29). Nevertheless, there are challenges. Malay-Muslim development is lagging behind national achievement figures. The community has not caught up and the gap is wide (MENDAKI, 2016). For example, the national average for household income is reportedly higher, at USD$5,550 (2010). This has affected the public image of Malay-Muslims, and community leaders are working hard to increase their development. The Malay-Muslim community is also over-represented in the groups of Singaporeans experiencing drug abuse and divorce. Many social initiatives are in place to mitigate these social problems.

Two more challenges need to be mentioned that have caused some anxiety among the Malay-Muslim community. First is their role and involvement in the military, popularly known as the loyalty issue. A discriminatory policy to curtail the participation of Malay-Muslims in the military, particularly in sensitive roles, was introduced when Singapore attained independence in 1965. This was due to security considerations, given Singapore’s location surrounded by large Muslim countries (Malaysia and Indonesia) (Vasu, 2018). Nevertheless, the participation of Malay-Muslims in the military today has increased as well as diversified. Second is the ongoing issue of the ḥijāb (headscarf), where Muslim women who wear a ḥijāb are not allowed to be employed in several uniformed services. Government leaders have promised that the policy may be reversed in future. The Malay-Muslim community is pragmatic enough not to assert pressure but to allow the solutions to evolve over time.


To conclude, the minority Muslim community in Singapore has become one of the more educationally and economically successful communities in the Islamic world. They have employed their intellectual resources, community-based fund-raising initiatives, spirit of gotong royong (unity in assisting one another), and strong sense of ukhwah (brotherhood) to develop model religious institutions, as well as introduce creative legislations and policies. Finally, they manifest a model of how minority Muslims can live as faithful Muslims and active citizens within a multicultural, religiously plural, and secular nation-state.


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