SINGAPORE: Among the many exhibits at the Harmony Centre where visitors can learn more about Islam and the life of Muslims in this island state are 10 information panels with a special story behind them.
The white panels are hung on a blue wall at the centre that’s housed in a two-storey building in the compound of the An Nahdhah Mosque at Bishan Street.
The panels list basic information not just on Islam, but nine other religions practised in the country.
According to the centre’s senior executive, Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, some Muslims were uneasy about this as they feel that mosques should strictly be about propagating Islam, not giving out information on other religions.
As such, when the centre first opened in 2006, information about all the 10 religions practised in Singapore was “hidden”, printed inside drawers of a cabinet.
To find out about a particular religion, say Buddhism, a visitor will pull out the appropriately marked drawer for the information.
“It took five years of engagement but we eventually reached a comfort level in the community high enough to allow us to put up the information about other religions on the wall, so we can display it in a more open way rather than just keep it in the drawers.
“While others must understand Islam and Singapore’s Muslims, we too should also understand and reach out to others,” Mohamed Imran said.
The story highlights a community willing to be more open and play their part in fostering harmony in a diverse society.
According to official statistics, Singapore’s 5.5 million residents comprise of 74.3% Chinese, 13.3% Malay, 9.1% Indian with 3.3% categorised as others.
Despite their relatively small size, Singapore’s Muslim community are active in volunteering and supporting outreach and inter-faith initiatives organised at the grassroots level and by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
The Harmony Centre is one of various initiatives by MUIS to be open and transparent in presenting Muslim life and culture to Singaporeans.
The centre showcases information on Islam and the long history of Muslims in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
It displays Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet that show how Islam teaches its followers to treat others with tolerance and respect.
There are exhibits on the prayer beads used by followers of various religions, and audio clips of the different styles in reciting the azan or call the prayer in different countries in the region.
The centre opened in 2006 and receives about 5,000 visitors a year.
It also organises activities with other religious groups, because when it comes to building inter-faith harmony, actions speak louder than words.
“We want our faith leaders to walk the talk rather than just talk, talk, talk, so we also get together to raise funds for tragedies for example,” said Zainul Abidin Ibrahim, director of strategic engagement at MUIS.
“This way, we get closer by way of action, not just by helping ourselves but other people,” added Zainul.
Apart from the Harmony Centre, another initiative is the Religious Rehabilitation Group, where local experts on Islam volunteer to counsel radicalised individuals detained for involvement in groups such as Jemaah Islamiah.
“These are all efforts which the community is very involved in, driven by their own sense of responsibility to reach out and to correct misperceptions and to contribute towards the security of Singapore,” said Mohamed Imran.
Work to strengthen inter-faith ties also takes platforms, including Singapore’s Inter Religious Organisation (IRO) that was set up in 1949 to promote peace and religious harmony in the country.
In a separate interview, Singapore’s Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, said that under the IRO structure, leaders from the 10 religions come together to engage with each other.
“But even at the Parliamentary constituency level we have Inter Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC). In my constituency for example I have temples, a mosque, and a church.
“So what I do is bring local religious leaders to come together every year, so that we can sit down, chit-chat, have dinner and talk to one another and solve problems that way,” said Fu, who is MP for the Yuhua constituency.
With all the work that has been put in by the community as well as the government, very little is left to chance in terms of maintaining harmony.
“This is not a completed task but something we have to do on a daily basis,” said Fu.
For Zainul of MUIS, fostering inter-faith harmony involves a lot of hard and continuous effort.
“When you’re already in a crisis mode then it becomes problematic, and there will be accusations that you’re only doing it because of certain reasons.
“For Muslims, it is ‘deen’ or part of the religious text that is already inbuilt in the scripture that this is what our role should be, peace-builders and as a people who bring others together,” said Zainul.
Note: The writer took part in the 12th Malaysian Journalists Programme organised by Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information.