The lecture “Between Integration, Assimilation, and Affirmation: Muslims as minorities. A comparative reflection from Europe to Singapore” by Associate Professor Gabriele Marranci, an anthropologist with the Sociology Department of NUS on 8 February 2011 was apt in light of the recent furore in Singapore over Minister Mentor’s comment that Islam is an impediment to integration in Singapore in his recently published book “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going.” In his book, Minister Mentor highlighted that Muslims are “distinct and separate” and had called upon Muslims to be “less strict on Islamic observances” in order to integrate in society. Many Malay Muslims organisations and individual Muslims alike have expressed their disagreement with Minister Mentor’s opinion in the book and had amongst others proved through their own experiences that Islam is not a barrier to integration.
The talk, organised by the NUS Muslim Society, as part of its Islamic Awareness Week is ideal in deconstructing the issue and rhetoric of integration involving “Muslims” specifically as a minority in Singapore and contrasting the Singaporean experience with the experience of those in the United Kingdom. A/P Marranci provided an academic perspective to the issue. He highlighted that “integration” as it is used in the book is epistemologically problematic, as it did not accurately describe the nature of “integration”. Indeed the recent furore may be seen as an issue of assimilation rather than integration where one needs to ‘necessarily sacrifice’ parts of one’s faith and be absorbed into the so called “majority” culture in order to be considered as integrated- in this case, a Singaporean.
Politicians such as the Minister Mentor, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel were highlighted in the lecture as amongst a string of politicians who joined in the trend of talking about the failure of multiculturalism in recent times. To this end, the lecture had highlighted the importance attached to the worldview held by the politicians and every individual human being.
A/P Marranci had asked a well overlooked but very commonsensical question on the issue of Muslim community (-ies): “Who are we talking about empirically when we term someone as “Muslim” or part of the “Malay-Muslim community”?” He highlighted the fact that most of us perceived abstract concepts such as “Muslims”, “Islam”, or “nation” in some concrete term. We do not understand the world we live in naturally. We are social beings who are socialised to understand certain items in a certain perspective. We might for instance, learn what it takes to be a female, first in the family, neighbourhood and then the nation. In the case of the Minister Mentor, it would be helpful to understand that his ideas about Muslims may well come from his perspective of mixing around with the “Muslims” in his generation – in a time where “halal” logos were not yet available to Muslims, with each Muslim consuming his/her diet based on his/her own understanding of halal. We are then putting values to such abstracts through our personal experiences interacting with people whom we assumed is part of one category of society.
It is thus useful for us to understand that categories are socially constructed and may not well represent the abstract ideas in its utopian sense. Categories may also be manipulated to reinforce a certain idea that a certain group need to be managed in a certain way. For example, it is often highlighted that the Malay-Muslim community is the most problematic community in Singapore by the State but it is often overlooked that the community has the most number of youths. Precisely because of their youthfulness, they are most likely to be risk takers and ends up in trouble with the law as is the experience of those in the United Kingdom. By terming a certain issue as one that is religious, we are forcing ourselves to manage the issue in a distinctively religious way, likewise for race.
In the case of Singapore, Muslims are often being interpreted as Malays and therefore religion and race are often conflated. While it is easy to manage categories, one will only be able to live well with each other if one understands how the individuals behind the categories lead their lives and understand the underlying principles operating in their individual lives.
Muhammad Yusuf Bin Osman is reading Sociology in his Honours year at National University of Singapore. He enjoys discussing politics and community issues over a cup of teh tarik. He is currently doing research on youth political participation in Singapore.