The Newsletter 79 Spring 2018

Syariah revivalism in Singapore

Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman

Southeast Asia has witnessed the emergence of religious resurgence amongst the Malays, popularly referred to as the ‘dakwah movement’ since the 1970s. Essentially an urban phenomenon, it is marked by an assertion of Islam in the public sphere that differs radically from how religion has been understood and experienced in the past. Characterised by a defensive, authoritarian and puritanical understanding of Islam in response to the problems of change and modernity, it is strongly manifested in the domain of Muslim law known as ‘syariah’. While there has been considerable research on syariah revivalism in neighbouring countries, the same cannot be said for Singapore where the Muslims are subjected to the same laws as non-Muslims in all areas except in matters pertaining to the domains of marriage and inheritance.

Syariah revivalism emerged in Singapore about a decade after Independence in 1965. For the community already mired in socio-economic problems under colonial rule, adaptation to the new demands and changes of a young nation proved highly challenging. The early decades of urban development and resettlement also exacerbated tension and insecurity as changes impacted on how religious teachings had been understood and practiced.  

In their attempts to alleviate the problems of the community, the Malay elites constantly evoked religious values and cultural traditions, an effort reinforced by the government’s emphasis on multiculturalism in its search for national identity. The turn to Islam as ballast for the community was neither novel nor unexpected given its strong influence on the lives of the Malays. However, amidst anxiety in the face of change, the constructive role of religion was impeded by the emergence of revivalism with its distinct religious orientation in the bid to preserve and safeguard Malay/Muslim identity against what was seen as the onslaught of modernity from the west. In revivalist discourse the west is strongly caricatured as embodying a host of negative ideologies and values. Stakeholders assume sole guardianship of Islam and are also intolerant of intra-community opposing thoughts and perspectives drawn from competing Islamic traditions. Unlike theologians who had the monopoly of religion in the past, revivalists generally emerge from disparate upwardly mobile groups, the product of modern education or Islamic studies.

Syariah revivalism, the Malaysian connection and other influences

Syariah revivalists in Singapore are strongly influenced by the larger discourse of their counterparts in the Muslim world and Malaysia facilitated by, among other factors, technological advancement in communications. Their discourse reveals strong demands for an alternative state and systems including law, which they deem as indispensable to Islam’s comprehensiveness (ad-deen), though they are exempted from implementing them given their minority status. Nonetheless they offer their ‘Islamic’ alternative as a solution to what they allege are the moral ills of man and society resulting from modernity and development, which they attribute to the impact of the secular west. For more than three decades, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has persisted in its political project to introduce hudud [Islamic penal laws] in the northern state of Kelantan as part of its agenda of establishing an Islamic state. The conflation of religion and politics has but boosted this fixation. In the bid to undercut Malay support for PAS, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) has introduced various measures and backed laws that have expanded the scope and power of religious bureaucracy over matters pertaining to Islam with serious consequences on the supremacy of the constitution and individual rights and liberties of Muslims as citizens. While the conflation is absent in the calls for syariah in Singapore, rhetoric on syariah nevertheless reveals similar traits with those of their Malaysian counterparts in terms of themes and perspectives.

Masjid Sultan, or Sultan Mosque, Singapore.

For example, Malaysian revivalists’ demands for the restoration of syariah based on the notion that Islamic law had long been observed and implemented in Malay society, and would have remained so had it not been ‘robbed’ of its status by colonial powers, are uncritically adopted in Singapore. So has the notion that Malay rulers were the protectors of Islam and law and had struggled for it to be a basis of unity and collective identity of the Malays, hence its significance in the definition of Malay in the constitution. Such a view is incongruent with Malay legal history, which reveals an admixture of Islamic law with, for example, feudal customary laws that promoted and entrenched the interest of the ruling class. These contravened the rule of law and basic values of equality central to Islamic teachings. It also deviates from historical evidence and judgement of superior courts in Malaysia on the meaning and status of Islam in Article 3 of the Malaysian Constitution. The lack of awareness of ideological motives behind legal texts reinforces the problem as it negates how legal texts serve as instruments in boosting the power of the feudal elite rather than as evidence of actual implementation of Islamic law. Such misunderstandings prevent an objective appraisal of Islamic law in Malay legal history. Suspicions are also similarly cast on activists and scholars who have been labelled as deviant back home.  

Apart from the influence from Malaysia, Singapore’s syariah revivalism is also conditioned by other influences. While in the early period, the impact of South Asian and Middle Eastern revivalist thought was stronger, today the turn towards Muslim migrants in the west for assertion of Islamic identity is more evident. The importation of Qardhawi’s minority fikh [Islamic jurisprudence], and the related ‘fikh of priorities’, into the local context provides evidence of its dominance.           

Major issues in revivalist discourse in Singapore

Syariah revivalists’ discourse reveals a host of issues that lack relevance to the community. It dabbles on the significance of syurah understood by them as the law making institution in Islam despite the fact that it is unable to demonstrate on the basis of principles why the parliamentary system is unIslamic. Its rhetoric that Parliament can pass any law with majority support unlike syurah, which can only legislate what has not been determined in the Koran, reveals lack of insight and understanding of both Islamic legal history as well as the system of parliamentary sovereignty. Its fixation on hudud as integral to faith provides further evidence of the fact that stakeholders share similar values and orientation as their counterparts in Malaysia and beyond. Fear mongering by proponents that discourages questioning of hudud as it “can lead to apostasy”, or that those who do not implement it “have strayed from Islam”, is not uncommon. Nevertheless, syariah revivalists in Singapore have shied away from making clear if they believe that the punishment for apostasy should be death, a punishment supported by PAS in Malaysia. Instead, their overriding concern lies with impediments in the enforcement of hudud. They delve at length into who can implement hudud, the stages of its implementation, grounds for exception and prioritisation of needs for minority Muslims in Singapore who are unable to implement it. While these issues are confined to the rhetorical plane, it has serious implications on the image and understanding of Islamic law and the religion. It also deflects attention from vital problems confronting Muslims, including poverty, corruption, and authoritarianism, all of which cannot be resolved by fixation on law and punishment.

Again like their counterparts, they denounce competing views on Islamic tradition that favour human rights, gender equality, freedom of belief and other basic liberties as unIslamic. Their non-critical support for minority fikh also overlooks its legal opinions enunciated that fail to treat Muslims equally with non-Muslims, for example, in the realm of marriage and inheritance. Some of these fikh even promote negative stereotypes against them, which affect adversely the well-being of pluralistic society.


In conclusion, revivalists’ discourse deflects attention from the challenges of administering the actual Muslim law in operation. Their rhetoric and fixation with an imagined syariah are not productive in alleviating genuine problems pertaining to Islamic law in Singapore but, instead, compromise urgent attention to reforming the existing syariah for modern life. Instead of helping ordinary Muslims adapt and contribute to the development of good law on the basis of principles, revivalists’ puritanical, essentialist and ‘asociological’ understanding of syariah reinforces exclusivism. This tendency must be checked for the well-being of not just the Malay community but larger society as a whole.

Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman is Associate Professor and Head of the Malay Studies Department at the National University of Singapore (