Book Review: Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore by Walid Jumblatt Abdullah

The Muslims in Singapore have always been attached to having the highest level of religiosity compared to followers of the other religions of the state. This religiosity was observed in the 1989 National Survey on Religion[1] and again in 2017, where 93 percent of Malays perceived being Muslims as important to their identity in comparison to 70.6 percent of the Indians and 37.4 percent of the Chinese[2]. In a more recent survey[3], Muslim respondents (38.3 per cent) were the most likely to identify as very or extremely religious. With Muslims’ assertiveness towards policies that may infringe upon Islamic values, upholding national stability could be a challenge. The priorities of this young nation were set out clearly – to remove social tension that may cause social discords and continuously support economic growth. The way forward was secularism, where religion played a minimal role in the common space. As Ambassador Mohammad Alami Musa puts it,

“The principles of governance are applied within the context of a state that staunchly embraces secularism but at the same time recognizes that religion has a positive role in contributing to social wellbeing and economic prosperity.” [4]

With various issues surrounding the lives of Muslims and the state’s secularism, to what extent can Muslim actors maximise their activism? Actors here denote Muslim activists who are involved in any political or social reforms.

At the heart of Walid Jumblatt Abdullah’s Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore is a narrative about terms, pragmatism, and Muslim activism in Singapore. Abdullah argued, with relentless pace, that in a secular state, political opportunity structures are limited for Muslim actors to influence political outcomes.

The structure of this book is refreshingly clear. Chapter 1 gives a clear contextual understanding of the state’s political arena. Chapter 2 explains Muslim activism which I believe is crucial to expound on the multi-faceted nature of Muslim activism in Singapore in the later chapters. Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 explicate Muslim actors. These four vibrant chapters show immense attempts in uncovering the different positions of Muslim actors; the ulama, the liberal activists, and the conservative Muslims. Abdullah discussed the roles played by these actors, the challenges they faced and gave several case studies that postulate the political opportunities available to different actors. Abdullah also interrogates the understanding of the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI), in Chapter 4. The SMI is an endeavour to ensure that the Singapore Muslim community remains cognisant of the highly diverse state. Its primary aim is to crystallise specific Islamic attributes, values, and teachings, in the form of the ten desired attributes of a Singaporean Muslim Community of Excellence. Abdullah pointed out that each of the ten attributes of the SMI can be contentious, leaving the rhetoric to reader’s discretion.

“Of course each of these points can be contentious, and much unpacking is needed. For instance, what does being a good citizen entail? Does that require obedience to the state, and working with the OB markers, or are contestations of the state’s core ideologies allowed? What does ‘progressive’ mean? What if Muslims lean towards a conservative interpretation of Islam: does that make them less Singaporean, or even less Muslim? What does ‘pluralism’ connote? Does that mean denouncing salvific exclusivity, as Alami seems to suggest in the Straits Times article? What does acceptance of the secular state translate to in reality: is it philosophical acceptance of the privatisation of faith, or is it a practical approval of secularism as a political and governing principle? And what are these ‘universal’ values? Any student of politics would know that values are always being contested. What should Singaporean Muslim’s stance be toward gay marriage, for instance, and is recognition of that universal value? If so, why and if not, why not? Like most values, the ones suggested in the SMI project are up for contestation.” [5]

In Chapter 5, Abdullah was also critical to include what may be deemed as sensitive or taboo to some Muslims in Singapore, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues and Section 377A, and female circumcision. Later in Chapter 6, Abdullah discussed the conservative Muslims and the constricted space they have in influencing the state’s policies, discussing issues that include the tudung and again, Section 377A. Where these issues are concerned, more often than not, we observed accusatory commentaries by the community on social media – some reluctant to hear opposing ideas, while others choose to play the blame game. In the three chapters, Abdullah raised the political opportunity structure of the group – factors that are beyond them, but which impact and influence the degree of resonance and ultimately, the ‘successes’ of the group. It is refreshing that Abdullah included the nuances and alternative stances of the different Muslim activists in Singapore. Of course, it would not serve justice to simply divide the Muslims in Singapore into two categories: liberals, and conservatives. As you will find in the book, Abdullah constantly reminds readers that these two are not homogenous. He suggested that the categories should be further refined and understood in future studies.

As he moved to close the chapters, he drew readers’ attention back to the state’s overarching approach to activism and the preferred state’s Muslim identity to maintain stability. All this makes for hard-hitting, and maybe uncomfortable, reading. This is what Abdullah wants to achieve. Although he indicated that he made no normative judgment on what civil society should be or do, and that his narratives will largely depend on the readers’ position, intentionally or not, he wants to force readers to see the power plays at work in the process of translation. He wrote,

“I do not make a normative judgement on what civil society should be or do. I have merely attempted to explain the nature and implications of activism in Singapore. A reader who believes in the present system may think that it is a good thing that activism is of this sort, whereas someone who is more critical of the establishment may think otherwise. Either way, that debate is not the concern of this book, although I do accept that such judgements naturally follow from the arguments I have made, that is a conclusion, based on a prior ideological position, which the reader is entitled to arrive at.” [6]

If you are reading this review now, I strongly suggest that you read the book too. With current public discourses, such as the change in tudung policy and sunat perempuan, this book will resonate well with these issues. Ultimately, I appreciate that this book encourages readers to think more clearly about the position of Muslim activists in Singapore. It is a thoroughly readable and consistently thought- provoking reflection on the future of religious expression in Singapore. As we face new moral dilemmas and challenges that come with social changes, the search for a more solid understanding of Muslim’s narratives will determine where we go next. ⬛

1 Mutalib, H. Chapter: Authoritarian democracy and the minority Muslim polity in Singapore. Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia. Routledge. 2009. pp. 160-180
2 Mathews, M., et. al. CNA-IPS Survey on Ethnic Identity in Singapore. IPS Working Papers, No. 28, 2017. pp. 1-78
3 Mathews, M., et. al. Religion in Singapore: The Private and Public Spheres. IPS Working Papers, No. 33, 2019. pp. 1-157
4 Musa, M. A. Engaging Religion with Pragmatism: The Singapore State’s Management of Social Issues and Religious Tensions in the 1980s. RSIS Working Paper Series, 305, 2017. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University. p. 15
5 Abdullah, W. J. Chapter: The Ulama: Pragmatism and Political Acquiescence. Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore. Amsterdam University Press, 2021. p. 142
6 Abdullah, W. J. Chapter: Conclusion: Implications for Civil Society. Islam in a Secular State: Muslim Activism in Singapore. Amsterdam University Press, 2021. p. 271


Nur Diana Abdul Rahman is currently a Master of Arts candidate at the SOAS University of London’s Department of Religions and Philosophies. Her research interest is in socio-religious issues, specifically on the Malay/Muslim community.

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