Discerning the Future of our Asatizah

The paths of Singapore’s asatizah (Islamic teachers) have improved over the past 50 years1. Our early asatizah, such as former Mufti Sheikh Syed Isa Semait, struggled to finance their higher education at Al-Azhar University and opportunities were rare. For prospective asatizah today, a bachelor’s degree from Al-Azhar or a renowned university in the Middle East is expected. Notwithstanding individual effort, a scholarship to pursue post-graduate studies at prestigious secular universities around the world would not be a daydream. Our madaris (plural of madrasah) which were once magnets of criticism2 are now staffed by professionally certified teachers and produce students who would later contribute not just to the religious but also non-religious sectors. These developments would not have been possible without the support of the broader Muslim community as well as the voices and champions of reform and progress from outside and within the asatizah community from our early years until today.

Despite the improvements in the education and livelihood of our asatizah, it would be foolish to rest on one’s laurels while global developments continue to alter the economic, political, social, ethical and moral grounds that all of us – including our asatizah – stand on. The institutions that produce the current quality of asatizah – the six madaris – and the breadth of opportunities presented for them to further their education and fulfil their functions today may not sufficiently prepare them for tomorrow. As such, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) formed the Committee on Future Asatizah (COFA) in March 2019 to “advance thinking about the skills and competencies of future asatizah, and advise on strategies to develop the asatizah workforce”3.

COFA’s chair, Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Dr Maliki Osman, raised two issues of concern regarding the future of our asatizah: “Future asatizah need to be equipped with [1] strong grounding in religious knowledge, as well as with [2] work-relevant skills”.

These two issues primarily involve the education of our asatizah.

Having witnessed over the past few decades how poverty in the realm of religious knowledge had resulted in the spread of extremist ideologies and fuelled identity politics and imbecilic conservatism, the Government’s view was that it has to improve the quality of tertiary religious education for Singapore’s asatizah. An idea was mooted in 2016 for Singapore’s own Islamic college and the government embarked on study trips to global Islamic institutes of higher learning, where students were trained to be religious teachers, and in some cases, provided with a broader education in the humanities, to prepare them for employability in the wider economy or to produce rigorous scholars4.

Aside from countering extremist ideas, asatizah also have a role to play as public intellectuals that guide the Muslim community through a fast-changing normative landscape. A sizeable minority of Singaporean Muslims continue to struggle with reconciling piety in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, secular state. The community looks to the asatizah for guidance not just on basic issues, such as halal consumption and ritual matters, but also on more intellectually challenging matters that affect our perception and relations with each other and non- Muslims, such as identity, gender and health. If our future asatizah are not up to task, individuals will search for answers elsewhere.

The idea that asatizah could be employable outside of the religious sector certainly struck a chord with the Government. There are more than 3,400 ARS-recognised asatizah5 absorbed by the 269 Islamic Education Centres and Providers (IECPs)6 which include private centres, pre-schools, and mosques. Only a small percentage constitute MUIS’ headcount. MUIS had an establishment list of 43 in FY2017 (actual) and 73 in FY2018 (revised)7.

Unlike in the 1990s, where the concern was that madrasah students were not receiving a good enough education to integrate into the workforce, improvements in the quality of education in our six full-time madaris, with a combined annual intake of about 4008, have resulted in a different game of numbers. Students are doing better in English, Science and Mathematics and in 2017, 55% scored above 200 points for the Primary School Leaving Examinations9. A good number of these students would complete their GCE O-Levels and, eventually, tertiary Islamic education. In 2018, 850 Singaporean students were pursuing tertiary Islamic education abroad10.

COFA would need to look at how to realistically harness the untapped potential of our asatizah. We can imagine asatizah in hybrid roles where their religious education adds some value, such as in academia, social work and counselling, national projects as well as public policy and government-liaison. However, these roles are dependent on future industry demand for individuals with a religious education.

If industry demand proves to be the limitation, COFA should not neglect the possibility of training asatizah for employment in secular roles far from the religious sector, such as in the private sector. Asatizah need not view this as a career switch per se. Their lived experience in the non-religious sector could prove valuable to the broader Muslim community as they could advise their Muslim colleagues and working class by contextualising piety in the workplace. Their place in this “frontline” would help make religious guidance more relatable for many. These asatizah could also make use of their religious education in voluntary roles, guide, teach or even contribute to scholarship in their free time. Just as there are many academics who have held professional roles outside11, these asatizah, depending on their determination to keep their religious knowledge beneficial throughout their time “outside”12, could still be called upon, formally and informally, to guide the community.

Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas proclaimed that education is “the instillation and inculcation of adab in man”13 and explained that a man of adab was one who “is sincerely conscious of his responsibilities towards the true God; who understands and fulfils his obligations to himself and others in his society with justice, and who constantly strives to improve every aspect of himself towards perfection as a man of adab14. Al-Attas defined adab as the “recognition and acknowledgement of the reality that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically according to their various grades and degrees of rank, and of one’s proper place in relation to that reality and to one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities and potentials”.

We should consider Al-Attas’ advice as we reflect on the cacophony of voices and concerns surrounding the future of our asatizah lest we embark on a journey of injustice, stupidity and madness. Each year, the community buoys 400 new students with the promise of ladhdhat al ma’rifah (pleasure of knowledge). However, if our thinking on religious education – from the madaris to tertiary institutions – does not do justice to the physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities and potentials of our future asatizah, they will be forced to carry the burden of our loss of adab.

The future of our ‘alim, mufti, public intellectual and ustaz (whether he is in the religious sector, assumes a hybrid role or contributes to the general workforce), their quality, capacity and livelihood, depend on the same religious education system. The challenge for COFA would be to figure out the hierarchy of knowledge and strategies of instruction that would best prepare them for their roles and not leave them regretting being among the 400. ⬛

1 Hassan, Mohamed Hannan, 2016. “Religious Leadership in Singapore: From Success to Significance of Madrasah Education”. Majulah! 50 Years of Malay/Muslim Community in Singapore Eds. Zainul Abidin Rasheed & Norshahril Saat, 181-190; Steiner, Kertin. 2011. “Madrasah in Singapore: Tradition and Modernity in Religious Education.” Intellectual Discourse 19 (1): 41–70.
2 “Madrasah Students Face Disadvantage”, The Straits Times, 17 May 1999, p. 30; “Madrasahs Don’t Teach Critical Skills”, The Straits Times, 11 May 1999, p. 45; See Also Steiner, K. 2011
3 Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, 2019. “Developing Future Asatizah with Relevant Knowledge and Skills”, MCCY Website, 6 August, Retrieved: 1 December 2019, From https://www.mccy.gov.sg/aboutus/news-and-resources/parliamentary-matters/2019/aug/developing-future-asatizah-relevant-knowledge-skills.
4 Mokhtar, F. 2018. “S’pore’s First Islamic College Could Have Broad-Based Curriculum to Equip Students with Employable Skills”. TODAY, 8 March. Available at: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/spores-first-islamic-college-could-have-broad-based-curriculum-equip-students-employable.
5 MUIS, 2018. 2017 Annual Report.
6 MUIS, 2019. 2018 Annual Report.
7 Ministry of Finance, 2018. “Expenditure Estimates by Head of Expenditure”. Singapore Budget 2019, Retrieved: 1 December 2019, From https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2019/revenue-expenditure/revenue-expenditure-estimates.
8 Azura Mokhtar, Intan (2010). “Madrasahs in Singapore: Bridging Between Their Roles, Relevance and Resources”. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 30 (1): 111–125
9 MUIS, 2018. 2017 Annual Report.
10 MUIS, 2019. 2018 Annual Report.
11 As an example, there are many diplomats who despite their busy schedules continue to contribute valuably to scholarship.
12 They are never truly exiled from the religious and spiritual sphere if they make the effort to ensure that what they have learnt beneficial (Yanfa’).
13 In Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education, 1979: 37.
14 Al-Attas, Syed M. Naquib, 1973. Risalah Untuk Kaum Muslimin, 54.


Muhammad Haziq Jani is a Senior Analyst at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. His research interests include religious extremism, interfaith dialogue and political Islam.

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