THE ASATIZAH IN SINGAPORE
The asatizah in Singapore have come a long way since the post-independence period of the country. Gone are the days where the asatizah were few in numbers, without much support from organisations — who faced challenges of their own — and lacking many opportunities, be it financial or in continuing their studies overseas.
With much effort from the asatizah and support from the wider community, their current situation has changed since those days. Today, the asatizah boast large numbers while enjoying much support from organisations through various schemes, bursaries, internships and skills upgrading opportunities1. It is with this support that we now see the elevation within the asatizah’s socio-economic status and the important role they play in the state, for example in the combat of religious extremism and the keeping of religious and multiracial harmony in Singapore.
Since the post-independence period, the importance of the asatizah is very much in tandem with the centrality of Islam within the Malay community. The religion holds much influence on the social, cultural and economic aspects of the community, and therefore naturally, those who are well-versed in the religious sciences are seen as leaders within the community. This influence increased with the dawn of the Islamic Revivalism era in the eighties, which resulted in an increase in religious conservatism in the community. While this influence had its drawbacks2, it also meant that religion had the potential to be a positive catalyst for the community. Therefore, the asatizah played an important hand in developing the present improved state of the Muslim community in Singapore. Figures such as Kiyai Zuhri, Fadhlullah Suhaimi, Sonhadji, Syed Abdillah Jufri, and many others, were instrumental in the process.
Today, the role of the asatizah still holds much importance within the community. Their sphere of influence has increased due to their assuming wider roles in the community, such as in finance, academia and government organisations. The emergence of social media also plays an important role. While its emergence brings many benefits, the community also has to contend with more ills emerging through this framework within the context of religion, through ideologies such as sectarianism, extremism and xenophobia. This means the onus falls upon the asatizah to provide religious guidance that is practical, contextual and holistic.
However, today we see there is much room for change from the asatizah in this context. On the pretext of providing religious guidance, much improvement can be made regarding the religious content from the asatizah, especially with the current social environment surround- ing the Muslim community. The asatizah should possess both short- and long-term thinking regarding the problems of the Muslim community and be perceptive in addressing their needs instead of wants. As leaders and educators, the asatizah should possess a critical and independent mind, not a captive mind that disseminates content without truly guiding the masses to find purpose and peace, and assist them in overcoming challenges. Here, the words of Jawdat Said hold much relevance:
“We live in an era that witnesses an absence of true intellectuals. The problem we face is within the intellectuals and people of knowledge. They are the resigned ones, those who do not trust what they possess.” 3
Today, original and translation works from the asatizah are few in numbers, though now there is a rising awareness amongst youths who are engaging in more article and essay writings. The contemporary religious discourse within the asatizah community is also an area that requires more improvement, though we have to acknowledge that there are socio-religious barriers regarding this. Reflecting upon these issues, it would be appropriate to conclude that the asatizah are in need of a rejuvenation of their intellectual spirit that has been obscured with the passing of time. This is not a unique problem as it has long been an issue within the Muslim world. It was first raised by Jamaluddin Al-Afghani regarding the state of backwardness of the Muslim world in the late 19th century and was further refined by Hussein Alatas4.
Such a change requires strong leadership by the intelligentsia within the asatizah community. Such a change requires an amount of individuals who possess the necessary intellect to identify the problems from within and also the moral courage to speak the truth and instill a change within the community. The asatizah requires a functioning intelligentsia that operates within the community, and thus are able to identify the problems and offer the necessary solutions. Another important matter is to look towards the future and ask ourselves what are the possible factors that would allow the intelligentsia within the asatizah community to develop and flourish?
WHAT DEFINES THE ASATIZAH INTELLIGENTSIA?
The definition of an intellectual has long been outlined by scholars. From amongst them, I have utilised the works that I believe are relevant to define the intelligentsia in the context of the asatizah community.
In his book, Intellectuals in Developing Societies, Hussein Alatas wrote the definition of an intellectual as “a person who is engaged in thinking about ideas and non-material problems using the faculty of reason”. Within the context of the asatizah community, it would be apt to use this definition, though with an added quality: “guided by the principles of Islamic teachings”5.
Here, the writings of Hamka who advocated for a balanced usage between reason and revelation – a usage he termed as “guided reasoning” – holds much relevance6. The asatizah intelligentsia has to strike a balance between using academic and religious sciences. By this, it means to have the proper respect and humility to acknowledge the expertise of others in their respective fields and take heed of their advice. Though there are exceptions, such a balanced attitude has long been present within the asatizah community, as seen in the development and issuance of religious edicts. This is in line with the principle of ‘wasatiyyah’ (moderation) that is mentioned in the Quran, and also emphasised by Hamka and other religious scholars as a principle that should be manifested in all aspects of a Muslim’s life, especially the intelligentsia in carrying out their role.
Hussein Alatas also defined four characteristics an intellectual should have: 1) the ability to pose problems of their society, 2) defining the problems encountered, 3) analysing the problems, 4) finding solutions to the problems7. Thus lies the essence of the intelligentsia, which is to seek improvement in the lives of However, to do so means to speak and write the truth.
In his book, Peace and Discontents, Edward Said wrote, “The role of the intellectual is to say truth to power, to address the central authority in every society without hypocrisy, and to choose the method, the style, the critique best suited for the purpose.”8
For the asatizah community, just like in other communities, there is a need for a functioning intelligentsia to not only think critically about the problems the community is facing – be it the asatizah community or the Muslim community – but also speak truth to power. Here, I am of the opinion that ‘power’ does not only refer to bodies of authority or organisations, but to the general public. In this era of democracy and social media, the intelligentsia should not underestimate the power and intellect that lie in the hands of the public. Doing so requires much courage and knowledge.
This is in line with what an asatizah should be as Islam advocates such traits that are also exemplified by the Islamic prophets. One good example would be the story of Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), who exercised his critical mind to identify who was and wasn’t worthy of worship, and spoke truth to those who supposedly held authority over him, such as his father, and also to his community.
Thinking critically and speaking truth to power are important for the intelligentsia of the asatizah community, but to make an impact in modern society, it is imperative to write in the public domain. In seeking positive change, it also means to empower others and seek for them to understand the issues at hand.
Azhar Ibrahim wrote, “First, we have to recognise the fact that the task of public intellectuals or the intelligentsia is to ensure the deliberation of ideas in the public domain. In a modern complex society, this is only possible through writing discourse.”9
For the current asatizah intelligentsia, there is much room for improvement regarding the writing output. Though today we do have asatizah individuals who are consistently writing about important and relevant issues, be it in the form of articles, essays or books, in terms of quantity and content, the output leaves much to be desired. To write is important, but to write critically about important and relevant issues is an area that is possible to be improved. Such actions are exemplified by renowned religious scholars, be it in the past or present, regardless of their origin or school of thought. Noteable examples would be Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Rushd, Muhammad Abduh, Yusuf Al-Qardhawi, Hamka, Said Ramadan Al-Buti, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, and Quraish Shihab. These are all religious scholars who are critical thinkers whose writings have empowered the masses.
WHAT ARE THE FACTORS THAT WILL DEVELOP THE ASATIZAH INTELLIGENTSIA?
It is important that we identify the possible factors to develop and assist the intelligentsia within the asatizah community. The first would be for the asatizah to reflect upon the past and present intelligentsia of the asatizah community. It is clear that the community possesses a rich writing tradition, though the intelligentsia and their works do not have the attention they deserve today. From pre-independence, we should analyse the works of Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi, Haji Abbas Taha, and Tahir Jalaluddin. After them, we had Sonhadji, Syed Ahmad Semait, and Syed Abdillah Jufri. And today, we have senior asatizah figures such as Haniff Hassan and Mohammed bin Ali, who write about contemporary issues in the community. It would be instrumental for the asatizah intelligentsia’s development by familiarising with the past works of their predecessors. Reading and writing with a critical perspective about their works are important and necessary steps that should be taken by the asatizah intelligentsia.
The second would be for the current intelligentsia to display stronger leadership by reaching out to the younger generation of asatizah. Today, the published works and current initiatives and programmes such as Postgraduate Certificate in Islam in Contemporary Societies (PCICS)10 and Committee on Future Asatizah (COFA)11 are great efforts by the current intelligentsia and will surely contribute in developing the younger generations. Such efforts deserve praise and support, but improvements are always necessary. I believe that a stronger display of leadership by the current intelligentsia will imbue a much needed intellectual spirit in the wider asatizah community. By this, I mean to not only think critically, but to extensively and actively write and publish their thoughts and ideas in the public domain. Doing so will empower the younger generation of the asatizah community and create a culture of intellectual spirit.
While my first and second points revolve around the actions of the asatizah community, my final point is related to the strengthening of the socio-religious system. Actions, no matter how relevant and beneficial, will not be as effective without a supportive ecosystem. This point is excellently surmised by Hj Mohammad Alami Musa:
“Singapore’s future asatizah have the potential to become thought leaders, trail-blazers and trend-setters, who are highly-regarded as authorities of Islamic knowledge, locally and internationally, with future asatizah developing our own Islamic content in Singapore and reviving our strong writing tradition. To support this vision, it is crucial for institutions within the socio-religious ecosystem to be strengthened.” 12
One of the ways for the socio-religious ecosystem to be strengthened was suggested by former minister, Yaacob Ibrahim, in 2016, which was the idea for the setting up of a Singapore Islamic College13. Such a full-fledged academic institution will undoubtedly assist in developing the asatizah intelligentsia. In the present situation, the asatizah intelligentsia lack a proper medium for them to analyse and study works produced by the asatizah community, engage in critical religious discourse and publish religious academic works. An institution whose sole purpose is to develop and produce religious graduates will also help in developing an organic and empowering relationship between the local older and younger generation of asatizah, as for so long, the graduate and post-graduate education of the asatizah have largely taken place overseas. If we look towards the religious intelligentsia community in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, they are able to spearhead and contribute towards discourse and empower the public and their successors due to the existence of local religious academic institutions, be it by holding academic positions, or just engaging in the discourse that is produced by these institutions. While setting up such an institution is a momentous task that requires the support of the community and stakeholders, the idea of a Singapore Islamic College should not be dismissed completely.
The role of the asatizah intelligentsia is one that is laden with responsibility, but also one that is important for the sake of progress within the asatizah and Malay community. As how the asatizah have progressed from the post-independence period to their current state today, displaying a spirit of self-improvement that was exemplified by the older generations, it is appropriate for the community leaders and stakeholders in the Muslim community to work towards further developing the asatizah intelligentsia. This is especially so in our current context, where the complexities of modern life have brought more challenges for the asatizah and Muslim community.
However, as written in the Quran, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” 14 Therefore, the asatizah community should reflect and take the necessary steps towards positive change, as they have done so in the past. ⬛
1 Hassan, M. H., and Mohd Shuhaimy, I. H. Developing Asatizah in Singapore through the Asatizah Recognition Scheme. In: Saat, N., ed. Fulfilling the Trust. World Scientific, 2018
2 See: Osman, N. Chapter 18: Islamism in Singapore. In: Rasheed, Z. A., Zoohri, W. H., and Saat, N., eds. Beyond Bicentennial: Perspective on Malays. World Scientific, 2020
3 Said, J. Law, Religion and the Prophetic Method of Social Change. Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. XV, 2000-2001. pp. 109-110
4 Alatas, S. H. Kita Dengan Islam: Tumbuh Tiada Berbuah. Pustaka Nasional, 1979. pp. 51-52
5 Alatas, S. H. Intellectuals in Developing Societies. Frank Cass, 1977. p. 9
6 See: Aljunied, K. Hamka and Islam: Cosmopolitan Reform in the Malay World. ISEAS, 2018. p. 28
7 Alatas, S. H. Intellectuals in Developing Societies. Frank Cass, 1977. p.15
8 Said, E. Pause and Discontents. Vintage, 1996. pp. 184-185
9 Alwee, A. I. The Pedagogical Duty of the Intelligentsia: To Speak Up, To Write Down and To Reach Out. The Reading Group. 2000, January 31. Available at: https://www.thereadinggroup.sg/Articles/The%20Pedagogical%20Duty%20of%20the%20Intelligentsia.pdf
10 The Postgraduate Certificate in Islam in Contemporary Societies (PCICS) is a one-year programme by MUIS that aims to assist returning religious graduates readjust and contextualise what they have learnt overseas to local social and political contexts.
11 MUIS established 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.
12 Committee on Future Asatizah. Strengthening Religious Leadership for a Community of Success: Report from the Committee on Future Asatizah. MUIS, 2020
13 Ibrahim, Y. A Personal Reflection by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim. In: Saat, N, ed. Fulfilling the Trust. World Scientific, 2018
14 Quran, 13:11
Ahmad Ubaidillah Mohamed Khair is an Islamic Jurisprudence undergraduate from Yarmouk University, Jordan. He holds an avid interest for local and regional literature, as he believes in the potential power of words. He is also a writer for Muslim.sg.