Thursday, 8 March 2018

Singapore stands against Islamophobia

The Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said that the government is working to manage the challenges facing the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore. Speaking at the Singapore Committee of Supply debate on 8 March 2018, he said that the current generation faces challenges "no less trying than in the past".

"We are in the midst of another economic transformation, brought about by a digital revolution no less fundamental than the industrial revolution. We must prepare our industries and our workers for the future economy, and we must make sure that no one is left behind," he said.

"We must also face an ongoing threat to our faith. The spread of extremist ideologies abetted by social media and the acts of terror by ISIS have set Muslims against non-Muslims in many societies. Misguided religious preachers have spread insidious ideologies preaching segregation and a rejection of a modern life and the secular state. This is surely the road to alienation, marginalisation and ruin.

"In Singapore, we must stand united against such ideologues and ideologies, and against Islamophobia."

Three key strategies are to be employed. "First, we will continue our efforts to support our families and children, with an emphasis on early childhood education and helping the vulnerable. Second, we will enhance the socioreligious foundations of the community, by strengthening religious education and our key community institutions. And thirdly, we will build a future-ready community that embraces technology," he said.

Supporting families and children

Minister Yaacob said that parents are urged to send their children to quality preschool education, and shared that MENDAKI has, in recent years, focused more on supporting the development of children between ages of 0 to six.

"Last year, MENDAKI held its inaugural Education Symposium, supported by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) and the Learn SG seed fund. Over 250 participants benefited from discussions ranging from learning through play to preparing for primary school," he said.

He also shared that after the event, Irma Iryanti Juri, an adjunct lecturer at SEED Institute, which trains early childhood professionals, and Shaireen Selamat, a doctoral researcher from the University of Warwick, volunteered to lead the setup of a network of professionals and educators from the preschool sector to share best practices and learn from each other. The platform is now the MENDAKI Alliance of Preschool Professionals (MAPP), comprising about 30 professionals who actively support MENDAKI’s School-Ready programmes.

MENDAKI will also be organising a second run of the Education Symposium and a Playfest for Preschoolers in April, Minister Yaacob said. "Playfest aims to generate awareness about the benefits of play, and provide parents with ideas on setting up an age-appropriate stimulating learning environment at home.We want to help more low-income families enroll their children into full-day childcare, as this provides a conducive environment for the child’s development," he noted.

"The Back-to-Work Women programme is a key strategy in this effort, as it aims to help mothers to be gainfully employed. Besides enhancing the family’s income, they will be able to tap on more childcare subsidies, and quality preschool education will indeed be more affordable. MENDAKI will also work with ECDA and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) on ways to study how we can assist low-income families enroll their children in quality childcare and preschool education."

Minister Yaacob noted that 20 years ago, less than half of all Malays entered post-secondary educational institutions. Today, almost all Malay students do so. "We are committed to help as many as we can, to ensure that our young have a brighter future, and can access more opportunities than before," he said.

"For primary and secondary school students, the MENDAKI Tuition Scheme, or MTS, offers highly subsidised tuition sessions for students from lower income families. For the past five years, MTS has been helping over 10,000 students every year, across 89 centres islandwide."

MENDAKI also provides a wide range of assistance schemes. For example, any Muslim student can apply to MENDAKI for interest-free study loans and a wide range of bursaries and scholarships, while the best students, who excel in both academic and non-academic areas, receive the Anugerah MENDAKI award. MENDAKI also administers the Education Trust Fund that supports the lower income.

"Since 2003, S$22.9 million from the fund has been disbursed to support 91,000 students from preschool all the way ITE," said the minister.

When it comes to the Malay/Muslim Community Development Fund, or MMCDF, the focus is on helping Malay/Muslim Organisations (MMOs) build their capabilities. "Between 2015 and 2017, S$10 million were disbursed, benefitting around 55 partners per year. Some of the initiatives that receive MMCDF funding include the Debt Advisory Centre by AMP, the Rising Star Project by PERTAPIS, and the Family Therapy Institute by PPIS," Minister Yaacob said.

MENDAKI has several platforms to encourage youth to contribute to community and society, Minister Yaacob added. "The CLF LABS allow youth-led organisations and groups to testbed innovative ideas with MENDAKI’s seed funding. The inaugural Socialthon, held last July, brought together close to 100 youths to develop solutions in areas such as startup culture, health and technology. These platforms will help our youth hone their ideas and leadership skills, with the community and Singapore at heart.Sir, strong families are critical to the well-being of children.

While the proportion of minor marriages has declined from 10% of Muslim marriages in 2007 to 3.6% in 2017, this group still needs support, Minister Yaacob said. Those under 18 years old are considered minors. "We amended the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) last year to make it compulsory for minor couples to complete marriage preparation programmes and to obtain consent from parents or guardians, prior to making an application for marriage. MSF is working with the Registry of Muslim Marriages (ROMM) and INSPIRASI Hubs. The hubs are centres dedicated to preparing minor and young couples for marriage, and to raise awareness of these new requirements and the importance of marriage preparation and parental support.

"MSF is also working with the hubs to enhance the marriage preparation curriculum. The new requirements will apply to minor marriage applications from 1st October this year. The programme will benefit about 200 minor couples every year."

To better support step-families, MSF will work closely with PPIS Vista Sakinah, the centre for remarriages and step-families, Minister Yaacob continued. "Vista Sakinah will collaborate with agencies serving low-income step-families and waive the remarriage preparation programme fees for their participation. They will provide step-family awareness talks at key touch points, such as our mosques and other community agencies, and leverage on social media and radio. Additionally, Vista Sakinah will enhance its programme effectiveness by strengthening its evidence-based content, building trainer capabilities, and enhancing its programme evaluation."

Laying strong foundations for our community

Minister Yaacob noted that Singapore's madrasahs (religious schools) play a dual role in nurturing future asatizah (religious teachers) for the community, and in preparing those who opt for careers in the non-religious sectors.

"Madrasah Wak Tanjong, founded by the late Ustaz Mohd Noor bin Taib, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Its students have a history of excelling in religious studies, and taking up religious leadership roles. One example is Ustazah Hilwani binte Mohammad Abdul Halim. She is the daughter of the late Ustaz Mohammad Abdul Halim, who was the Principal of Madrasah Wak Tanjong for five years. She does her late father proud by teaching Islamic jurisprudence and Arabic at Madrasah Wak Tanjong. Hilwani holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Islamic Jurisprudence from the University of Jordan, but she is determined to better herself as a teacher. She is now enrolled in a specialist diploma programme in Applied Learning and Teaching at Republic Polytechnic under MUIS’ sponsorship, and will graduate in August this year," he said.

Minister Yaacob noted that MUIS will be providing Madrasah Wak Tanjong with a Comprehensive Assistance Package that includes an extension of its lease at its current premises, and the provision of additional funding to strengthen its curriculum and professional development. "The strong support signals MUIS’ ongoing commitment to further professionalise and strengthen the madrasah sector as a whole," he said.

Minister Yaacob also presented the design of the new Madrasah Al-Arabiah Al-Islamiah campus to parliament members. "It has a sustainable and green design that is complemented with Islamic and nusantara architecture," he said, sharing that MUIS has committed S$10 million for this project. "So, I urge the community to support the madrasah’s fund-raising efforts, to ensure that the campus can be operational by 2020."

Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah is also on track to offer a cohort of 27 students an International Baccalaureate curriculum in 2019. "School leaders, IB coordinators and teachers have been hard at work in equipping themselves with the necessary skills and qualifications," he added.

For curriculum development and teacher training, the government has introduced financial incentives for madrasah teachers in secular subjects which has benefited more than 170 teachers, while over 500 students have received Madrasah Student Awards in February for educational excellence. MUIS has also worked with madrasahs to strengthen the holistic development of students, so that they are exposed to areas such as youth volunteerism, service learning projects and outdoor education.

"..We want our students to go beyond the classroom, to interact with and contribute to the larger Singapore society," Minister Yaacob said.

He also gave updates on plans for an Islamic college in Singapore. "In recent months, officials from MUIS and myself visited institutions of higher learning in the Middle East such as in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, as well as universities in multireligious, plural societies, such as the US and Canada, to study the different models of tertiary Islamic education," he said.

To keep the young from extremist and segregationist views, the Asatizah Youth Network, or AYN, was formed last year with 11 asatizah to offer support and guidance to youths on social media as well as act as the first touch point for those in doubt. "Ustaz Tarmizi Wahid belongs to this pioneer batch. He is the CEO and founder of Safinah Institute, a private Islamic learning centre with a strong digital media presence, especially on Instagram. Safinah also operates a digitally device-friendly platform called Soul Academy, where participants can virtually interact and discuss issues with trainers and peers," Minister Yaacob said.

Sir, MUIS is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In fact, MUIS was formed on 1st of July 1968. MUIS has grown its scope of work in serving the socio-religious needs of the community. This includes increasing prayer spaces in mosques, distributing zakat and facilitating Hajj and qurban. In doing so, MUIS has endeavoured to maintain strong partnerships with stakeholders. September 11, the spectre of extremism and the emergence of charismatic Internet-age radical ideologues have made MUIS’ mission all the more difficult. But MUIS has stayed the course in nurturing a Singapore Muslim identity – one that honours the Islamic faith, the aspirations of our community, and the relationships and the identities that bind us to Singapore, our home.

"The theme Semarak Langkah, Berjiwa Rahmah or Striving with Confidence, Serving with Compassion is apt in portraying the spirit of MUIS’ service to the community."

MUIS will be holding a MUIS 50 Dinner and Awards Ceremony, where awards will be presented to individuals who have been instrumental to MUIS and Singapore and who inspire Singapore's youth. MUIS will also hold an International Religious Conference at the end of the year to rally the community on the important role of religious scholars and institutions in shaping a progressive religious life. MUIS is currently engaging the community through the ongoing MUIS50 conversations for ideas to strengthen MUIS for the future. More details will be shared at MUIS’ Work Plan Seminar in April.

Forging a future-ready community

MENDAKI has partnered the three ITE colleges for its Future First Programme (FFP). Benefitting about 240 ITE students currently, the FFP complements ITE’s education and career guidance and life skills curriculum.

"MENDAKI will be expanding the programme to even more ITE students, partnering polytechnics and the wider youth community. And this would include the launch of a Future-Ready Starter Kit in August 2018 on workplace expectations, and strategies to remain relevant in the future economy.With improving educational attainment by Malay students, we have seen a higher proportion of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) in the Malay workforce. The proportion of PMETs has increased from one in four in 2007 to one in three in 2017, with a majority in education, health, social services and public administration. Of these, about two thirds are associate professionals and technicians," he said.

"We also see that Malays have a higher than proportional share of placements under the Adapt and Grow initiative, which includes the career centres run by Workforce Singapore and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute."

The minister further shared that he has asked Senior Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim and Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin to lead a PMET Outreach Committee to create a support network for Malay/Muslim PMETs’ retraining and employability needs. "The Committee has leveraged on key platforms such as SENSE PMET Jobfair@Grassroots Club and the Secangkir Kopi bersama MENDAKI dialogue and networking sessions. The committee produced and distributed more than 3,000 copies of the Handy Guidebook for PMETs to raise awareness on support schemes. The Committee intends to do more engagements, with four JUMP! Career Fairs to offer assistance and raise awareness about growth sectors in Singapore," Minister Yaacob said.

Acknowledging that the Malay/Muslim community has to adapt to digitalisation, a key driver of growth in the future, MUIS and MENDAKI have started using digital tools to improve service delivery and accessibility. MUIS' Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) procedures are online on the LicenceOne portal to make it easier for registration and to undertake data analytics on the asatizah, while MENDAKI’s Tuition Scheme Online Programme Registration System and Loan Management System have enhanced user convenience and organisational productivity, the minister said.

"And in fact, the data collected through the tuition registration enables the team to analyse the profiles of students and their families, and help MENDAKI to tailor programmes and outreach according to the students’ performance," he stated.

MENDAKI also has a Digital Transformation Department that will help facilitate the digital transformation of MMOs. PPIS, for example, has partnered MENDAKI on a data-analytics project to better understand the profiles and the needs of client families, so as to to attract more families with preschool-going children, Minister Yaacob said. PPIS is a non-profit social welfare organisation dedicated to working with women of all ages, and currently serves about 500 students across seven centres.

Minister Yaacob believes that more, if not all, Malay/Muslim small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) should take that first critical step towards going digital. "I had the opportunity to engage members of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, or SMCCI. It is heartening to see Malay/Muslim SMEs such as Frozi, an F&B establishment that serves frozen yogurt, and Spear Security Force, a security company, making good progress with their first use of digital solutions to increase revenue and improve productivity," he said.

"We have been working with SME Centre@SMCCI, supported by IMDA’s SME Digital Tech Hub, to organise workshops for members. With SMCCI taking the lead to help their members tap on IMDA’s SMEs Go Digital programme, I believe more Malay/Muslim SMEs will come on board."

IMDA is additionally working together with SMCCI, the One Kampong Gelam Association, and other partners to create Singapore’s first digitally-enabled retail neighbourhood. "For a start, we will guide Kampong Glam merchants on how they can digitalise to improve their business operations," he said.

"Today, there are already existing merchants doing so. Take for example, one of my favourite stores, Wardah Bookstore. Wardah sells a wide range of books from Islamic history to philosophy. It actively uses social media; it has also digitalised its processes so that data accounting is integrated between its physical and online stores. The presence of an online store not only directs traffic to the physical store, but boosts its reach to overseas customers in Malaysia and Brunei. So, digitalisation will be a key anchor for our economy’s future growth. And this is why I urge our workforce to be future-ready, our community organisations and SMEs to transform, so that we and our future generations can continue to achieve our hopes and aspirations."

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