Finding God, and happiness, in this secular space

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There was a moment about a month ago when I felt truly happy to have been born here, this tiny island crammed to the gills with people of all colours, high-rise buildings, construction sites, speeding supercars and creeping train carriages, status updates and tweets, angry Merlion-esque commuters, angrier Special Forces commandos in public libraries, floods, viral videos, online petitions and movements.

I’m sorry to have to add another essay into this complicated, crowded mess, but being a happy Singaporean doesn’t happen often for me, so I think it’s worth documenting. In fact a recent survey shows it doesn’t happen often for many Singaporeans. And we don’t know why.

Or maybe we do, but all the signs and studies show that being happy has little to do with being rich. In fact it appears that if you already have your basic needs met, striving hard to make more and more money won’t make you much happier. Sure, you’ll get to buy more fancy stuff, watch European football without having to resort to a pirated set-top box and go on more exotic holidays, but after the initial euphoria none of these possessions and experiences will make you feel any better.

Our Singaporean brains get a cognitive equivalent of a 404 error just trying to comprehend this phenomenon. Cognitive dissonance, if you’ve majored in Psychology (a pretty good thing I’d reckon for one’s career, judging from the number of loons living among us).

Watching Ilo Ilo

Anyway, this moment of bliss happened after I left the cinema at Tiong Bahru Plaza, having watched Ilo Ilo, that Singaporean film that won the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2013 . If you’ve not watched the film you should (although you probably have to wait for the DVD since it’s no longer screened).

The film tells the struggles faced by a middle-class Chinese Singaporean family amidst the 1997 financial crisis, and the bond each member of the family develops with their good-natured Filipino maid, who isn’t exactly having a rollicking time herself.

A scene from the movie Ilo Ilo.

A scene from the movie Ilo Ilo.

But back to this transitory ecstasy I was experiencing. I guess anybody who’s ever been to the movies knows that feel-good, carefree feeling you leave the cinema with. But as I walked out of GV Tiong Bahru Plaza I knew this wasn’t it. I was in a state of joy because for once I had watched a Singaporean film that was honest without being tacky. It pointed out the ludicrousness of the kiasi, win-at-all-costs mentality. That same mentality that besieges us into this state of unhappiness, and causes us to sometimes besiege others to do the same.

I was also feeling happy because the film managed to evoke all these memories I had growing up: bullying the maid while my mother worked, playing the capteh and cycling, and being a general nuisance around the house and neighbourhood (I’d elaborate but it would be embarrassing).

But most of all, I felt happy because I saw two things upon exiting the cinema. I saw three Primary School boys, a Malay, a Chinese and an Indian. They were having a bit of a banter, though I couldn’t make out what, and it seemed like they didn’t have a care in the world (were the exams over?). They could have so easily been mistaken as brothers, if only the colours of their skins weren’t so obvious.

I saw two girls from a madrasah, complete with the hijab that formed part of their uniform, window-shopping. They looked like they were about fifteen, milling around, wide smiles on their faces, perhaps not much different from other fifteen-year-old girls let loose in a shopping mall. I wondered if they were aware of the rising tide of discontent amongst many in the Muslim community with regards to the hijab issue, unresolved after many years of lobbying.

Singaporean & Muslim

Singaporean & Muslim

The film, the memories it evoked, the boys and girls I saw outside the cinema made me feel happy to be Singaporean. But what does being Singaporean mean, really? In this instance I suppose one could say being Singaporean means having been born here, and having spent much of one’s life here. To be specific this was the Singaporean identity manifesting itself, not citizenship. Citizenship can be ‘bought’, not so identity.

The Singaporean Identity, Secular Space

But while the word identity might bring about connotations of individuality, the Singaporean identity is a shared one. Whatever racial group you belong to or whatever religion you profess, there are clear elements of this Singaporean identity that we all (usually) agree upon. Some of them are a respect for law and order, a confidence in speaking English, a penchant for efficiency and an inclination to work hard for one’s goals. I think we are also compassionate people, judging from how quickly we open our wallets for donations, to how we all collectively grieve when tragedy strikes.

Being Singaporean also means being mindful of the religious practices and customs of other Singaporeans. While it is true that we are a secular state, the reality is that many people who live here believe in a higher power and subscribe to some form of religion. We have churches, mosques and temples all over the island. When army officers are commissioned, leaders from the various religious groups are present to ‘bless’ the parade and the graduating contingent. Our public education system allows for Catholic schools to educate boys and girls of all faiths.

So when fellow Singaporeans say that concessions to allow the hijab in schools and workplaces will trample upon our country’s secular space, I can’t help but feel puzzled. Perhaps there are differing views on what secular means. Secular is typically defined as being “not connected to spiritual or religious” matters. A secular space, or state, is one that is neutral in its stance towards all religions.

A secular space to me is one where I do not have to feel obligated to participate in a religious event or ritual. It’s one where I don’t have to live in constant fear of being preached to, or pressured to convert. Off the top of my head, the workplace would be an example of such a secular space, especially if it came under the ambit of the government.

Ironically, a secular space is also one that frees people from being discriminated upon because of their religion, given its neutrality towards all religions. Imagine if a Muslim teacher decided to be unnecessarily harsh in punishing a student, simply because he or she was non-Muslim. Surely we can think of many other examples where having this secular space benefits everybody.

But does being secular denote being anti-religion? Do we then remove all traces of belief in God from the secular space? Do I rip off my colleague’s cross hanging from her neck, or remove her Buddha statue from her desk, or ask her to wash away the bindi on her forehead, to restore the tainted secularity of this space? Let me ask again, does being secular denote being anti-religion?

I apologise if anybody is offended by the extreme examples that I employ, but I worry that the Singaporean identity is not what it once was. Where once we use to stand up for one another, regardless of race, language or religion, today we cower behind the walls we have erected around us. These walls were not erected from the strength of our faiths or from rising religiosity, but from the hatred that has poisoned our hearts. A hatred borne from ignorance. From not bothering to be mindful of other religious customs, of not wanting to know more about those who have different skin colours from us. From not knowing the difference between a ‘religious symbol’ and a ‘religious obligation’ (hint: the hijab is one but not the other).

That’s what I loved about Ilo Ilo. It allowed me to be a little less ignorant about the Chinese in Singapore. Sure, I suppose when they are the majority race here it’s difficult not to know what they are like: their social behaviour, cultural leanings, beliefs, attitudes etc. But to be frank, despite being a minority, I can also be guilty of insularity. And while I laughed at all the cheena idiosyncrasies the film pointed out, at the end I remember feeling a sense of connection with the Chinese family. I saw them as fellow members of this home we share, trudging through life, no different from me.

What Will You Defend?

I’ll end with the Total Defence theme from a few years ago. The question that unleashed irrepressible cynicism among NS men, and a host of sarcastic answers. “What will you defend?” Of course the correct answer is only one. We will defend Singapore. Nay, we ourselves must defend Singapore.

I think about this question every time I put on my army green and report in-camp for reservist. I try to imagine the kind of Singapore I would die defending. I imagine it’s a Singapore where my wife won’t be asked to remove her hijab, for fear of disrupting social harmony. I imagine it’s a Singapore where everybody is free to practice their religion without fear of discrimination. I imagine it’s a Singapore where the men and women will speak up to prevent any injustice. I imagine it’s a Singapore where I can feel connected and heard, where my views and aspirations matter.

I imagine it’s a Singapore where I can find God, and through Him, happiness.

Sure, not every soldier will imagine Singapore to be this. But their imaginations and mine are not mutually exclusive. And together, we will defend this tiny red dot, the shared product of our imaginations. Even, if it means sacrificing our lives.

A man who died defending Singapore.

A man who died defending Singapore.

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Circumcision in Islam: A Meaningless Tradition Worth Discarding?

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This article was written for muzlimbuzz.sg (read: I’m running out of things to blog about)

About a week ago, in the midst of raging hijab debates and raucous Halloween debaucheries, The Real Singapore, a local alternative news website, did something rather strange and wholly unnecessary. It decided to publish an article, written by a Muslim man, on his disdain for male circumcision. This was more trick than treat.

To be honest, The Real Singapore is often guilty of the downright bizarre, though not the kind often associated with jack-o-lanterns and creepy costumes. But I suppose in wanting to attract a countercultural audience, they sometimes have to feature opinions which are very much opposed to the mainstream. An article on how circumcision is vile and barbaric, and not an obligation in Islam because no Quranic injunction exists to support it, is undoubtedly right up their alley.

Unfortunately, this particular writer seemed not to understand that Islam does not allow for the cherrypicking of laws to suit one’s motives and feelings. Yes, there may be a difference of opinion with regards to some laws (the permissibility of music comes to mind), but the vast majority of laws are clear and unambiguous.

As a Muslim, one is obligated to follow these laws, and not simply cast them aside on a whim. In Surah Al-Baqarah, Allah commands the believers to “enter into Islam completely”. Interestingly, in that same verse (208), they are warned “not to follow in the footsteps of Satan”, for he is, to believers, a “clear enemy”.

Is circumcision commanded in the Quran? No, it isn’t (and that’s perhaps the only thing the writer and I agree upon). But Islamic law is derived from several sources, not just the Quran, though it is regarded as the primary source. The Sunnah (sayings and teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) also serves as guidance when deciding how to behave as a Muslim.

In this regard, Muslim men are circumcised because the Prophet Muhammad himself was circumcised and is reported to have said “Five things are part of fitrah (natural disposition of man): circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, trimming the moustache, cutting the nails and removing hair from the armpits”. (Sahih)

Naysayers who claim that following the Quran alone is enough fail to understand that the Quran itself exhorts Muslims to follow the examples of the prophets (peace be upon them all), and that to obey Allah means to obey His Messenger. How does one obey the Messenger if he or she discards the Sunnah?

So if you’ve read this wanting to know if circumcision can and should be discarded as an archaic tradition with no place in the modern world, the plain and simple answer is no. Well, not for Muslim men anyway. But don’t take it from me. Walk over to your nearby mosque or Islamic centre and ask a local alim. Email him. Sign up for one of his classes. There are many in Singapore today, even though we may not be a Muslim country.

Just don’t take your knowledge of Islam from the World Wide Web. In today’s day and age, just about anybody can give you a half-baked ‘fatwa’, without having to spell out his name, let alone his credentials. Don’t learn about Islam from The Real Singapore.

Know that just like any other body of knowledge, there needs to be rigorous, authentic scholarship to determine what gets admitted and discarded from the canon of Islam. This is especially important when one considers what is at risk: the innovation and distortion of the Shariah, which ultimately leads to two phenomena, a refashioning of Islam to please the senses of the liberal democratic world and a hugely splintered faith, with a billion differing schools of thought. The symptoms of these two are already evident, for anybody who cares to look deeper into the crisis facing Islam today.

As such, not anybody can interpret the Quran and the Sunnah. In Abdul Hakim Murad’s Understanding the Four Madhabs, it is clearly listed the conditions that allow someone to claim the right to ijtihad (independent, scholarly reasoning leading to the formulation and codification of Islamic law). These conditions are, among others, mastery of Arabic language, a profound knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, knowledge of the specialised disciplines of hadith, and knowledge of the views of the Companions, Followers and the great Imams.

To use an oft-quoted analogy, if we don’t subscribe to fly-by-night quacks for medical advice out of fear of the irreversible damage to our physical bodies, how can we be guilty of not doing the same in matters of religion? Taking instruction on religious rulings from just about anybody can result in untold harm on our eternal souls.

This medical analogy can also be used to clear up a long-standing misconception. Islam does not believe in circumcision because of its health benefits, numerous they may be in scientific literature. After all, as Muslims we do not consider science as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Rather, the Quran and Sunnah guides us to what truth is. As such, we are unlikely to be affected by what scientific research has to say about circumcision, negative or otherwise.

Nevertheless, we do not denounce science, or in this case, medicine, entirely. We know of its untold benefits in the modern era. In fact, on the issue of circumcision, a medical opinion, from a genuine doctor of course, can be used to overrule a religious obligation. For instance, if the doctor performing the circumcision feels the patient is at risk of haemorrhaging, or is perhaps too old or weak to undergo the procedure, then the obligation to be circumcised is waived. Some scholars have even said that the obligation is also waived if the person fears the procedure.

So, speaking hypothetically, if the Muslim man who wrote the article bashing circumcision were to explain to his future son the procedure of being circumcised, and if for some reason the son did not feel safe to undergo such a procedure, then, technically, the son wouldn’t have to. And it would not make him any less of a Muslim. Judging from experience though I don’t think any self-respecting seven-year-old kid would pass off that once-in-a-lifetime chance to feel like a tough hero.

However, I fear that there will be parents like the writer who insist that the religious obligation for circumcision is nothing but a fallacy, and in doing so would have already made a decision on behalf of their sons. How ironic, to dismiss such obligations on the basis of them being dogma, while espousing no less rigid an ideology.

Hijab

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If you are a Muslim living in this region then chances are you’ve heard of the online petition that wants Muslim women to be allowed to wear the hijab at workplaces in Singapore. A hijab is basically a headscarf worn by Muslim women when in public. In mainstream interpretations of the faith wearing it is a religious duty, and non-compliance is often considered a sin.

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If you haven’t seen or heard about the petition you can click here to read more about it and see how many signatures it has garnered. At the time of me writing this, it’s had over 12,000 signatures. It hopes to get 20,000.

For many Muslim women, not just at the workplace but in secondary schools and colleges, staying employed (or in the case of schools which require strict adherence to a common uniform, educated) means having to commit the sin of taking the hijab off. Given how people are increasingly religious these days, especially in the Muslim community, the choice can be particularly tough.

The hijab is usually allowed in many workplaces, but for women who work as nurses, like my wife, or in frontline operations where a certain uniform needs to be worn, it’s commonly accepted that wearing the hijab will get you more than a telling off from your superior.

The existing policy on the hijab, stoutly defended by many in the ruling PAP, has led to a politicisation of the issue. Muslims in Singapore look it as yet another instance where their rights have been trampled upon, along with the government’s pressuring and meddling of local madrasahs, considered by mainstream Singaporeans as unhealthy with respect to multi-cultural integration and nation building.

It’s no surprise how this one simple issue can get so many ordinary Singaporean Muslims riled up. After all, in countries like Australia and the UK, Muslim women are granted the freedom to wear the hijab, even if they work as nurses or policewomen. It’s funny how a predominantly Western, secular country with a relatively new Muslim minority, made up mostly of immigrants, can be so quick in laying down laws which allow such modifications to uniform, while here in Singapore nothing’s changed in the last 30 years of lobbying.

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What makes the current policy on banning hijabs at the workplace and school even more annoying/baffling is Article 152 of Singapore’s constitution, which upholds that Malays, considered the indigenous people of Singapore and of whom more than 99% are Muslim, shall be given special treatment. This includes the government having to “protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, RELIGIOUS, economic, social and cultural interests…”

As if that isn’t clear enough, Article 153 states that “The Legislature shall by law make provision for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the President in matters relating to the Muslim religion.”

It would appear that the law of the land appears favourable to Muslims wanting to retain their faith. So why is the situation on the ground vastly different? There are many reasons, but I’ve narrowed them down to three, which I’ll elaborate here.

One, Singapore is a young country with a tumultuous past that involves clashes of the racial and religious kind. In 1964, several people were killed and many others injured when Chinese and Malay groups fought with each other. A decade earlier similar scenes of violence and destruction were thrust into the realm of public consciousness when a court ruled that a girl that had been raised by Muslims was to be returned to her biological parents, who were Catholic.

These riots are repeatedly told ad nauseum every year during Racial Harmony Day, celebrated annually in Singapore on 21st July, the day of the 1964 riots. They are given different perspectives, by educators, journalists and politicians, but ultimately they remind Singaporeans that race and religion are touchy topics that should never be broached publicly.

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What this usually means is simple. To speak about wanting certain rights pertaining to one’s faith is akin to being socially irresponsible and unnecessarily demanding, amidst an environment that preaches fairness to all, regardless of race, language or religion. In such a climate, one is expected to rein in one’s individual identity, and religious practice, for the continued harmony of the masses.

Two, there are, unfortunately, more than a few racists and Islamophobes in government. I won’t mention their names here lest I be hauled off to court, but suffice to say one could simply study the speeches and interviews given by some of them, and draw conclusions from there.

Racism on the ground (or in today’s day and age, FB) against Malays, as witnessed recently through the likes of Amy Cheong, leads to a severe backlash. Racism amongst the political elites? More often than not, brushed away as the musings of senility, a hard truth, or my personal favourite, a quote taken out of context.

But here’s how I see it. Racism or Islamophobia in Singapore is subtle. Nobody gets their front porch smashed for being Muslim. Nobody gets beaten up for wearing a burqa or growing a beard. But yearning for spirituality in a country steeped in materialist values is odd, and will attract you more than a few stares. So wanting to wear the hijab, or pray five times a day, or stay away from social events due to the inter-mingling and alcohol is often equated with being backward.

Sure, it might be the same elsewhere. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman was quizzed on her hijab, seen as antithetical to the values she was promoting in wanting to revolutionise Yemen (see image below). Her reply was top drawer. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

taw

But in Singapore, with a lack of healthy democratic discourse, such views, especially when they come from the governing elite, can end up invading every sector of society. To put it another way, if there is a lack of diverse opinions on the hijab issue amongst the people in power, why should it be any different for everyday people like you and me?

The third and perhaps the saddest reason (for Muslims like myself at least), is that the Muslims in Singapore, from the leaders to the laymen, are unwilling to push for change. Blame their “huge” government-drawn salary, blame dire economic status, blame mindless consumerism, blame the ruling party, blame the sequence of events that led us to being separated from our big brothers in Malaysia.

At the end of the day, we worry more about our next paycheck, how wonderful our upcoming wedding will be, which city in Korea to visit next, than whether our Muslim sisters will be allowed to wear the hijab or not. Sure, we’ll sign any petition, and believe you me we’ve signed many, but in ten years if things still don’t change, it’s not really going to hurt us that much. Nothing compared to the hurt we get from watching Manchester United under David Moyes these days.

Let’s put it this way. If only one Muslim wrote in to his/her MP and asked that hijabs be allowed in the Singapore workforce, chances are pretty slim that any change will be forthcoming. The letter will probably get trashed and the person will most likely be blacklisted. But what if a thousand people wrote in? Or ten thousand? What if one hundred thousand people wrote to their MP? (The CIA factbook states that 14.9% of people in Singapore are Muslim, which from my rough calculations means 813,585 Mohammedan souls.)

Better yet, what if EVERY Muslim woman who entered the workforce had the courage to confront their employers regarding this? What if they all had fathers like Ustaz Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail, who wrote in tirelessly, asking for his daughter to be given the permission to wear the hijab during her stints at the hospital? Would the powers that be still be able to sweep this under the proverbial rug?

There’s no need for collective action or a mass rallying of Muslims. All that’s needed is for each and every Muslim to be fearless and firm in their pursuit of what’s right. Unfortunately, it is not only a state of indifference and ignorance prevalent in the community that practising Muslims have to battle (jihad?) with today. More and more Muslims are wont to belittle these efforts at redress. They are easy to identify, these against-the-grain Muslim “intellectuals”. Usually successful in the worldly sense, they make no secret of their desire to be even more successful (read: make more money). These people are the ones often praised to high heavens when the government needs examples of how far the Malay community has progressed.

In return, they attempt to rationalise us, the irrational Other. Their language is one of accommodation, of compromise. We mustn’t be too emotional, they tell us. We already have much to be thankful for as Muslims in a non-Muslim country, they remind us. It’s not difficult to see why they say what they say. Some of them are (paid) supporters of the government, and as much as they would like to be seen as enlightened, many in the community just think of them as political and career opportunists.

Much more can be written about the hijab in Singapore, but I’ll end here. It is my sincere wish that this matter be resolved as soon as possible, but like all other religious matters, I doubt it will. A Minister or Muslim MP will probably be quoted as saying Singapore is “not ready” for such change, which is really doublespeak for “we don’t have the time nor inclination to make things better for you Muslims.”

A MUIS-sanctioned religious scholar will exhort us to be grateful for what we have, and perhaps drop a Quranic verse or two on the extent of Allah’s Mercy (when judging women who’ve had to take off their hijab in the name of gainful employment.)

Like those before me, I’m beginning to think my future lies in another country, perhaps not too far away like New Zealand or Australia. The average Singaporean will perhaps caution me of the racism found there. From the frying pan to the fire, they’ll say.

8903504I think I’ll take my chances.

Post script: The woman who started the petition (Syafiqah K.) has since closed it. She has yet to identify herself, and nobody knows why the petition was closed (well, except for her of course, and perhaps the people who rule this country).

Freedom of expression, meet Indonesian censors

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Not everybody liked the new Lady Gaga single

The news is perhaps a little stale by now. About a month ago, Lady Gaga was banned from performing in Indonesia, following fierce protests from the country’s conservative Muslim groups. She came, she saw, she left with her she-devil tail between her legs, tweeting “There’s nothing holy about hatred.” Right. So I guess we’re all expected to love and accept senseless murder, child prostitution and people having to go to bed hungry every night (in a world with more than enough food to go around).

If you thought only the Muslims in Indonesia were up in arms over her Born This Way tour, well, here’s the reactions from Thailand, the Philippines and South KoreaMuslims, Christians and Buddhists, all united in prayer against the Mother Monster and her acolytes from hell. That pole that hit her head during her concert in Auckland? That’s God answering prayers.

Of course the media chose to focus on Indonesia’s reaction more than the others, citing fears that the country’s march towards a moderate brand of Islam was not as assured as once thought. Because if you don’t appreciate pornography, blasphemy and lewd conduct infiltrating your home country, you must be one of those Muslims who hide bombs in their turbans and make their wives wear curtains around their faces.

I imagine future interrogations on suspected Muslim extremists by the ISD/CIA/FBI/Mossad will include a portion where the interrogator plays a tune from the latest Lady Gaga album, then threatens torture should Muslim interrogated fumble the lyrics to the song.

“I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want… I want… I want… Errr… Erm… No please, no! Not Room 101!!!”

But I digress. The reason I’m writing this is to put some perspective to this whole “freedom of expression” argument. This is my attempt to restore some parity to the voices emanating from the West. The voices that say censorship by a government only serves to insult its citizens, treating them as infants without the capacity to think for themselves. That we, the citizens of the developed modern world, should have nothing held back from us, as we rage on this consumption-capitalist path, choices, more choices our rallying battle cry.

Freedom that is unbridled, that has no regard for other members of a society, that seeks to nourish itself at the expense of others, is freedom that will ultimately unhinge the social fabric of any country. Think of it this way. You may be free to blast Just Dance on your headphones loud enough for everyone in your crowded train cabin to make out the lyrics, but your freedom tramples on the freedom of others to enjoy a peaceful ride home after a tiring day at work. Of course, one could argue that those same others, ears now assaulted by such music, are “free to take it up further through legal actions”. But that’s another story for another time.

If censorship makes us seem infantile, then perhaps the corollary is that it is our collective duty to protect society’s infants, as well as young children, tweens and teens. And the odd man-child or two. We have to keep them out of harm’s way. We, their parents, teachers, elder siblings and cousins, have to play the role of gatekeepers in an era where the flow of unguarded information is relentless. We have to tell them that a lady prancing around stage in bra and panties is not okay. Because it’s not. It’s just not.

Let’s put it this way. It pays for certain singers to portray themselves a certain way. We get it. It’s all about publicity. Marilyn Manson doesn’t really worship Satan. 50 Cent has never smoked a joint in his life. And Lady Gaga is probably a vegan. But at the end of the day, none of these personas – safe and flaccid – sell records.

The men at the top, the white, wrinkly fellas wearing expensive suits and smoking Cuban cigars, know this better than anybody. They made Madonna, Britney, Whitney, Christina, Mariah, Katy, Rihanna, all massively talented with wonderful vocals, all still having to sex it up to sell records. Who the fuck is Adele? But kids don’t know this. Kids listen to all these singers and think it’s all real. So you either grow up disrespecting women, or rejecting God, or thinking you have to dress a certain way.

Well, last month Indonesia said enough. Government bowing down to the will of the people. Now that’s something you don’t hear everyday. Sure, it may have dented their international reputation a bit. But Hollywood will have to wait a while longer before attempting another jab at the country’s morals. And I for one, think that that’s worth it.

Courage Under Fire

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I’ve discovered the ultimate recipe for chaos. Take a social media platform that allows people to say whatever they want. Throw it into a country with a long history of forced political correctness. Add bigots. Watch.

Here’s a short slice of history, for those who still think it’s worthy to know one’s past to understand the present. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, which was then suffering from high unemployment and inflation. He had risen to power by campaigning against the Jews and other minorities, blaming them for the economic woes of the nation. We all know what happened next.

Fast forward to present times. The world’s economy is battered and bruised, thanks in part to the immensely flawed capitalist monetary system we’ve put up with. But the same people who control the money that flows in and out of our pockets are also the ones who decide what we see and hear on television. They own the media conglomerates that decide what to ‘feed’ us, influencing millions of lemmings the world over and how they behave and react to present-day realities.

In the case of presenting Islam, this is what they have taught us: You are a ‘good’ Moslem if you are prepared to view your religion critically, if you are willing to discard archaic beliefs and rituals that have little benefit in today’s modern society, if you accept without the question the need for democracy and human rights and free speech, and price your oil rationally, thus meeting the world’s energy needs. Conversely, you are bad/evil/extremist if you veer towards the opposite, if you uphold religious beliefs and rituals, if you are wary of western notions of progress, if you view the sale of oil as an imperialistic attempt by the Occident to further its material greed.

This dichotomy is viewed through the lenses of integration in modern-day Singapore, a country that prides itself on the notion that, unlike its northern neighbour Malaysia, everyone must be treated equally, regardless of race or religion. But the notion is flawed, because of the tacit understanding that races and religions take a backseat in secular Singapore. To integrate, Muslims in Singapore are expected to water down their religiosity, to be “less strict”, including not pushing for their rights: to modify existing school uniforms to meet modesty requirements, to keep madrasahs out of government interference, to voice their concerns on the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israel.

The late Edward Said wrote in 1980 that “most of the Third World is now fully bathed in US-produced TV shows, and is wholly dependent upon a tiny group of news agencies that transmit news back to the Third World, even in the large numbers of cases where the news is about the Third World. From being the source of news, the Third World generally, and Islamic countries in particular, have become consumers of news. For the first time in history (for the first time, that is, on such a scale) the Islamic world may be said to be learning about itself in part by means of images, histories and information manufactured in the West.”

Essentially this means that we now live in an era where Islam, its adherents and practices have become open for discussion and subject to loose coffee-shop talk. Unfortunately, it is not bona fide Muslims who are being asked to explain what the religion entails, but non-Muslim commentators and newsmakers, or the ever-vocal Muslim dissident, willing and happy to play up the divide between the accepted majority and the oppressed fringe.

Perhaps this explains the recent spate of Islamophobia we’ve been seeing in Singapore and the world around us. Today, we don’t need a megalomaniac dictator to point fingers at a particular group of people. The western media, in cahoots with the world’s governments, connects the dots for us. For all their talk about it not being anti-Islam, it is the Muslims who are routinely being bombed and killed. It is the Muslims who are being locked up on suspicion of terrorism. It is the Muslims who are left to face comments such as “I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam.” I guess that’s why Messrs. Neo and Ratnam spouted their ‘hate speech’. They probably thought, “If it’s okay for the West and LKY, why shouldn’t it be okay for us?”

In the case of Jason Neo, the ruling People’s Action Party was quick to condemn the comments, through youth wing heads Zaqy Mohamad and Teo Ser Luck. However, their apology was cleverly worded, with Huda Kindergarten made to appear the offended party, as if implicitly telling other Muslims they had little business wanting to milk the incident for political mileage.

The whole incident has also, inadvertently, divided the opposition camp further. While many were angry at Neo’s comments, especially given his status as member of the PAP’s youth wing, a significant number did not agree that he should be punished, afraid that doing so would only entrench restrictions on freedom of speech.

Also, several online comments and a TOC article appear to suggest that we should not be asked to identify with our race and religion, as if all public discourse on identity markers should be swallowed into vacuum, a means of preventing further seditious incidents from happening. For such people, I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s idea of how we live in an era of “decaf reality” – wanting something, without the defining ingredient that makes that something, an idea that, ironically, would give rise to LKY-styled integration.

Where then, do we go from here? To begin, I think we need to understand one another better. This cannot any longer be simply empty rhetoric. There needs to be honest talk between people of all faiths, one that does not fall into the trap of superficiality. Having said that, there also needs to be a better understanding of the nature of social media, how it has become very easy to pass remarks that are often too random and impulsive to have required serious reflection. Criticise the comment if you must, but realise the context in which it was made.

Finally, as Muslims, the onus is still on us to show the true face of Islam, preferably doing so without having to utter a single word of defence. Our actions should speak so loudly as to drown out any incitement of hatred and suspicion. We need to be compassionate, civic-minded and selfless, in a world that is quickly spiraling out of control.

Occupy This

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The statistics are sobering, to those who care at least. They paint an ugly picture, a picture that is mind-boggling at best, and cruel at worse. The bottom 40 percent of the world earn a meagre 5 percent of global incomes. The top 20 percent, on the other hand, earn three quarters.

On raw data, it appears the world’s richest are more adept at turning that income into real assets. The top 0.5 percent own a third of the world’s wealth. The bottom fifty? One miserly percentage point. In a world where money creates more money, it isn’t hard to understand why. The have-nots spend most of their income trying to overcome the insidious effects of interest. The haves earn even more income reaping from those same effects.

These wealth distribution statistics essentially mean one thing. That the world has never before seen the kind of economic inequality we witness today. Coupled with the damaging effects of inflation, rising unemployment and easy access to informative videos such as this, it’s little wonder why the Occupy movement has been met with the zealotry it has.

How did we reach such a ludicrous state? There are several factors that have contributed to wealth aggregating to the top of the human pile. The Industrial Revolution that sparked off in the 18th century was one. The construction of railroads, the discovery of electricity and the steam engine led to industry-wide mass production and quickly enriched factory owners and other capitalists.

This was humanity’s first real shift from the agrarian ways of old, where large fortunes hardly accumulated. As a farmer one could work harder than others, but rises in income were limited by the Earth’s ability to yield. Equity seemed nature’s way.

Other inventions since then have also contributed to this growing divide: crude oil, television, the internet, modern-day banking. Although wealth has largely been concentrated in the hands of business owners and proprietorships, in the last half-century we’ve seen wage-earners take a larger slice of the pie. Elite doctors, lawyers, bankers, authors, sportsmen, singers and actors have increasingly been paid more, given their very specific revenue-earning talents.

Take football for instance. The Professional Footballers’ Association say that in 1957 a top England player would have earned in a year a total of £1,677 in wages, bonuses and international match fees. In today’s money that is the equivalent of about £75,000 – the kind of salary average Premier League players would earn in a fortnight. This rise isn’t quite so hard to fathom, when we see the big picture: that the Premier League is sloshed with billions in terms of TV revenue and advertising. Broadcasting payments for all 20 clubs during the 2010-11 season was £952 million. Not that it makes the greed of these players acceptable of course.

But the real problem with greed is that it’s contagious. Studies have shown that it’s not how much we earn that bothers us, but how much we earn relative to our peers. It probably explains to a certain extent why the PAP government pegs its pay to the corporate sector, in spite of the anger of Singaporeans. Dr Lim Wee Kiak, MP for Nee Soon GRC absentmindedly revealed this when he reasoned,

“If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals, hence a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.”

The problem is compounded by the fact that we live in an era deemed meritocratic, where just about anybody with the energy and right set of ideas can make a million or two. Although wealth is unequal, it appears as if the opportunities for wealth, are very much open to just about anybody. And it frustrates us that we do not take charge of those opportunities.

Perhaps that’s why we hold back our grievances when presented with the injustices of today’s rich, with their champagnes and caviar in their gated communities. Perhaps deep down we realise that we may not be as different, if favourable financial circumstances swung our way.

But before anybody accuses me of being an apologist for the current system of crony capitalism, allow me to say this: I am not for the status quo.

The current system is unsustainable, ecologically and environmentally. Human greed is very often unquenchable, as the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) observed,

“If there was one valley of gold for the son of Adam, he would long for another one. A man will never be satisfied, only death will stop him from being greedy.”

In Islam, the institution of zakat or collection and distribution of alms is a religious duty. It strengthens the social fabric, preventing economic inequality, and by extension, sociopolitical inequality. The rich are constantly reminded that they are stewards of their wealth, and must discharge it for the greater good.

This worldview is not exclusive to Muslims. People of all faiths have spoken of the ills associated with the concentration of wealth in few hands. Moses advised the Israelites, upon their escape from Egypt, to gather for one’s needs, and no more. Similar exhortations for frugality and the sharing of wealth exist in Christianity and Buddhism.

Even capitalists have conceded that a world of unfettered accumulation is wrong. Andrew Carnegie, America’s steel magnate of the 19th century said that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced”, preferring that the rich disburse their wealth for the benefit of others. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has called on the Obama administration to increase taxes on the rich, claiming that he has “yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain.” The old argument that taxing the rich will hurt the economy no longer holds with most people.

Unfortunately, public discourse about closing the income gap often centre around the need to “level up” the poor, instead of “levelling down” the rich. Such rhetoric is often clouded in positive fuzz, about “retraining workers”, “raising the standards of public education” or “breaking the poverty cycle”.

These aims, while noble, blind the public from the reality of how governments, especially the one here, have taken care of the uber rich, from opening the floodgates for cheap, foreign labour, to advocating regressive tax systems such as the GST.

In fact, these aims don’t do much at all, with those at the bottom worried more about where their next paycheck will come from, instead of how their son and daughter will fare in school, or which retraining courses to sign up for.

In universities around the world, convocation ceremonies feature speakers who urge graduates to do good to others, and to give back to their communities. Yet out in the real world where these graduates venture, we celebrate those who are fantastically rich, instead of chastising them. It’s time we gave the rich, and the governments that support them, a piece of our mind.