July 23, 2002
BY Arfa'eza A Aziz
ONLY 400 pupils will be allowed to be admitted into Year One at the six primary madrasah (Islamic schools) in Singapore beginning next year, said the editor of a website for Singapore Muslims.
Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff of Fateha.com said the restriction on students' enrolment is one of the conditions imposed by the Singapore government which had to abandon its 1999 plan to close down the six schools after much protest and public debate from the Muslim community.
"Initially the government wanted to scrap the primary madrasah and allow only the secondary Islamic schools to continue. But the Muslim community feared if the primary schools are closed, it will have a negative impact on the secondary intake. So there was strong resistance from us.
"After much debate, the government compromised. They allowed the primary schools to continue but the madrasah will have to maintain a certain standard performance in the Primary School Leaving Examinations.
If they cannot maintain that standard for three consecutive years, the schools will be closed," he told malaysiakini during a recent interview held in Kuala Lumpur.
The religious schools receive no financial grant from the government and are independently funded.
Zulfikar said the quota restriction had not only quashed the schools' plan to increase student intake to accommodate the growing 450,000 Muslim population in the country but will cause thousands of applications to be rejected.
"Before the quota was imposed, the schools could take more than 400. But now the figure is even lower. The schools receive between 1500 and 3000 applications a year as Muslims parents are now more eager to have their children exposed to religious upbringing," said Zulfikar.
According to him, it was the government's plan to deny Muslim parents their rights to provide their young children with Islamic studies that prompted Zulfikar and his friends to set up Fateha.com.
"The local media failed to report our views on the issue. We decided to provide an alternative channel to air our views. Since we cannot form a publication, we decided to set up a website," he said.
Asked why the government wanted to scrap Islamic schools, he replied they feared that the existence of the schools would result in social disintegration among the different races in the republic.
He said the reason given showed the government's double standards in dealing with different races in the country.
"The government had introduced the "special assisted programme" or SAP schools to promote Mandarin and Chinese values for all Singaporeans. I have absolutely nothing against SAP schools or their noble intention to promote their cultures and I don't think that it will repress other races.
"But while you allow one race to promote its culture and language, you should not deny the minority to promote their culture and language too," he said.
Zulfikar also said the government's decision to ban the wearing of tudung (head scarf) by female Muslim students attending public schools, is not the only problem faced by Muslims in Singapore.
He claimed there were complaints that some Muslim students and teachers were barred from performing their daily afternoon prayers during school hours.
"They used to perform prayers during recess but recently they were not allowed to pray even during the break. One of the complainants told us that the school principal said students can qadha (postpone their prayers) which is not entirely correct. The principal claimed that MUIS (Singapore Islamic Religious Council) had given the school the advice. I called MUIS for confirmation but their officials denied giving such advice.
"The other complaint involved a convent where a teacher was stopped from performing daily prayers. The reason given was since it was a Catholic school and she should not be performing her prayers while in school. So in Fateha, our stand is: Where do we cross the line? When do we say stop? When do we say that this is too much!," said Zulfikar who did not want to reveal the schools.
He said such problems faced by Singaporean Muslims will never see their day in the local press which he claimed to prefer portraying the people rather than the issue.
"Take the case of the father of the girl who defied the tudung ban. The local media portrayed him as a stubborn, incorrigible and recalcitrant father who does not care about his child's education, just his views. But when prime minister Goh Chok Tong was adamant on the ban, he was said to be a man of principle," he said.
MPs fail the Muslims
Asked if the Muslim community had relayed their grouses to Muslim members of Parliament, Zulfikar said Muslim MPs have failed to prove that they represent the Muslims in Singapore.
"I have stopped calling then Malay Muslim representatives. I call them the EGP short for "explainers of government policies". The term was invented while we debated on the madrasah.
"Instead of representing us, they instead came to us to explain why the government had implemented the policies," he said.
He also pointed out that these MPs were voted by the majority of their respective constituencies but not the majority of Malay Muslims.
"The government ensures that each constituency holds no more than 25 percent of Malay Muslims.
"So their role is not really to represent the Muslims but rather to take care of the constituency which elected them," Zulfikar said.
Fateha.com which went online in 1999 receives some 14,000 hits daily.