Muhammadiyah in Singapore

Afifur Rochman Sya’rani | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report

Since its establishment in 1912, Muhammadiyah has had two major agendas, namely religious purification and modernization, particularly the provision of social services. Remarkably, it has been the most sustained and successful modernist Muslim organization not only in Indonesia but also in all Muslim-majority countries. However, why has Muhammadiyah never grown outside its land of birth?

Unlike its counterparts in Middle East, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammadiyah has never truly been a global movement, except with a notable exception, that is, in Singapore. This was the topic of the presentation delivered at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on November 15, 2017, by Mark Woodward, Associate Professor at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University and frequent CRCS guest professor, about the Muhammadiyah Association of Singapore (Persatuan Muhammadiyah Singapura).

Woodward began his presentation by briefly explaining the history of Islam in Singapore. Muslims constitute around 15 percent of Singapore’s 5,6 million total population. Most of them are called “Malays”, an identity that is politically and socially constructed—reminiscent of Ben Anderson’s idea of “the imagined community”. In fact, in Singapore and Malaysia, Malays have various ethnic origins. Many of them are descendants of Javanese, Buginese, and Minang. Meanwhile, other Muslims in Singapore are descendant of Hadramis and Indian Muslims. Over 90% Muslims in Singapore are Sunnis, and there is a small, socially active Shia community.

In the early twentieth century, Singapore was one of the prominent centers of Kaum Muda (youth group) modernist movement in which Muhammadiyah was part of it. Yet, the Kaum Muda in Singapore had stronger and closer connection to the Kaum Muda movement in West Sumatra than that in Java. “This came together in Muhammadiyah later on when Haji Rasul visited Java and the Kaum Muda movement in Sumatra united with Java-based Muhammadiyah,” said Woodward. Besides, Singapore was also the center of Islamic publishing. A huge amount of Islamic literatures was published there, not only in Arabic, but also in Malay and Jawi script, and later on using the Western alphabet.

Singapore was also the center of Southeast Asian Haj network. In the National Library of Singapore, there is a collection of audiotapes recording why some people preferred to go to Saudi Arabia via Singapore by ship. “This is fascinating and a very important part of the history of Islam in this part of the world,” said Woodward. It is said that at the time, going to haj required years of journey. To go on haj, some Indonesian Muslims, for example, left for Singapore with very little money and worked there until they could purchase a ticket to go to Sri Lanka, and then they worked there for the same reason until they successfully arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Woodward further showed that Singapore was the origin of Persatuan Islam (Persis), a modernist Muslim organization in Indonesia. Ahmad Hassan, Persis leader, was a Singaporean-Indian Muslim. He was not really successful in pursuing the Islamic-modernist agenda in Singapore. But, when he moved to Bandung, West Java, he was profoundly influential. According to Woodward, this was partly because the Kaum Muda movement leaders were strongly opposed to traditional practices associated with Malay kingdom. The traditional rulers in British Malaya were dictatorial in terms of religious and cultural practices. “Modernist Islam failed to take off in Malaysia and Singapore,” argued Woodward.

Woodward subsequently told about the Muhammadiyah Association of Singapore. It was founded at first as Sunna Organization in 1957.  The founders were Rijal Abdullah, Abdul Rahman Harun, and Amir Esa, who were originally from Sumatra and Riau. The organization had similar characteristics like Muhammadiyah: it strongly opposed traditional-religious practices regarded as heretics and superstition, while promoting modern education. Woodward argued that Muhammadiyah in Singapore was largely influenced by Ahmad Hassan and Buya Hamka.

Like Muhammadiyah in Yogyakarta, in its early appearance, Muhammadiyah in Singapore faced a very strong and sometimes violent opposition. It was even accused of a deviant movement and associated to Ahmadiyah. The British and Singapore government generally didn’t oppose Muhammadiyah, because they didn’t care about religion. Muhammadiyah was then officially listed by Singapore Registry of Societies in 1958 and registered as a welfare organization in 1989. It also received a financial support from the Saudi Arabia’s Rabitah al-‘Alam al-Islami (World Islamic league) in 1980s.

Ideologically, the Muhammadiyah Association of Singapore bases its religious activism on the Qur’anic verse “enjoying what is right and forbidding what is wrong” (Q. 3: 104). Like Muhammadiyah in Indonesia, it promotes religious purification, modern education, and social welfare. Yet, in its development, Muhammadiyah in Singapore has been gradually reluctant to involve in religious polemics, and willing to accommodate traditionalist Muslims, even Shia community.

Woodward then showed how Muhammadiyah in Singapore made its priority social welfare activities and education. It has Health and Day Centre which provides social and medical services particularly for the elder. It also distributes food for the poor, and has a Welfare Home, a “residential facility for children with incarcerated parents”. Uniquely, it has a social plan of “retirement kampong” in Malaysia and Indonesia. “This creative plan is one of the differences between Muhammadiyah in Singapore and that in Indonesia,” said Woodward.  

In terms of educational services, Muhammadiyah in Singapore has various levels of educational institutions, from kindergarten to programs that offer degrees and certificates in Islamic studies, such as Madrasah al-‘Arabiyyah al-Islamiyyah and Muhammadiyah Islamic college. There is a madrasah that emphasizes science and technology education for children. The Muhammadiyah also provides classes for migrant workers and conducts daily and weekly Islamic classes (pengajian) in Malay and English.

Muhammadiyah in Singapore is not a branch of Muhammadiyah in Indonesia. It is an independent Singapore-based organization. Formally, there is no any institutional relationship among the two. The Muhammadiyah in Singapore is usually called “Sister Organization” that has “strong personal ties” with Muhammadiyah in Indonesia. It has educational links with IAIN Imam Bonjol. Singapore Muhammadiyah delegations also attend Muhammadiyah Muktamar (conference) in Indonesia.

During the Q&A session, in response to the question on religious purification, Woodward acknowledged that Muhammadiyah in Singapore truly opposed traditional-religious practices, such as tahlilan and pilgrimage to grave. But, nowadays, “it doesn’t actively push back against those practices because that doesn’t really work,” said Woodward. Muslims in Singapore are diverse. Besides, along with modernist Muslims, there are also very conservative traditionalist Muslims, Shia community, and practitioners of Naqsabandiyah Sufi order (tarekat) associated with Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a Lebanon-American Sufi.

Woodward contended that historically Muhammadiyah in Singapore faced a similar type of traditional-religious practices like in Java. In his view, traditional Malay Islam was very similar to traditional Javanese Islam. Both were part of the Islamicate civilization of Islam in Southeast Asia, considering Marshal Hodgson’s civilizational approach in his classic book, The Venture of Islam. “This approach is a productive way for understanding Islam in Southeast Asia,” he said.


Afifur Rochman Sya’rani is a CRCS student of the 2017 batch.


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