Discussion Forum: Bridging the Gap between Muslim students from Madrasah and Secular schools
[Introduction to Madrasah education]
What is Madrasah education?
As defined by the internet, it refers to a college of Islamic institution although the former may not be the only curriculum studied.
In Singapore’s context
There are currently 6 full time Madrasahs in Singapore, 2 of which are all-girls school, while the other 4 are mixed-schools. As privately-funded religious educational institutions, they provide islamic education for those ranging between the age of 7-18 years old, “(placing) rigorous emphasis on both secular and religious learning while maintaining a distinct religious identity (National Library Board, n.d.)“. Under the Joint Madrasah System (JMS), it aims to produce religious leaders and scholars to lead the Singapore Muslim community in the 21st century.
Progress of Madrasah education in Singapore
Having underwent multiple changes, Madrasah schools today teach both religious and secular subjects. Alongside Madrasah-Secular events to foster understanding between both communities, National education has also been included into the Madrasah’s curriculum with the purpose of helping students integrate well with the national community. In addition, more curriculum time is spent on PSLE subjects to ensure that Madrasah students will perform as well as their peers in secular schools.
Increased governmental support to Madrasahs
In 2015, the government announced that national examination fees for religious subjects would be waived for Madrasah students, as “it would be the best to equalise [school fees] as much as possible” (Channel Newsasia, 18 Apr 2015). More financial aids have also given to Madrasah schools which fund student awards for those who do well in secular subjects, and training programmes for the teachers to enhance their skillsets in teaching secular subjects (The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2015).
On the 25th of June 2016 (Saturday), the Muslim Youth Forum Singapore (MYForum) organized a forum titled “Madrasah vs. Secular – Bridging the Gap: Ramadan Differences“.
Purpose of the forum:
It brought together youths from different identities, i.e. students from Madrasah and Secular schools; or who have converted from Madrasah to Secular school and vice-versa, so as to create a safe and welcoming space for all to showcase these identities and empower themselves and others.
About the forum & Speakers present:
The forum was moderated by Ustaz Fizar Zainal and supported by Ustazah Shameem. It revolved around sharing on Ramadan experience from Madrasah (Madrasah Al Maarif) and non Madrasah students (Ngee Ann Polytechnic), particularly about assumption versus importance of appreciating others.
Objective of the forum:
It hoped the youths from both Secular and Madrasah backgrounds could recognize the common values they hold – far outweigh the differences they have, and thus provide a strong dosage of peace and harmony to the community by being resilient in faith, being adaptive to situation and forward as progressive young Muslims.
[Discussion points during the forum]
- Impact of stereotypes and expectations by secular students towards students from Madrasah backgrounds
Due to generalised stereotypes the Muslim community have towards Madrasah students (as being disciplined, holy, and sin very little), the latter are often perceived as pious muslims of high moral standing, and looked up upon as Muslim role models by their secular peers.
A speaker who transitioned from a Madrasah to polytechnic had masked his Madrasah background with another term “coming from a private school”, out of fear that his secular peers may not feel comfortable, or be as forthcoming and opened when interacting with him due to the above stereotypes mentioned.
Because of the expectations the Muslim community have towards them as morally upright and pious, those from Madrasah background may also feel a sense of responsibility, in being moral guiding beacons to their secular peers.
And for some Madrasah students, they may also feel curious to explore the tempting pursuit of secular lifestyles (e.g. tattooing, partying, drinking, smoking) that have been portrayed by the media, and some of their peers from Secular schools.
- How do Madrasah students view those studying in secular schools?
What about when the tables are turned? Do Madrasah students see the actions/choices of some from secular schools who engage in a slightly different culture/lifestyle as sinful or “less Muslim”?
A speaker from a Madrasah background disagreed with such a judgement, expressing that everyone is human and sin, just that all of us sin differently based on our circumstances and environment.
How can the dichotomy between Madrasah and Secular students be bridged? It was emphasized that communication was the key to get past the differences. A speaker who used to be a Madrasah student said: “Islamic knowledge is not limited to the four walls of Madrasah schools”, and that it is not accurate to say that one side is more religious or “less sinful” than the other.
Both Secular and Madrasah students encounter issues like Boy-Girl Relationships (BGR), sexuality, addiction struggles etc. As such, a Muslim youth may soon realize that regardless of schooling background, we all do face similar issues.
- The Tudong issue
– The Tudong is currently banned in secular primary, secondary, tertiary institutions which have standardised school uniforms, but allowed from polytechnic and university onwards.
-Police officers and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen are not allowed to wear/display any religious symbols on their uniforms and faces. Nurses and some front-line jobs also face the Tudong ban.
-However, the Tudong alongside the Jubah (long, loose dress) is a standardised uniform in local Madrasahs for female students.
The government have stated that their stance is “evolving”, and they hope to make a gradual progress with the Tudong issue – “with more statutory boards having corporate officers wearing the Tudung”. PM Lee added that S’pore cannot make any precipitous changes on the matter, as this could lead to misunderstandings. (TODAY, 25 Jan 2014).
A few questions from the audience had touched on the Tudong issue, which later led to a speaker being presented a hypothetical question – “What choice would she make if the top school or job of her choice faces a Tudong ban?” Her reply was that – she would pursue her dream course, as not wearing the Tudong may be forgiven in her pursuit for knowledge (*as learning and seeking knowledge is positively encouraged in Islam), and the path is also for the greater good of her community.
Another female speaker expressed that students were giving too much focus on the issue of the Tudong ban in secular schools. Elaborating further, she shared that Allah will be there to guide the female students forth in making whatever choice they take in their life, be it deciding on an educational or occupational route e.g. if the issue of having to choose between a secular education/job and giving up the Hijab arises. And as such, they need not overworry on such matters in current retrospect.
- Which is more important – the packaging or messaging?
The moderator also brought up a food for thought – “if package is more important than the message, or vice-versa?”. We interpreted it as to – whether how we appear to the people around us /society, is more important than one’s intentions?
The ground consensus was that our intentions mattered the most, with the speakers pointing out that one’s morality/religiosity is not determined by our dressing (i.e. wearing, or not wearing the Hijab), the schools we go (Madrasah/Secular) to, or our family backgrounds.
It is not about behaving or portraying ourselves in a certain manner to please those around us or the followers of Allah, but rather, we are accountable for our own actions, and it should be carried out with the intention to please Allah himself.
Ramadan Period: Challenges encountered and strengthening one’s resolute
Moving on to the topic of Ramadan, it was shared that Madrasah students are exempted from strenuous activities, and the teachers also cut down on teaching heavy modules, whereas it remained status quo for secular students who may not be granted leeway like the former.
A speaker who attended secular schooling said that being one of the minorities fasting around friends from other religions who were not, and continuing on Physical Education (PE) lessons as usual, it had helped remind him of his Muslim identity, and strengthed his resolute. In what ways? One may query.
Inspite of the presence of food, or people around him being able to eat, he could practice how to fight off his desire for food in those scenarios during Ramadan, which strengthened his self-discipline and self-control. And with a half-cup full perspective, he mentioned that his PE teacher wanted to positively motivate him, and let him realise that he was able to pull through, and complete the same task as his peers who were not fasting.
Another speaker further added on that when we learn how to control our desire – starting from the basics e.g. food, we can be more resilient, and deal with even more difficult life temptations in the future.
It was an enlightening experience with the many interesting topics explored, and I was left mentally-stimulated in a good way by the end of the 1 hour talk. I wished it had started off earlier on time (*if not for the very delayed 1 hour technical faults), because the forum left me eager wanting for more!
One speaker knew how to engage the target audience of youths with his humour – which set the bright mood throughout the talk, and I also appreciated the level of openness by some of the speakers during the discussion of sensitive topics e.g. sexuality or BGR struggles faced by youths – because it’s a reality that we rarely talked about openly. And as such, having an honest sharing about the issue with none other than youths ourselves would be beneficial for us 🙂
- Functions played by Madrasah schools in secular Singapore <More help for Madrasah Students, The Straits Times, 4 Sept 2015
- Government’s rationale for supporting Madrasah education and raising quality standards of JMS <Government to help madrasahs improve quality of education, The Straits Times, 1 Aug 2015>
- Everything you need to learn more about Madrasah education in Singapore <Background of Madrasahs, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, n.d.>
- An alternative lens to see the Tudung saga <Tudung Issue: Are we missing the point, Singapore Democratic Party, 15 Feb 2013>
- Commentary: MADRASAHS AS PARTNERS IN THE IDEOLOGICAL WAR AGAINST TERRORISM, NTU’s RSiS, Y.R. Kassim, 10 Oct 2014>
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Photo credit: MUIS