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Monday, April 28, 2008



(Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail response to letter in ST Forum May 11, 1999 by SM Lee K Y Press Secretary, a Madam Yeong Yoon Ying regarding Chinese SAP school - her justification and attempt to linking it with the Madrasah)


Straits Times



In the discussion on the justification of SAP (Special Assistance Plan) schools (ST 2 April1999), we are indeed surprised that the Madrasah was suddenly brought in by Mdm Yeong Yoon Yin (ST 8 April 1999). It is sometimes the style that to deflect an argument one throws in a ‘red herring’, but such approach would only detract us from the main issue. Mr Mohd Haniff of PERDAUS (ST 17 April, 1999) has rightly pointed out the Madrasah is very unlike the SAP schools. However, please note that his argument that it is funded by one community is only one of the differences. Although we agree that the SAP schools are not similar to the Madrasah, the dissimilarity is not simply due the question of funding alone, but must include its aim, its function, its philosophy and approaches and even its historical evolution in the context of Singapore. Unfortunately, these important aspects were not clarified, and thus the issue led to the Madam Yeong’s insistence that the Madrasah is similar because both schools shared certain historical likeness. But surely, “a swallow does not make a summer.” Thus clarification is needed to remove her assertion based on this vague comparison.

We are also offended by the insinuation that the Madrasahs may perhaps become “breeding grounds” to anti-government elements like what had happened to the clan-funded Chinese schools. This is uncalled for. It seems obvious to us that perhaps the understanding of the historical beginning of Madrasah vis-à-vis Chinese SAP school is pertinent here, lest we bark up the wrong tree.


In the Muslim community, Madrasah education has all along been pursued due to the community’s need as enjoined in the Qur’an (9:122)
[1], specifically to prepare for future Islamic religious scholars and teachers of Islam. Its historical beginning predates that of Singapore but has been the concern of every Muslim community, wherever they may be. Its objective is specific and very much a specialized education, termed in Islam as “fardhu kifaayah” (a community obligation for this group to be adequately developed). Their intake also, traditionally, has been nominal because the students’ future career as Islamic scholars and teachers is not one that is based upon economic reward. Thus, it has always been regarded as a specialised private institution, distinct from the rest of the Muslims’ education. And may we add that its product had served the community well as model citizens and community leaders.

Perhaps going by her argument, would she also make the same comparison with the theological colleges in Singapore ? Would she also describe such colleges in the same light? That they are potentially breeding grounds for anti-govt elements; or that their graduates are of no economic value etc?

As regard the general education amongst the Malay and Indian ethnic groups, historically the state established the vernacular schools e.g. Kota Raja, Kampung Jaguh, Kampung Gelam, Umma Pullavar, Sartha Dewi etc. (interestingly no trace of these schools remain today). Except for the use of their own vernacular as main medium of instruction, these schools were already adopting a national curriculum Later these schools became integrated schools, and finally dissolved into the national educational system with English as the medium. The Chinese community has its own vernacular schools, some administered by the state as well as those privately administered by the clan association. Please note that these Chinese schools (whether public or privately funded) were not religious schools. The clan-funded Chinese schools that resisted adopting the national curriculum and integration into the National stream presumably had caused some problem (as mentioned by Madam Yeong). Anyway, they finally succumbed to adopting the national education curriculum, yet they were still allowed to retain their Chinese character. Thus, when expectations change, because many Chinese parents were concerned for the preservation of Chinese ethnic values, language, culture and Confucian ideal etc.- the present SAP school evolved.

Why Chinese-centric SAP school?

Coming to the justification for SAP school, we tend to agree with the concerned raised originally by Mr Ismail Kassim as to why the emphasis is given only to the Chinese community, especially in the absence of equal opportunity for the other minority community to have their own SAP schools. The opportunity for the Malay and Indian communities to have their own SAP schools has been lost, ever since the dissolution of these Malay and Tamil schools. Yet, for the Chinese community, their schools have been allowed to evolve into something quite exclusive. Would this then not be contrary to the concept of equal opportunity for all community? Merely opening doors for Malays and Indians into these SAP schools which, lest we forget, aims also at producing elites of Chinese language, culture and value, is not really giving equal opportunity to the other races.

We must recognize that when one community asserts their own need for preservation of their language culture and values, the others tend to also want the same. Unfortunately, the minority communities have avoided asking directly, perhaps because of the fear of being labeled as ‘chauvinist' or ‘racist’, or their suggestions viewed with suspicion. Remarks with such accusatory insinuations, especially if made by others on these minority groups’ aspiration, led to feeling of being ignored as they felt that no attempt has been made to understand the real concern of these minority groups (objectively). In as much as we can understand the Chinese community’s concern to retain their Chinese culture, language and Confucian values, would it not be fair to also heed similar demands from other community? Thus for example, requests by Muslim parents (Malays, Indians, others) for the Ministry of Education to allow for their children in national schools to conform to their religious obligations (such as dress code, allowance for their moral and religious values be imparted while in schools, etc.) should be understood in this context, and not ignored.

In the face of rejection to these requests, some parents may seek other means of ensuring its provision for their own children. If these concerns are not catered for, some Muslim parents may conveniently turn to the Madrasah as the alternative. Perhaps this may somewhat explain the increase in the Madrasah enrollment in recent years. Sending their children to the Madrasah mainly because of secondary reason such as this, while they do not really aspire to have their children to become Islamic teachers and scholars in the community, is also not helping the Madrasah to fulfill their main objective (i.e. specifically to prepare for future Islamic religious scholars and teachers specializing in Islam.) Madam Yeong (ST, 8 April 1999) may see Madrasah as being special, but it is not a Special Assistance Plan or SAP school for the Malay community. The Malay and the Indian community do not, as yet, have any SAP schools. Will the government grant them similar opportunity?

Irrelevant comparison of SAP school and Madrasah

Tracing the historical development of the general public school education, Madrasah was never in the picture, as this form of education has all along been regarded as a private concern. In this context, a close equivalent for Madrasah (although not exactly similar) would perhaps be the Catholic seminary or Bible colleges, and not SAP school. Thus it would be irrelevant to drag and compare Madrasah to SAP schools. Thus, Mr Mohd Haniff’s likening Madam Yeong’s contention as, comparing “apples with oranges,” is correct.

Incomplete information

We note that perhaps due to her sketchy understanding of the Madrasah, Madam Yeong’s comments and points raised by her (ST 11, April 1999), contain incomplete information and inaccuracies, which cannot be left, uncorrected. Please allow us to respond:

She wrote : “Madrasah do not follow our national curriculum. They concentrate on religious education with Islamic Theology, Islamic Jurisprudence and Arabic as major subjects. Teaching is done in Malay and Arabic.”

This is only part of the scenario in Madrasah. Granted that the field of specialization in Madrasah education is very much to produce Islamic scholars, she overlooked the fact that many Madrasahs have already included the teachings of subjects like English, Mathematics and Sciences for these students. And the medium of instructions for these is English. This is in line with our vision that future Islamic scholar and teachers should have an eclectic exposure to knowledge, while striving to specialize in the Islamic sciences.

Yet, inspite of the Madrasahs accommodating subjects common to the National schools, they have to do it on their own, without any assistance whatsoever from the Ministry of Education. Madrasah do not enjoy any grant for their students, apart perhaps from the $10.00 per student/annum subsidy inherited since the British time (whereas in national schools the subsidy amounts to almost $3,000/ per student/annum).[2]

She also wrote: “Some madrasah students sit for the O and A levels as private
candidates, offering Islamic Religious Knowledge, Malay and Arabic.”

Yet again, she has omitted that the subjects also include Mathematics, English and Sciences. If not, why did some of these students of Madrasah who sat as private candidates, managed to find places in the Polytechnics and even National Universities. It may be useful to analyse why some Muslim parents sent these children to Madrasah and yet aspire that they finally obtain the national ‘O’ and ‘A’ level. The reasoning why some of these parents preferred Madrasah, was merely because the mainstream school could not provide for their requests such as Islamic dress code and the absence of an effective moral teaching program. Perhaps these are probably the students who would otherwise have entered the mainstream schools if not for the restrictions on Islamic dress etc. And that the Madrasahs have gone out of its way to meet the needs of the community even if the demands are actually outside its main thrust or objective of Madrasah.

When she wrote: “.. The majority have not made it.”, we strongly object to its suggestive connotation. When the Madrasah has set it’s objective at producing Islamic teachers and scholars, it would only be fair to judge its achievement firstly on this primary objective. By stating “not made it”, readers may be tempted to judge Madrasah school achievements using national yardstick and standards.

She wrote: “Singapore is moving into a knowledge-based economy. The curriculum in our schools provides students with a strong foundation for post-secondary education that will qualify them for jobs in such an economy.”

We are well aware, and so too the Madrasah, that Singapore is moving into a knowledge-based economy. As such we are also constantly upgrading ourselves to ensure quality education for our future Islamic scholars and teachers. If Madam Yeong were to appreciate that Madrasah education has it’s own peculiar aims and objectives, she would realise that her concern for job placement of Madrasah student in the context of wider economic field, would be misplaced and irrelevant. As it is now, the Muslim community’s need for Islamic scholars and teachers (for which Madrasah education seek to provide) is inadequate. If we understand the concept of “fadhu kifaayah” (community obligation), specifically to prepare for future Islamic religious scholars and teachers of Islam., we will know that the onus of creating jobs for these Madrasah students relevant to their training; attaching economic value to their services; is the prerogative of the Muslim community. The onus is on the Muslim community to create jobs and positions for these Islamic scholars. Teaching is not their only role and their potential to contribute has yet not been fully explored. Any suggestion on what is the best direction Madrasah education should be going, is the concern and prerogative of the Muslim community, who understands best why Madrasah education is needed in the first place. Imposing standards, which may be alien to the original aim of Madrasah, may detract us from achieving the primary objective for our Muslim community.

She stated: “Madrasah students are not able to acquire the critical foundation
skills in English, Mathematics, Science and Information Technology that our
national schools achieve.”

We are indeed appalled at this statement which, apart from it’s condescending tone of imposing one’s standards upon others, neglect to firstly understand the kind of curriculum we have in Madrasah for the development of Islamic scholars and teachers.

Even for lay Muslims, their Islamic education emphasises the development of conviction through correct use of the reasoning faculty. Apart from this we are required to be appreciative of legal matters (the Shariah). All the more so for Islamic scholars, they are required to be much more specialised in these. Thus we find that one of the mark of Islamic scholarship is astuteness, clarity of thought, critical and penetrative insights. Just one example, in the learning and mastery of the Arabic language, syntax, logic, eloquence, grammar, etc. alone, would refute the misconception that Madrasah education lacks the development of critical thinking skills. May we ask, “Is critical thinking skills only possible in English?” Therefore, for any one to hold such reservations upon the Madrasah system (the institution whose primary role is to produce such Islamic scholars), it would only expose his/her ignorance of the system.

She wrote: “Later, they will face problems in upgrading themselves to meet the increasing demands of an economy that needs knowledge workers.”

From the foregoing clarification that we have made, this last point is totally irrelevant to our discussion. As we reiterate, Madrasah education is a specialized concern and not generally to feed the economy with workers. Granted that “we need knowledge workers,” or rather knowledge citizens, Madrasah itself was established for the development of knowledge-based scholars, but not necessarily nor specifically, for economic purpose.


As the issue of the discussion was on the justification of the present SAP schools, we feel that her bringing in the plight of the Madrasah is irrelevant, only a red herring that detract us from knowing her explanation for the SAP school. We hope she stick to the relevant issue.

Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail
E.O. (Training, Research & Development)
S’pore Religious Teachers Association.


[1]From within every group in their midst, some shall refrain from going forth, and shall devote themselves (instead) to acquiring a deeper knowledge of the Faith, and (thus be able to) teach their home-coming brethren,so that these (too) might guard themselves against evil.” (Qur’an Surah 9 : at-Taubah : 122)
[2] based on comments made by administrators and former students of these schools.

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