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Supporting the long-term socio-religious development of our Muslim community

Closing Speech by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development, Second Minister for Health, and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs at the Second Reading of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (Amendment) Bill on 5 February 2024

  1. Mr Speaker, I thank Members who have risen in support for this Bill, which enables our statutory Muslim institutions to meet the evolving needs of our community.  Let me address the issues as much as I can raised by Members.

    Supporting the religious needs of the Muslim community
  2. I am heartened by the strong support from Members and the community to empower Muis to establish wakaf.
  3. Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim raised several questions about the Wakaf Masyarakat Singapura (WMS) and how Muis would manage wakaf.
  4. Let me explain.
    1. The WMS is unique as it will be the first multi-asset wakaf created by Muis where voluntary contributions from all members of the Singapore Muslim community can be received. All members whether you are rich or poor, you can do it. These can be in the form of cash, property or CPF nominations.
    2. The WMS will be supported by collective community contributions and used for collective purposes. It is unlike traditional wakaf, which are created by individual Muslims and bequeathed for specific purposes as designated by the contributors.
    3. The WMS will also complement existing wakaf that have been created for specific causes such as education, which Assoc Prof Razwana had suggested.
    4. We want the WMS to build a sizeable corpus, such that its long-term returns can benefit the larger community and be flexible enough to meet the evolving socio-religious needs of our community over time in the future. Muslim individuals who wish to contribute to specific causes may set up their own wakaf and enliven this wakaf spirit.
    5. As with all wakaf in Singapore, the WMS will be vested in and administered by Muis under the AMLA.
    6. To Dr Syed Harun’s question, Muis will appoint a mutawalli once the WMS has been vested and the corpus has been built. The mutawalli will then manage the wakaf in accordance with the rules, terms and conditions required by Muis.
  5. The WMS is a wakaf by the community and for the community. Who will the WMS benefit?
    1. In its first instance, the returns from the WMS will be used to sustain our religious institutions, develop our asatizah fraternity, and empower our Singapore Muslim community.
    2. Over the next thirty years, many of our mosques and madrasahs will face land lease renewals. The WMS will enable the community to prepare early for these growing needs by harnessing our collective resources in the here and now, instead of having to find funds to meet very sizeable requirements only when they are due. The WMS will therefore augment the existing Mosque Building and MENDAKI Fund, or MBMF, to support the large capital expenditure needed to fund the various land lease renewals, redevelopment and upgrading, as well as to develop new mosques.
    3. The WMS will also support efforts to develop and professionalise our asatizah fraternity, and nurture competent religious leaders, who are able to guide the community through challenging and contemporary issues.
    4. The WMS will serve as a reserve fund to support the community in moments of need, such as during severe national crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. We will take the cue from the use of our national reserves to assess when our community can use the reserve fund, and when it is critically needed to enable our religious institutions to support the community.
    5. I thank Dr Syed Harun for his suggestion on whether community organisations serving purposes aligned to the WMS will be able to tap on the fund. We will study it further in consultation with Muis and Muis Council, our Malay/Muslim community organisations, and the broader public.
  6. I agree with Mr Sharael and Assoc Prof Razwana that Muis must ensure proper governance of the WMS, and this is what the Bill will require Muis to do.   
    1. As with other wakaf, the WMS must be audited as a matter of public accountability and its financial statements published in Muis’ Annual Report. So it will be presented in Parliament and you can scrutinise this.
    2. The WMS will be held to stringent standards, with clear rules governing its administration. This will give the community confidence that their contributions will make a real and positive impact.
    3. The wakaf funds are primarily placed in property and low risk investments that can reap a steady income stream whilst preserving its corpus. As an Islamic endowment fund, Muis is guided by the Fatwa Committee and the Muis Investment Committee to ensure that the investments are permissible and that the wakaf objectives can be met.
    4. All contributions to a wakaf, including the WMS, will have their proceeds distributed in accordance with the wakaf’s objectives. Therefore, the contributors will not be able to alter or direct the intent and direction of the wakaf. This ensures that wakaf are used for charitable and socio-religious purposes that was originally intended.
    5. I thank Mr Zhulkarnian Abdul Rahim for his suggestion to set up a dispute resolution framework for wakaf. Just like other wakaf, any disputes relating to the management of the WMS after a mutawalli has been appointed will be managed through the wakaf dispute resolution framework, comprising mediation and inquiry processes institutionalised by Muis.

    Improving Islamic religious education
  7. Let me now turn to the proposal to improve the quality and delivery of Islamic religious education, which Members have agreed is an important issue.
  8.  The nature of Islamic religious education and Muslim religious schools have changed dramatically since the AMLA was first enacted in 1966. In fact, we have more qualified teachers among us than we had before; people who went to school overseas and are graduates of esteemed Islamic universities.
    1. Religious education no longer takes place only in a physical school or setting but has also expanded to online platforms and channels. The AMLA therefore needs to be updated to reflect these changes.
    2. We need to ensure that religious teachings communicated through various platforms are appropriate for our contemporary and diverse society.
    3. Hence, we must continue to strengthen Muis’ administration of our Muslim religious schools, to preserve the high level of confidence that the community places in them.  
  9. Dr Wan Rizal asked how the proposed definition of religious schools will impact Islamic religious education in Singapore. Assoc Prof Razwana asked how Muis ensures that Muslim religious schools meet quality standards. And Mr Faisal Manap asked where the 10 comes from and how do we define what makes 10.
    1. First, Islamic education in Singapore must be delivered by individuals who are certified under Muis’ Asatizah Recognition Scheme, or ARS.  This applies also to Quranic teachers. This will ensure that our community has access to proper religious guidance from accredited religious teachers who possess a good understanding of Islamic values and principles and who are attuned to Singapore’s context. Indeed, we should give opportunities to our qualified religious teachers to be the ones guiding us. They are not only qualified, accredited – they are well-guided to lead us, whether it’s in Quran reading, in religious guidance and not go to other secondary sources, more so from overseas.
    2. Second, any individual or organisation seeking to offer religious instruction habitually to at least 10 other individuals physically present in Singapore – that means together, not one at a time – would have to register as a Muslim religious school with Muis, under its current Islamic Education Centres and Providers, or IECP, scheme. To Mr Faisal Manap’s question, why 10? This ensures that our definition of a Muslim religious school is in line with the broad understanding of what a school is as defined in other legislative acts, taking a leaf from other legislation to make sure we are consistent. IECPs must submit their school curriculum, syllabus, and learning materials for verification and quality assessments.
    3. Third, the provisions will encompass both online and in-person instruction. They apply to individuals and organisations based in Singapore and who are conducting online religious classes for 10 or more individuals also physically present in the country. To Mr Louis Ng’s question, these provisions will cover virtual rooms if the individuals attending the classes are physically present in Singapore.
    4. Fourth, Muis ensures that Muslim religious schools offer quality education by conducting periodic audits on these institutions and their teachers. And this is important for our community. For example, ARS-registered teachers have to complete a Continuous Professional Education programme of a prescribed number of hours, to be in touch with the latest developments, to be in touch with others, and with our senior religious teachers; and they cover modules such as the Code of Ethics, Contemporary Islamic Thought, and Modern and Prophetic Pedagogy.
    5. Taken together, the robust ARS-registration system, comprehensive asatizah training, and the strong IECP regulatory framework seek to uphold the quality delivery of our religious education. Which means that if we do this right, our understanding of Islam will be well-guided, moderated and in touch with those who are qualified. That said, I would like to urge our Muslim community to exercise due diligence and seek religious instruction from credible sources. We should refer to ARS-certified teachers to better guide ourselves and our children on religious matters and education.
  10. I thank Dr Syed Harun for also raising the issue of whether this amendment would affect private religious sharing, especially within the context of the family. I would like to clarify that this amendment aims to better regulate Islamic religious education in Singapore, specifically by religious schools or other individuals and entities that provide religious instruction. It is not intended to regulate the private and personal sharing of religious views and opinions between individuals, friends, family members or colleagues or as Mr Faisal Manap put it, zikir sessions or sessions where you are not imparting religious instruction.

    Strengthening the Fatwa (Legal) Committee
  11. I would now like to turn to Mr Louis Ng’s question about fatwas or religious rulings, which play an important role in the life of our Muslim community and may be requested by members of the community for the purpose of Court proceedings.
    1. The issues raised to the Fatwa Committee today are increasingly complex, demanding detailed research and consultations to ensure that the opinions issued by the Committee are rigorous and sound.
    2. The amendments will allow the Committee to tap on a wider range of expertise within the asatizah fraternity to facilitate deliberations.
  12. Assoc Prof Razwana asked how Muis selects the Fatwa Committee members; so did Mr Faisal Manap, who asked if someone can apply to be a Fatwa Committee member. Muis undertakes careful consideration in assessing an individual’s capabilities and expertise, before appointing them to the Fatwa Committee So it is by appointment. Since 1990, the Committee has appointed local religious scholars as associate members, thereby enhancing the depth of discussions and providing a training platform for those who may potentially serve as Committee members in the future. So there is already a process to induct new and young asatizah to get them to understand the fatwa process and over time, when they develop a grasp of the religion and are able to apply in context, they can be appointed to the Committee.
  13. While the Fatwa Committee seeks to address issues in a prompt and timely manner, the time taken for an opinion to be issued may vary, depending on the complexity of the issue. With the amendment, the Fatwa Committee will be empowered to decide whether there is a need to issue a fatwa based on the request received.
    1. This ensures that the Committee’s resources will be focused on matters that require its attention and, in the long-term, ensure that requests can be met in a timely manner.
    2. Should there be complex or urgent matters to be addressed, the Committee may convene meetings more frequently to deliberate on the issues.
    3. I would like to emphasise that not all religious queries warrant a fatwa, particularly when comprehensive guidance already exists in established sources such as the religious guidance, or irsyad, issued previously by the Office of the Mufti.

    Strengthening assurance for imported halal products
  14. I will now move to halal products. Members have also supported the establishment of a framework to recognise Foreign Halal Certification Bodies (FHCB). This is a positive development, given that Singapore relies heavily on imported food products, some of which would bear the marks of these FHCBs.
  15. To Mr Mohamed Sharael Taha’s, Mr Louis Ng’s, Dr Syed Harun’s and Mr Faisal Manap’s questions, Muis’ recognition of FHCBs will help our halal certified food establishments identify halal products from overseas and strengthen their halal regime. This ensures that all food products used in such establishments, including those that are imported, meet Muis’ halal certification standards. So Muis already has a standard, and they have to meet these standards.
  16. FHCBs will be subjected to a rigorous assessment to ensure that their halal standards are comparable with Muis’ standards, in order to be granted recognition by Muis. This includes assessing whether (i) the FHCBs are certifying meat or poultry products from source countries approved or accredited by the Singapore Food Agency; and (ii) the FHCBs are adopting ISO principles or equivalent standards in their halal certification management systems. Here is the process, among others:
    1. First, FHCBs will have to undergo mandatory training and assessment to ensure that they are able to comply with Singapore’s halal standards and requirements. 
    2. During the three-year recognition period, these FHCBs will be placed under Muis' audit and surveillance regime. FHCBs that fail to comply to Muis’ requirements could be suspended or de-listed from Muis’ recognition list, and their certified products cannot be used by Muis’ halal-certified companies.
    3. To clarify Dr Syed Harun’s query, the amendment is limited to the misuse of halal certificates and marks of Muis-recognised FHCBs. This will help serve as an added incentive for FHCBs to seek Muis’ recognition. We will work with Muis and industry partners to study the Member’s suggestion on how we can further protect our Muslim consumers against the misuse of FHCB marks and certificates.
    4. Muis will also charge a fee to FHCBs seeking Muis’ recognition, so as to defray the costs of administering this scheme such as audit inspections. This is similar to Muis’ halal certification for local establishments. The frequency of such audits will be based on Muis’ current risk assessment framework, with a focus on meat and poultry establishments.
  17. I agree with Assoc Prof Razwana on the importance of educating consumers so that they can make informed choices on halal products. Currently, the public can refer to Muis’ website on the list of recognised FHCBs. Muis will continue to provide consumers with relevant information through various channels and explore more ways to make them more accessible. 
  18. Overall, this FHCB recognition scheme will help to provide Muslim businesses particularly and consumers generally with greater assurance when purchasing halal products.

    Introduction of the Digital Certificate of Marriage
  19. Now let me move on to Digital Certificate of Marriage. Mr Speaker, marriage is an important and momentous occasion in the life journey of any individual. I therefore appreciate the feedback shared by Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim and Assoc Prof Razwana on whether the introduction of Digital Certificates of Marriage would affect the institution of Muslim marriage, and measures to prevent errors and scams.
  20. I would like to assure the House that the institution of Muslim marriage continues to be strongly upheld, even as we implement the digital Certificate of Marriage.
    1. Therefore, the AMLA ensures that our Muslim community can deal with relevant personal matters, such as marriage, under Muslim law. Any amendments to the AMLA that involve Muslim law must draw on the advice of the Office of the Mufti, ensuring that all requirements under Muslim law are met before any changes are proposed.
    2. There will continue to be a formal religious marriage ceremony. Couples will still need to meet the requirements of a valid Muslim marriage as determined by their marriage solemniser, also known as a Kadi or Naib Kadi.
    3. The Kadi or Naib Kadi will assess if all the conditions necessary for a valid solemnisation and registration of a Muslim marriage have been met, in accordance with Muslim law and the provisions of the AMLA. Prior to the solemnisation, the Kadi or Naib Kadi will actually conduct face-to-face sessions with the couple to provide guidance as well as referrals to other relevant support.
    4. There are cyber security safeguards for the digital Certificate of Marriage. As with other government agency websites and accounts, citizens can log in to view their Muslim marriage application or documents via SingPass, which has its own security safeguards.  The digital Certificate of Marriage is password-protected. The QR code on the digital Certificate will also make it more convenient for parties to verify the authenticity of the document.
    5. Even as we implement the digital Certificate, the Registry of Muslim Marriages will provide a hard copy Ceremonial Certificate of Marriage for couples who wish to have it as a keepsake.
  21. I wish to address Assoc Prof Razwana’s question about online solemnisations. Following the 2022 amendments to the AMLA, ROMM has been empowered to conduct solemnisations via remote communication technology, in addition to physical solemnisations. ROMM had consulted the Office of the Mufti to put in steps to ensure that online solemnisations will meet all the requirements of a valid Muslim marriage under Muslim law. So again, it is subject to the approval of the Office of the Mufti This option for online solemnisations will provide for unique situations like the COVID-19 pandemic when people were not able to meet physically. Notwithstanding this, physical solemnisations will continue to be the default norm and preferred mode.

    Strengthening digitalisation and enhance administrative provisions relating to SYC
  22. Assoc Prof Razwana also asked how the SYC would ensure a seamless process for clients who use its digital system. The SYC has published detailed videos and user guides, as well as set up a call centre helpdesk, to help users navigate the digital portal. SYC will continue to take in feedback to enhance the user experience.
  23. Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim raised a number of questions and suggestions regarding the SYC-related amendments. Let me address them one at a time.
  24. First, on the amendments to clarify the Syariah Court’s jurisdiction in Clauses 8 and 12 of the Bill.
    1. We are amending Section 35 of the AMLA to clarify that the Syariah Court’s jurisdiction includes maintenance of children on divorce or nullification of marriage, which has always been part of section 52(3) of AMLA.
    2. The Family Justice Courts, or FJC, will continue to hear child maintenance matters. This is because SYC’s jurisdiction is matrimonial in nature, limited to hearing child maintenance matters upon a dissolution of a Muslim marriage.
    3. It is common that parties already have ongoing maintenance proceedings in FJC even before the divorce proceedings are commenced in SYC. Enforcement of maintenance orders are also carried out in the FJC.
    4. It is thus more convenient for parties, as a matter of practice, for a single Court, the FJC, to hear all matters relating to maintenance of children, including the enforcement of these orders. This also prevents the possibility that two contrary maintenance orders are made by the two separate Courts.
    5. To Assoc Prof Razwana’s query, I would like to assure the Member that the FJC can make orders on maintenance for a child above 21 years old if they are mentally or physically disabled.
  25. Second, on how the Court will exercise its expanded powers under the new sections 36B and 43(2). As no two cases are alike, the Court will make its determination based on the specific facts of each case on whether the legal threshold has been met. The Presidents and Registrars of the Court will do so with a view to ensuring the rules of natural justice will also be preserved and given effect to, including dealing with the case expeditiously to protect the welfare of the child.
  26. Third, Mr Zhulkarnain had suggested that we expand the Syariah Court’s jurisdiction and powers beyond what this Bill is introducing today.
    1. Specifically, Mr Zhulkarnain suggested that the Syariah Court be empowered to make decisions on the division of matrimonial assets upon a foreign divorce. He cited the 2017 case of TMO and TMP, where the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal by the wife to seek an order from the FJC for division of her matrimonial assets. This was after the Court of Appeal confirmed that the High Court retained residual jurisdiction over matters like the division of matrimonial assets, which do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court. Hence, there is no legal vacuum and parties to a foreign Muslim divorce can proceed to the civil courts to claim financial relief and are not left stranded without recourse.
    2. We will carefully study Mr Zhulkarnain’s other suggestions for the Syariah Court, along with other feedback we received from stakeholders such as the Muslim Law Practice Committee of the Law Society of Singapore. This study will be done in consultation with the legal and asatizah fraternities, together with the broader Muslim community.
  27. Assoc Prof  Razwana asked about the proposed enhancements to the Syariah Court’s judge-led approach for divorce cases and how the Court can connect individuals with relevant community services.
    1. I wish to clarify that the judge-led approach is actually already an existing practice of the Syariah Court. These amendments enhance the Court’s ability to apply the judge-led approach.
    2. Currently, the Court is also empowered to make child- and family-centric social support referrals where it deems appropriate, both in the course of proceedings and after the divorce is finalised. One example is to refer parties to counselling.

    Closing
  28. Mr Speaker, I would like to conclude by once again thanking our Malay/Muslim community and partners for their support – for both this current and past reviews of the AMLA. I am heartened by the ideas and suggestions from our community leaders and other stakeholders during the public consultations and in this debate. We have incorporated some of these ideas in this amendment Bill and will explore others as we implement the changes with our statutory Muslim institutions and community partners.
  29. With the passing of this amendment Bill, we will further strengthen the robust and contemporary legal foundation for our statutory Muslim institutions to build our Muslim Community of Success.
  30. Thank you.
Last updated on 05 February 2024