Asian & Asian American Studies

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Negotiating Malay Identities in Singapore

The Role of Modern Islam

In the Series
Asian & Asian American Studies

Rizwana Abdul Azeez obtained her MA from SOAS, the UK, in 1996 and her PhD from Flinders University, Australia, in 2012. She is now an Adjunct Lecturer at the Flinders University School of International Studies. She has held research and teaching positions in several tertiary institutions, including a Research Fellowship at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Her publications include The Islamization of Science in Singapore’s Madrasahs (Bangkok, 2011).

Singapore Malays subscribe to mostly traditional rather than modern interpretations of Islam. Singapore state officials, however, wish to curb the challenges such interpretations bring to the country’s political, social, educational and economic domains. Thus, these officials launched a programme to socially engineer modern Muslim identities amongst Singapore Malays in 2003, which is ongoing. Negotiating Muslim Identities documents a variety of ethnographic encounters that point to the power struggles surrounding two basic and very different ways of living. While the Singapore state has gained some successes for its project, it has also faced significant and multiple setbacks. Amongst them, state officials have had to contend with traditional Islamic authority that Malay elders carry and who cannot be ignored because these elders are time-entrenched authority figures in their community.

One of the book's significant contributions is that it documents how Singapore, an avowedly secular state, has now turned to Islam as a tool for governance. Just as significant are the insights the study provides on another aspect of Singapore state governance, one usually described as ‘authoritarian’. The book demonstrates that even ‘authoritarian’ states can face serious obstacles in the face of religion's influence over its followers. The academic literature on Singapore Malays is sparse: this work not only fills gaps in the existing academic literature but provides new and original research data. Its data-rich ethnographic and anthropological approach show the complexities of Malay and Muslim social contexts, and complements other works that examine Southeast Asian states’ management of Islam, which has attracted much scholarship given the global interest in Islam-based politics and social organisation.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-696-7
Hardback Price: £60.00 / $74.95
Release Date: January 2016
Page Extent / Format: 240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


A Prologue: The Singapore State, Power Talk and Malays   
1 Modernising Singapore Malays                                                                              
2 The State’s Gaze on Malays                                                                              3 The State and Its Management of Religion                                                                         
4  Implementing Modernity: Omissions and Ambivalences    
5  The Administration of Muslim Law Act and MUIS: Bureaucratised Places and Personal Spaces

6 Time: Logically Coherent Versus Socially Coherent Approaches     
7  Jawi, Romanised Malay and English: Dialectical Co-existences  
8 Conclusion

Appendix A:
The Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) Project
Appendix B:
The Chain of Authority (Ijazah) of Umar bin Abd al-Rahman



Series Editor’s Preface
by Mina Roces

Rizwana Abdul Azeez’s nuanced analysis of the way the Singapore government through the state supported Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) unpacks the complexities that occur when an authoritarian regime attempts to impose its own definition of Islamic Malay identity on a minority group. While there is scholarship on Singapore’s attempts at social engineering, this book's unique contribution is its focus on the Malay minority and on a secular state’s direct engagement with religious affairs. The author’s careful reading of language, religious schools and mosque sermons, unveils how even the members of MUIS themselves contradict the state’s determined stance. Through the examination of exceptional case studies such as the issue of organ donation, the resilience of animism in religious practice, differing concepts of time, and the Malay attachment to Jawi script, this study documents the many ways a small minority group is able to successfully resist an authoritarian regime’s attempt to shape its religious identity.

Azeez explores the living and contested landscape of Singapore Malay identities as they reside in religious discourse among public figures in a wide variety of power relations with each other. She covers modernizing Singapore Malays; the state's gaze on Malays; the state and its management of religion; implementing modernity: omissions and ambivalences; the administration of the Muslim Law Act and Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura: bureaucratized places and personal spaces; time: logically coherent versus socially coherent approaches; and Jawi, Romanized Malay, and English: dialectical co-existences.

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