chapter  5
Literacy wars: Children's education and weekend madrasahs in Singapore
ByPHYLLIS GHIM-LIAN CHEW
Pages 20

For historian Anthony Reid (2011) Southeast Asia is the great laboratory of religious pluralism. It is not difficult to understand this viewpoint since there is an extraordinary abundance of languages, ethnicities, modes of production, beliefs and cultural patterns existing in close proximity in this part of the world. Pluralism is also a constant feature of everyday life in view of the profusion of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, creating a form of ‘unity in diversity’ (Chew 2009). While diversity has its advantages as an accelerator of social change (Moore 2007), its downside is that this diversity needs to be ‘managed’. For example, the plural state needs to protect religious tolerance since not all expressions of religion are ‘moderate’ or safe. Some forms of religion, especially if they belong to the minority, may be seen as ‘toxic’ as they may reduce the numbers of other groups in the society, erode community spirit and impair the ability of different groups to live together in peace and mutual respect. It is unwise to ignore the possible harm generated by some expressions of religious life. Hence, we see states grappling with the means to manage diversity through various measures, be it parliamentary, the courtroom or the classroom. In Singapore, my site of analysis, the 1990 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which comes under the aegis of the Minister for HomeAffairs, in turn advised by a Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, makes it an offence to cause illfeelings between different religious groups. Singapore is a nation that has successfully crafted a distinct group of people

through highly focused multiracial and multilingual practices, and perhaps pluralism is nowhere as evident in Southeast Asia as it is here (Chew 2013). One may suppose that in a ‘competitive, lean and modern state’ on 680 square kilometres of land with a relatively high per capita gross domestic product, and a reputation for efficiency and enterprise, religious aspirations would be secondary to material ones. But such a presupposition would be untrue. Religion is alive and well in the lives of Singaporeans and freedom of worship is enshrined in the Singapore constitution. The Inter-religious Council is an officially recognized and supported Non-Governmental Organization as well as one which actively promotes activities such as the annual celebration of World Religion Day, whereby representatives from the ten religions of Singapore (Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Daoism, and

Zoroastrianism) come together to commemorate a day of diversity and tolerance in religious beliefs.2 For many people, religion is a source of spiritual, social and even cultural nourishment. In addition, for the Sikhs, Malays and Parsis of Singapore, religion is a definition of their identity. For the Chinese and Indians, it is a major part of their cultural life, as seen in their practice of annual local festivals such as the Moon Cake Festival and Thaipusam. Singapore is also characterized by internal religious pluralism (cf. Tong 2002).