5 Muslim Pioneers of Singapore and Their Contributions

by Ahmad Ubaidillah 2021-08-04 • 24 min read
Ahmad Ubaidillah studied at Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah and Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah. He’s a third-year undergraduate student currently studying Islamic Law and Jurisprudence in Yarmouk University, Irbid, Jordan.
2021-08-04 • 24 min read

5 Inspiring Pioneers of Singapore and Their Contributions

The Muslim community in Singapore, like the other religious communities, has played an important role in the country’s nation-building. From the pioneering generation to the current generation, we have — as one community — worked for hand in hand with our fellow brothers and sisters to build a place we can proudly call home. Through our religious institutions and individual efforts based on the principles of religion, we have succeeded in contributing to the nation-building efforts of our country. This is not to say that we did not face any challenges.

If we compare the lives of our parents and grandparents, it is clear that they had challenges unique to their own time and perhaps, theirs were even more challenging. In the writings of those who recall the early days of our country, social issues such as unemployment and racial tensions were prominent[1], the ideals of gender equality were not as widespread as they are now[2].

In our generation today, we also have our own challenges such as wrong and fallible interpretations of our religious teachings, and those who believe that their religion, race or gender are superior to others. Such negative ideologies are against our religious principles, which consist of sound and proper methodologies of interpretations, and belief in equality among humankind, regardless of race, religion or gender. The advent of social media has also increased the polarisation between those with different views, be it about religion, politics or others. 

For our community, where our religions play an important and central role in our lives, we have referred to Islam as a catalyst for positive change in certain and relevant issues. I believe that this is exemplified by some of our community leaders, who have shown how — in a modern, metropolitan and pluralistic state — our religion can be a motivation for betterment, be it in its pure form or its values. Of course, this has to come with a deep understanding of society and also knowledge of other relevant areas. 

Therefore, in commemoration of National Day, it is apt that we reflect upon the legacies of these inspiring individuals of our community, those who have contributed much in their own unique ways. Noting that there are indeed many, here are 5 figures that I would like to highlight:

1) Ahmad Ibrahim

Pioneer of Singapore Ahmad Ibrahim and Contributions
Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

An alumnus of Raffles Institution, Raffles College and Cambridge University, Ahmad Ibrahim was, first and foremost, a superb lawyer who also became the first Attorney General of Singapore. In the early days of independence, this was an important position as it consisted of drafting laws that would lay down the legal groundwork of a country, and it was a role that he excelled in, as testified by his peers. As a lawyer, Ahmad Ibrahim had a keen interest in family law and Muslim law, and that was clearly seen through his activism, academic writings and also legal contributions. 

One of the cases he worked as a lawyer would be known by many, and that was the case of Nadra Hertogh. In the early days of independence, when race and religion were even more highly sensitive, this incident caused widespread conflict in the community. As the lawyer for the gentleman who had married Nadra Hertogh, but whose marriage was deemed invalid by the civil court, Ahmad Ibrahim witnessed first-hand the tensions and differences between civil and Muslim laws and the consequences that would arise from such differences. 

Therefore, it is of no surprise that one of his contributions was the drafting of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), a significant piece of legislation that is applicable only to the Muslim community. AMLA resulted in the founding of our important Islamic institutions such as Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (Muis) and Syariah Court, and also allowed the formalisation of Islamic marriage laws, inheritance laws, waqaf laws, and so on. The Act is unique legislation as Singapore was the only former British colony with a minority Muslim population with an Islamic religious council embedded within the state structure. Until today, there are numerous aspects of AMLA that benefit the Muslim community.

One of the valuable facets of his legacy was the fighting for social justice through legal means. He was a believer that laws should be fair to all and should be the bastion for equality.  As a social activist, he fought for the rights of women and one of his ways was by assisting in drafting the Women Charter, which was a groundbreaking piece of legislation at the time in upholding the rights of women. Even so, this was not accomplished without criticism at the time, especially from men who believed they should be given special rights when it came to marital laws. His reply to those critics showed his intellect, “In most other Muslim countries the right of the Muslim husband has been restricted and it is only bigoted fanaticism and a lack of social consciousness which leads the Muslim men in Singapore to claim their exclusive right in this matter.”[3]

2) Sahorah Ahmat

Pioneer of Singapore Sahorah Ahmat and her contributions
Photo credit: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Singapore women are backward compared to women from other countries. We want to do our best.”[4]

These were the words that displayed the strong will of Sahorah Ahmat, who made history in Singapore’s 1959 General Elections as one of the five women elected into the Legislative Assembly (now Parliament). She was also the first-ever Malay woman to do so.[5] To be a female politician in the 50s and 60s was no easy task, as resistance and challenges came in different shapes and sizes — from misogynistic attitudes about the place of women in politics to the plight of women at the time. However, she displayed the fortitude and courage to fight for what she believed was right.

In the post-war period of the 50s and 60s, despite the obstacles placed upon them, women played an integral role in nation-building through participation in political bodies, trade unions and social-work organisations. The Muslim women activists of the time, such as Che Zahara and Shirin Fozdar, helped established the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) to uplift the status of women and reform gender relations. But as activists often discover, an effective but challenging medium to instil change in society is through the political arena, and so, in that period, women pioneers entered politics. This included Mrs Elizabeth Choy, a war detainee who subsequently went on to become a governor to the Legislative Council, a position she used to speak on behalf of the poor and needy. 

Read Women’s Rights Activist Che Zahara: 4 Things You Should Know

For Sahorah Ahmat, she was already a social worker and an advocate for welfare causes when she was chosen to enter politics. After being elected into office in 1959, she was assigned as a public liaison for the Ministry of Health under the stewardship of Minister Ahmad Ibrahim. In this position, she assisted in overseeing the running of welfare homes and improving their quality and was also involved in philanthropic efforts. In addition to her role as an officeholder, she was also committed to her constituency work. When 500 individuals lost their homes due to a fire in her constituency, she personally appealed to the public for donations to help those affected by the fire, in a van fitted with loudspeakers.

In fighting for women’s rights, as a politician, the burden on her shoulders was heavier but that still was not a hindrance for her. Instead, it was her motivation. One of her accomplishments would be her contribution towards the Women’s Charter, in which the women of her political party were deemed to have played an instrumental role in drafting several aspects of the law. Added to this, Sahorah, along with other women politicians, submitted a petition to pressure the government to abolish the gender pay gap in the civil service, which led to some policy changes by the government of the day.

3) Masuri S.N.

pioneer of singapore Masuri and his contributions
Photo credit: Masuri S.N Sasterawan Unggul Singapura

The world of literature is one that cannot be overlooked or forgotten, for in this area are the works and writings of men and women who see their words in ink as the tools to instil positive change. Our community is filled with people who are blessed with the gift of writing. Among these people stands a giant, and that is Masuri S.N, who is regarded as the “Father of Modern Malay Poetry”.

Born in 1927, he was among the generation of Malay writers who experienced the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore and the turbulent period of independence. And just like most of them at the time, he was a teacher in the literal sense, as he taught formally in schools, while also in a figurative sense, as he shared his insights, knowledge and moral conscience with society through writing. It was through their experiences during the Second World War and the pre-independence period, the hardship and struggles they witnessed in society, that they saw the need to pick up their pens and write. For Mahsuri, what he saw with his own eyes during this period caused an awakening to his humanity.

One of his contributions to society was the establishment of the Angkatan Sasterawan ’50 or ASAS’ 50 with ith Muhammad Ariff Ahmad and other writers. With its slogan ‘Seni untuk Masyarakat’ (Arts for Society), it was clear that their efforts to write were with the progress of their society in mind. Through his pen, Masuri touched countless lives, lending them strength and hope from his words. It was through his voice on paper that he spoke for the poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden. In his published works, Masuri did not only touch upon the material or physical aspects of his people but also the mental and spiritual aspects that shape their way of living as well. His contributions to the arts scene in Singapore also came in the form of serving as an advisor for the National Arts Council.

His contributions towards the society in the forms of his writings were recognised by the awards he received, such as the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1963, the SEA Write Award for Malay poetry in 1980, the Tun Seri Lanang Award in 1995, the ASEAN Cultural Award for literature in 1995, the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award in 1996, and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 2000.[6]

Here, he said, “My struggle is to penetrate through writing the irrationalities which have crusted in the thinking of our people. In a struggle, we should pioneer new thoughts. We should search for ideas which improve the conditions of our society. For me, this is a struggle.”[7] What he sought was “to revolutionise its thinking, to strive to develop a positive attitude, a determination to seek knowledge, an assertiveness to stand for one’s rights and resistance to any form of decadence that runs counter to Islam and Malay cultural values.”[8]

As a poet, Masuri’s moral conscience towards his people was clear in his writings, and it is encapsulated in these lines of his poem titled, Bangun Negaraku.

Bangun negaraku
Dari peluh anak bumimu membanjiri dadamu
Usaha setuju menuju satu waktu 
Untuk waktu berakhir satu waktu

4) Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji

pioneer of singapore Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji and his contributions
Photo credit: BERITA Mediacorp

With the role that Islam has in our multi-racial and multi-religious society comes the equal importance of our religious scholars, who are entrusted with the responsibility to convey the teachings and principles of Islam correctly to the masses. One of the many gems from the Asatizah community is Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji, a widely acclaimed scholar whose works and contributions are of great relevance until today. 

A graduate of Madrasah Aljunied, Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji was among the few of his generation who was active in spreading religious knowledge through preaching and writing. For example, from 1959-1984, he was called upon by the Singapore Malay radio station to share with the listeners his interpretations of the Quran. With this, he also saw the opportunity to embark upon a writing project: a full interpretation of the 30 chapters of the Quran which he completed in 25 years. He also served as a member of the Islamic Religious Education committee under the Ministry of Education to produce religious textbooks. 

Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji’s contributions were not only in spreading religious knowledge but also in founding and serving in some of the religious institutions that are still of great importance today.  One example of it would be his significant role in the founding days of Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS), which has gone on to become one of the prominent Islamic organisations in Singapore. He also served as a member of the Muis’ Fatwa Committee that passed religious edicts on national issues such as NEWater and organ donations.

Another important contribution from Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji would be the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) that was founded in 2002 to counter extremist ideologies that misuse and misinterpret Islamic teachings. There was a movement that threatened our national security at the time, which also endangered Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji who stepped up to play an important role in countering it by crafting a manual to address misinterpretations of Islamic concepts such as jihad and several others. 

Today, even after his passing, Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji has continued to benefit the community as he has donated his literary collection to the National Library. This decision has truly benefited those who seek to study and understand Islam, regardless of their background.

5) Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique

 pioneer of singapore Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique and his contributions

Photo credit: shadhiliyyah.sg

In a plural society such as ours, where people of different religions have convened, the effort to understand one another is an important one and is best advocated and initiated by our religious scholars. Without such efforts, misunderstandings and stereotypes of the various religions would not be addressed, and it is through dialogue that these matters should be addressed.

In Singapore, Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique was one of the main figures who fulfilled the mentioned tasks and carried out interfaith work in the 1950s. Born in Meerut, now Pakistan, he was a student of the renowned Ahmad Raza Khan. Due to his commitment to spreading the peaceful message of Islam, which saw him travelling extensively for 40 years, Maulana was known to people as a Roving Ambassador of Peace. It was in Singapore that he founded the Muslim Missionary Society Singapore, which is now known as Jamiyah Singapore. His contributions to their social and welfare work for the less privileged and needy benefited countless people, regardless of race and religion.

One of his contributions to the community was the building of a mosque named after him in Telok Kurau. Another great and lasting contribution was the founding of Inter-Religious Organisations (IRO). In his visit to post-war Singapore in 1949, Maulana Mohamed Abdul Aleem Siddiqui gathered 40 individuals that represented different faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christian and Judaism to deliver a message of peace on behalf of the Muslim Missionary Society. The success of this momentous occasion was clear, and those in attendance planned to meet again to build upon the success of this event. In the subsequent two meetings, Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddiqui proposed the formation of an organisation to represent all faiths, with the intention that the IRO was to be open to all, regardless of their status and race, with fostering peace and understanding in society as its objective.

Today, the IRO is still active in fostering harmony and promoting dialogues between different faiths in Singapore. In their efforts, it has strengthened our society and enabled us to see strength in our racial and religious diversity.

Conclusion

In reflecting upon the legacies of these individuals, it teaches us that each of them contributed to society in their own unique ways, be it law, politics, literature or religion. While the medium of contribution is important, it is essential that we hold onto the true principles and values of Islam, so that our thoughts, words and actions are based upon the teachings of our religion. 

The legacies of these individuals have also shown how important it is to lend a hand in nation-building, be it through advocating social justice, countering extremist ideologies or fostering interfaith works. No matter how small we deem it to be, our participation might benefit and influence generations to come.


[1] https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2015-02-04_103701.html

[2] https://www.aware.org.sg/2018/08/lunchtime-talk-women-of-the-past-uncovering-singapores-pre-independence-womens-rights-movement/

[3] Ahmad Nizam Abbas, Ahmad Ibrahim’s Role in Shaping Islamic Laws in Singapore, Beyond Bicentennial; Perspective on Malays, ed. Zainul Abidin, Wan Zoohri, Norshahril Saat, pg 576, World Scientific, 2020

[4] Muhammad Suhail Mohd Yazid, A Malay Woman In The House: Recovering Sahorah Ahmat’s Legacy in Singapore’s History, Beyond Bicentennial; Perspective on Malays, ed. Zainul Abidin, Wan Zoohri, Norshahril Saat,pg 623, World Scientific, 2020

[5] Ibid, pg 634

[6] http://www.poetry.sg/masuri-sn-bio

[7] Ed. Sa’eda Buang, Ode to Masuri S.N., Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2012, pg 18

[8] Ed. Sa’eda Buang, Ode to Masuri S.N., Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2012, pg 19

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