According to 2020 census data, 15.6 percent of the Singapore population is Muslim. As Malays make up a majority of the community, Chinese Muslims are a minority within a minority.
Fatima Ma Jing, 19, is a Singaporean Chinese born-Muslim who is currently majoring in International Social and Political Studies at the University College of London. She speaks English and Mandarin fluently and is currently learning Arabic as a third language.
Ma Jing and her family are Hui. The ancestors of the Hui were merchants, soldiers, handicraftsmen, and scholars from Islamic Persia and Central Asia who moved to China from the 7th to the 13th century. After they settled in China, they intermarried with the Han Chinese, Uighur, and Mongolian nationalities and came to speak Chinese languages or dialects. Most Hui are Sunni Muslims.
She shares with us her experiences of what it’s like living in Singapore.
Islam has always been an important part of Ma Jing’s life. She pays zakat, observes her obligatory fast, strictly follows the Islamic dietary laws and occasionally goes to the mosque to pray.
Many people are shocked to find out that she is Muslim.
“For example, whenever people find out that I am a Chinese Muslim, they will be like, huh? But you do not look Malay? And then, I will tell them that being Muslim does not mean you are Malay and being Malay does not mean you are Muslim. There is race and there is religion, which are different.”
Islam remains to play a central role in Ma Jing’s life.
“Islam gives me strength when facing difficulties and challenges. It helps you to get out of it and continue to move on and strive on when you are facing those challenges.”
To Ma Jing, Islam is integral to her outlook towards life, especially when dealing with grief, such as losing a family member.
“In Islam, you believe that the date of your death is already set. So, everything is already there, and you learn how to accept it and just continue and move on while learning to cherish the time with your loved ones.”
She believes that Islam teaches her to keep an open mind, learn to embrace others of diverse backgrounds and try to be the best version of herself.
“It also pushes me to always try to become a better person, not just towards my family but for society.”
While Ma Jing finds it easier to identify as Chinese as someone who looks Chinese and speaks Chinese, she would sometimes feel like she is not Chinese enough.
For example, she does not eat authentic Chinese food that contains pork or alcohol, which are prohibited in Islam. However, Ma Jing does not find it a concern, as she is able to substitute ingredients to make Chinese food halal.
Ma Jing finds harmony in being both Chinese and Muslim. She ensures that she stays connected with her heritage by taking part in activities such as Chinese dance.
Ma Jing and her friends performing at the Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts at the Esplanade
Ma Jing would also join some gatherings organised by the Hui Hui Cultural Association of Singapore. The gatherings would include celebrating cultural festivals such as Chinese New Year, Duanwu Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival.
When Ma Jing interned with Lianhe Zaobao, the largest Singaporean Chinese-language newspaper, she was given the opportunity to write articles on anyone interesting or inspiring in Singapore.
Knowing her unique position as a Muslim who speaks Mandarin, she decided to feature Mariah Mah, a humanitarian who improves the education standards of Muslims in China by sponsoring the salaries of madrasah teachers, giving out bursaries to 200 students each year to pursue tertiary education and setting up literacy education centres for poor village children.
Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7W8iqVL5qk
Her work in uplifting the lives of Muslims in China has been so impactful that she was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world in 2009.
“Mariah is also a Chinese Muslim whom I think is really inspiring. I thought that her story was something worth writing about and sharing with the readers.”
Ma Jing attended Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools from secondary school to junior college. At times, she felt like the odd one out, especially when socialising with her friends for lunch or dinner.
“You have to tell them that we have to find a halal restaurant. Sometimes, I feel awkward and think, ‘Am I causing inconvenience to others?’”
That being said, Ma Jing is blessed with understanding and accommodating friends. Sometimes, her friends would do their research before going out to eat to ensure she could spend time with them while eating without worries.
Ramadan may be an obstacle to some, but with cooperation from her school and friends, Ma Jing was able to observe it smoothly.
She recalled participating in a Co-Curricular Activity (CCA), Chinese drama.
“Practice would go on till quite late. So, I would let them know that I was going off to have some food to break my fast and then I would come back. They were all very understanding about it.”
Ma Jing shared a heartwarming incident that happened at the start of her junior college years.
“The school actually sent an email to me, and asked me if I needed time for praying so that they can take that into account during scheduling of timetables. I am not sure if most schools in Singapore do this, but I felt kind of surprised.”
For Chinese New Year, Ma Jing’s family would gather for a reunion dinner and exchange ang pow (red packets).
“Chinese New Year is part of Chinese culture, and it is really just a time for people to come together and celebrate the joyous occasion. We meet up with friends and family that we have not met in a while to spend time together.”
However, there are some aspects of the Chinese New Year celebrations that her family would not partake in.
“For most Chinese people who are Buddhists or Taoists, they will have some special practices like giving offerings or going to their temples to pray - things that we do not practise.”
Ma Jing and her family also do not believe in certain Chinese New Year superstitions.
“For example, when you sweep the floor, you need to sweep from the outside of the house to the inside of the house, or else you are sweeping your wealth and luck out of your home.”
Another example is wearing red or pasting chunlian (spring festival couplets).
“There is the belief of its ability to dispel evil spirits - but I guess we just do it for the atmosphere and, in a way, to feel hopeful for the new year.”
To Ma Jing, being a Chinese Muslim does not affect the relationships she has with other people living in Singapore.
“Singapore is so multiracial and religious. I feel normal being a Chinese Muslim even though we are a very small part of the population. We are all connected by our shared Singapore identity.”
However, when she meets other Muslims in Singapore, she sometimes struggles to connect with the community as she does not understand Malay.
“I remember when I was in primary school, I went to the Sunday religious classes. When they were teaching us, the words were only in Malay and Arabic, so I could not understand. At least there were pictures for me to guess the meanings. And the other classmates would also speak in Malay.”
Nonetheless, she is happy that the Muslim community is making an effort to start understanding her community more. She hopes that more can be done to raise awareness about Muslims of different ethnicities in Singapore.
“I just hope that eventually and gradually, maybe one day, people would not be that surprised to know of Chinese Muslims anymore.”
**This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Hui Hui Cultural Association of Singapore was formed in 2019 by a group of enthusiastic local Chinese, passionate about their cultural heritage and determined to serve the community.
Hui Hui intends to revive and preserve the rich heritage of traditional Chinese culture, which is slowly being forgotten among our younger generation. This encompasses food, costumes, songs, dance, and many other aspects of livelihood, like celebrating Chinese New Year, Lantern festival or Chap Goh Mei with sweet dumplings, and Mid-Autumn Mooncake festival.
Here is a video by the Hui Hui Qasidah group singing the poetry about Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. in Chinese-Arabic.