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Madrasah education, in Singapore as it is throughout the Muslim world, provides formal religious education to Muslim children and equip them for further education to become religious leaders. Indeed, many officials who hold top religious posts in Singapore as well as the region today are the products of Singapore’s madrasah system.
The first madrasah in Singapore was established by the descendants of a rich Arab businessman Syed Mohamed Alsagoff in 1912 at Jalan Sultan.
Some 13 years later Syed Abdurahman Bin Junied Aljunied, a trustee of the waqaf (endowment funds) of another rich Arab merchant Syed Omar Bin Ali Aljunied built the Madrasah Aljunied.
Today there are six full-time madrasahs in Singapore with many more part-time madrasahs co-existing in the mosques.
Calls for the madrasah system to be improved to enhance its compatibility with national education were made in the late 1970s. Muslim leaders proposed that madrasahs should teach both religious as well as secular subjects.
In 1999 then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the high dropout rate in madrasahs and called for a detailed study of their causes.
A year later in 2000, the Compulsory Education Act (CEA) was passed requiring all children in Singapore to receive formal education up to primary six. This sparked heated debates within the Muslim community, with some quarters accusing the government of planning the closure of madrasahs as madrasah education fell outside the scope of national education.
Eventually madrasah students were given exemption and allowed to pursue their primary education at the madrasahs but were required to sit for the PSLE.
To continue to enrol primary one pupils, madrasahs had to ensure that their students performed as well as Malay pupils in the six lowest-performing national schools at the PSLE at least twice within a three-year period. The first batch of madrasah students to sit for the PSLE under the CEA took the exam in 2008. Of these 321 students, 98% qualified to progress to secondary school, higher than the national average of 97%. In 2009, 93% of the 363 madrasah pupils who sat for the PSLE qualified for secondary school.
But this year primary six students from Wak Tanjong, one of the six full-time madrasahs here, failed to meet the PSLE benchmark. As a result it is now barred from admitting primary one students from 2012 for three years. This has led to an outcry and another round of debate within the Muslim community in Singapore.
The authorities need to look into the problems which brought about this state of affairs and find an effective and comprehensive remedy. Has Wak Tanjong received adequate financial support from the MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore)? Is the Ministry of Education sending enough trained teachers to the school? Commentators and observers have raised these questions in light of the move to bar Madrasah Wak Tanjong from enrolling new students.
If madrasahs are required to match the performance of national stream schools it should be given the manpower and resources to do so. The Muslim community fears that without meaningful assistance from the authorities it is only a matter of time before the other madrasahs also meet the fate of Madrasah Wak Tanjong.
This will ultimately lead to the closure of all full-time madrasahs here and the nation will be poorer for it as the void will be filled by other means where the authorities have no control over the curriculum of the students’ education.
And since most, if not all, religious teachers and officials serving the nearly 80 mosques in Singapore received their early education at our local madrasahs their closure will mean that we have to depend on foreign-trained imports to meet the community’s needs.
This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed at the national level. Neglecting the needs of a segment of society will have unwanted repercussions for the country as a whole down the road. The Singapore Democrats will continue to watch this situation and alert society of the danger that the present policy may be creating.