Asia Research Institute
Working Paper Series No. 120
Sustaining Islamic Activism in Secular Environments:
The Muhammadiyah Movement in Singapore
Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied
Department of Malay Studies, national University of Singapore
The role of Islamic activists in shaping the politics and religious life of Muslims in secular states has attracted an increasing level of scholarly interest and media attention in recent years in view of the current global war against terror. In Southeast Asia, as well as in North America and Europe, the genesis, structure, membership and sources of funding of Muslim movements have come under the close scrutiny of states and security analysts, whose overriding concerns are the identification and proscription of groups that lean in any way towards support for violance... One movement that has attracted the attention of both colonial and postcolonial authorities in Singapore is the Muhammadiyah, due mainly to its promotion of a missionary ideology and unyielding critiques of practices that are deemed as incompatible with the pure Islamic faith.
This paper is not intended as a response to state policies. Rather, it aims to add to the small body of scholarly literature surrounding Islamic activism and Muslim movements in Singapore. While many studies have been devoted to the history and evolution of the forty-million-strong Muhammadiyah movement in Indonesia, very little has been written about movements in other parts of Southeast Asia that have shared common general goals and ideas. To this lacuna must be added the preoccupation of past students and scholars with the study of selected Islamic movements in Singapore, particularly the All-Malaya Missionary Society (or Jamiyah), owing to the remarkable breadth of its activities and to its prolonged existence. The Muhammadiyah movement in Singapore thus deserves a more in-depth analysis and treatment, not only because of the paucity of works about it, but also because of its reformist and modernist outlook, which parallels that of Jamiyah. Both movements have also been equally attuned to global developments, while simultaneously demonstrating a high degree of dynamism and commitment in their engagement with local challenges, especially in the realm of the educatio, social welfare and religious guidance.
Furthermore, the fact that the Muhammadiyah movement has maintained a strong presence since 1958, whilst operating effectively within a secular, non-Muslim-dominated society governed by what have been described as 'illiberal democratic' colonial and post-colonial regimes in Singapore, is a particularly interesting theme that calls for deeper investigation...
... The Muhammadiyah, as will be argued, provides an informative case study of a Muslim movement in Singapore that has been successful in overcoming the limits of social demography and state secularism by broadening its activities and ideology, and by readjusting its modus operandi in accordance with evolving political and social contexts. Additionally, the interplay between local Islamic activism and international movements and the appropriation of global Islamic discourses and paradigms within a local context as exemplified by the Muhammadiyah reflects the creative agency of Muslims in Singapore which allows for comparison in the study of Islam in other parts of Asia.
By synthesizing historical evidence with insights and concepts borrowed from social movement theorists, this paper will provide a critical analysis of the processes that have enabled the Muhammadiyah movement in Singapore to sustain its relevance and vitality. I will argue that four processes have been crucial in this regard, the foremost being the symbiotic relationship between the leaders and the led. The esprit de corps among the rank and file was instrumental in the forging of the networks and links, both locally and globally. The crucial roles palyed by key members of Muhammadiyah in the formulation and subsequent revision of the movement's ideational frames constituted the second process that will be elaborated at length. Thirdly, there existed, from time to time, political opportunity structures which Muhammadiyah judiciously exploited, insofar as this strategy did not compromise the general goals of the movement. The fourth historical determinant is to be found in the availability of a wide array of mobilizing structures, which served as bases for the dissemination of the movement's ideology, and as arenas where new members could be recruited and funding could be sought. The next part of this paper will discuss the origins of the Muhammadiyah movement and its formalization, focusing primarily on the background of its key personalities and the contexts within which they operated. This section, which will also elucidate the rendering of the movement's history, will be followed by an explication of the four processes bwhich contributed to the consolidation and expansion of the movement from 1958 to 2007.