In this webinar, Dr Norshahril Saat, Dr Azhar Ibrahim, and Associate Professor Noor Aisha explored the educational trajectories of Singapore’s Islamic graduates, discussing the challenges faced in terms of employment prospects and ability to meet the demands of the economy, as well as the larger impact of these graduates on shaping religious discourses and teachings within the community upon their return.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Social Science Research Thematic Grant (SSRTG)
Friday, 7 August 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a closed-door webinar, “Singapore’s Islamic Studies Graduates: Aspirations and Challenges.” The panellists are Dr Norshahril Saat, Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Azhar Ibrahim, Lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS), and Dr Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, Associate Professor at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS). The presentation is based on a SSRTG-MOE grant-funded project titled “Singapore’s Islamic Studies Graduates: Their Role and Impact.”
Dr Norshahril Saat began the webinar by providing an overview of recent developments within the asatizah (religious teachers) community over the past few years, specifically the Islamic studies graduates. Examples include the introduction of a new course – the Postgraduate Certificate in Islam in Contemporary Societies (PCICS) – for new graduates, engagements by ministers with Singapore Islamic studies students through dialogues overseas and local, and the waxing pressure on these graduates to contextualize religious teachings given the rise of puritanism and radicalism in Islam in the Middle East.
With results from online surveys, focus group discussions, and in-depth interviews with Islamic studies graduates and undergraduates, he expounded on different aspects of students’ decision-making processes regarding their education. Dr Norshahril shared that educational genealogy played a major role in influencing an individual’s decision to pursue Islamic studies abroad on top of parent and teacher influence. He delineated the traditionalistic mode of teaching and learning when it comes to the nature of religious education. Heavy memory work, limited student-teacher interaction, selective intellectual exposure to contemporary Islamic thought – these were some of the limitations in educational infrastructure that precluded vigorous intellectual engagement with Islam.
Among other challenges and concerns discussed by the speakers are language barriers and working culture and administration hindering students’ adjustment to their new environment. Dr Norshahril pointed out that because these undergraduates tend to interact more with students from Singapore or other Southeast Asian countries, they are generally insulated from extremist ideas. Per contra, asatizah are reminded of the need for contextualization of their religious education to Singapore. Equally prominent among students is the lack of certainty in becoming a religious teacher despite majoring in Islamic studies. To illustrate, less than half of the current undergraduates interviewed are positive about becoming an asatizah therefore accentuating the mismatch between their education and demands of the economy, and what they are expected to become when they enroll into full-time madrasahs.
Dr Norshahril then delved into the increasing popularity of Jordan universities as opposed to the prestigious and highly regarded Al-Azhar University in Egypt. He analysed the curriculum of various major universities in the Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern regions attended by Singapore Islamic studies graduates as well as the distinctive features of each institution. However, he posited that it is too soon to conclude Jordan graduates as better compared to those from the other universities.
The webinar concluded with an examination of efforts to address these concerns brought up by asatizah and a summary of the study’s key findings. Students are insulated from extreme ideas and swathes of ideological currents; learning experiences are constrained by weak educational infrastructure; there exists a dissonance between their current educational training and the roles they are expected to undertake upon graduation; and there is a lack of effective planning for tertiary religious education in Singapore. For local madrasahs, the speakers called for a re-evaluation of Islamic studies curriculum by rethinking madrasah objectives and building alternative pathways for the asatizah.
A total of 29 questions were asked during the Q&A session. Dr Norshahril, Dr Azhar, and Dr Noor Aisha shared their views on issues such as critical lessons from the study to be upheld by policy leaders, reasons for the lack of interest in Indonesian Islamic institutions, students’ awareness on the oversupply of asatizah in Singapore and perception of discrimination, dominant themes that emerge in analyses of Islamic narratives, current policies in place to manage diversification of tertiary educational pathways, and the role of twinning programmes with universities abroad in diversifying socio-religious discourse in Singapore.
A total of 41 participants joined the webinar and they were from ministries and government bodies, such as MUIS, and self-help groups like Yayasan Mendaki and AMP.