Growing up, many Muslims around me strongly believe that Madrasahs are institutional representatives of the Muslim community, which is not a baseless sentiment. Madrasahs have been institutionalised as the representatives of the community through legislation such as AMLA (Administration of Muslim Law Act). However, in many ways, this representation has been internalised by Muslims to mean “representatives of Islam” instead. This notion is extremely problematic because it gives an illusory idea that Madrasahs act purely based on religious interests, and to a certain dangerous extent, even “represent God”. One of the ways this belief has played out in my experience was when a senior of mine genuinely expressed that she had chosen to enter a Madrasah and continue on a religious path because it “secured her place in the hereafter”. It was also common to hear of parents who genuinely believe that they can achieve the same thing by entering their children into Madrasahs. Unfortunately, I had internalised the same toxic sentiments as well.
Growing up in a conservative family and studying a local Madrasah, I came to see religious institutions as the custodians of religious affairs and believed that every decision they made only had religious interests at heart. This deeply affected me in my later experience in a Madrasah, where I realised that many of the actions made by the people in these institutions did not reflect the Islam that I knew and understood as compassionate, kind and liberating. In addition, realising that the education and system were not up to standard completely shattered my expectations of a Madrasah, which in turn affected my faith and how I saw institutionalised religion.
I spent 12 years through primary, secondary, and Pre-University in one of the local Madrasahs in Singapore. There were occasional fear-mongering lessons, homophobia, racism, and sexism in class when my teachers wanted to make a point to “obey God”. I hated it so much when they used these methods, especially fear-mongering. In secondary school, I had a discipline teacher who constantly used fear as a way to make us abide by the school rules by framing them as “God’s rules”. She usually did this by saying that if we “disobeyed” the school’s rules, we would also be questionable to God.
One of the things that she would say was that since most rules in a Madrasah, such as the school attire, were “rooted in religious texts”, going against the school rules also meant going against God. Sometimes, if we broke rules that didn’t have any religious implications, she would still find a way to bring God into the picture by saying that “disobeying the teachers” was equivalent to disobeying God. I didn’t like this for obvious reasons. Not only was the equivalence untrue, but the fact that they held themselves to the likes of God felt disgusting and hypocritical. The language she used also shaped an authoritative-submissive relationship between teachers and students, making the students feel fear and mistrust, instead of respect and admiration. Adding God into the equation just made the relationship dynamic even worse because it also conditioned us to feel afraid of God and shaped how we saw God as petty, angry, and spiteful.
One time, my class had an extra lesson on Saturday, but the canteens were closed so we had to eat outside. However, going out in school uniform was not allowed, even to nearby stores. When the class suggested going to one and buying food for the rest of us, a friend got scared and reminded us about what the discipline teacher said about being accountable to God, which totally didn’t make sense to me. I replied that if God was going to put me in hell for buying food, then he’s really not so much of a God.
It was not okay either that some of the teachers could be very exclusivist in their attempts to force students to believe in a “one, true Islam”. I remember my friend and I arguing with a teacher because she had said that although the Shia sect was recognised by MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), “they’re not actually accepted”. In her own words, “they’re okay but they’re not okay”, which was utter rubbish. My friend and I got so angry, not only because she was pushing an entire religious sect under the bus, but that she was also spreading this hateful sentiment to a classroom of could/would be-future asatizah. When you assert your position as an authority with unquestionable credibility whose words should be taken as Gospel, it is inevitable that the students would internalise your message and pass it onto the next generation.
These experiences did not help me like the Madrasah any better, because they gave such an unfair description of who God was, and how Islam was meant to be seen. I am not the best Muslim out there, but to leave impressionable, young students with the idea that God is unforgiving, petty and needy was unbelievably wrong to me. I felt angry that my teachers would frame God in such a way, and as a member of the Malay-Muslim community, I felt betrayed that the Madrasah was doing such a disservice to the students and foregoing their social responsibility to the community. What were they honestly thinking when they said all of these things in class? What was the kind of Islam that they wanted us to believe in? Wouldn’t they think of how these students would grow up, become religious teachers, and spread the same sentiments of an angry God to their future students? How was all of this okay?
However, my biggest problem with the system was the educational curriculum. It was only at the pre-university level that I fully realised how Madrasahs lacked the educational resources and expertise to teach students. In terms of resources, my friends and I had to scour for past year papers and ask for them from other Madrasah/Junior College students. It wasn’t just us who struggled just to get access to resources. Our teachers had to work twice as hard to gain information about the slightest syllabus change, and scrape for even the smallest details to help us ace the A Level exams. We were lucky enough that some teachers came up with their own initiative to collate the past year paper questions so we didn’t have to ourselves.
It didn’t help either to know that the Madrasah’s lack of resources is a systemic issue. In 1999/2000, the Madrasah problem came to light in Parliament because the rate of enrolment was increasing at such an exponential rate, even though most of the graduates “did not have much economic prospects.” The solution to educational institutions that didn’t have enough resources and access to governmental educational aid? Introducing the Compulsory Education Act that would require all Madrasah students to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and set a standard for them to reach, following which if they are unsuccessful, a closure of their Primary One intake, until their Primary Sixes can reach the required standard and save the school from shutting down.
Another problem with the curriculum was the fact that most of the teachers were not NIE-trained (National Institute of Education), aside from the occasional short-length courses. They were rarely qualified enough to teach the subjects they were assigned to, and some often relied on online notes, which were also accessible to us students. This lack of training or qualification not only meant that some teachers were unable to teach efficiently, but they were also oblivious of the subject syllabus and its demands. Oftentimes, this forced us to self-teach and rely on friends who were informed on the subject syllabus because of their interactions with students from other Madrasahs/Junior Colleges. This often creates the illusion that Madrasah students are ‘independent’ and ‘resourceful’, but a forced ‘independence’ only reflects a broken system that cannot afford to provide a meaningful education.
At the end of the day, all of this accumulated dissatisfaction and frustration towards the Madrasah system—how it worked, how the teachers taught (or didn’t), and the poor relationship dynamics—affected how I saw religious institutions. Conventional religious knowledge tells you that these are the institutions that have your best interests at heart and are supposed to serve the community and God, but at the end of the day, they are still made by people, run by people, for people. My Madrasah experience has taught me a lot about how people will always have their personal interests at best, even if they are working in places that are deemed to be “selfless”. Now, I see faith as a personal complex, and that means I have a choice of standing by with religious authorities or figures that represent my principles and interests. And of course, my experience wasn’t absolutely horrible. There were some high points throughout my educational experiences, but I don’t feel the need to express them when their good points have always been part of the mainstream conversation in our community.
Writing this has been very difficult for me. I almost didn’t want to at first because I thought that whatever I experienced was perhaps purely based on sentiment, and I was being too emotional or my expectations were too high. It didn’t help too that there were people around me who have said these things to me. But my expectations are not ‘too high’ or unachievable. In fact, expecting a school to be a school, to provide an education, is the bare minimum. Aside from the fact that the bar is on the ground, at the end of my experience, I completely stopped putting even a tiny ounce of professional expectations on my teachers or administrative staff. I just wanted one thing: come into class and teach. That was all. The only reason why this article even happened was because a dear friend of mine who went through the same experience with me convinced me to write. She told me that writing this meant sharing MY story. And that’s it. This is my story and mine only. By writing this, I am not responsible for representing other Madrasah students’ stories. Perhaps they had a different experience and don’t share the same opinions as I do. And that is their story to tell. But this is my Madrasah story – a story of how I didn’t find God in a religious institution.
Thauria is a 20-year old who is trying her best to heal, unlearn, and learn again.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu