Madrasah education in Singapore

The word madrasah is Arabic for “school”. In Singapore, a madrasah refers to an Islamic religious school.1 Local madrasahs offer a dual-education system that combines secular and religious learning.2 As at 2017, there are six fulltime madrasahs in Singapore registered with the Ministry of Education: Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah, Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah, Madrasah Al-Maarif Al-Islamiah, Madrasah Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah, Madrasah Irsyad Zuhri Al-Islamiah and Madrasah Al-Arabiah Al-Islamiah.3

The first madrasah in Singapore, Madrasah As-Sibyan, was established in 1905 on Bussorah Street in Kampong Glam by an Indonesian religious teacher.In 1908, an Egyptian named Othman Affandi Ra’fat set up Madrasah Al-Iqbal Al-Islamiyyah, which incorporated ideas from Egypt and the West in its curriculum. It offered a wide range of subjects, including English, geography, history, mathematics and town planning.Prior to Madrasah Al-Iqbal’s formation, madrasah education in Singapore had focused on rote learning of the holy text.6 Within 18 months of its founding, however, Madrasah Al-Iqbal had to relocate to Riau, Indonesia, due to financial problems and the disapproval of religious traditionalists over its seemingly Westernised education system.7

In 1912, Syed Mohamed bin Ahmed bin Abdul Rahman Alsagoff established Madrasah Alsagoff. The school was first located at his home on Java Road, and later in a dedicated building on Jalan Sultan as a result of increasing enrolment. In 1927, Madrasah Aljunied Al-Arabiah was set up with 56 students from Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia. In 1936, the first madrasah that admitted girls, Madrasah Al-Maarif Al-Islamiah, was founded by As-Syeikh Muhammad Fadlullah Suhaimi.8 Today, Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah and Madrasah Al-Maarif Al-Islamiah only admit girls.

By 1941, the madrasahs in Singapore had around 2,000 students.10 After World War II, Singapore began to lose its status as the centre of Islamic education in Southeast Asia because students who had returned to their respective homelands during the war did not come back to Singapore. Nevertheless, the number of religious schools increased in the postwar years with 81 schools by the early 1970s, although only a small number were registered with the government.11 In 1950, official records showed only six madrasahs in Singapore, with a total enrolment of 700 students. But by 1966 there were between 50 and 60 madrasahs registered with the government, with about 5,000 to 6,000 students. These registered madrasahs received partial funding from the government.12

However, the growing emphasis on mainstream, secular education in Singapore as a means of socioeconomic progress, along with the shifting population distribution in the country, made madrasahs a less popular schooling option, and many closed due to falling enrolment. By 1982, only nine fulltime madrasahs remained, four providing secondary education and five providing primary education. A gender disparity was also apparent: By 1985 girls made up 95 percent of madrasah students, while 14 out of every 15 Singaporean students pursuing further studies at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, were female. This gender disparity resulted in concerns that there would be a lack of male religious officials.13

Role of MUIS
With the passing of the Administration of Muslim Law Act in 1966, madrasahs came under the purview of Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS; Islamic Religious Council of Singapore).14 However, the council initially lacked the manpower to enforce the legislation’s provisions, so madrasahs were able to function more or less independently. On 1 March 1990, MUIS took control of the registration and management of madrasahs, providing some form of a centralised curriculum.15

In the late 1990s, the madrasah curriculum was updated to include broader initiatives from the Ministry of Education, such as the use of information technology and the introduction of national education.16 In 2003, madrasahs emphasised their commitment to national integration through the national madrasah education blueprint.17 The blueprint comprised a curriculum that MUIS had spent a year and S$8 million to develop.18 National education was included in the curriculum to inculcate a sense of national identity and to remind students of the importance of national integration. English was also emphasised as the medium of instruction to foster communication and integration.19

In 2007, MUIS and the National Institute of Education (NIE) jointly launched a specialist diploma in teaching and learning, aimed at equipping madrasah teachers with critical pedagogical skills.20 The move came as part of MUIS’s larger aim to equip all madrasah teachers with professional qualifications.21 Between 2008 and 2015, MUIS spent over S$3 million on teacher training, with programmes organised by the NIE and Australia’s Edith Cowan University.22

MUIS administers and delegates funds from zakat (tithe), wakaf (endowment), Dana Madrasah (Madrasah Fund) and the religious education component of the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund contributions to fulltime madrasahs.23 Dana Madrasah was launched in October 1994 to raise the standard of fulltime madrasahs and to tackle funding issues.24 The fund aims to offer improvements in educational standards and facilities, promote teachers’ training and development as well as the capitation and resource grants for the students.25

Compulsory education
From as early as the 1970s, concerns had been raised by Malay political leaders about the need for madrasahs to incorporate secular teaching in order to ensure the relevance of madrasah education, and to improve career prospects among madrasah graduates.26 In 1966, the curriculum at Madrasah Aljunied began to include secular subjects; in 1971, Madrasah Al-Maarif became the first to prepare its students for the General Certificate of Education Ordinary (O)- and Advanced (A)-Level examinations as private candidates.27

In 2000, the Compulsory Education Act was passed, and compulsory education was implemented in 2003. Henceforth all children who are Singapore citizens and residing in the country must receive formal education in a national primary school, up to the primary-six level.28 Although children are allowed to pursue their primary education at one of the six fulltime madrasahs, they are also required to sit for the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).29

Under the Compulsory Education Act, madrasahs have to ensure that their students pass the PSLE with an aggregate score higher than the average aggregate score of Malay-Muslim pupils in the six lowest-performing national schools, and do so at least twice within a three-year period to continue admitting Primary 1 students.30 The first batch of madrasah students to sit for the PSLE under the legislation took the examination in 2008.31 Out of 321 students, 98 percent qualified for the secondary level, which was higher than the national average of 97 percent. In terms of average scores, however, students in mainstream schools performed better.32 In 2016, 97.6 percent of the 255 madrasah students who sat for the PSLE qualified for secondary school.33

Joint Madrasah System
In 2009, the Joint Madrasah System (JMS) was implemented to further improve the quality of madrasah education, with the participation of three of the six fulltime madrasahs.34 Under the new system, Madrasah Al-Irsyad (renamed Madrasah Irsyad Zuhri Al-Islamiah in 2015) stopped admitting new students at the secondary level, providing only primary education. Meanwhile, Madrasah Aljunied and Madrasah Al-Arabiah stopped admitting new primary students, providing only secondary education. The madrasahs under the JMS focus on different educational tracks, with Madrasah Aljunied providing a religious pathway and Madrasah Al-Arabiah, an academic one.35

Madrasah Aljunied offers the religious track for secondary students who want to pursue Islamic education at a higher level at institutions such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, amongst others.36 Meanwhile, Madrasah Al-Arabiah provides an Islamic environment for students to pursue national curriculum subjects over a four- to five-year route leading to either Normal- or O-Level qualifications.37

By 2014, Madrasah Al-Irsyad was admitting an average of 204 primary-school students annually.38 The first batch of secondary-school students admitted to Madrasah Aljunied and Madrasah Al-Arabiah under the JMS would sit for their O-Level examination in 2018, while a pilot batch preparing for an international baccalaureate (IB) diploma would enrol in 2019.39 With an IB qualification, students will have more options for their tertiary education.40

To support the revamped curriculum, facilities at the three schools under the JMS were upgraded. Madrasah Al-Irsyad also moved to an eight-storey building at the Singapore Islamic Hub on Braddell Road. The other three madrasahs – Madrasah Al-Maarif Al-Islamiah, Madrasah Wak Tanjong and Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah – continue to offer classes for the primary, secondary and pre-university levels.41

Postsecondary pathways
The Institut Pengajian Tinggi Al-Zuhri, established in 2000, offers a diploma in Islamic education for postsecondary students. The institute is supported by MUIS and the Persatuan Ulama dan Guru-guru Agama Islam (Singapura) (Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association). The diploma is recognised by 11 universities and higher-learning institutes in Malaysia. Besides religious education, some of the careers pursued by graduates include accounting, human resources and business management.42 Another institute that offers a diploma in Islamic education is the Muhammadiyah Islamic College Singapore located in Geylang.43

Nadirah Norruddin & Nurhaizatul Jamila Jamil

1. About,” Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, accessed 21 June 2017.
2. “The Best of Both Worlds?” Straits Times, 4 May 1993, p. 2. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Full-Time Madrasahs,” Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, accessed 13 December 2016.
4. Ahmad Sonhadji Mohd, “Pendidikan Islam di Singapura,” [Islamic education in Singapore]. in Mahrajan Ke-60: Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiyah, 1927–1987 (Singapore: Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiyah, 1987), 66 (Call no. Malay RSING 297.07105957 MAH); M. F. Chee, “The Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” in Secularism and Spirituality: Seeking Integrated Knowledge and Success in Madrasah Education in Singapore, ed. Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman and Lai Ah Eng (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2006), 7. (Call no. RSING 371.077095957 SEC)
5. William R. Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994), 66–67 (Call no. RSING 320.54 ROF); Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied and Dayang Istiaisyah Hussin, “Estranged from the Ideal Past: Historical Evolution of Madrassahs in Singapore,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 25, no. 2 (August 2005): 259 (From EBSCOHost via NLB’s eResources website); Mohamed Fairoz bin Ahmad, “Orientalism and Integrative History: A Study of an Early 20th Century Islamic Periodical in Singapore” (master’s thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010)
6. Aljunied and Hussin, “Estranged from the Ideal Past,” 259.
7. Ahmad, “Orientalism and Integrative History”; “Sejarah Penubuhan Madrasah Disingkap,” Berita Harian, 21 April 2000, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 9–11.
9. Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, “Full-Time Madrasahs.”
10. “Sejarah Penubuhan Madrasah Disingkap.”
11. “Sejarah Penubuhan Madrasah Disingkap.”
12. Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 13.
13. Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 14–16; Salim Osman, “Declining Enrolment in 60s and 70s Led to Fewer Schools,” Straits Times, 28 April 1989, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Haron A. Rahman, “Proposals to Upgrade Islamic Education,” Straits Times, 15 July 1987, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 13.
15. Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 14, 18.
16. Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 18–19, 21; “Muis Kendali Didikan Agama Mulai Esok,” Berita Harian, 28 February 1990, 3; “No Intention to Close Madrasahs,” Straits Times, 20 March 1998, 45 (From NewspaperSG); “$700,000 Dikumpul Pada Hari Pelancaran,” Berita Harian, 16 October 1994, 1. (Microfilm NL19780)
17. Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, “The Aims of Madrasah Education in Singapore: Problems and Perceptions,” in Secularism and Spirituality: Seeking Integrated Knowledge and Success in Madrasah Education in Singapore, ed. Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman and Lai Ah Eng (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2006), 83–84. (Call no. RSING 371.077095957 SEC)
18. Mafoot Simon, “Curriculum Drawn Up, but Will Madrasahs Take to It?Straits Times, 14 December 2002, H18. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Abdul Rahman, “Aims of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 83–84; Simon, “Curriculum Drawn Up?
20. Arlina Arshad, “Specialist Course for Madrasah Teachers,” Straits Times, 20 September 2007, 33; Kor Kian Beng, “24 Madrasah Teachers Complete NIE Course,” Straits Times, 14 January 2010, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Arshad, “Specialist Course for Madrasah Teachers.”
22. “Positive Response to Enhanced Government Support to Madrasahs,” Channel NewsAsia, 25 August 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
23. “Bilangan Pemohon Masuk Darjah Satu Madrasah Kian Meningkat,” Berita Harian, 11 February 2017 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); “Islamic Education,” Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, accessed 28 August 2017.
24. “Matlamat Dana Madrasah,” Berita Harian, 9 August 2006, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Dana Madrasah,” Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, accessed 6 June 2017.
26. Abdul Rahman, “Aims of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 61.
27. Chee, “Historical Evolution of Madrasah Education in Singapore,” 13–14; Zakir Hussain, “From Scepticism to Confidence,” Straits Times, 11 July 2009, 28; “Madrasah Ma’arif Mulakan Pra-U Bulan Ini,” Berita Harian, 3 February 1972, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Compulsory Education,” Ministry of Education Singapore, accessed 21 June 2017; “Parents Must Register Kids for School,” Today, 1 July 2002, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Simon, “Curriculum Drawn Up.” 
30. Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, “2016 PSLE Performance of Madrasah Students,” press release, 24 November 2016.
31. Debbie Yong, “Madrasah Pupils Did Well in PSLE, Says Minister,” Straits Times, 23 November 2008, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Shamsul Jangarodin, “98% Pelajar Madrasah Lulus PSLE,” Berita Harian, 21 November 2008, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, “2016 PSLE Performance of Madrasah Students.”
34. “About Joint Madrasah System,” Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, accessed 6 June 2017.
35. Maryam Mokhtar, “The Revamped Madrasah Education System,” Straits Times, 16 January 2013, 9; Zakir Hussain, “Madrasah Revamp to Lift Academic Standards,” Straits Times, 27 October 2007, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “Education Pathway,” Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah, accessed 28 August 2017.
37. “Academics,” Madrasah Al-Arabiah, accessed 28 August 2017.
38. “Up to 400 Primary 1 Places Available Each Year in Singapore’s Madrasahs,” Channel NewsAsia, 21 January 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
39. Mokhtar, “Revamped Madrasah Education System”; “JMS Timeline,” Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, accessed 16 June 2017.
40. Shahida Sarhid, “25 Dari Aljunied Akan Dipilih Bagi Program Diploma IB,” Berita Harian, 17 September 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
41. Mokhtar, “Revamped Madrasah Education System.”
42. Haryani Ismail, “Al-Zuhri Sediakan Pengajian Bersepadu dan Menyeluruh,” Berita Harian, 13 December 2007, 3; “Tidak Semestinya Lulusan Al-Zuhri Pilih Kerjaya Sebagai Asatizah,” Berita Harian, 7 January 2011,  3. (From NewspaperSG)
43. “Kolej Islam Muhammadiyah Mulakan Program Ijazah Bulan Ini,” Berita Harian, 3 February 2004, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Ahmad Osman, “Leaders Laud PM’s Madrasah Idea,” Straits Times, 4 May 2000, 34. (From NewspaperSG)

Ahmad Osman, “Keeping the Madrasah Relevant in the New Age,” Straits Times, 3 June 2000, 74. (From NewspaperSG)

Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, “Aline Wong Committee Recommends Compulsory Primary Education,” press release, 15 August 2000. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 2000081502)

Popular Again After Decline in ’70s and ’80s,” Straits Times, 1 March 1998, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Why Are More Malay Pupils Going to Islamic Schools? Straits Times, 1 March 1998, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 7 September 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Islamic education--Singapore
Muslim students--Singapore