Whose interests has MUIS been looking after?
While MUIS officer Munir Hussein is still under investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation bureau (CPIB) and Singapore police commercial affairs department (CAD) relating to issues arising from the ministerial inquiry into foreign halal certification irregularities, another financial scandal is coming to light.
There has long been anger and frustration over the long delays in refunds for Haj fees paid by deceased family members. Further, Wakaf, or inheritance matters handled by MUIS, has led to criticism not just by the public, but the Singapore auditor general as well. In addition, documents handed to Asia Sentinel indicate financial irregularities within the Madrasah, or Islamic school system, over seen by MUIS.
A social activist, Mohamed Jufrie Mahmood wrote an open letter on Facebook of 28th May outlining a series of failings and mismanagement by the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS).
Over the last decade, MUIS had been mentioned in Auditor General Office (AGO) reports noting irregularities in the statutory body’s financial accounts. Major areas of concern include improper procurement procedures, poor financial procedures, lack of security of IT systems, and irregularities within its mosque, Haj, Wakaf, Zakat, and Halal departments.
The 2019 report, highlighted lapses within the tender process, amounting to over S $13 million in tenders. MUIS had also been highlighted in the AGO annual report for failing in tendering for service providers. This criticism made by the AGO has not been once, but within a number of annual reports, indicating that MUIS has not corrected these faults. In one case, an IT service provider was appointed without tender, at twice the cost for the same services in previous years.
Confused Lines of Reporting
The primary statutory duty of MUIS is to be responsible for the administration and look after the interests of the republic’s Muslims. As a statutory body, MUIS has responsibilities within the reporting structure to three separate entities.
Members of the MUIS council of governance are appointed by the president of the Republic of Singapore, currently Halimah Yacob. Council members are responsible for framing MUIS policies and operational plans, carried out by a senior management team. The operational power rests with the chief executive, Esa Masood. This appears to make MUIS an autonomous body, with a constitutional duty to advise the president of the Republic of Singapore on Muslim affairs.
However, MUIS as a statutory body is placed under the directive of the ministry of culture, community, and youth (MCCY), not directly reporting to the parliament. This is not a nominal attachment, as Asia Sentinel has been told that the MCCY has on occasion interfered directly into operational decisions made by MUIS. Just recently, the MCCY blocked MUIS from certifying pharmaceuticals halal, even though this is accepted industry practice worldwide. The Halal strategic unit within MUIS, which should be the most knowledgeable body on halal issues within Islam, was dictated to by a non-Muslim bureaucrat, with no expertise in the area. This decision has put Singapore’s local pharmaceutical industry in a quandary, where the production of halal pharmaceuticals could be moved offshore, potentially costing Singapore hundreds of million dollars in lost export revenue.
To complicate MUIS reporting lines further, Singapore has a minister in charge of Muslim affairs, Masagos Zulkifli, who is minister for social and family development, and second minister for health. It was the minister Masagos, who commissioned the board of inquiry into halal corruption alleged by Asia. Sentinel last year.
The Asia Sentinel reported allegations made by foreign halal certifying bodies against Munir Hussein, former assistant director of the Halal Certification Strategic Unity, within MUIS, which led to two inquires by the statutory body. The commercial affairs department of the Singapore police and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), are still investigating the matter, with two recent raids made on Munir Hussein’s house.
However, minister Masagos in Singapore’s parliament on 1st March cleared MUIS and Munir Hussein of any wrong doing, even when investigations are still ongoing. Asia Sentinel’s July 2020 report of alleged domestic corruption within the Halal Certification Strategic Unit have been totally ignored by both MUIS and the minister. These allegations remain un-investigated.
Asia Sentinel has learned that the final report was not unanimous in agreement. Further, Asia Sentinel understands that the alleged wrongdoers Munir Hussein and senior director finance, Mohamed Azam Abdul Aziz were heavily involved in the inquiry processes, and preparing of the report. With short executive summaries going to the MCCY and minister Masagos, without supporting documentation. This has led MUIS to intentionally, or unintentionally, mislead both the MCCY and minister.
Mosques and Madrasas
Restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic have severely restricted crowds attending mosques for prayers. Donations collected at Friday prayers are now much lower than before the pandemic, due to restricted mosque attendance, with donations often going directly to MUIS, through an online system. Fitra (Eid poll tax) and zakat payments are also being paid directly to MUIS, rather than through the mosques.
Singapore’s mosques are now facing a chronic liquidity crisis, where imams and mosque officials’ salaries, proportionately paid by the mosques and MUIS, are not being subsidized by MUIS during this time of financial stress for the mosques.
The lack of financial control and transparency at madrasahs, which are controlled by MUIS has been strongly highlighted by the Madrasa Irsyad scandal. Minister Masagos commented in parliament last April that’s there should be some form of inquiry, although no details of any terms of reference of any inquiry have been forthcoming.
Madrasah Irsyad is located within the MUIS complex itself, and undertook a number of Islamic education projects overseas. This business was originally handled by the madrasah itself and grants were paid directly to the madrasah. This was later changed after Irsyad Trust Ltd. (ITL) was incorporated. Having the impression ITL was part of the madrasah, grants from Temasak Foundation and the International Islamic Bank, were paid directly to ITL.
As of January 2021, the Irsyad Trust Ltd. officially ceased to be affiliated with Madrasah Irsyad, and supposedly became an independent business. It was only after this issue was made public, only then did the Irsyad Trust returned the money to Madrasa Isryad.
This has led to a number of unanswered questions about the funding arrangements between Madrasah Irsyad and the Irsyad Trust Ltd. This is particularly the case when the financial controller of the Madrasa Irsyad is the wife of the former senior director in charge of all madrasas under MUIS, and also CEO of the Irsyad Trust. The S $ 2 million transfer, was done under suspicious circumstances by MUIS, which led to questions in parliament to minister Masagos, last April.
This issue has become more perplexing, as unauthorized documents have been uploaded from the Madrasah Irsyad’s files to unknown entities, for unknown reasons.
Wakaf and Property Management
Wakaf is an endowment provided by members of the public either for the benefit of the general Muslim community, or for the members of a family of a deceased Muslim. MUIS activities under wakaf include, property development and management, education, health and other social services, upkeep and maintenance of mosques and madrasas, and the upkeep and assistance to the community with burials.
The 2012/13 auditor general report found irregularities in tendering for construction and repair of buildings. Asia Sentinel has been told that some premises have been used as massage parlours, and a Chinese temple, while some people with no kin in Singapore have been refused, and/or given delayed assistance with burials. There have been a number of court cases, where families have taken to court MUIS, and families have taken MUIS to court over their alleged mis-handling of family wakaf. MUIS has also been criticised for taking high management fees, where they are managing properties on behalf of families.
Of concern, is that the majority of Wakaf property management is undertaken by a private company Wares Investments Pte Ltd., which is not subject to auditor general audits, thus accounts and financial transactions are not available either to client, or public scrutiny.
The 2018/19 auditors report found that there were weaknesses within the zakat system where officers within MUIS could access the accounts, even if this was not their job function. Of great concern is that “rights to add and edit users, and delete and edit receipts”, “exposed the system to unauthorised access, but also increased the risk of unauthorised activities being performed on the system.”
One of the most important services MUIS provides to Singapore’s Muslims is the management of Haj bookings. All Muslims, who are able, are obligated to make a trip to Mekkah to perform the Haj, at least once in their lifetime. MUIS collects application fees towards making this trip to Mekkah, in-order for the trip to be made.
MUIS has been under criticism by local Muslims in the way this system has been managed. If a depositor passes away before performing the Haj, all payments made to MUIS, must be returned to the deceased person’s estate. The AGO 2018/19 annual report found that the funds deposited from 226 deceased Muslims between 2012 and 2018 had not been returned to their estates.
Deviant Islamic Teachings
MUIS has been criticised for failing to act against a deviant Islamic teacher, who had been running a secret sect for over 15 years. The unregistered religious teacher, who was a former masseur allegedly claimed to be a prophet, and took on five spiritual wives, who were reported to have divorced their husbands to be with the religious teacher. The spiritual wives were regular gamblers, under the premise of using winnings to assist others. The Straits Times ran an exposé on the deviant teacher, reporting that MUIS officials had visited the deviant teacher more than a year ago but failed to take any action.
Poor Organizational Structure and Nepotism
Social activist Mohamed Jufrie made a number of Facebook postings about the state of MUIS management. He criticises council members for being inept over important issues of mismanagement, lack of transparency, alleged corruption, and failure to handle complaints. Mohamed Jufrie further argues that most of the senior officers within MUIS have been in their positions for a long time, giving them power over the Chief Executive, who is on limited tenure. For this reason, senior officers have escaped close scrutiny by the chief executive and council.
This environment opens up the potential for senior officers to collaborate and undertake rogue activities and corruption. The risk for this is particularly great, as the auditor general has highlighted the absence of, or weak checks and balances in place to safeguard the organization against such actions.
Nepotism is endemic within MUIS. Senior financial officer, Mohamed Azam Abdul Aziz has 5 known relatives working within MUIS. The senior manager for madrasahs, Razak Lazim has 3 known relatives working within MUIS. The deputy mufti Dr Mohammad Hannan Hassan has 4 known relatives working within MUIS. Some of the MUIS council members also have relatives working within MUIS. This has been highlighted by some as a great concern.
In addition, the wife of the Senior finance manager of MUIS Mohamed Azam, Madan Juliana, worked alongside her husband in the finance department, then later moved to the MCCY, as a senior manager, when minister Masagoes was the minister. Madam Juliana, after last year’s election followed minister Masagos to his new ministry, social and family development.
Other Issues – Hijab, and Sexual Harassment Allegations within MUIS
The Singapore government had been steadfast against the wearing of the hijab within the civil service, military, and health sectors, until April when it partly reversed its stand promising to allow nurses to wear the hijab. There was wide public disappointment over the attitudes of MUIS and the minister responsible for Muslim affairs Masagos Zulkifli, who opposed women wearing the hijab within the workplace. The Singapore Mufti Dr Fatris Bakaram even criticised those Muslims supporting the wearing of the hijab of being uncivil.
MUIS has been criticised of being inept in acting against the perpetrators of an incident where pictures of utazas, or female Islamic teachers were uploaded on social media with sexually harassing comments.
The above serious lapses, incompetence, and dishonesty in handling Muslim affairs by MUIS indicates poor general self-governance and monitoring of their own internal procedures, systems, decisions, and standard of service and care to the community. This indicates that the corporate culture within MUIS supports this malaise, and needs to be revamped, and changed for the better. MUIS should not be a family affair, and checks and balances shouldn’t be bypassed for ease of work.
The audit reports have flagged potential corruption, centred around those making the financial decisions within the organization, and as it appears, those making these decisions are excluded from MUIS top management, at great cost to the statutory body. MUIS has an annual operating budget of S $50 million and is responsible for holding hundreds of millions of dollars in Haj, Wakaf, and Zakat accounts, as well as commercial operations outside the purview of the AGO. MUIS is vulnerable to those who are exploiting it, for their own agendas and purposes. MUIS requires urgent reform if its reputation is to remain as an organization with standards and ethics beyond reproach.
Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here
Correction: The title has been corrected to reflect that the country in question is Singapore, and not Malaysia