The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) is the only body that oversees all Muslim matters, including the administration of Muslim charitable trusts, and the courts are in no position to interfere unless MUIS deems it appropriate to seek judicial assistance, the High Court has found.
In striking out an application by trustees of the Valibhoy Charitable Trust to replace a fellow trustee who had allegedly “deliberately refused to discharge his duty”, Judicial Commissioner (JC) Kannan Ramesh found that the courts have no jurisdiction over such trusts, also known as “wakafs”, under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA).
LEGAL AUTHORITY OF MUIS COMES FROM ‘SPECIAL POSITION OF MALAYS’
First enacted in November 1960 and most recently amended in April 1999, the AMLA is meant to protect the Islamic religion by establishing a Muslim body to deal with the administration of Muslim law and the regulation of Muslim religious affairs in Singapore. MUIS was established as a statutory board in 1968.
The legislative intent, said JC Kannan in a written judgment dated Jan 29, corresponds with the Republic’s Constitution, which sets out that the Government is to “recognise the special position of the Malays” and protect, support and promote their religious, political, economic and cultural interests, among others.
Under the AMLA, MUIS is charged with the responsibility of dealing with the affairs of all Muslim religious trusts, including wakafs.
In particular, the Act gives MUIS the authority to appoint and remove trustees. Should MUIS decide to remove a trustee, it must simultaneously appoint another one.
According to the wakaf.sg website managed by MUIS, the religious body has regulatory oversight of wakafs, while other trustees play managerial roles, but will still have to seek approval for decisions such as the selling and buying of assets.
The AMLA confers the courts’ power in relation to wakafs only when MUIS invokes the courts’ assistance. Even then, the courts can only deliberate on the meaning and effect of the declaration creating the wakaf.
“Importantly, matters concerning the administration of the wakaf have been carefully removed from the equation,” said JC Kannan, adding that MUIS must be the only forum where trustees of a wakaf can direct their disputes.
GRANTING COURTS POWER COULD CAUSE ‘INCONSISTENT DECISIONS’
With the enactment of the AMLA, Parliament could not have intended for trustees of the wakaf, apart from MUIS, to have recourse to the courts, said JC Kannan, as that might lead to inconsistent decisions and different standards applied by MUIS and the courts.
Giving the latter similar power would make “the recipe for an ideal cocktail for inconsistent decisions”, he said.
“(MUIS’) power to remove trustees could effectively be bypassed, making the process a mockery of what Parliament clearly (intended) by enacting the provision,” he said, adding that it would also allow trustees to launch “backdoor challenges” to either MUIS’ or the courts’ decisions.
“These situations would lead to a very uncomfortable paradigm where (MUIS) and the courts could render two conflicting decisions on the same issue, applying different statutory standards … It is amply clear to me that Parliament could not have intended such a paradigm,” he said.
While the plaintiffs in the Valibhoy Charitable Trust’s case subsequently alleged that MUIS’ administration of the trust was unsatisfactory and that it had “stayed silent” when legal action was launched, JC Kannan noted that the plaintiffs had not raised these arguments in their initial affidavits.
Instead, JC Kannan found that the plaintiffs had avoided going to MUIS, possibly with the view that they might obtain “a more favourable outcome” from the court.
“As an aside, I must highlight that the court’s processes are not to be used to deliberately undermine the statutory authority afforded by Parliament to MUIS. That would be an abuse of process,” he said.