My lunch with the Mufti of Singapore is held in the shadow of the Sultan Mosque.
I’m early at The Landmark, a restaurant at the Village Hotel Bugis overlooking the swimming pool.
It is just past 1pm and I’m suddenly aware of a different sound in the air. Ah, I realise, the call to prayer, or azan.
Dr Fatris Bakaram, the Mufti, arrives soon after. I nod and wave my hello.
He’s accompanied by Mr Zainul Abidin Ibrahim, director of strategic engagement at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, otherwise known by its Malay acronym Muis.
A mufti is an Islamic scholar who helms the religious leadership in a Muslim community. He interprets Islamic law and provides spiritual guidance to the community, which numbers about 500,000 here.
The Office of the Mufti is part of Muis, a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and supervised by the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs.
Among his many duties, the Mufti chairs the committee that issues fatwas, which are Islamic legal rulings.
His office also issues Friday sermons, gives direction for programmes in mosques and Islamic education, and advises the Government on Islamic matters.
Dr Fatris, 47, became Singapore’s third Mufti in 2011. He has also been an ustaz, or religious teacher, since the 1990s, and still conducts a class at a mosque every Sunday.
I ask what it’s like to be in the public eye.
“I think I manage to live with it, although at times it has caused a bit of discomfort to my wife,” he says with a laugh. He lets on that these days, she would rather he wait for her in the car when they go to the market and shops around their home in Yishun.
The Mufti comes from a family of religious teachers. His father, Bakaram Osman, was an ustaz in the Pasir Panjang village Dr Fatris grew up in, and his mother is a housewife. He is the third of four children, and an elder brother and younger sister are religious teachers.
His father, who died in 1995, was a major influence in his life. “He always emphasised the need to be calm in the face of challenges, and the importance of appreciating different points of view even if we disagree with them,” he says.
“That shaped me as a person. Some of his students say they see his reflection in me. I am a person who does not vent. Even when times get tough, I have to be tough in my thoughts, in my thinking, in the process of coming to a decision, but in my interaction, Fatris is Fatris.”
He studied at Pasir Panjang Primary School before switching to Madrasah Aljunied. In 1988, he left for Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University to study Islamic theology, returning in 1993.
After he returned, he taught at a madrasah before joining Muis. He later became a principal of a madrasah, did his master’s in education in Malaysia, and then went back to Muis where he was manager of the Office of the Mufti.
In 2004, he was told by Muis that he would succeed Mufti Syed Isa Semait, who had been mufti since 1972 and had postponed his retirement several times.
To prepare for his new role, he went to the University of Birmingham in Britain to do his doctorate in Islamic law.
He took part in a week-long multi-faith conference in Germany and got to know Jewish rabbis and Christian leaders. “We had meals together, we openly discussed our different faiths. That’s when I saw the human side of religion rather than just the theological part.”
A large part of Dr Fatris’ job is chairing the fatwa committee, and in recent years, fatwas have been issued on topics such as organ transplants.
Fatwas, he explains, are different from religious advisories. For example, whether it is okay for Muslims to wish Christians “Merry Christmas” is not a fatwa but an advisory. (For the record, it is okay.)
A recent fatwa he took satisfaction in shaping was on adoptions. Muslim couples who wanted to adopt or foster had some questions on the permissibility of adopting girls, as they understood that there are guidelines that a male and a female should not be in closed premises when they do not have a family relationship.
The committee studied the Quran, prophetic precedents and sought expert opinions on child and family psychology. It concluded that no child should be denied the love and care of a family. An adopted child, regardless of gender, should be treated as part of the family.
Muis explained its decision to religious teachers and they understood and supported the fatwa, Dr Fatris says. He is happy to see more couples coming forward to adopt and foster children.
A few days before our interview, terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility for an attack in Berlin that killed 12 people. I wonder if it would be insensitive to raise the issue of terrorism, but he is unperturbed when I bring it up.
To a large degree, he says, Muslims in Singapore are very enlightened compared with those in many other countries.
“Only a small number of individuals are attracted to deviant teachings,” he says, and points out how most Muslims will speak out if they attend classes by teachers who “get carried away” or espouse radical or extremist views.
“Muslims in Singapore are able to differentiate between what true Islam should be, how it should be practised in Singapore, and which practices would be inappropriate here. So I take comfort in that.”
Does he feel the need to defend Islam each time an attack happens?
“I think we have come to a stage now where it’s not fruitful to continuously keep making statements, because it doesn’t help. We need to go beyond this,” he says firmly.
The best way Muslims here can help to dispel the idea that Islam is a troubled religion is to be a community that is productive, which contributes to the country and upholds the values and principles of peace, he says.
I ask what’s the most difficult part of being mufti and his reply is swift: Managing expectations.
There are people who say the Government should do more to support Muis, but there’s also another group that wants the Government to do less as they want Muis to be independent.
There are some who want the Mufti to be more visible in mosques, yet others say it’s inappropriate for the Mufti to be conducting classes in the mosque because of his position.
There’s also the matter of Friday sermons. A group in Muis – including outside experts – prepares the sermons which are sent to mosques. While they sometimes check with him on what to say, he usually leaves it to them because “I want my officers to be empowered”. The imams can make adjustments to the sermons while keeping the core message.
There are those who think it is not Muis’ job to write the sermons, but others want Muis to continue doing so as they feel Singapore is too small for different mosques to be preaching different messages.
He has concluded that the key in managing expectations is integrity.
“In the midst of managing those expectations, really building up your integrity is important. You just have to convince people with action, with your programmes, deliver results.”
One result he likes to cite is Singapore’s mosque-building programme, which is wholly funded by the Muslim community.
When Muis started the programme in 1975, there was scepticism. Today, there are 25 new, multi-function satellite mosques, many not just beautiful but also buzzing with programmes for all segments of the community, including the larger Singapore society.
Dr Fatris points out how in many parts of the Muslim world, mosques are used only as a place of ritual and worship.
Singapore’s mosques are also progressive. Dr Fatris relates how a visiting female Muslim community leader from Britain was surprised to learn how mosques here have prayer spaces for women, and how many of the activities are driven by women.
“She was shocked. She asked, ‘What else?’ I said, ‘In Singapore we have female scholars, female religious teachers who will conduct lectures and we males will just sit down and listen to them and get instruction from them, not only from the males.’ She said, ‘Are you sure?’
“It’s something that they cannot imagine in their part of their world – that Muslim men would be able to listen to a female preacher talking about religion.”
Still, being Mufti has its challenges, and to relax, he writes Malay poetry, a passion since secondary school.
One poem is about his dreams for his daughter and three sons. They are aged 22, 21, 19 and 16 and studying. Some lines go: “One by one, you will go on to build your own lives/Fly into the clouds without worry/Because God’s sky is your umbrella/And my prayers are your wings”.
He writes about “anything”, he says. “Sometimes I write about life in a kampung, sometimes I write about children, about family, about religion, about society.”
He adds self-deprecatingly: “Kampung boy, sometimes get very sentimental, romanticising about the good old days… something that my wife can read but cannot understand. My wife is totally a city person, she was raised in Toa Payoh.”
He used to enjoy handicraft too, but “now in an HDB flat, how can you knock-knock on wood without disturbing others”, he chuckles.
Our lunch has taken us to nearly 3pm. We decline an offer for dessert but get tea.
Before we go, I ask if there’s anything he wants to add. He laughs and says he has shared a lot already. Then, turning serious, he adds that there is something very important he wants to talk about – the influence former mufti Syed Isa has had on his life.
He tells me that Mr Syed Isa was mufti at a time when he didn’t have the luxury of having a team of officers behind him, but he was very confident, courageous and ahead of his time.
He cites an example of how, back in the 1970s, Mr Syed Isa decided to base Hari Raya dates on scientific calculations rather than ritual visibility sightings. “It was very, very tough for the people to accept that but he just believed in it.”
Today, he and the former mufti – now 78 – still have long chats whenever Mr Syed Isa is in Muis.
Do you see yourself serving as long as your predecessor’s 40 years, I ask.
“I do not know whether I can stay or whether I should stay that long,” says Dr Fatris. “Sometimes it gets tough.”
But, he adds with a charming smile: “Writing poetry is a way for me to release that stress without venting my anger. It’s an outlet for me.”