Opening remarks by Ridzuan Wu,
Deputy President of RISEAP, RISEAP General Assembly 2022/23,
Riverside Majestic Hotel, Kuching, Sarawak,
3rd January 2023
Last night, we held a cake-cutting ceremony to commemorate the 42th Anniversary of RISEAP. It was on 11th November 1980, over 42 years ago, that RISEAP was established. I thought it would be appropriate, for my opening remarks this morning, to present a brief review of RISEAP’s 42 years of existence.
In November 1980, representatives from some 30-odd Muslim organizations, from 16 countries, gathered together in Kuala Lumpur where they agreed to establish this organizations called RISEAP. Of the 16 countries, 13 were Muslim-minority countries and 3 were Muslim-majority countries. Since that day, the membership of RISEAP has expanded to cover a total of 24 countries, with the addition of Muslim organizations from 8 more countries — Macau in the North, Cambodia, Vietnam Sri Lanka and Maldives in the Central region, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu in the Pacific.
I tried to convince myself that perhaps I am qualified to give you a first-hand account of the history of RISEAP simply because I’m the only one, from all participants in this hall today, that is left from among those representatives who were present at the inauguration of RISEAP in November 1980. In addition, I am the only one who had served every Executive Committee of RISEAP that had been established since that day, and I can claim to have attended every single General Assembly of RISEAP up to the present day. The anecdotes that I am about to share with you, today, are therefore original, and derived from my own personal observations.
In 1980, His Excellency Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj was elected to be the first President of RISEAP, a position which he held from 1980 to 1988. Right from the start, the Tunku was very focused in his thinking. He believed that Malaysia was in a position to play the role of a big brother to the surrounding Muslim-minorities in the region. In other words, he wanted Malaysian Muslims to inspire confidence, motivation, optimism and a positive forward-looking attitude among Muslim organizations in the region. Hence the slogan that was coined in the 1980s was for RISEAP to be “in service of Muslim minorities”.
When the Tunku announced that he was stepping down from his position as President of RISEAP, an announcement that he made in September 1988 at the then-newly established Civic Centre of Sarawak in Kuching, his Deputy President, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, stepped up to hold the position of President, a position that he held for 34 years thereafter.
Over the years, Tun Taib had a number of pet projects that he was personally passionate about, for example, the establishment of Baitul Maal in selected countries in RISEAP in order to propel Muslim organizations in the region to be more economically self-reliant. As time does not permit me to discuss the range of his pet projects, I shall focus on only one to talk about briefly – and that is the growth of Islam in the Pacific islands.
There are thousands of islands in the Pacific, and Islam has yet to step onto the shores of most of them. Tun Taib aptly described these islands collectively as the last frontier for Islamic da’wah in our region. When Fazaz Manu became the first person to convert to Islam in Tonga in 1983, he, Fayaz Manu, was invited to attend the RISEAP General Assembly in KL in 1984. Fayaz Manu then established the Tonga Muslim Society and we welcome its membership application to join the fold of RISEAP. In 1992, Tun Taib visited Tonga where he met with the King of Tonga, paving the way for the King to have a better understanding of Islam and Muslims.
Tun Taib explained to us that he had, on one occasion, decided to make a personal trip to the Pacific island of Vanuatu, in order to give support to the nascent Muslim community in Port Vila. He narrated that his airline was already heading towards Vanuatu when he was informed that his plane would not be accorded landing rights in Port Vila, and would be turned away. Obviously Tun felt deeply disappointed, if not offended, with the decision of the Vanuatu Government. However, Tun felt a need to maintain a sense of restraint and patience. Diplomacy is often best done behind the scene. He proved to be right because, within the few years thereafter, Tun Taib informed us that he had been granted permission, by the Vanuatu Government, to fly to Vanuatu to meet the Muslims there.
Under Tun Taib, RISEAP continued to operate in a “low-key” style in the sense that publicity was not something that RISEAP deliberately looked out for. RISEAP, as an international organization, had best to move cautiously whenever changes are advocated. We need to manage what we say, as well as what we do not say, with sensitivity. We need to recognize that the process of diplomacy, to bring about change, may require a long time to bear fruit.
The record speaks for itself. Over the last 19 General Assemblies, 8 of the General Assemblies were held in Muslim-minority countries. When RISEAP held its General Assembly in Singapore in 1991, it was officially opened by the then President of Singapore, Mr Wee Kim Wee. In 2017, the General Assembly was again held in Singapore and this time it was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore Mr Teo Chee Hean. Dr Yacob Ibrahim, Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs of Singapore hosted all RISEAP delegates to dinner. In 2015 RISEAP held its General Assembly in Taiwan and it was officially opened by Mr Ma Ing Jeou, the then President of Taiwan. In 2019, RISEAP held its General Assembly in Bangkok and it was opened by Mr Chuan Leekpai, President of the National Assembly of Thailand and former Prime Minister of Thailand. In 2009, RISEAP held its General Assembly in Auckland New Zealand and it was officially opened by Ms Pansy Wong, Minister for Ethnic Affairs of New Zealand.
When RISEAP held our Ex-Co meeting in Fiji in 2010, the then Prime Minister of Fiji, Mr Frank Bainimarama, joined our Executive Committee for dinner. In 2015, when RISEAP held its Ex-Co meeting in Singapore, our Executive Committee was hosted to lunch by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Mr K Shanmugan.
This record speaks well of RISEAP. The presence of local non-Muslim political dignitaries at RISEAP’s official events indicates that they do not view their presence to be controversial. They do not see RISEAP as a worrisome threat to other communities and faith groups. RISEAP’s official events were covered in the local press and television in a positive light. This is a reputation that past Ex-Cos of RISEAP had painstakingly made efforts to establish and I hope that RISEAP will continue to maintain and preserve this legacy.
Has the RISEAP region changed significantly over the last 42 years? To answer that question, I had to ask myself to define what the RISEAP region was like 42 years ago when RISEAP was established.
In 1980, the entire world population was estimated to be a total of 4.4 billion people. Today, in 2022, it is estimated to be about 8 billion people. In other words, the world population today is approximately twice in size of what it was in 1980. Interestingly, I found that the Muslim population in a number of RISEAP member countries had grown far more than twice over these 42 years.
According to Australian population census, there were 76,792 Muslims residing in Australia in 1981. According to the Australian population census in 2021, there were 813,392 Muslims living in Australia. This implies that the Muslim population of Australia had grown over 10 times more than what it was when RISEAP was established in 1980.
In 1980, when RISEAP was established, there were approximately 2,500 Muslims residing in New Zealand, making 0.079% of the total population of 3,147,158. According to the official New Zealand 2018 census, the number of Muslims in New Zealand is 61,455, which means a growth of approximately 24 times over the size of the Muslim population in New Zealand in 1980.
What factors led to this dramatic growth in the Muslim population of Australia and New Zealand? Certainly it wasn’t due to any dramatic growth in birth rates among Muslims. Nor was there any evidence to suggest there was any significant increase in conversion rates to Islam in these two countries. In fact, the primary reason for the increase is the result of an increase in migration of Muslims to Australia and New Zealand.
Australia’s immigration policy underwent substantive changes since the 1970s. Prior to that, Australia had what-was-the-known-as a “White Australian immigration” policy, meaning that migrants to Australia primarily came from Britain and other European countries. In the 1970s, the Australian Government began dismantling its White Australian Policy in favour of a policy of multi-culturalism. This change in policy led to Australia opening its doors to large-scale migration from Lebanon (during the Lebanese Civil war period in the 1970s to 1990), as well as the migration of Turkish Muslims from Cyprus (during the period of Cypriot internal strife).
In the case of New Zealand, the two military coup in Fiji contributed to a significant migration of Fijians, of Indian origin, to New Zealand. Among these Fijians of Indian origin are a significant number of Muslims.
Coincidentally, the Northern RISEAP region countries of Japan and South Korea also experienced dramatic increase of Muslim population from migration. Recognizing the critical shortage of manpower, as a consequence of the low birth rates among Japanese and Koreans, the Governments of Japan and South Korea decided to open their doors more widely to temporary migrants. It was also probably due to a change in perspective that the admission a few hundred thousand foreign workers into Japan and Korea would numerically not be significant to a point of threatening to the cultural homogeneity of Japan and Korea. As a result, in 2012, the South Korean Government reported that there were 113,266 foreign-born Muslim Residents in Korea. Amongst them were 4,937 Muslim students from Muslim countries who were studying in Korea. In addition, according to Korean Government records, there were even a total of 4,687 inter-marriages between Muslim migrants and Koreans.
One need only to visit the Seoul central mosque at Itaewon, during any Friday congregational prayers, to witness the fact that almost 80% to 90% of the worshippers at the Itaewon mosque are ethnically non-Koreans. This phenomenon is repeated in the other 14 mosques in Korea.
A similar situation can be found in Japan. According to the 2020 population census of Japan, there were 226,941 Muslims residing in Japan.
Of the total number of some 800,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, a significant percentage come from Indonesia. According to the Taiwanese Government as at December 2010, there were 144,651 Indonesians in Taiwan out of which 136,679 were serving as foreign workers. Indonesian Muslims have already established three mosques in Taiwan, to make it more convenient for Indonesian Muslims in Taiwan to gather together. Indonesian students that are studying in many Taiwanese universities have also established mussollah (prayer rooms) for the convenience of Muslim students. Even Nahdatul ‘Ulama has established an office in Taiwan, to cater for the interest of Indonesian Muslims in Taiwan.
There are some 150,000 Indonesian workers in Hong Kong. Most of these Indonesians are females, who arrive under limited-term contracts for employment as foreign domestic helpers. During the first day of ‘Id, In 2015, the Hong Kong media reported that over 100,000 Muslims had gathered together at Victoria Park, a public open-space park, in the heart of the commercial district of Causeway Bay, to perform congregational ‘Id prayers. This news must have been an eye-opener for non-Muslims living in Hong Kong.
Another interesting phenomenon in North Asian cities of Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong is the dramatic increase in prayer room facilities as well as halal food eating establishments. This is the result of unexpected decision of the Japanese and Taiwanese Governments to encourage more Muslim tourists to visit Japan and Taiwan respectively. Prayer room facilities have been established in major international airports in Japanese cities such as in Tokyo (Narita and Haneda airports), Osaka (Kansai airport), Nagoya, Fukuoka and even Okinawa, as well as in Taiwanese cities (Taipei, Taoyuan and Kaohsiung), in selected train stations, and, increasingly, in major shopping malls.
I would like to encourage Muslim tourists from other parts of the world to visit countries like Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. Do not avoid these countries for fear that it may be difficult to find halal food establishments, or to find places to pray. Although the establishment of halal eating outlets and prayer rooms is still very much at a “work-in-progress” stage in these countries, we need to recognize that we should not delay sending a signal to show that we, Muslims, are responsive and appreciative of the efforts that nom-Muslims have made to provide more prayer rooms and halal eating establishments.
Search the internet for information on restaurants offering halal food. Do not be afraid to ask the restaurants to show you their halal certificates, and make them more conscious that there are Muslim guests coming to their restaurants in response to their efforts to secure halal certification. Make use of the prayer room facilities provided. By doing so, you are sending a signal to the Governments of these countries that we are appreciative and supportive of their efforts to provide these facilities. If the facilities are well-utilized, there is less likelihood that anyone would consider them to be redundant. Surely the presence of increased prayer rooms and halal food establishments will also have a positive effect of making it more convenient for Muslim workers living in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong to make use of them for pray (or to eat), especially when they are working in the vicinity of those places.
When we established RISEAP in 1980, did any of us foresee the rapid changes in population trends, as well as the changes in Government policies in the countries that I have cited? No, none of us anticipated these changes. Although we did not anticipate these changes, we have to recognize that these changes have opened up new opportunities and challenges for us, in RISEAP, to play a role in working hand-in-hand with the non-Muslim communities, including the Governments, in the hope of making life easier for the Muslim communities living in this region.
The next 42 years of RISEAP’s existence will probably bring about new changes and challenges that are beyond our ability to foresee, today. Our past experiences in the last 42 years should at least have taught us on the need to be more mentally-prepared to expect more surprises and challenges in the next 42 years ahead.