Leap of Faith

Battling poverty and homelessness, Siti Noor Mastura rose to become a warrior for social change and inter-religious dialogue.

BY Toh Ee Ming
PHOTOS SPH Library

A

s a child, Siti Noor Mastura’s dream was to experience everything in life. Now, she jokes that she has “gotten more than she wished for” – from experiencing poverty to being widely celebrated as the face of social justice on the national stage.

At age 17, her life was turned upside down when her parents divorced and sold their flat. Her mother struggled to provide for her and her three sisters.

Things got so bad, they had to move 11 times in five years, shuttling from one relative’s home to another. At one point, the girls survived only on instant noodles, fighting hunger pangs and sleepless nights.

On top of that, Noor Mastura had to grapple with the emotional burden of her mother’s depression and her sister being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. To help support the family, she took on various jobs after completing secondary school – from teaching to real estate sales and becoming a flight attendant.

Having been in the shoes of the poor, she started Back2Basics in 2013. The charity delivers free halal groceries to underprivileged families and helps them to gain employment.

“Hitting rock bottom in the past gave me the courage to say that we can fight this together,” she shares.

She also credits her Muslim faith for giving her strength through her darkest days. Not content with simply uplifting lives, she went on to co-found Interfaith Youth Circle (IYC) in 2015, a non-profit organisation that promotes meaningful discussions between people of different faiths.

But what would compel this young lady to go beyond the typical sphere of philanthropy and provoke important conversations on potentially divisive issues?

An Interfaith Iftar event, organised by the Interfaith Youth Circle, saw Muslim and Jewish communities coming together to share a meal as well as religious insights.

CAUSE FOR DISCOURSE
In 2014, after militant group ISIS committed atrocities against Christians in Iraq, she witnessed some Singaporeans displaying hostility against Muslims on social media.

The “double whammy” of ISIS hijacking her religion, and the feeling of persecution from some of her fellow citizens, prompted her to pen some 200 letters to churches in Singapore denouncing the terror acts, and encouraging Muslims and Christians to stand in solidarity.

In 2013, Noor Mastura set up Back2Basics, a charity that delivers halal groceries to underprivileged families.

 

It triggered many positive responses from church leaders and netizens. Wishing to participate in more interfaith dialogues, Noor Mastura soon found out that forums tended to be skewed towards more light-hearted topics, with the more serious discussions on the subject being restricted to students or academics.

Then in 2015, she was given the opportunity to attend a six-week-long summer interfaith programme conducted by the University of Cambridge in the UK, which gathered Muslims, Christians and Jews of different dominations to do scripture readings on the same theme.

Here, the participants got a chance to challenge one another’s beliefs in a safe space.

“We were taught to disagree as much as we wanted to, in a respectful way, and yet still have a powerful conversation. We realised we had more things in common than we actually thought,” she shares.

Noor Mastura describes it as an enlightening experience where she got to shed her pre-conceived notions about certain issues, and gain a new understanding of different cultures and faiths. She cites how growing up against the backdrop of the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict, she was constantly exposed to the narrative of how Jewish people hated Muslims and were out to hurt them.

Through the programme, however, she struck up a close friendship with a Jewish girl, through whom she learnt to recognise the humanity in Jewish people.

“I came to the realisation that they want peace as much as we do,” she shares. This reinforced her belief in the importance of diversity in opinion. Even within her own religious community, she has picked up on differing philosophies.

Once, noticing that she wore her hijab in a turban style, a Muslim man came up to her after dinner and told her to “cover up properly”, leaving her feeling indignant. “But it was a reminder that everyone’s experience is different, and not one person can speak for the entire religion as a whole,” she reflects.

BREAKING BARRIERS
Fresh off the back of her eye-opening experience, she was convinced that the concept of racial harmony could mean more than simple tolerance, but also learning to accept and being able to speak up for other religions.

It was this belief that eventually fuelled the start of IYC. Like many other non-profit ventures, IYC faces a lack of funding. Thankfully, it has been able to garner support from OnePeople.sg, an initiative launched by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to promote racial harmony.

The organisation provided IYC with a venue to conduct their thematic Scriptural Reasoning sessions, where people discuss religious texts from various religions. This aside, all other expenses come from the personal pockets of the IYC founders, from catering food for the participants to producing marketing materials. While this has posed a challenge to expanding its scope of programmes, it has not deterred them from making the most of their discussions and building on them.

“ WE WERE TAUGHT TO DISAGREE AS MUCH AS WE WANTED TO, IN A RESPECTFUL WAY, AND YET STILL HAVE A POWERFUL CONVERSATION. WE REALISED WE HAD MORE THINGS IN COMMON THAN WE ACTUALLY THOUGHT. ”

With a pulse on current topics such as gender inequality and women’s role in religion, the monthly sessions – held since 2016 – challenge the views of individuals of different religions in a respectful environment. Facilitated by IYC’s team members, these have seen encouraging turnouts comprising people from all walks of life – with most of them being young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 years old.

On top of that, IYC also holds public campaigns such as SGMuslimsforEid, which sees Muslims opening their homes to strangers of other religions to share a meal during Hari Raya Puasa.

These initiatives have presented more opportunities for cultural exchange. “One non-Muslim guest was extremely curious about the Hajj, and the host family was excited to share what we do during the pilgrimage. I think she learnt a lot through the experience,” she shares.

If bridging cultural gaps that separate people of vastly different backgrounds was one of Noor Mastura’s aims when she started IYC, it appears that she is well on her way to succeeding in her mission.

 

Noor Mastura won The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2018 award for her interfaith work.

When the group collaborated with TV programme CNA Insider to get Singaporeans to invite migrant workers to their homes to celebrate Hari Raya last year, she witnessed even non-Muslims signing up as hosts. “A Chinese couple actually bought brandnew pots, pans and utensils to meet the halal needs of their guests. It was especially meaningful for the migrant workers, who felt respected and appreciated,” she shares.

In another instance, a Muslim family invited their Chinese guest to their house the night before Hari Raya. In the end, the guest ended up spending the night in their house and joining in the festivities the next day.

Looking ahead, IYC’s four-man team is considering expanding into forum theatre as a medium to provoke further conversations on difficult topics.

For her strides in the social-good sector, she won a youth category award under the President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards in 2016. In 2018, she won the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award for her interfaith work.

THE BELIEF THAT THE CONCEPT OF RACIAL HARMONY COULD MEAN MORE THAN SIMPLE TOLERANCE, BUT ALSO LEARNING TO ACCEPT AND SPEAKING UP FOR OTHER RELIGIONS, EVENTUALLY FUELLED THE START OF IYC.

But the unassuming lady shrugs off her accolades.

“As noble as it sounds, everything on this planet is created for a reason, and my sense of satisfaction comes from having that bigger purpose,” she says.




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