AFTER working as a typist, a translator, a bookseller, a marriage registrar and even a welder, becoming Singapore's chief Islamic scholar was one of the last jobs he had in mind.
When the vacancy came up, the young Syed Isa Semait applied for it most reluctantly. His friends had to fill in the application form for him, and press him into signing it. And even after it was sent in, the 33-year-old remained doubtful that he would qualify.
But he did, and went on to hold the post for 38 years after being appointed mufti in 1972.
During that time, he would leave an indelible mark on the country's Muslim community, issuing progressive rulings on many issues and helping to build ties with other faiths.
Such stories from Shaikh Syed Isa's early life are told in a new book, Keeping The Faith: Syed Isa Semait - Mufti Of Singapore (1972-2010), that was launched yesterday. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim attended the launch at the National Library.
Written by Straits Times correspondent Zakir Hussain, it tells the story of Shaikh Syed Isa's journey from orphanage to the office of the mufti, his time at Cairo's famous Al-Azhar University, and the challenges he tackled.
As a student, Shaikh Syed Isa spent his holidays working in Europe to supplement his scholarship, bunking in dormitories to save money.
Such experiences and exposure to people from other nations shaped his progressive outlook on faith. These were reflected in the way he sought the views of scientific and other secular experts when making fatwa, or religious rulings, and widened the membership of the traditionally closed fatwa committee, to expose younger leaders to the process.
Shaikh Syed Isa, who retired in 2010, has also been lauded for leading the Muslim community to reach out to other faiths in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
Said Dr Yaacob of the 74-year-old: 'Leaders of faith like Shaikh Syed Isa have been instrumental in safeguarding the interests of their congregations and in building a harmonious multi-religious society in Singapore.'
PM Lee too praised the former mufti's contributions on his Facebook page. He wrote: 'He touched the lives of people of all races and faiths, and made a quiet but important contribution to our racial and religious harmony.'
Also attending the book launch were leaders from other religions, who had interacted with him in the Inter-Religious Organisation.
Said the head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Nicholas Chia: 'He set an example for many of how to live a life of faith in a multi-religious country.'
Ustazah Raihanah Halid, 30, too, was struck by Shaikh Syed Isa's openness to other points of view. 'He never limited himself to a specific area of work or to be with a specific group of people, and was not afraid to try something new,' she said. 'This is evident from his early years when he tried different vocations.'
Autographed copies of the book have been sold, raising $165,000 from 16 donors for a fund to support the education of madrasah students.
The book is on sale for $40 at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, major bookstores and www.stpressbooks.com.sg
Landmark moves played big part in nation's development
WHEN he took on the post of mufti at the age of 33 in 1972, Shaikh Syed Isa Semait was said to be one of the youngest muftis in the world. Yet his greatest challenge came not from his own youth, but from the fledgling nation that he served.
In the early 1970s, the Government's plans to tear down old buildings, including mosques, to build new towns were not well received. But Shaikh Syed Isa gave his support, saying 'there was no way to progress without the redevelopment of rural areas to make way for industrial land'.
At the same time, he and other Muslim leaders worked with the Government on plans to build a mosque for each new town. As new and better mosques sprang up, financed by the Mosque Building Fund that Shaikh Syed Isa helped start in 1975, the community came round to the benefits of redevelopment.
There was also the tricky task of turning down the volume of the pre-dawn prayer call (azan).
Shaikh Syed Isa had to tread carefully to convince mosque leaders to curb loudspeaker volumes at 60 decibels.
'I explained that our wider community had become modern, and was working odd hours, returning late and needing to sleep in,' he recalled.
One solution was to broadcast the calls over the radio. It worked so well that a man complained to his nearby mosque that he had been deprived of his wake-up call.
Other landmark moves by Shaikh Syed Isa over his 38 years as mufti included centralising the collection of zakat (tithe), helping to grow wakaf (religious endowments), and reversing a 20-year exemption of Muslims from human organ donation, allowing many lives to be saved.
For his work, Shaikh Syed Isa was sometimes criticised for being a government stooge.
But the 74-year-old said: 'The Government has never interfered in my work or given me any direction. People will say what they will.'