SINGAPORE: The freshly renovated Darul Ghufran Mosque sits on a vast field in central Tampines, its pale brown walls cutting a lonely sight.
On any normal Friday, the 5,500-capacity mosque – the largest in Singapore – would be a buzzing hive of activity in the afternoon ahead of the weekly Friday prayers.
Students still in their uniforms would buy cold drinks in the heat. Congregants would snap up spots in the shade. Shoes and slippers would spill onto the wide cement paths leading to the mosque.
But this Friday (Mar 13) was not any normal Friday. It was the day after the announcement that all mosques in Singapore would be temporarily closed - the first time it has happened in the country's history.
Many used makeshift barricades, posters and red tape to seal off their premises.
Authorities took the unprecedented decision to shut the mosques for cleaning after 82 Singaporeans, who could have been regulars at various mosques, returned from a mass religious gathering in Malaysia that had been attended by confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Two individuals from the group have already tested positive for the virus. Authorities are conducting contact tracing for the rest and will decide whether to re-open the mosques based on developments from the Malaysia gathering.
READ: 2 Singaporeans who attended religious event in Malaysia confirmed to have COVID-19; MUIS closes mosques, suspends Friday prayers
READ: MOH identifying 95 Singaporeans at mass religious event in Malaysia after COVID-19 cases confirmed: Masagos
On Friday, a workgroup formed by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) convened to review how religious institutions are operated, introduce measures to mitigate community spread of the virus and advise on religiously allowed adjustments to practices.
The workgroup comprises ministers, doctors and religious teachers.
"We want to make sure the community knows the closing of mosques is part of social distancing and we are not encouraging any mass gathering at the same time emphasising the importance of taking personal responsibility and taking care of themselves," workgroup member Ustaz Zahid Zin said.
So on Friday, there was no booming prayer call signalling the start of the pre-prayer sermon – just the sounds of mosque staff shuffling inside, wearing luminous vests and clearing out the spaces.
Other mosques CNA visited were also making preparations before professional cleaning agencies worked on their premises over the weekend. Some washed by hand, others used industrial-grade cleaning machines.
Mosque staff also told CNA they had to turn away congregants, including foreigners and construction workers who had not heard the news.
Back at Darul Ghufran, a lone auxiliary officer employed by the adjacent Our Tampines Hub stood on the path to the mosque. He had to turn away at least two people who had come for the prayers, pointing to a sign explaining the works.
He was just lending a hand, he said.
On the other side of the mosque, retiree Arshad Abu Yamin, 71, stopped on a bicycle. Despite hearing the news, he had come to check if the mosque would still allow him to conduct the usual daily prayer there by himself.
After all, Mr Arshad, who lives nearby, had in recent years attended every one of the five daily prayer sessions held at the mosque.
"For people who don’t usually go to mosque, it’s a different story," he said softly in Malay. "But for people who love going to the mosque, it’s really sad."
Fellow retiree, 69-year-old Ramli Ibrahim, had just finished having his lunch nearby when he thought he would visit Darul Ghufran to see if he could do his supplementary prayers there. He knew it would be closed, but said it would be "such a waste" if he could not.
"I'm already in my '60s so I'm trying to prepare for the afterlife," he said, noting that praying in the mosque carried one of the greatest rewards for Muslims.
Mr Ramli said it was good that the mosques were being cleaned to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but felt authorities could have still allowed individual congregants to conduct minor prayers.
"I grew up not missing a single Friday prayer," he said. "I'm fine with praying just outside the mosque. It doesn't have to be inside."
At Al-Ansar Mosque in Bedok, workers said staff and ustaz will wait outside the mosque to explain to congregants the decision to close from both a practical and religious perspective. People were also seen entering the mosque with cleaning equipment.
SOME CONGREGANTS NOT AWARE
At Punggol's Al-Islah Mosque, four staff members were stationed outside the mosque to inform congregants of the closure. One told CNA he had turned away at least six people from 12pm to 1pm on Friday.
While some were foreign workers – the mosque sees a good number of visitors from a dormitory about 2km away – some were also locals who did not follow the news or use social media.
Bangladeshi construction worker Alom Shah, 27, was one of five foreign workers CNA observed at the mosque shortly before 1pm on Friday.
He said he was not informed of the closure and that it was the first time he had seen the mosque closed in his four years of working in Singapore.
In Pasir Ris, staff at the Al-Istighfar Mosque said they had had to turn away two individuals from Malaysia. In the background, a worker could be seen using a floor scrubbing machine.
Bangladeshi construction worker Mohammad Ulzzal, 26, looked lost as he stood alone outside the perimeter wall. "Last week, I prayed here as per normal," he said. "I totally didn't know about this."
Mr Ulzzal said he would pray at the temporary shelter near his work site just beside the mosque. Nearby, a group of foreign workers gestured to a colleague who had just arrived in prayer garb to say the mosque was closed.
Part-time lorry driver Jumahat Hatri, 61, said he too did not know mosques were closed. "I'm not sad," he said. "My intention was to visit a mosque and pray. It was just not meant to be."