by Andrew Loh
“I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not want to offend the Muslim community,” Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew said in the book, “Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going”. The book, published by the Straits Times Press, is based on interviews MM Lee gave to seven Straits Times journalists “over a period of two years”, according to MM Lee. The book was released in January 2011.
In it, he was asked for his views on the state of mutiracialism in Singapore.
“I think we are progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came,” he said, “and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, inter-marriages and so on – than Muslims.”
He said that “while Muslims socially do not cause any trouble… they are distinct and separate.”
To foster better integration, MM Lee said Muslims in Singapore should “be less strict on Islamic observances” and say: ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you.’”
These remarks sparked protests – both online and within the Malay-Muslim community at large. MM Lee’s views were seen by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) as “hurtful” and “potentially divisive”.
In a strongly-worded response to MM Lee’s remarks, the AMP said:
“Ironically, MM's comments, which had purported to touch on integration, could be potentially divisive. MM’s comments create the misperception that the MMC is against or disinterested in integration, which is untrue and unfounded. It tends to perpetuate this misperception for younger Singaporeans in particular, who may take his views, as the first Prime Minister of Singapore, as the truth.”
The AMP called on the Government to state its stand with regards to MM Lee’s assertions. “Otherwise,” it said, “the perception will be that the comments expressed by MM Lee, as a core member of the Cabinet, reflects the official position of the Government.”
The AMP was not the only Muslim group which felt MM Lee was wrong in his assessment of the Muslim community. Perdaus - the association of adult religious class students – also expressed its disapproval.
Two days later, the Minister in charge of Muslim affairs, Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, said that MM Lee “was describing a ‘worst-case scenario’ when he recently spoke about the Malay Muslim community.” (Channel Newsasia)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong distanced himself from his father’s controversial remarks several days later. Saying that the senior Lee’s opinion was his “personal views”, PM Lee stressed that his own were "not quite the same as MM's”. (New Paper)
This is not the first time that MM Lee’s views on the Malay Muslim community have caused outrage.
As far back as 1999, MM Lee seems to hold reservations about Singapore Malays, especially in “sensitive” positions.
"If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that's a very tricky business. We've got to know his background... I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I don't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy." - SM Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, September 19, 1999 on Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces.
More recently, in an interview with National Geographic in July 2009, he questioned the civic spiritedness of Malays.
“Well, we make them say the national pledge and sing the national anthem but suppose we have a famine, will your Malay neighbour give you the last few grains of rice or will she share it with her family or fellow Muslim or vice versa?”
In that same interview, he said, referring to Muslims in Singapore, “The influence from the Middle East has made them have head-dresses for no rhyme or reason.”
On 8 March, Tuesday, MM Lee issued a statement about the remarks he made in the book. He said that the particular comment about the Muslims integrating with other communities was made “probably two or three years ago.”
“Ministers and MPs, both Malay and non-Malay, have since told me that Singapore Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with the other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date.
“I stand corrected. I hope this trend will continue in the future.”
Online, criticisms of his statement and his remarks have been swift. Some feel that MM Lee’s statement falls short – that it is not an apology. Others have said that he only made this “concession” in an attempt to assuage the Malay voters, a crucial voting bloc in the next General Election, believed to be just weeks away. Yet others say that MM Lee should be investigated for infringing the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.
The Malays make up about 15 per cent of Singapore’s population.
Members of Parliament from MM Lee’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), were slow to react to his comments when they were first published in January. They seem to have only realized the negative impact on the ground three months later.
In the current sitting of Parliament (April), PAP Malay MPs expressed disagreement with MM Lee’s views. The local media too is trying to play the matter down – with headlines such as “Malays get ‘A’ for efforts to integrate”, “A more mature, resilient community”, and “MM Lee’s statement welcomed”.
"We should take MM's latest statement in good faith,” says MP Mdm Halimah Yacob. “It shows his humility,”
The Minister in charge of Muslim affairs, who earlier said MM Lee’s remarks were “describing a worst-case scenario”, now says that this latest incident is a “hiccup”:
“There will occasionally be hiccups and sometimes feelings are hurt when perspectives differ on sensitive issues that we hold dear. But we should not let such hiccups hold us back.”
It is telling that MM Lee’s statement does not include an apology. Nor did he issue a retraction in January when the book was first launched. Indeed, the book was widely-promoted, both here and abroad. And the press, particularly the Straits Times, carried several articles in praise of the book.
The Straits Times Press, the publisher of the book, has not said whether it will remove the “out of date” remarks from future editions.
Will MM Lee’s insensitivity towards the Malay-Muslim community cost the PAP in the upcoming General Election? No one knows, and that really is not the important issue here.
What the Government must consider is whether it is wise to continue to have someone in Cabinet who has proved to be recalcitrant and callous when making public comments about a particular community.
Remember, this is not the first time that MM Lee has disparaged or questioned the Malay-Muslims' loyalty or religious practice in Singapore.
Further, how out-of-touch is MM Lee, given that he himself has admitted, in this episode, that he is “out of date”?
Should we wait for his next “hard truth” to stir more unease and discomfort before we say it is time for him to leave?
In the meantime, where is the apology to the Malay-Muslim community, MM Lee?