As a post-65er, along with the vast majority of my peers, LKY is generally seen as a person who is past his prime. Look at across the Causeway, and you see Mahathir aptly knowing his place. He was ordained as a Tun, kept out of politics (more or less), but at least relinquished his official position. Over on this side, you see Malathir’s mirror image, except the senior citizen here somehow is still warming the same seat for the past few decades.
In an attempt to ensure relevance, or perhaps due to the insistence by some opportunistic quarters to milk the cow before it lays permanently on the pasture, a book was published. Reeking of a sense of desperation by the marketing team and thus entitled “Hard Truths,” it not only affirms an unmeasurable degree of haughtiness (in which his word is the truth) and immensely prejudiced worldview, but also confirms an eccentric paradoxical characteristic; the relentless, repugnant stubbornness that ceases to shrivel unlike overripe grapes, or an 80-something year-old’s skin.
Irrelevant analogies aside, I tried hard not to take note of this recently-published book. Admittedly it is difficult to do so when passages of it screamed into front-page headlines in the national broadsheet. So whether I like it or not, the customary morning coffee-newspaper routine is distracted with noises coming from old, broken records.
Then after days of brushing aside incessant and blatant indoctrination through the Straits Times (well it’s inherent to be fair), counter-propaganda was finally provided by its international counterparts. Along with the unrealistic, obsolete view of the Malaysia and Indonesia [wanting to conquer Singapore], and that higher-educated parents make better children than gardeners (yes he actually said that), the AFP, and republished in the Jakarta Globe, Malaysia’s My Sinchew, among others, highlighted parts of the book deservedly. And this takes the cake:
“I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam,” he said in “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” a new book containing his typically frank views on the city-state and its future.
“I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration — friends, intermarriages and so on…” he stated.
“I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate,” Lee added, calling on the community to “be less strict on Islamic observances.” (AFP)
As expected, reactions come in hard and fast.
But first, let’s divulge at the crux of the issue: What is exactly meant as “less strict,” and that Islam can’t really be “integrated?”
Here’s the exact context:
Apparently, to integrate, one must be able to drink beer and not eat halal food. Shortsightedness is the weakness of many, and can be rebutted rather easily:
1. Just how imperative is food in “integrating” with one another? Is there not other ways that people can mix with another? Sports? Reading? School? Work? Eating is just one of the various forums of “integration.” To single it out is simply unreasonable. Apparently he has never seen canteens in schools and universities, where Muslims and non-Muslims sit together eating their respective food with no issue at all.
Edit: BBC interviewed author/scholar Jill Partington who said that food has never been a uniting factor among peoples of different culture. In fact, it’s the opposite, as each has their own dietary requirements; halal, kosher, vegan, etc.
2. Even if one decides that eating together is somehow most vital for one to know another, then must a Muslim disown his principles in order to “integrate?” Hell, no.
Similarly, would any sane person, one who is sincere in integrating with others, force a vegetarian to eat meat? Or a non-alcoholic to drink?
3. What sort of integration are we talking about here? Only the integration between religions? What about secularism? Secularism is not a value-free concept. It has its own values and principles; secularism must also make effort to integrate with religions. Integration is not a one-way street.
4. Integration of religion is one. What about integration of various “classes” of Singaporeans? Some years ago, there was a blog about some high-ranking official’s daughter who berated against the “commoners.” And I distinctively remember reading a letter in the ST, in which a person from a “privileged background” who had never endured any sort of financial hardship in her life, whose friends only live in private properties (apparently only one of her friend lives in a 5-roomer HDB flat), expressed her surprise at what us common Singaporeans go through everyday.
So why single out an egalitarian religion as an obstacle for integration? One which forces its adherents to help the poor and teach them to mix with peoples of different background?
To sum up, it seems to LKY the way to properly “integrate” Singaporeans is if Muslims become “less strict,” to be able to drink beer (and eat pork?) together. Unfortunately this is where his logic fails, as he conceded in the earlier part of the interview that religion supersedes everything. And to even ask someone to be “less strict” in religion, and this coming from an atheist politician, then published in a widely marketed book, only serves to amplify daftness, and the subsequent fair (although fiery) responses.
Many more points can be used to rebut against the statement, but that is not the intention here. Instead, let’s focus on the reactions.
Division and Reaction
Online, news spread like wildfire, and the retorts and rejoinders have been critical. The swearing around closed circles is even more damning. These are all understandable; malediction towards religion by anyone is not tolerated, moreover a senior citizen with in statesman’s cloak, which at the very least attracts similar imprecations.
The level of impunity shown by LKY at the efforts of playing down ethnic rhetoric in local politics is not only undermined, but he had it effectively tied down and gagged, with bigots standing around and laughing at the abuse. While Straits Times itself has been very reserved, giving only a glimpse of what the online citizens really think of LKY, although just because something is hardly reported doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The social undercurrent is just boiling with frustration at the old guy, and to some extent the writers who allowed such statements to be recklessly publicized in the first place.
So what are we to do, as Muslims? Hit out at him? Shout at the top of our voices? Fill up Facebook walls with wails of disappointment and chagrin?
That seems to be the case with most people. While I do not deny that there must be a clear signal of our disagreement with the statement above, I also find it hard to accept that such a statement was included in the book, given its very candid nature (see video above) which to me resembles purely of coffeeshop talk.
Yet most unfortunate, to me, is how some Muslims blame to other Muslims for not reacting. Reaction – to me – is required in the first place to show displeasure; we are not a spineless ummah. But reaction which blames other Muslims for not reacting is more counter-productive and divisive. To the extent that some pointed fingers at individual religious leaders. For sure, I know some wouldn’t respond as they see it as something that doesn’t merit a reply. Others say the candid nature of the interview means that some remarks should be taken with fistfuls of salt and some hefty sieving, registering some blame to editors instead.
Let’s get this clear, Muslims can either disregard the comment as irrelevant, or react. And if we choose react, we should react in the right way. So I find it very difficult to even fathom those who race to justify and support what LKY said, without even analyzing the context in the first place. Seriously, what were they thinking? (And don’t get me started on the citation of Faisal Abdul Rauf and Akhil Hayy.)
To sum up, we should act moderately, not one extreme of tafriT (تفريط), yes-manning everything PAP leaders says, and neither the other extreme of ifraT (إفراط) and condemning everyone who doesn’t.
Based on the reactions (and non-reactions) so far, three points can be singled out:
1. The “effective” institutionalization of religion
Not surprisingly, Islamic religious institutions remain quiet. On one had, they wouldn’t want to worsen the circumstances. On the other hand, religious institutions, once constitutionalized and institutionalized, operates mostly at the behest of the government orders which it ironically seeks to circumvent in first place (by ensuring continued existence though AMLA). But once it is part of the system, Singapore’s bureaucratic hierarchy places such institutions (religious or otherwise) in a pecking order in line other government-related entities. Also, cultural norms of kowtowing to leaders (likely an extension of colonial practices) exacerbates the reactions for Muslims, especially in defending against top-down policies and directives which are deemed offensive.
That’s why – to me – the independent Pergas is the still relatively the “loudest,” although to rope Pergas leaders into government-supported institutions/entities may be seen as a conscious attempt to temper some of the more vociferous opinions.
2. The “sensibility” of mainstream, pro-government media…
…With colossal qualifications, that is. I’m particularly referring to the lack of exposure in the local media, as the people responsible must be aware of what kind of reaction if the mass public sees this in the news. Bits of it which were reported had been sanitized, though I think it’s a futile attempt to show that they’re really not that 154th in the world (we all know they are). For instance, Straits Times (26-27 Jan 2010) reported on the reactions of Malaysians on the issue, focusing on LKY’s phrase of Muslim Singaporeans being “distinct and separate” instead of “less strict.” And nothing on what the local Singaporean think. Furthermore in the local Malay paper Berita Harian (owned by SPH, which also owns ST), a media blackout is apparently enforced on the topic.
So they seem to know what is sensitive in local news. Ironically, the book was written by them (newspaper journalists/editors) and published by the same newspaper company in the first place.
Edit: AMP has taken the lead in this by issuing a strong statement (hooray!). And MUIS too, though expectedly a very dissappointing weak one. And surprise surprise, both statements were reported in the Malay paper today (Berita Harian, 28 Jan 2011). Interesting developments here, as (a) maybe the media people suddenly realized that this won’t blow over that easily; ST has already published similar news days earlier, with online discussions impossible to curb, and (b) more likely, this is a calculated attempt to stem the boiling anger of the Muslim community; by playing things out in the public mainstream media sphere, the government at least has a better chance of directly handling the furore through press statements (aka whitewashing) rather than leaving it “uncontrolled” on the wild wild net.
3. The opinion that is an anomaly
The lack of support for the statement also shows that LKY is simply way off-course among local politicians, and I see that as a good sign. Seems that no one wants to even touch on the subject, and let it be LKY’s problem. Or maybe his son’s at worst, or they’ll say that his role is just advisory and it doesn’t reflect PAP’s official view. This won’t happen of course, instead worse comes to worst they’ll just sugar-coat it like they did in justifying his “educated parents vs. gardener” remarks (see ST, 26 Jan 2011, pg A3). But I’m sure deep inside, many would like to blame it on his “seniority.”
And I imagine many intelligence officers are cursing for having to keep more tabs on the responses on the internet. Analysts who are given more last-minute workload before the long Chinese New Year break must be extremely delighted at Singapore’s so-called founding father now!
Aside from the necessary reaction to show disagreement, the best way is still to ensure that we have a long-term action plan to counter not only LKY’s, but similar perverted ideas that religion should be made to fit secularism.
And the best way is to make him eat his own words. I secretly wish we can do that literally, but that’s another issue.
Muslims should trounce remarks like LKY’s by emphasizing on the principles which we do not negotiate with. Like prayers five times a day, aurat/aurah, halal food, refraining from alcohol, etc. Emphasize this in all the inter-faith/religion integration meetings, and more so within our own young brethren, making sure that everyone understands its position and reverence in Islam, that these issues should be considered when organizing events which foster “integration.”
Our principles are never bargaining chips in the first place. We can cooperate and integrate in many other forums with our principles intact and untouched. In the long run, it is not hard to prove that religious principles are not an impediment between neighbors helping each other out, or friends playing badminton, or colleagues collaborating at work.
Because the biggest impediment to integration was never principles which each of us hold, but prejudice and intolerance to others’ beliefs.