The Divisive Power of LKY

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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)

“Less Strict?”

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!

Post-Reaction Action

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.



7 thoughts on “The Divisive Power of LKY

  1. Huh, where did you get the context that he said Muslim should be able to drink beer and eat pork? He merely said all religions should be able to sit down and eat together.

    It does not mean that eating together means you have to eat pork or drink beer.

  2. As an anthropologist conducting research on Muslims in the region and working in Singapore I think that there are some aspects of this diatribe that have been missed, starting from Mr Lee himself, but also by some within the Muslim communities in Singapore. I have tried to clarify such discussion, yet at the same time I have tried to show the complexity of concepts such as integration (often read as assimilation). You can find my extended commentary here

  3. The Ruling Party declares continually that it does not want religious strife to occur in Singapore and has drummed this into the citizenry for almost 50 years. Why does a core member of the Ruling Party now decide to relax this habit of careful avoidance for offense and start spouting opinions about how Muslims should live? For decades all the communities of the different religions here live in peace, why does this important member of the ruling party, in fact the founding father of Singapore, now decide to dice with fire. It may be because he has found the Malay Muslim community too docile, especially those working in MUIS very compliant, rubber stamping the Ruling Party’s every whim. So he decides to shortcut the process and say it himself to the Malay Muslims directly. The gist of what he wants is that Malay Muslims in Singapore should water down their Islam! I wonder whether this man who is supposed to be so erudite knows that in World Islam itself there is ongoing efforts by its jurists and scholars to determine best practices or sunnah as encapsulated in the Holy Qur’an and Hadiths. It would be hilarious if not downright insulting for a non Muslim like him , no matter how eminent to take part in discovering the sunnah. But he foolishly attempted to shape the sunnah. This I think is the groteque incongruity that provoke the Muslims in Singapore to anger.

  4. I am a convert to Islam and can perhaps see the issues here from the other side too.. Non-Muslims sometimes like to go out of their way to impose on us. They ask. Why should we marry more than one wife? Why should we not eat pork which is so delicious? Why should we insist that our partners in marriage convert to Islam if they are not Muslims? Then in one sweep of the arm they say that all these are unnecessary.

    Then in exasperation I remember the Qur’anic verses about how I do not wish you to come over to my religion…. to you your religion and to me mine. So I stand my ground. Do not think that you are being polite if you buckle up in embarrassment that Islam seems to others to have so many restrictions. Well you can relax those restrictions if you yourself wish to do so but not because of the tauntings of anyone. The Qur’an itself observes that there are minor sins and major sins. Just don’t do the major ones like murder, rape, rob, be corrupt, commit adultery, commit apostasy etc. If Allah is true you will get what you sow. Allah is true and great.

    Now Islam does not record, anywhere in the Qur’an or hadith that you should not eat with a non-Muslim. So you could share a table with him if you want to. But the propensity of some non-Muslims as described above, is to get high if he could induce you to take non-halal food. Since the food is right in front of you, this makes the move very convenient. So choose your non Muslim companions to share a table with, to minimize regret.

    Next we deal with integration of Muslims with peoples of different religions. I suppose LKY means the close association provided by marriage. Why marry only Muslim women, they ask. Because, a non Muslim wife cannot be expected to be serious about your religion and would definitely defy you in this matter by being lax about Islam in your home and with your children. You want your descendants to be Muslim, don’t you? The case of a Muslim woman marrying a non Muslim man is entirely disallowed in Islam. Because, filiation belongs to the father and in almost all cultures, the religion of the child is that of his or her father. It is impossible that children of such unions remain Muslims.

    What is the importance of being Muslim ?
    This is equivalent to the question, what is the importance of being alive? So the treating of our Muslim practices as if they were jokes is tantamount to insulting us existentially.

    I believe that it is because our society is too concerned with the trappings of wealth and power that most do not understand the import of religion in human lives. Many do not believe in God. So when they speak their innermost thoughts about us, it is so grating to our senses. They do not guess that it could be all that important. Perhaps we should apologize to LKY for all the unease we cause him for his wish, couched in words too brief, meant to bind the society closer. But to you your religion, to me, mine-: is sacrosanct.

  5. We are fortunate to be given a glimpse of the attitude of this regime through the mouth of its core member. MUIS was formed to carry out AMLA under the auspices of this regime. Do you think, looking at it realistically, that such a regime would allow Islamic practice its due , when its understanding of Islam is so shallow? ( LKY’s outburst shows us the depth and width of their tolerance for Islam).. No wonder MUIS is just the lapdog and rubberstamp all these years. Comes the crunch, what do you think MUIS would do to safeguard itself of a livelihood?
    We as a community should voice our discontent with the particular acts of this regime executed through MUIS. I know, we are held back by draconian laws gagging us individually and as a community. But pain now is better than bigger pain later. For a start we should try to elect an opposition into Parliament. This should put some obstacles into their path, less they trample over us while our Muslim Ministers appointed as our keepers are clapping in group-think unison.

  6. Someone told me, “If you want to get your Muslim child become a Christian, bring him to MUIS. There the judges will do whatever it takes to please their Masters.”

    You can check this by looking through a few “Grounds Of Decision.” handed out by the MUIS judges in recent years.

    MUIS has done what the Kafirs’ best efforts fail to do. Because statements coming from them about any Muslim individual looks magnanimous and entirely believable and trustworthy.

  7. Months have passed and I am surprised that no one in MUIS or elsewhere rebut Payalebar’s statement “If you want to get your Muslim child become a Christian, bring him to MUIS. There the judges will do whatever it takes to please their Masters.” This statement blows my mind and if MUIS has any integrity it should make a response to this and other statements in Payalebar’s comments. In these days when Muslims are seen on TV screens to be forever throwing stones at buildings, and overturning burning cars, many people use this image to demonize Muslims, including Muslims themselves against their brothers. Has MUIS been using this image too?

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