Thursday, February 10, 2011

Integrating Muslim Singaporeans

Feb 10, 2011

Our sister newspapers, Berita Harian and Berita Minggu, ran numerous commentaries in response to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's remarks on Muslim Singaporeans in his recent book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. We carry below edited excerpts from some of the commentaries.

Translated by Norzulriyah Haron

Understanding the integration controversy

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's explanation of the Government's stand that the Muslim community continues to contribute to national integration brings a sense of relief.
This follows the controversy over Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's views in the recently published book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.
According to MM Lee, unlike non-Muslims, Muslims have trouble integrating into Singapore society. The Chinese and Indians socialise and intermarry easily, while Muslims feel awkward about dining with people of other religions because of the issue of halal food.
MM Lee opined that it would be good for Muslims to be less strict about their religious observances.
Numerous criticisms poured in, many claiming that MM Lee was insensitive. Unfortunately, the criticisms were mostly emotional and defensive.
When the dust has settled, hopefully there will be more detailed, sensible, wise and intellectual debates.
For instance, MM Lee is concerned about religious overzealousness. This warrants careful consideration.
Muslims are exhorted to eat halal and good (halalan tayyiban) food. But this should not lead to self-isolation, thus affecting integration, which Islam promotes.
I see MM Lee's views as touching more on the issue of social cohesion, which is necessary for a young and pluralistic nation such as Singapore. Enforcing social unity by asking people to be less strict in their religious observances, although a rational argument, does not guarantee success.
MM Lee's fears reflect global views about religious fundamentalism. Eric Kaufmann, in Shall The Religious Inherit The Earth?: Demography And Politics In The Twenty-First Century, predicts that religious fundamentalists were heading towards world domination because their numbers were increasing.
Kaufmann argues that religious fundamentalism is a modern response to the threat of secularism. He says it is fanned by insecurity, identity and demography.
In the West as well as in the Muslim world, religious fundamentalists tend to be those who feel uprooted amid modernisation and urbanisation.
In many European and American cities, economic imbalances between locals and immigrants - who differ not only culturally and racially but also in terms of religion - strengthen awareness of ethnic and religious identities. In this way, ethnicity and religion work together against secular assimilation.
Kaufmann's findings are debatable. But they help us to be more discerning about the problems of integration.
When poverty and fundamentalism go hand in hand, religion will continue to be a symbol of identity for those seeking group security. This issue needs to be addressed.


Let's aim to be more mature

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong has explained the Government's stand on the issue of racial integration after the controversy over Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew's views in his latest book.
Wak feels that we should not prolong the issue as the PM's explanations are convincing enough and bring a sense of relief.
We should look to the future. As the old saying goes: Discard what is bad and keep what is good.
Issues of language, race and religion are usually sensitive. Even followers of the same religion have misunderstandings and conflicts due to different views.
What is disconcerting is that some external parties try to wade into the controversy to take advantage of the situation.
Wak hopes we can all become mature following this episode. And hopefully we can ensure there will be no repeat of this incident.

Muslims, not Islam, make things troublesome

WHY is Islam so troublesome?
That was the question an acquaintance asked as we dined at a wedding feast.
We were discussing the recent controversy over Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's remarks about Singapore Muslims in his book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.
Among other things, Mr Lee noted Muslims' difficulties in dining together with non-Muslims and suggested that Muslims be less strict in their religious observances.
Thankfully, the controversy was resolved by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's statement that MM Lee's remarks were his personal views and not those of the Government.
The fact is that there is no problem in Muslims and non-Muslims dining together. But as my acquaintance asked: 'Why is Islam so troublesome?' At first glance, there are some truths in the question:

  • Muslims have to pray five times a day on time.
  • Every year, they have to fast for a month and refrain from eating or drinking even a drop of water the entire day.
  • Once in a lifetime, they have to go on haj, spending thousands of dollars.
  • Besides paying the income tax, they also have to pay the zakat (tithe) annually.

These are among the five pillars of Islam, which do not include the following facts:

  • Muslims always seem to be fussy about food and have to check the ingredients or whether there are halal logos from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
  • Muslim women have to cover up when they reach puberty. This is a challenge for female students who have to wear uniforms.
  • Muslim men have to be circumcised.

Therefore, it is not surprising that some non-Muslims consider Islam troublesome! My reply to them would be as follows:

  • Islam is not troublesome. It merely looks troublesome. It is like learning how to ride a bicycle.
  • Initially it feels awkward. But as soon as you learn to balance and ride, you can move fast.
  • Islam is not just about praying, fasting, going on haj, paying zakat and so on. All these derive from a system of values that pertains not just to Muslims, but also to non-Muslims and the environment.

Finally, it is not Islam that is troublesome; rather, Muslims are the ones who cause trouble to Islam.
When I was a child, I was discouraged from wishing 'good' to non-Muslims. I was told only Muslims deserved such an 'honour'. So I could not wish Ah Seng and Tom 'good morning' or 'good afternoon'. I could wish them only 'morning' or 'afternoon'.
I did this for years without understanding until I learnt that Prophet Muhammad was sent to all mankind, not just Muslims.
The Prophet himself was most tolerant and simple. For instance, he stood up to show respect at a Jewish funeral.
It crossed my mind that the issue of halal food will not be problematic or troublesome if Muslims controlled their own food industry. Instead, Muslims are reliant on non-Muslims for food.
So who is now in trouble or troublesome?


Be kind but also be rational

A CHARACTERISTIC from the old days still prevalent among Malays is being considerate. Malays generally still give priority to being mindful of other people's feelings. Often, this prompts us to give special treatment to other races.
If Malays hold events attended by non-Malays, the hosts will try to use English instead of Malay when conversing or making announcements. They do this even though there may be only a handful of non-Malays present.
This is to enable non-Malays to understand us. More importantly, this is done so that our guests are comfortable and do not feel alienated.
In local and Malaysian Malay TV dramas, it is not uncommon to see non-Malays playing the role of neighbours, colleagues or friends. I have watched local Malay dramas which have tried to depict the reality of multi-cultural Singapore.
I am writing this article not to praise ourselves but to show the noble characteristics that we have inherited. We are often sensitive to other people's feelings as well as mindful of their interests.
But sometimes, some of us are too mindful, which has an adverse effect, preventing us from being frank, for example.
In the workplace, when we know a colleague has committed a mistake or has been slack at work, we keep it to ourselves to avoid hurting the person.
As a community, it is not uncommon for us to be averse to criticism. When our shortcomings are criticised, we become outraged. But if we think rationally, there are truths - albeit bitter - in the criticisms, which we should adhere to.
We should rid ourselves of the tendency to be mindful of others' feelings without discretion and getting ruffled easily.
It is good to be considerate. But do not let others take advantage of us until we become a weak and lowly race.
We should defend our dignity but not abandon rationality.
We should be willing to accept good criticism and benefit from them, while rejecting inappropriate comments.
Let there be a balance between kindness and rationality.


Malay progress needs constant review

FOLLOWING the controversy over Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's remarks in his book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, Oteh feels it is apt for our community to self-reflect.
To evaluate the progress of a community, there is a need for figures and data. So far, we have been relying on the Prime Minister's National Day Rally speech to know our progress. But this is the electronic era. Many things about the community can be found through quick views and surveys.
Integration is not only about eating together with other races or intermarriage. It should be evaluated based on leadership, economy and neighbourhood lives.
In terms of national leadership and grassroots leadership, we need to evaluate to what extent we should integrate. In the national administration, we should know how many posts are filled by members of our community.
Economy-wise, we want not only one, but several listed Malay companies, chief executive officers or important professionals. Education-wise, we want Malay students' English language, science and mathematics results to at least be on a par with those of Indian students.
Career-wise, we want to see more Malay scientists, engineers, bankers and accountants. Defence-wise, we want to see more Malays hold important positions in the armed forces.
Finally, at the neighbourhood or grassroots level, we want to see as many multiracial activities as possible. Malays should not visit community centres just to attend weddings or marriage guidance courses.
If such data can be compiled each year, we can then evaluate the level of Malay integration from the top to the grassroots. Although MM Lee's remarks are painful, bear in mind that these are his honest message as 'the father of the nation' to the Malay community.
We should stick to strong principles, continue progressing and leave this debate behind. But do not forget the main theme, which is integration. We should persevere and be informed as we take steps to become an integrated nation.


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