Monday, September 13, 2010

'Play the race card and we're finished'

Sep 13, 2010

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed by Seth Mydans of The New York Times on Sept 1. We carry today edited excerpts of the interview

Let me ask a question about the outside world a little bit. Singapore is a great success story, even though people criticise this and that. When you look back, you can be proud of what you've done. Are there things that you regret, things that you wish you could achieve that you couldn't?

Well, first I regret having been turfed out of Malaysia. I think if the Tunku had kept us together, what we did in Singapore - had Malaysia accepted a multiracial base for their society - much of what we've achieved in Singapore would have been achieved in Malaysia. But not as much, because it's a much broader base.

We would have improved inter-racial relations and an improved holistic situation. Now we have a very polarised Malaysia - Malays, Chinese and Indians in separate schools, living separate lives and not really getting on with one another. That's bad for us as close neighbours.

How do you assess your own satisfaction with what you've achieved? What didn't work?

Well, the greatest satisfaction I had was that my colleagues and I, we were of that generation who were turfed out of Malaysia, suffered two years under a racial policy, decided that we will go the other way. We will not as a majority squeeze the minority, because once we're by ourselves the Chinese become the majority. We made quite sure that whatever your race, language or religion, you are an equal citizen, and we'll drum that into the people. I think our Chinese understand that and today we have an integrated society. Our Malays are English-educated; they're no longer like the Malays in Malaysia. You can see there are some still wearing headscarves but very modern-looking.

That doesn't sound like a regret to me.

No, no, but the regret is there's such a narrow base to build this enormous edifice. So I've got to tell the next generation, please do not take for granted what's been built. We have built upon this small island a 100-storey-high tower block and it may go up to 150 if you are wise. But if you believe that it's permanent, it will come tumbling down and you will never get a second chance.

I wonder if that is a concern of yours about the next generation. I saw your discussion with a group of young people before the last election and they were saying what they want is a lot of these values from the West, an open political marketplace and even playing field. And you said: 'Well, if that's the way you feel, I'm very sad.'

Because you play it that way, if you have dissension, if you choose the easy way to Muslim votes and switch to racial politics, this society is finished. The easiest way to get majority vote is vote for me, we're Chinese, they're Indians, they're Malays. Our society will be ripped apart. If you do not have a cohesive society, you cannot make progress.

But is that a concern that the younger generation doesn't realise as much as it should?

I believe they have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs, and they can take liberties with it. They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that is never so. We have crafted a set of very intricate rules: no housing blocks shall have more than a percentage of so many Chinese, so many per cent Malays, Indians. All are thoroughly mixed. Willy-nilly, your neighbours are Indians, Malays; you go to the same shopping malls, you go to the same schools, the same playing fields, you go up and down the same lifts. We cannot allow segregation.

There are people who think that Singapore may lighten up a little bit when you go, that the rules will become a little looser and if that happens, that might be something that's a concern to you.

No, you can go looser where it's not race, language and religion because those are deeply gut issues and it will surface the moment you start playing on them. It's inevitable. But in other areas - policies, right or wrong; disparity of opportunities; rich and poor - well go ahead. But don't play race, language, religion. We've got here; we've become cohesive; keep it that way.
We've not used Chinese as a majority language because it will split the population. We have English as our working language. It's equal for everybody, and it's given us the progress because we're connected to the world. If you want to keep your Malay or Chinese or Tamil or whatever, do that as a second language, not equal to your first language. It's up to you how high a standard you want to achieve.

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