'Muslims can be both religious and patriotic'
MM's views are worst-case scenario, see them in perspective: Yaacob
By Zakir Hussain and Amresh Gunasingham
The Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs yesterday said Singapore Muslims can be both religious and patriotic at the same time, and indeed have been working with their fellow Singaporeans to integrate and help in the nation-building process.
Making his first public remarks on views expressed by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew about Muslims and their integration in Singapore society, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said: 'Muslims and non-Muslims alike know that identity is not a zero-sum game. We can be both religious and patriotic at the same time.'
Saying that he disagreed with MM Lee's views, he noted that the reality in Singapore consists of Muslims and non-Muslims 'working together side by side, in the unions, in schools, in political leadership, in constituencies'.
While observing that Mr Lee's remarks had caused some unhappiness among Muslims, he also urged them to see the remarks in perspective, as a 'worst-case scenario'.
Mr Lee, he said, based his views on his experiences, and his concern for the long-term future of Singapore.
Dr Yaacob was speaking to reporters while at Mendaki, the Muslim self-help organisation, to present cheques for a range of community projects. A total of $370,000 was given out to 39 organisations to fund programmes to help less privileged Malay-Muslim families.
Mr Lee's remarks on Muslims are in the new book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. In the book, Mr Lee himself noted that Dr Yaacob disagreed with his view that greater piety on the part of Muslims had led to a desire for exclusivity.
A number of Muslim organisations have expressed regret over Mr Lee's views and called on the Government to clarify whether it shared those views. These included the Association of Muslim Professionals, the Association of Adult Religious Students (Perdaus), and the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas).
Mr Lee's remarks came about in response to a question on how he assessed the state of multiracialism in Singapore.
Among other things, he said: 'I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not want to offend the Muslim community.
'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, inter-marriages and so on - than Muslims. That's the result of the surge from the Arab states... I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam.'
He also said: 'Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.'
Asked what Muslims could do to integrate, he said: 'Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, 'Okay, I'll eat with you.''
Yesterday, Dr Yaacob suggested that Singaporeans should appreciate where Mr Lee was coming from in making those remarks.
He said: 'MM sees this from a wider perspective, of his own personal experiences. So he wants to warn us. Let us take this as a warning and let us not take things for granted in Singapore.'
He also gave the assurance that the Government would continue to protect and preserve the right of all groups, including Muslims, to practise their faith. 'This will not change; it is fundamental to what we are as a nation,' he said.
Dr Yaacob added, however, that the strong reactions from some Muslims were to be expected: 'When you tell me I cannot be a Muslim and at the same time be a Singaporean, I would be upset.'
'But let's look at this rationally, read the book, understand where he is coming from. And don't just read one book. View MM through his whole lifespan, the struggle he has gone through.
'At the end of the day, he has a certain perspective. That perspective may not be accurate now. Maybe 40 years ago. So that's where I disagree with what he mentioned in the book.'
Asked how the episode would affect Malay/Muslim votes at the general election, which must be held by February next year, Dr Yaacob said he could not tell.
He added: 'As far as government policy is concerned, we want to integrate everybody, irrespective of race or religion.. Let's focus on that.'
'There are different kinds of Muslims'
This is an extract from Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, in which MM Lee underscores how a small minority can upset inter-racial harmony.
Q This veil between Muslims and non-Muslims that you speak of, I think most Muslims I know have lived with the conviction that they can be fully Singaporean and fully Muslim and they somehow believe in the Singapore that you have imagined for your citizens. And now to hear you say that there's a veil between Muslims and non-Muslims, my question to you is, have the Muslims been deluding themselves, that they will be accepted?
A No, there are different kinds of Muslims. When the Association of Muslim Professionals started, they were opposed to Muis (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), opposed to our PAP Malay leadership. They came out in opposition to it. They believed they could do better for the Malays. So we gave them the financial support. Then they found that they couldn't do more than Mendaki or Muis. They slowly came around because Mendaki and Muis were rendering good service.
We are not saying the position is hopeless. There is that small few who're under the influence of the Arab jihadists. One or two can spoil the whole relationship. One big bomb, and we cannot stop the reactions. I mean the day after a big bomb, say in Ang Mo Kio or Tanjong Pagar, where there are very few Muslims, or even if there are Muslims, say in Raffles City, Muslim and non-Muslim relationships will change fundamentally, as they did in Britain.
The British had confidence-building councils. But British intelligence announced that there were 2,000 would-be jihadists they are monitoring. 2,000. Where do they find so many security officers to monitor 2,000? They do it by Internet and technical surveillance.
We haven't got to that stage. But a lone jihadist can cross over from Batam, with a bomb belt. We have to be careful. We cannot guarantee that somebody will not slip through, go into the underground station and blow himself up, or worse, go into the tunnel and blow himself up. Then, you have a tremendously difficult rescue operation, with fire in the tunnel, not just at a station where there are fire hoses. So our Home Team is learning how to deal with such situations. It is a contingency but if it happens and in a train with 1,000 passengers, we can't just leave them there to be incinerated. Even if you can rescue only a part of them, you have to try your best.
It's not a joke. We are faced with a new situation, never faced before in the history of civilisation. We have a group of people willing to destroy themselves to inflict damage on others. The only ones before them were the Tamil Tigers. But they were fighting for a tangible cause, for a homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka. This is fighting for Islam, different cause springing from a religious conviction.
From their skewed point of view, any good Muslim cooperating with an infidel government is a bad Muslim, full stop. If we do not make this distinction, we'll have no Malays in the government or in the civil service or in all the security branches. You must make that distinction because we have completely different groups. But one poisonous group can destroy inter-racial, inter-religious harmony.
We sent a team to study what they did in London. They have different kinds of Muslims who cannot unite. Because of their free speech laws, they've allowed all kinds of rabid preachers to purvey highly inflammatory sermons in Britain's mosques. Now, they're banning the rabid ones. They get Muslim counsel, go to the High Court and on appeal over their human rights and liberty of speech. In the end the judges have allowed the government to push them out. If we had accepted Saudi money for mosques, we will get Saudi preachers. Luckily we have pre-empted that by having the Mosque Building Fund so we don't need their money.
[Concurs with analysis by others.]
Q But do you fear that your views may be misinterpreted by a younger generation of leaders, who may not have gone through what you have gone through? You are familiar with the Muslims and the Malays and you may know how to handle or manage them, whereas out of fear, might there be an overreaction among the younger leaders?
A No, I don't think so. I mean, they've worked with me. Goh Chok Tong worked with me for 15 years before he took over and he sat in all my meetings with the Malay leaders and so on. Hsien Loong has mixed with many Malay friends, learnt Malay, he understands them. He's gone around constituencies with me as a growing boy. He understands their sensibilities. Whoever takes over from him, sitting in Parliament, intermingling with the constituents, will understand, and will adapt.
I do not see intolerance. Every Singaporean knows the first ingredient, the first attribute we must have to be a successful multiracial, cosmopolitan society, is a high degree of tolerance. It's our way of life - Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Taoists, whatever. See our prayer blessings for the SAF. Every religion is included. It's your faith and gives you comfort in battle. If you die, well it's for a good cause.
Q How would you describe the level of trust that you have towards Singapore Muslims?
A I would say those who are more English-speaking, this is a rough rule of thumb, the more English-speaking they are, the less they are prone to this. Their first language now is English. So when they go on the Internet, they're reading English. We do these surveys in Primary 1 admissions. More Malay children are beginning to speak English at home. Once the children speak English at that age, we know that the parents are well-educated, want their children to succeed in our society. It's moving that way. We have switched to English and opened up a wider world for them.
Q So looking at the developments in the Muslim community in Singapore, the pervasiveness of English within the community, the motivation in the community towards these things, surely there must be some sense of satisfaction, from your point of view?
A That group will grow over time, but the minority of jihadists, we cannot make them disappear. However small that minority, they can damage our whole inter-racial harmony.
[The excerpts of the Q&A with LKY depict the worst case scenario, but reading LKY carefully, it is clear that even without the worst case scenario, there are practices that erects barriers rather than tear them down, than separates rather than integrates. Sure this is also true of say the Sikhs with their turbans, but in modern SG, the trend is for the Sikhs to modernise. There are fewer "strict" Sikhs who adhere to the full prescription of their tradition/culture.
Perhaps LKY's observation (and dismay?) is that the Malays were modern, liberal, and integrate-able in the past, but the "surge of Arab Islam" reversed that. It would seem to be a step backwards, rather than forward and to one who is pragmatic, the influence and practice of "Desert Islam" (or petrol-Islam?) is impractical and unrealistic. But because it is rooted in religion, it is difficult to comment without being seen as intolerant; to critique without being seen as offensive.]