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Singapore leaders have been busy in recent days currying favour with the city-state’s Malay Muslim community after state founder Lee Kuan Yew stirred uproar with remarks on Muslims, claiming their piety hindered their full integration into Singaporean society.
In a new book titled Hard Truths to keep Singapore Going the famously outspoken Lee commented on multiracialism in the tightly controlled island-state with its population of 5 million, saying that ‘we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came.’
‘The other communities have easier integration … than Muslims,’ said the 87-year-old, who serves as a minister mentor in the cabinet of his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
‘Today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam,’ the elder Lee said, noting that ‘Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.’
In order to facilitate integration in Singapore with its predominantly Chinese population and minority races including Malays and Indians, he urged Muslims to ‘be less strict on Islamic observances.’
His comments annoyed Muslims, prompting some strong reactions in local internet forums.
‘Who you or your family prays and what you eat, drink and do is your business. We Muslims don’t give a hoot,’ said one comment, telling Lee to ‘mind your own business.’
However, another comment called for moderation, noting that whatever Lee ‘said out of ignorance,’ the critics should be able to pardon, because ‘that is the way of Islam.’
Singapore’s Association of Muslim Professionals issued a statement, saying it ‘deeply regrets’ Lee’s remarks as they ‘have hurt the community and are potentially divisive.’
‘Just like other Singaporeans, we celebrate diversity of beliefs and practices,’ said the association, noting that ‘a good Muslim is duty bound, in Islam, to be a good Singaporean.’
The group sought clarification from the government over Lee’s comments because he was ‘a core member of the cabinet’ and his remarks ‘raise questions whether they reflect the thinking of other political leaders.’
On Saturday, the minister in charge of muslim affairs was the first top politician seeking to calm the waves as, with general elections due by February 2012, government leaders were eager not to snub Malay Muslim voters.
‘Muslims and non-Muslims alike know that identity is not a zero-sum game,’ Yaacob Ibrahim said. ‘We can be both religious and patriotic at the same time.’
Lee had painted ‘at best a worst-case scenario,’ Yaacob said, adding that the minister mentor had a perspective that ‘may not be accurate now,’ but maybe 40 years ago.
On Sunday, the prime minister made his stand, saying his perspective was different from his father’s.
‘MM (minister mentor) Lee was giving his personal views, based on his experience looking at Singapore evolve over more than 50 years and other multi-racial societies,’ he said.
‘My own perspective … is not quite the same,’ said the younger Lee, stressing that Muslims ‘have done a good deal to strengthen our harmony and social cohesion.’
In remarks covered extensively by the state media, he reiterated ‘that Singapore is one of the most harmonious and successful multiracial and multi-religious societies in the world.’
But a long-time rival of the elder Lee added some fuel to the flames.
Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, who exchanged verbal blows with Lee over several issues during his administration, slammed the minister mentor over his comments.
‘I am not surprised by his statement because to him religion is not important,’ Mahathir told the Mingguan Malaysia newspaper.
‘For him the end justifies the means, so if he wants racial integration in Singapore, he won’t let Islam stand in the way of his goals,’ said Mahathir.
‘The Malays over there (in Singapore) are actually afraid of the government,’ he claimed, adding that Muslims were under a constant siege from the authorities and had no choice but to compromise their Islamic belief.