At the Tanjong Pagar "Singapore 21 forum" on 18 Sept 1999, a polytechnic student had asked then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew if certain instinctive emotional bonds among ethnic groups could be surmounted for Singapore to become a nation. This was Lee's reply: "Yes, I think so, over a long period of time, and selectively. We must not make an error. If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine-gun unit, that's a very tricky business. We've got to know his background. I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I don't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy. "
That prompted two Malay-Muslim groups to call for a dialogue with Lee. Taman Bacaan, a grassroots group, said Malay MPs should have a "heart-to-heart" discussion with Lee. Majlis Pusat, the central council for 38 Malay-Muslim cultural bodies, wanted Malay-Muslim grassroots leaders and groups to take part in the dialogue and "put the issue of Malay-Muslim loyalty to rest, once and for all".
This time the AFP report, citing MM Lee Kuan Yew had urged local Muslims, who he said were socially “distinct and separate,” to “be less strict on Islamic observances” to aid integration and the city-state’s nation-building process, drew ire from across the causeway and beyond.
“His statement seemed to be anti-Islamic and reflects an Islamophobia that is baseless and not founded on historical fact and current reality,” said Abim secretary-general Mohamad Raimi Ab Rahim in a press statement. “Muslims do not need any interference from non-Muslims in religious matters,” PUM secretary Mohd Roslan said, adding that Muslims do not question the practices of other religions.
Mohamad Raimi also said that even though most Muslims in the region were moderate and peaceful, Lee had taken a “step backwards” with his comment which could incite a reaction from Muslim groups who were more radical.
Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf, Professor of Religion at Bangkok's Assumption University said the views of Lee about Islam do not hold water and criticizing and generalizing about Islam as being un-integrative is unsophisticated.
"When I identify myself as a Muslim in Southeast Asia, I am defined as a person who does not eat pork and has four wives. I am sure that if Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus were to ever meet today, they would not talk about pigs and women, they would address more profound issues facing humanity today such as materialism, the reduction of the role of religion in social and moral life and the negative effects of globalized economy on the poor sections of society."
Well said, Professor.