Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
ENGLISH TRANSCRIPT OF DPM LEE HSIEN LOONG’S INTERVIEW WITH BERITA HARIAN PUBLISHED ON 23 AND 24 NOVEMBER 2003
Relations with Malay Community
BH: Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee paid very close attention to the affairs of the Malay/Muslim community. How do you foresee yourself getting more involved with the Malay/Muslim community?
The same way they did - meeting community leaders, attending community functions, holding dialogues and forums, and working with the community to tackle problems. Personally, I would like to see Malay Singaporeans make more progress in the years ahead, together with the rest of Singapore.
BH: How do you plan to work with the community?
We have to do it in different ways. Some of the messaging is public- when you attend functions, speak to the people, give encouragement. Some of it is in the policies of the government … how we reward and recognize those who have done well, how we help the lower income groups. Quite a lot of it is also in terms of quiet work, because you meet and talk candidly with the leaders, with the community leaders and MPs, share mutual concerns with them, let them understand that you are trying to help them, and inspire trust and confidence in them. And with that we can get somewhere. Not everything can be conducted by public diplomacy.
BH: What will be your focus when you take over as PM as far as the Malay/Muslim community is concerned?
One key focus is the uplifting of the Malay/Muslim community, educationally, socially and economically. A second focus will be strengthening the bonds between the different communities, in order to build a more cohesive and harmonious multi-racial, multi-religious society.
In both these respects, we have come a long way over the years. But I believe there is much more to be done. I hope the community will work with me to achieve these goals.
BH: How do you keep up with the developments of the Malay community?
By staying in touch with Malay MPs and community leaders. I meet them regularly over lunch. I read the Berita Harian daily. I often attend community functions - whether organised by Mendaki, Jamiyah, or Mesra. The most recent one was the dialogue organised by Mendaki Club in May. We had a very lively discussion.
BH: Are you going to have special advisers to advise you on Malay issues?
We have a dozen Malay MPs and will continue to bring in others. I will rely very greatly on them. At the same time, it is good for the Malay community to feel that they have direct links to me. It's not always filtered through somebody but I have many points of contact.
BH: Since you became a political leader, you have been interacting with many Malay community leaders both at constituency and national levels. How do you see their role in the Malay/Muslim community?
They form an indispensable community network, just like the networks of grassroots organisations in the constituencies, and the many volunteer and community organisations which are doing all kinds of social and community work. The Malay MPs work with this network to achieve their goals for the community.
BH: Much has been done to solve social problem in the Malay community. How do we curb this trend?
It is not a problem which you can overcome overnight because there is a perpetuation from generation to generation which we have to try and break.
Some of the parents have not been able to manage their lives. They married young, had children also very young, then broke up, married again, and had more children. The children grow up in an environment which is not stable. They don't get guidance, they don't get tutelage from their parents. The parents have too many children, and not enough resources. So the children don't start off with a fair chance, and in the next generation you have the same problem again.
So you’ve got to find some way to break this linkage from generation to generation so the next generation gets better.
With quite a large segment of the Malay population, we've been able to do that by raising education levels. Many of the children of those who are better educated will be able to do even better than their parents, because unlike their parents they have the preconditions at home.
So in the same way as we can have an upward spiral, we must also make sure we don't have a downward spiral. And that needs effort.
BH: Previously Mr Harun Ghani worked very hard... Do you think that you see someone holding such roles but not in this social aspect but more on the economic aspect and being able to push the Malays, getting more Malays to be more, having better skills?
Well, we have had quite a number of Malay union leaders, for example Othman Harun, and now Halimah Yaacob. Others like Zainul Abidin and Hawazi Daipi also spent some time in the unions. So we need champions, spokesmen who will speak up and push them to do this. I believe Halimah will push hard. She is very determined, in her gentle way.
BH: But for Mr Harun Ghani...
He's Cikgu Harun. He's got a certain special easy image, style, he could even speak Hokkien to the Chinese. Everybody knows him, everybody likes and respects him, he put his heart and soul into working with the youth, so he made a great contribution. I'm very glad we got him in in 1991. I'm sorry he's not so well now but I read his Berita Minggu interview last week, and gave him a call to congratulate him on the interview and to wish him Selamat Hari Raya. He's in good spirits.
He’s a very brave man, honest and direct. He used to appear before Parliamentary Select Committees. When one of the opposition members on the Committee asked him a foolish question, he would give a knockout answer. (laughs). He may not have gone to university but he has his mind and heart in the right places.
BH: But our younger MPs do not have that kind of calibre…
Not the same background and exposure. But you might also say that about the younger MPs who are Chinese or Indians. It's a new generation. So you don’t have to express yourself in the same way. I think if all of us started talking like street toughs, then all the chatrooms will ask what's happened to the kinder and gentler PAP?
BH: As Finance Minister and former Minister for Trade & Industry, you have helped transformed our economy into a world class economy. Can you do likewise for the Malays and accelerate their progress so that they can become a community of excellence?
I only wish it were so simple. Both require hard work, and neither depends solely on the government. To transform the economy we rely on the active involvement of the private sector. To upgrade the Malay/Muslim community requires the efforts of Malay MPs, community leaders, and the people who need help.
It all comes back to education. We need to start with the young, and get parents involved. Readiness for school is important. The Education Trust Fund is helping low income Malay families send their kids to childcare and kindergartens. This year as part of their annual Ramadan contribution, the Malay MPs donated $12,000 to a Mendaki programme to assist 36 kids who have not been to child care or kindergarten, to be ready for P1 in 2004. I hope the community will contribute generously to the ETF, to support this good cause.
BH: Malays are still lagging behind other communities in many areas such as in education, economy and business. In general, are you satisfied or happy with our progress thus far?
The work is not done, but the community has made enormous progress. The key factor is the improvement in educational achievements. In our meritocratic system, a good education is the most important thing a person can start life with.
Over the last 10 years, the Malays have made very good progress in education. MOE has released many of the statistics, but the one that I find most significant is the improvement in mathematics results at PSLE. This is because mathematics is such a fundamental skill in today’s world. Without it, many doors will be closed. In 1990 less than half (45%) of Malay PSLE pupils passed mathematics. But Mendaki and the schools plugged away at the problem, and today they have raised the passing percentage to 57%.
Malay progress is showing up in the economy too. It is no longer uncommon to see Malay professionals - lawyers, businessmen, civil servants - doing well in their careers. I have several in MAS - they are self confident members of our team, just as good as the others.
BH: What is your frank assessment of our educational achievement? Are we still lagging behind?
There is still a gap in educational achievement between Malays and other races. We must understand that it is a moving target, because as the Malays make progress so will the other races. But the right comparison is between Malay students today and where Malay students used to be, and there I don’t think we have done badly at all. In fact in international mathematics and science assessments, Malay students in Singapore rank well above the international average.
The important thing is for Malay pupils and parents to continue to emphasise education, to focus on English, mathematics and science, and to continue to raise standards year by year. I am convinced that the community can do still better, if it sets its mind to it.
BH: What should be our education target … should we increase our number of students in the universities or should we make sure that most Malay children get into post secondary? Which should be our priority?
We should aim to raise the level of educational achievement of young Malays across the board, so that more go on to both post-secondary education and university. A good grounding in university, polytechnic, or other forms of post-secondary education is important if one is to do well in the knowledge economy.
I know that the community is anxious to raise the proportion who make it to NUS and NTU. But if we take universities and polytechnics together, the proportion has more than doubled - from 13% in 1990 to 28% in 2002.
Of course when we come across talented Malays, we should give them every help and encouragement to excel in their studies. They will not only be role models to others, but should in time make a contribution to the community.
BH: Is it possible that we have specific programs to produce top Malay students, sort of like SAP schools?
Yes, they are already in place. In 2001, MOE introduced the Enrichment Programme in Malay Language (EMAS) at Bukit Panjang Government High School, but they also take in students from other secondary schools. For the past three years, the intake has been about 120 a year. In the school Semestral Assessment this year, all the EMAS students passed. More than a third got A1 or A2.
At the Pre-U level, MOE started the Malay Language Elective Programme (MLEP) in Tampines Junior College in 2001. It took in about 20 students for the first two years, but this year the number came down to 11. It is not that there are too few good Malay students, but that it is not easy to interest students to study languages in depth.
BH: Minister, talking about education. Can we have SAP school for top Malay students?
This is a question which has come up from time to time. The government's view is that if the community thinks that you would like to try to set up one, we will not object. Go ahead, but think very carefully because actually what you need is to have top Malay students educated together with and competing against top Chinese and Indian students.
To reach the Olympics you compete in the SEA Games, the Asian Games and having measured yourself and stretched yourself, then you will know where you stand and know that you can do better. So the best way to produce top Malay students really is to integrate them into the national schools and stretch their ability.
For enrichment in Malay culture and language, we have the MLEP and the Enrichment Programme. Our challenge will be to convince a bright Malay kid to do the language programme instead of doing economics or maths or engineering. If he can, he will most likely to want to be a lawyer, a manager, a scientist, rather than a writer or cultural worker.
BH: How can we produce top Malays in both private and public sector?
This will follow as more Malays do well in school and tertiary institutions, and go on to rise in their careers. The process is already underway - as I said earlier, we are seeing more Malay professionals. I am hopeful that in future elections, we will be able to persuade some of the best of them to stand as candidates.
BH: The younger Malay MPs who joined PAP since two General Elections ago are now anchoring the Malay leadership, led by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim. What is your assessment of the younger Malay leadership?
They have done well, at a time of considerable challenge. The difficult economy has affected all groups, including Malay Singaporeans. The Jemaah Islamiyah arrests and the continuing problem of extremist terrorism in the region and globally, have put the Singapore Malay/Muslim community under the spotlight. These developments made it more critical that Malay/Muslim community leaders take a clear stand, and lead the community in repudiating terror and violence. This the Malay MPs have done, together with other Malay/Muslim community leaders. It has made all the difference in strengthening confidence and trust between the communities.
The new generation of Malay MPs are younger, well qualified professionals, completely comfortable in English, like many of their voters and increasing numbers of Malay Singaporeans. They share the same outlook as the non-Malay MPs. They participate fully in discussing national issues, and not just Malay/Muslim concerns. They will take a while to establish themselves with the community, like the older Malay MPs did, but I can see that they are making progress here too.
BH: What are the efforts to recruit more talented Malays into the government?
Continuing. It's been two years since the last election so we need to start looking for new names. We have a few but we need many more. Before the last election I was very closely involved in interviewing and selecting the candidates. And I met quite a number of potential leaders, shall we say, as tea party guests. (laughs) And I was very encouraged.
Many of them were still young and at that time we felt perhaps they were not quite ready to be fielded, and not quite ready to be accepted as leaders by the community. You need to have a certain amount of grey hair, experience and standing. But they were clearly a new generation, able and promising. So although we did not field them last time, we planned to keep track of them and in three or four years’ time, we were quite sure that we would find them more ready, and we would be able to pop the question to more them. Plus there will be more names whom we did not meet last time.
BH: What kind of backgrounds are you looking at?
All kinds. We have lawyers, professionals, executives, doctors, accountants. It's a new generation. It's quite different from the old days when the avenues for the educated Malays were to become a teacher or to join Berita Harian or Utusan Melayu. But today educated Malays have gone into other career avenues. I have a few in MAS. There are some in the rest of the civil service and the numbers will increase.
BH: But the previous MPs like Maidin and Yatiman, they are people on the ground.
We will need a mix. We want people who have experience on the ground. At the same time, we would like people who represent what the community sees as successful Malays. And if I may try and guess the mindset of many Malays, you want to see somebody who not only is doing well in his career but also has academic attainments. If he has a post-graduate degree, that's good; if he's got a PhD, even better. This seems to be more important to Malays than to the other communities.
BH: What are the main considerations when you're talking about the selection of these new candidates, these new MPs among the Malays?
First, the same as the other candidates, you have to be capable, you have to be committed, you have to have a good character and want to make a contribution, and you can be accepted by voters of all races.
In addition to that, we would like somebody who has good standing in the Malay community, will be respected, able to build up a following over time and lead the community forward and set the tone for the community. Malay MPs have an extra responsibility. It's harder for them. Chinese MPs are rarely asked what they have done for the Chinese community, though of course if they have been active in the grassroots it is a valuable plus.
But for the Malay MPs, the community will ask: What's your contribution? Are you active in Mendaki or AMP? Did you participate in the Muis debate? And that's a fair expectation. And so there's an extra obligation on us to look for people whom the community will look up to.
But at the same time, we want people who will bring the community forward. So you want somebody who has drive and yet stays close to the rest of the community, and not be so different that people have trouble identifying with them.
BH: What is the Malay MPs' role in helping you to understand and solve the problems faced by the Malays?
They are the leaders of the community. They have to understand the community’s aspirations and problems, develop ideas and plans, mobilise the support of Malay/Muslim Singaporeans and so help the community to make progress. They also advise the Government on what the community needs, and how the Government can help. Their role is critical, because they enable the community to continue to progress together with other Singaporeans.
BH: How do you see the role of Mendaki, AMP and other Malay bodies in helping out the affairs of Malay community?
Mendaki and AMP are self-help organisations. They have specific missions - to engage the more successful members of the community, in order to help the less successful ones to progress. In this, they have been successful - both getting professionals to commit time and energy, and also in achieving results.
BH: You said that some of our Malay bodies have done quite well, but we still have a lot of problems.
I don't know all the Malay bodies, but take the ones I have met: I went to a Perdaus function this year; I've been to many Jamiyah functions. Haji Abu Bakar Maidin has been there many years but still vigorous and able to get people to do community work. I think they are doing good work. And if you look at the way their projects are evolving, they are going in a more national direction, which is also a good trend.
You have to have many different groups working at this because if you try and set up a bureaucracy, an organisation to, say, look after all the dropouts or all the people who are down and out, you can't solve the problem. But if you have many groups, each one with its own following and its own activists, then I think we can get somewhere. Even with AMP and Mendaki, it is good that we have both. AMP has attracted a group of professionals who might not have found it so easy to fit into a Mendaki framework.
BH: But they are duplicating their services.
Well, there's some amount of overlap, so we have to manage the cooperation and the competition and keep it within a constructive framework.
BH: Do you prefer Mendaki and AMP merge?
No, I don't think so. I think they are happy to be two and we just accept it. Do you (SPH) prefer to merge with MCS? (laughs)
BH: What is your assessment of Muis and what further role can it play, especially under the current context of political Islam and Islamic resurgence?
Muis is a statutory board, and an important national resource on Islam. Over the years, Muis has succeeded in building strong religious institutions. Its leadership has helped to make the mosques important centres for community life.
Muis has also carried out its role effectively as an authority on and administrator of Islamic affairs. For example, Muis’ administration of mosques, zakat system, Halal certification, Haj services and wakaf development have earned it a good reputation, not only locally but also in this region and in other parts of the Muslim world. What further role can Muis play?
Having discussed this with Yaacob Ibrahim, and Alami Musa, perhaps I can make three suggestions.
First, I think Muis should continue to guide the religious life of Muslims. It should strengthen its networks within the Muslim community. It should lead the community in their practice of Islam as a forward-looking religion that preaches peace and harmony, and encourages its followers to pursue knowledge and science and achieve progress in life.
Second, Muslims in Singapore are in a different situation from Muslims living in majority Muslim countries, and face different issues and challenges. Muis should help Singapore Muslims to practise their faith in the context of a secular, multi-racial and multi-religious society.
Third, the trend towards increased religiosity among Muslims in Singapore and elsewhere is clear. Muis should guide this trend so that the community stays close to the larger Singaporean society and continues to share the destiny of all Singaporeans. This way Singapore Muslims can contribute actively to the well-being of the nation, and play their full role in the country’s affairs.
BH: How do you balance Muis as a stat board and Muis that is perceived as belonging to the Muslim community?
Well... (Laughs), Muis is a little bit like the Singapore Labour Foundation (SLF), it's a statutory board, so you could say it belongs to the government and has to follow the same rules as other government agencies. But SLF also has very close ties with the unions and many of its programmes support the labour movement and union activities.
Muis is in a similar position. what you have to do is to have on the Muis board people who represent the community, who have good religious standing as well as social standing and are also forward-looking, who will be able to set the right tone so that Muis can do an effective job with the community. If we just post civil servants into Muis, it's not going to work.
BH: What do you think of the rise of political Islam, looking at the many issues Muslims are facing currently?
After 9/11 we have managed the situation very well in Singapore. A lot of the credit goes to the leaders who took a clear stand and who set the tone. They not only reassured the non-Muslims, but also set the expectation among the Muslims of how to manage this potentially very delicate problem. It's not the end of the problem because more things will happen. In the region, JI is still active, and worldwide the Al-Qaeda are still carrying out terrorist attacks. So from time to time there will be new challenges, so we just have to continue to manage them.
It is not realistic to expect ourselves to be totally divorced from what's happening outside. We can remind ourselves that these are external events, but when something happens, inevitably, you feel a tidal pull which is not quite the same for the different communities. In 1998 during the Asian Crisis, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Indonesia. The Indonesian economy went down. We needed to give them some humanitarian help, so we asked Singaporeans to chip in. One Malay PAP activist told me that in her branch, it was her job to go and pass the hat around. But when she went around, she got scolded by the non-Malays who asked why should we help the Indonesians because they are beating up the Chinese? Why should we contribute? But she talked to them and persuaded them and eventually they came around and they made some contribution.
It's something which happened to Chinese in another country, but it had an impact in Singapore. So you can imagine if it is the other way around, it will have an impact in Singapore too. We have to accept this and manage this.
Malay Leaders' Forum
BH: Social problems still remain a setback for the Malay community, e.g. high divorce rates, drugs and youth delinquency. Lots of resources, including government resources, have been put into solving these problems. Yet, these remain the major issues discussed at the recent Malay Leaders' Forum, a meeting where Malay leaders draft out strategic blue print to achieve community of excellence. What more can be done to solve these social problems that we are currently facing?
There are no quick solutions to these problems. We have to work at them patiently, year after year, making gradual progress step by step. We have succeeded in bringing down the drug abuse rate - Harun Ghani worked very hard at this, reaching out to young people and setting them on the right path. But divorce and delinquency rates remain high.
The critical constraint is not resources. It is to get Malay VWOs and self-help groups to work with the families and individuals at risk, and gradually raise their educational level, social awareness, and ability to take responsibility for their lives. That is why we organized the Community of Excellence Leaders’ Forum.
The Forum got community leaders to recognise that problems of youth, educational standards, family unity and employability, are important to the community. The leaders also agreed to a set of actions. Now the challenge is to put the plans into action.
As for resources, there are many government schemes already available. There is a whole host of help measures - assistance to low-income families to pay utilities bills, school expenses, healthcare expenses, and living expenses; job matching services for those who are unemployed, and skills upgrading for workers, especially for the older ones. There is also the HOPE scheme, which encourages poorer families to keep their families small, so that they can concentrate their time and resources on fewer children to make sure they do well.
The starting point must be to make full use of all these schemes. The VWOs must help those who are eligible to apply for the schemes, and encourage them to make the effort to meet the qualifying conditions. The families getting help must want to help themselves, and must do their part too. They cannot wait passively for others to solve their problems for them.
BH: About the Leaders Forum, before this we have KBE Convention and not much follow up achievement or action. Will the Leaders' Forum face the same fate?
I disagree that we haven't achieved anything out of the conventions. KBE is a very important continuing trend. We must get Malays to focus on the reality of the world and understand what they must do in science, maths, on training, education. It's not realistic to hope that because of one forum, the community will change overnight. But because of the forum and many other activities, mindsets gradually do change. Berita Harian will carry stories about how to use computers, and the parents I hope will be influenced and get their kids to focus more on the subjects which they need to emphasise in school: science, maths and English. And so you see Malay school performance has improved, and we have made progress. It's all part of getting people to come to a common understanding on what are the big issues and where the community should do more.
This time in the Leaders’ Forum they have identified the urgent items which they think need to be done. They are not new items. They have been there for some time, but you have to dedicate yourself, to do something about them. If after five years we can reduce youth delinquency by 20 per cent, I think we would have made good progress.
BH: What do you think of the ideas to implement micro-enterprise programs for workers who cannot be trained?
They have some role but I don't think that it will solve the problem for a lot of workers. This has nothing to do specifically with the Malays but is across the board, because every time you have people who are out of work, there will be suggestions for them to do some business. Some may be able to make kueh or satay and make a living for themselves. But can you really improve your life like that? Unless you make very good kueh or satay, I think it will be quite difficult.
Look at the stalls in the hawker centres. Those which are successful have long queues. Like the famous nasi lemak stall in the Changi Village hawker centre. So everybody sees him and say well maybe I also want to become like the nasi lemak stall. How to do that? (laughs) There are many nasi lemak stalls with no queues too. So it's not easy.
But there are other ways. I went to Changi Village, I looked at the queue, I said, no, half an hour is too long to wait, so I went to the roti prata stall instead, which was quite good. So there are different avenues, and some will be able to make it. But I don't think that micro-enterprise is really the solution. The solution is to make sure that our workers have the skills so that they can find jobs, and especially the next generation of workers.
Malays in SAF
BH: In 1986, you brought up the issue of Malays in the SAF, where the loyalty of Malay officers might be in question when faced with the enemies of the same religion and race. But recently, the Malay community is happy to see that at last we have a fighter pilot in RSAF. And they hope to see more outstanding Malay officers assuming bigger responsibility in the future. Firstly, since 1986 till today, has there been progress of Malay participation in SAF?
The SAF is a microcosm of Singapore society. Just as we are committed to meritocracy as a basic principle for Singapore, meritocracy is a guiding principle for the SAF. What this means is that so long as a serviceman is committed to Singapore, dedicated to the SAF, and capable of performing the job that is required, his appointment and advancement will be based on qualification and merit.
Education is a key criterion, because of the level of technology used in the SAF. The SAF selects its commanders from those with at least A-level or polytechnic qualifications. Since 1986, as Malay educational attainments have improved, more Malays have met the educational requirements for specialist training at SISPEC and officer training at OCS. In fact, now the proportion of eligible Malays who have been selected for specialist and officer training is similar to the proportion of eligible non-Malays. For example, last year, one third (33%) of Malay servicemen with A-level or Polytechnic qualifications were selected for specialist and officer training - the same proportion as for non-Malay servicemen.
Today, Malay servicemen serve in a wide range of important vocations. We have Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel. Those who have shown the potential to take on higher appointments in the SAF are given every opportunity to do so. Malays have held key appointments such as being Commanding Officers and Operations Officers of units.
BH: The issue of loyalty is a key issue that's been raised there and the issue came about, Malays in the SAF came about. So looking at the current situation where you also indicate that...it shows that the Malays...at the same time the level of trust. How do you see the sense of loyalty of Malays towards the government or towards the country?
This is a very difficult question to answer in a few sentences. In a way I opened the debate, by bringing the subject out into the open in 1986. Even then it was not a new issue, but I brought it out and it has been discussed publicly since then.
Two years ago the Senior Minister took part in a dialogue organised by AMP and Majlis Pusat. He gave a frank presentation which explained this deep and complex problem. Many Malay community leaders were there, and they had a very honest and fruitful exchange of views. These are realities and sensitivities of a multiracial society which we have to acknowledge, understand and manage. But the situation is not static, and we should all work together to strengthen our social cohesion and sense of national identity year by year.
BH: What do you think of our first Malay fighter pilot achievement?
I am happy for him, and proud of him. LTA Mohammad Yusri has made it based on his own merit, and if he continues to work hard should have a bright career ahead.
BH: Do you see the possibility of more Malay participation in the army and perhaps having a Malay general in the future?
We already have a Malay colonel. I don’t see why we should not one day have a Malay general. It will depend on the candidates we have, and how capable and ready they are to take on bigger responsibilities. I should also point out that in the SAF, our colonels often hold appointments that in other armed forces would be held by generals.
BH: Tudung issue has caused some rift between the government and some Malay/Muslims. On the other hand, we have MP Halimah Yaacob wearing tudung. How do you explain this situation?
The main unhappiness among Malay/Muslims is that the government does not allow pupils to wear tudungs in school.
We disallow this because the tudung is not part of the school uniform. We are especially concerned for the students because at a young age, any marks of distinction on any group of students can make others look at them differently. This can easily make them feel different and cause them to be segregated from the rest.
Outside schools, in the community, it is left to individuals to decide. Each person is free to wear or not wear the tudung. Mdm Halimah wears a tudung but from the point of view of becoming an MP, it is not the most important fact about her. We knew how she worked in the unions, how she interacted with people of different races. We were confident that she would make a good MP, with or without her tudung.
As PM Goh has explained, our concern over the tudung in school issue is a broader one. The issue is not the tudung itself, but what it means for racial integration and interaction between the communities. If what we do leads to greater separateness and less interaction, then the comfort level between the different communities will be affected. This will weaken our multi-racial society.
This tudung issue is not unique to Singapore. Many countries with Muslim minorities are grappling with it. At the root of the problem is how to balance the wish of a Muslim minority to assert its distinctness and its religious identity, against the desire of the country to integrate the Muslims into its society. It is an issue in France, where the Government has set up a Commission on Secularism to consider this and other issues. France has left it to the schools to decide and some have banned the tudung. It is an issue also in Germany. The Netherlands allows it.
In Turkey, a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population, tudungs are not allowed in schools or even in public places. Kemal Ataturk banned it nearly 80 years ago, in an effort to modernise Turkish society. But till today tudungs are still a very hot issue in Turkey.
I am not saying we must emulate any of these examples -.each society has to find its own balance. But they illustrate the broader issues that are involved beyond the tudung itself.
BH: We're looking at the tudung issue now... Certain, some quarters in the Malay community are saying that during that tudung debacle that Muis, the community sees Muis as one that failed to sort of caution the government to allow tudung. Is that so?
Well, I should not be the one saying what Muis should or should not do. Muis has to decide what they should or should not do, but I think they did the right thing. Those who would like the government to change position naturally would like to have as many allies as possible. But the government has its reasons why we have to be very careful. I've explained some of them. We have to take these concerns seriously.
BH: What was Hari Raya like for you when you were young? Did you have many close Malay/Muslim friends then where you visited them during Hari Raya?
I would visit Malay/Muslim friends with my parents or grandparents. The first President, Yusof Ishak, would always have something special prepared. My grandmother was friendly with the Alkaff family, and she would sometimes bring me along to visit them. They made delicious lontong.
BH: What do you do during Hari Raya these days? Do you visit any close Malay/Muslim friends during Hari Raya besides the Muslim MPs?
I visit my Malay grassroots leaders if I am able to. I also attend the Hari Raya celebrations organised by my Malay Activities Executive Committee. But this year unfortunately I shall be away in New Zealand over Hari Raya.
BH: What are some of your favourite Malay food? Any favourite Hari Raya delicacies?
I love lontong and ketupat, especially with serunding. The sweets too are very good, like kueh dodol, but unfortunately very rich. I always want to eat more than I should.
BH: Your whole family know how to speak Malay. Why is there an emphasis in your family that they should learn Malay?
Both my parents are Peranakan. They grew up speaking Malay. When we were young, my father thought that it would be useful for the children to learn Malay too. So my brother, sister and I all learnt Malay from Cikgu Amin Shafawi. I am glad I did.
BH: How do you keep up with your Malay language skills?
I read the Berita Harian everyday, to practise my Malay and to see how Berita presents the news to Malay readers. Occasionally I watch Suria, but too rarely. Unfortunately I do not get to speak Malay very often, so when I need to make a speech in Malay I have to practise and brush up beforehand.
BH: Has any of your children inherit the Malay language skills that you and your father have?
Unfortunately not. They have not found it so easy to learn languages, especially the boys. They are already struggling with their mother tongue plus English. It’s a pity.
BH: Minister, you said quite a number of times that you read Berita Harian daily, which column interests you?
I read the news part. I read the local news to see how you present what's happening here and what the community is preoccupied about, whether it's Hari Raya preparations, Mendaki scholarships or problems of the youth.
I also scan through the international coverage to see how you present the world and regional news because the different newspapers have different perspectives. English newspapers have one perspective, Chinese newspapers have a different presentation and Berita Harian is again different. So it's important to have a feel for how it is presented. I scan through very briefly the Ekstra the...
BH: Ekstra column?
DPM Lee: Yes. (Laughs) It is quite with it. I think it will appeal to a younger generation of Malays.
BH: Do you read our commentary?
DPM Lee: Sometimes, not always.
BH: How do you find our commentaries?
They cover a wide range. Sometimes it's a national issue, sometimes it's an issue which is more specific to the Malay community. Different journalists have different perspectives. Your challenge is to be a newspaper which nourishes the cultural roots of the community, while also helping it to upgrade and move ahead in the 21st century.
22 Nov 2003