Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Pride, Prejudice and Politics: Hard Truths


This was one of the comments by MM Lee Kuan Yew publicised in January that made angered the Malay-Muslim community especially,

"Be less strict on Islamic observances and say,'Okay, I'll eat with you.'"

When MM Lee made his cutting comment on such supposed hard truths, the Association of Muslim Professionals was among the first, if not the first, to put the first Prime Minister of Singapore in his place. Even PM Lee Hsien Loong realised from the furore that he had to correct his father delicately in public,
"But my own perspectives on how things are in Singapore based on my interaction with the Malay community, the mosque and religious leaders and the grassroots leaders, is not quite the same as MM's."

After that mini-storm died down, MM Lee returned to the scene and explained,
"I made this one comment on the Muslims integrating with other communities probably two or three years ago. Ministers and MPs, both Malay and non-Malay, have since told me that Singapore Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with the other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date.

“I stand corrected. I hope that this trend will continue in the future,”

MM Lee Kuan Yew said he stands corrected for his remark that the local Malay-Muslim community in Singapore were not integrated into the larger society. As many have observed on the implications on the way he admitted his mistake, he did not say the usual neutral "I regret" or the semi-formal "I apologise..." or even the humble and contrite "I'm sorry..." regarding his remarks that caused quite a stir.


Why can't the elder statesman, with an undisputed record of dragging Singapore with his other first generation leaders into the First World from Third World as he described, be so insecure and not admit openly that he might be wrong occasionally? The simple and short answer, the hard truth, is pride.

To be frank, MM Lee did admit his mistake and it was probably difficult for a man like him to do so. The rational among us would not expect him to be Nipponese in his apology to the point of seppuku. But the way he explained that he was corrected, gave the impression that he might have been more sorry about everyone misunderstanding him, or the dink in his reputation because of his comments, rather than the consternation he caused with his typical bluntness on people being daft as an example. The closest remark in recent times on mistakes he made pertained to his and his government's Chinese language policy,
"A language is first listened to, heard and then spoken. It's not read or written - that follows later. (But) we started the wrong way. We insisted on spelling and dictation (in Chinese)."


Why did MM Lee re-open old wounds? The hard truth again is that it is probably because the PAP feared that they might lose the Malay-Muslim community's vote in the general election as a result of MM Lee's bluntness and misconceptions on Malay-Muslim integration with the other ethnic groups in Singapore. Others have also sensed the politicised timing of this need for closure. MM Lee needed to do the damage control himself for closure according to the plan. Despite that PM Lee and Minister Yaacob Ibrahim had already assured the ground that MM Lee's comments were his own personal views that the government did not agree with.

MM Lee's explanation of being corrected which was short of an apology might have harden sentiments instead among those who needed more excuses to dislike the statesman and his party. The magnanimous however would accept whatever MM Lee had mumbled reluctantly to rebuild bridges with the Malay-Muslim community. Which sentiment would dominate is unclear. What is clear is that if MM Lee had appeared more contrite and reined in his pride further, he and the PAP might have clawed back more credibility with the Malay-Muslim community. That community might forgive, but not forget since the wound is still fresh. That's another hard truth.

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