Race: When Valorization is Vilification

Almost suddenly, Kuan Yew sings a different tune about Muslims in Singapore. The move is executed in a patently Kuan Yewish fashion—what he has to say appear more dramatic than it really is and the media assists in the mystification of Kuan Yew as a sage who is an inch away from infallibility but whose apparent imperfections only serve to accentuate his perfection. He is divine because he is human. Many Singaporeans who read reports that he has retracted his statement about Muslims in Singapore (as recorded in Hard Truths) might be surprised especially when Kuan Yew seems to have admitted to being wrong. The truth is unfortunately less dramatic. Kuan Yew, in “retracting” his statement, implies that he is out of date, which is different from being categorically wrong. In other words, he is reiterating his point while appearing to concede, perhaps with the hope of appeasing Singaporeans who, as far as he is concerned, are rather daft and would be complacent enough to readily make do with a retraction that is not quite one.

No doubt, “I stand corrected” were the exact words Kuan Yew used. However, he is not quite saying that he was wrong for he is in fact wrong only insofar as he was “out of date.” To make a claim that is out of date is to make a claim that was once valid. It is more ambiguous when the claim supposedly became out of date if one were to examine Kuan Yew’s words more carefully:

“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Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date.” (Kuan Yew as quoted by The Malayasian Insider, italics mine)

It is not clear whether Kuan Yew currently thinks that the comment is out of date now (but valid when he made it) or if he believes that it was already out of date at the point he made the comment. Nevertheless, in both cases, he is implying that his claim about Muslims was at one point in time valid. Kuan Yew had said that “Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.” We may never understand why he would have a problem with a group being “distinct and separate” when it does not create trouble for the society they inhabit, but Kuan Yew takes issue with it and blames Muslims for it as he advises them: “Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you.’” It is also not clear when Kuan Yew came to the realization that he was out of date. If he had realized this before Hard Truths was published, could an editorial note not have been added to clarify matters?

To put the comment into perspective, one could very well replace the Muslims in Kuan Yew’s comment with the Singaporean political elite, make the observation that they are “distinct and separate” and then advise them to take peak-hour train rides with lesser mortals every day. Admittedly, we may not be able to say that they do not cause any trouble, but it remains that there is no good reason to single out Muslims as a group and insinuate that it is their fault that they are “distinct and separate.” Kuan Yew, the very person who singles them out, is guilty of making them distinct and separate at least at the level of public discourse. If we take into consideration how Kuan Yew and the PAP’s policies could have shaped public imagination and discourse about Muslims, the irony becomes even stronger.

Back in 1987 when our current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the Second Minister of Defense, he was asked about the lack of Malay pilots in the SAF. His answer: “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion.” (Wikipedia)

In 1999, Kuan Yew himself said, “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. (Wikiquote)

Given that most Muslims in Singapore are Malays and most Malays here are Muslims, the blurred distinction between Malays and Muslims is perhaps understandable. But Kuan Yew and the government that he has shaped may be observed as being consistently guilty of either genuine (if unfounded) racial paranoia or of the politically strategic use of racial categories as an instrument of social control. Or both, to make matters worse. The statements made in 1987 and 1999 cannot be dismissed as personal opinions. When politicians as influential as Kuan Yew make such statements, they shape public imagination; so if Malays are seen as a distinct group, the people behind this perspective are the politicians who have been in control of Singapore since its independence. The obsessive emphasis on racial “harmony” itself reflects how racial categories are maintained and reiterated constantly in public discourse. While the ostensible message is harmony, the effect of the emphasis may be distinguishable from the message. When it is made to seem as though riots would not take place if everyone in Singapore were of the same race, when race is repeatedly (if indirectly) discussed as a cause of conflict, when Singapore society is sliced into neat categories of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians (or is it Others?), the population cannot help but be highly conscious of racial categories no matter how they resist it. Under such circumstances, is not just Muslims (who are mostly Malays) who are distinct. The major races have all been made distinct. To single out one race as being distinct is to add discrimination to discrimination.

Thanks to Kuan Yew’s supposed retraction of his comment in Hard Truths, Malays are suddenly said to have actively put in effort to integrate. The headline of a report in The Straits Times goes “Malays get ‘A’ for efforts to integrate” as though integration could be graded. In the report, MP Seah Kian Peng is quoted as saying, “My Malay friends eat with me, shake hands with me and we speak in the same mix of Malay, Hokkien and Singlish that we do with all races.” Is Seah saying that before Malays put in effort to integrate, they refused to eat with others, never shook hands with people of other races and did not speak Singlish? One cannot imagine how much more banal PAP politicians can get. My Malay friends have never refused to eat with me, though, of course, we would need to find a halal eatery before dining together. I have no idea if Seah’s statement would be endorsed by the state that has always tried to eradicate Singlish, but I have never encountered a single Malay refusing to speak English/Singlish if s/he knows the language. I have never hand problems with handshaking either. Even if there are Malays who have refused to eat or shake hands with me, there is no reason to attribute it to their race. If their religious practices prevent them from doing these things, perhaps others have a responsibility to make a distinction between an antagonistic and poorly adjusted individual and one who is simply constrained by his/her beliefs.

The problem created by the accusation that Malays do not integrate well cannot be solved by making the opposite claim to praise them with banal supporting evidence. The problem not whether they are well-integrated or not. It is whether anyone has the right to make sweeping statements about a particular race. It is whether anyone has the right to decide for a particular racial group the terms of integration. It is whether Malays should have been imagined as a distinct group, regardless of the comments made based on such an imagination. The problem is also that valorization is another form of vilification. Malays are not for politicians to praise when it is deemed necessary for a coming election or for any other reason. Malays are not for Kuan Yew to use to show how he is able to admit that he had been “wrong” and show how open-minded he is by saying “I hope that this trend [of correcting his mistakes] will continue in the future.” A sincere retraction of a statement should have no other agenda. By twisting the issue to one of how well Malays have integrated since September 11 2001 (or any other date), the spotlight is again blindingly directed on Malays, making it seem as though they are unique in needing to put in effort to integrate, as though they were delinquents who have turned over a new leaf and scored As.

We might as well be telling Buddhist vegetarians to eat chicken with Malays except that most of us do not have immunity against sedition charges. Or since integration seems to be of paramount importance, perhaps we should single out a particular government to integrate with the rest of the democratic world and adopt truly democratic practices despite the fact that they are devout authoritarians.

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