I did not say that — thundered Lee Kuan Yew this morning. After having caused much unhappiness among Muslim Malays through his book Hard Truths, he must be acutely aware that a Wikileaked cable from the United States embassy in Singapore risks another firestorm.
The Singapore government has previously taken the position that US diplomatic cables pouring out through Wikileaks are unauthorised releases and refused to comment on them. In this round of releases (end August 2011, unredacted versions) however, Lee Kuan Yew has had to put out a press statement, with the commandment that editors should publish it. That said, Lee Kuan Yew is no longer part of the government, so maybe it doesn’t count as any change to government policy.
But let’s take the story in chronological order.
Hillary Clinton, at the time a US Senator from New York State, and Congressman Charles Rangel visited Singapore in July 2005, and had meetings with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, and then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The US embassy prepared a summary of the meeting, which included these passages:
Islamic Radicalism and Iraq
The problem of Islamic terrorism would not be easily extirpated, observed MM Lee. While Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant, they had been affected by radicalism emanating from Middle East and the spread of wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. Singapore’s Muslim leaders were rational and educated in English and the GOS kept a limit on madrassah-based education. He stressed that moderate Muslims had to be encouraged to stand up and speak out against radicalism. They needed confidence that they could win. We could get to the tipping point, noted MM Lee, but he didn’t know how long it would take.
MM Lee said Islamic terrorists would continue to use violence until shown that their methods would not succeed. If they were successful in Iraq, they would try to topple secular governments in other countries, such as Indonesia. PM Lee said Singapore supported U.S. efforts in Iraq; it was important to get the Iraqi government working, with a security force that could take over from U.S. forces and fend for itself.
Asked by Rep. Rangel how organized terrorists were internationally, MM Lee responded that orthodox Islam was a powerful force capable of recruiting volunteers for terrorist groups. He noted Singapore’s experience in 2001 and 2002 in dealing with Jemaah Islamiyah’s terrorist plots in Singapore and characterized Islam as a “venomous religion.”
— Wikileaks cable. Purportedly produced by the US embassy in Singapore, 7 July 2005.
This morning, Lee Kuan Yew’s government-provided press secretary sent out an email, effectively demanding publication:
Attached press statement is for your publication, please.
The formal statement was attached:
Wikileaks released a cable by the US Embassy in Singapore reporting on the visit of Senator Hillary Clinton to Singapore in Jul 2005. The cable claimed that in my meeting with Senator Clinton, I had “characterized Islam as a ‘venomous religion’”.
This is false. I looked up MFA’s filenote of the meeting. Nowhere does it record me describing Islam as “venomous”, nor did I say anything which could have given that impression.
I did talk about extremist terrorists like the Jemaah Islamiyah group, and the jihadist preachers who brainwashed them. They are implacable in wanting to put down all who do not agree with them. So their Islam is a perverted version, which the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Singapore do not subscribe to.
I also pointed out that our Muslim leaders are rational, and that the ultimate solution to extremist terrorism was to give moderate Muslims the courage to stand up and speak out against radicals who have hijacked Islam to recruit volunteers for their violent ends.
Mdm Yeong Yoon Ying
Press Secretary to Mr Lee Kuan Yew
On behalf of Mr Lee
5 Sept 2011
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ filenote is hardly conclusive. Perhaps the officer taking notes knew what should or should not be recorded.
It would seem to me that using the word “venomous” would be entirely in character with the man. It would also be unlikely that the US embassy staffer would make a note of a word (in quotation marks too) unless it had been used at some point. However, it is more than possible that even if Lee had used the word, he used it in relation to Islamist extremism, but such detail was omitted from the minutes.
* * * * *
Yet, that doesn’t end the difficulty. Even a highly radical religion is still a religion. Who are you to say that it is not a religion, and therefore something the state, or an official representative of a state, can dismiss as “venomous”?
It may seem very obvious to the uncritical that Islam is what moderates make of it, but why should moderates have the final word on what constitutes Islam?
As food for thought, consider this: In Indonesia, there are Muslim groups that are highly offended by the Ahmadiyah sect. They want it proscribed by law. In the meantime, these groups engage in acts of violence and intimidation against the Ahmadiyah. Yet government officials tend to accept that the anti-Ahmadiyah groups more or less represent mainstream Islamic thinking, even if a bit too aggressively, and in their administrative actions lean towards them and against Ahmadis. The result has been a series of highly discriminatory state actions against the sect.
Who has the final word on what is Islam? Why should the state get involved? If the state shouldn’t get involved in defining Islam and taking sides in the pro- and anti- Ahmadiyah interpretations, why should our state get involved in taking sides on the question of radical jihadist Islam?
Ah, but one side resorts to violence, you may say. Fine, deal with the violence, but stay nothing about its ideology. Don’t take sides in the interpretation of the religion. Don’t use words like “radicals who have hijacked Islam” (vide Lee Kuan Yew’s latest statement) because doing so immediately says that their interpretation of Islam is wrong.
By the same token, why does the Singapore state tacitly acknowledge that conservative Christianity (in particular, the anti-gay, anti-nudity, sex-phobic positions) represents Christianity?
This Wikileak-cable incident (and Lee’s denial) is very telling in the way it reveals a serious flaw in the government’s basis for managing the religious landscape. The government tends to pick and choose what versions of religions to acknowledge as legitimate when they go about their “multi-religious” business. They need to do this because in many areas of social policy, they have to find some kind of happy medium (call it what you will: centre of gravity or the lowest common denominator) as anchor for policy. This magic point on the graph cannot be found if the reference points remain nebulous; one has to fix the reference points, before one can compute the centre of gravity or lowest common denominator.
However, the act of fixing the reference points requires a determination of where each religion stands on this and that, and this process then involves the picking and choosing as to which version of each religion to treat as authoritative.
But how else can the state manage social policy, you might ask? It has to find some sort of compromise among various religious beliefs.
No, it doesn’t. We’re going about it all wrong. We shouldn’t be running around trying to find lowest common denominators and coming up with solutions like: If four in five religions (as determined by the state) find homosexuality wrong, therefore the state should find homosexuality wrong. If three in five religions say wives must obey their husbands, therefore the law should provide fewer rights for married women versus married men.
Of course the government is careful never to frame it quite like that; however, each time they say “Singapore is conservative”, or make some reference to “widespread” opinion, they are in effect making reference to religious beliefs — because these views stem from there.
The state should abandon lowest common denominators and instead guide itself by positive secular principles, of which four are particularly crucial:
- Freedom of expression
- Freedom of association
- Freedom of religious conscience
The last says each individual is free to subscribe to whatever religious beliefs and worship practice he wants, but, as mandated by the foregoing principles, in his public and social behaviour, he has to recognise the equal rights and freedoms of others. The state has a duty to protect those freedoms. This is quite different from saying the state has to arrive at and defend some sort of lowest common denominator.
Defending the freedoms of others is a solid-enough basis for the state to act against violent extremism, or religious coercion, or, for that matter, anti-gay pressure. More importantly, it does not require the state to pass judgement as to which version of a religion is the normative one.
Alas, this seems to be a distinction the Singapore government is unable to grasp. Or is it because they don’t want to act against religious coercion and anti-gay pressure? Maybe the People’s Action Party wants organised religions as allies to perpetuate its rule?