Lee Kuan Yew ranks as one of the most successful statesmen of the 20th century, having led Singapore to independence, and built a thriving prosperous mini-state with a world class economy, out of an ethnically diverse population. He retired as the world's longest serving prime minister, and at 87 years of age, has little to lose in speaking his mind.
Thus, his candor in discussing the assimilation of Muslims is perhaps understandable, but still startling in a world of political correctness and compulsory sensitivity to Muslims, who are never expected to reciprocate. Singapore has a substantial Muslim minority, mostly Malays but also some Indian Muslims. Throughout its history, Singapore has striven to keep ethnic tensions minimized among its diverse population (ethnic Chinese being the largest group [74%], followed by Malays[13%], Indians, and others -- including many westerners). At one point in the 1960s, Lee spearheaded a merger with majority-Muslim Malaysia, but it quickly fell apart.
In the book, Mr Lee, when asked to assess the progress of multiracialism in Singapore, said: "I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not wish to offend the Muslim community.
"I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration - friends, intermarriages and so on, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Indians - than Muslims. That's the result of the surge from the Arab states."
He added: "I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam."
He also said: "I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate."
Mr lee then went on to speak of how his own generation of politicians who worked with him had integrated well, including sitting down and eating together. He said: "But now, you go to schools with Malay and Chinese, there's a halal and non-halal segment and so too, the universities. And they tend to sit separately so as not to be contaminated. All that becomes a social divide."
He added that the result was a "veil" across peoples. Asked what Muslims in Singapore needed to do to integrate, he replied: "Be less strict on Islamic observances and say ‘Okay, I'll eat with you.'"