Singapore has a predominantly Chinese population, with minority races including Muslim Malays and Indians, and Lee has always stressed the importance of racial harmony.
“I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam,” he said in “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” a new book containing his typically frank views on the city-state and its future.
“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…” he stated.
“I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate,” Lee added, calling on the community to “be less strict on Islamic observances.”
During the book’s launch on Friday, the self-described “pragmatist” warned Singaporeans against complacency, saying the largely ethnic Chinese republic was still a nation in the making.
Describing Singapore in the book as an “80-storey building on marshy land,” Lee said it must contend with hostility from larger Muslim neighbors.
“We’ve got friendly neighbors? Grow up… There is this drive to put us down because we are interlopers,” he said, citing alleged Malaysian and Indonesian efforts to undermine Singapore’s crucial port business.
Singapore was ejected from the Malaysian federation in 1965 in large part due to Kuala Lumpur’s preferential policies for ethnic Malays, and has since built up Southeast Asia’s most modern military to deter foreign aggression.
Turning to local politics, Lee said the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since 1959 when Singapore gained political autonomy from colonial ruler Britain, will someday lose its grip on power.
“There will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP… That day will come.”
“In the next 10 years to 20 years, I don’t think it’ll happen. Beyond that, I cannot tell.”
Lee said that despite a survey showing the contrary, he believed Singaporeans were not yet ready for a non-ethnic-Chinese prime minister.
“A poll says 90 percent of Chinese Singaporeans say they will elect a non-Chinese as PM. Yes, this is the ideal. You believe these polls? Utter rubbish. They say what is politically correct,” he stated.
He also defended the policy of promoting marriage between highly-educated Singaporeans, a policy seen by critics as a form of social engineering, and dismissed the notion of love at first sight.
“People get educated, the bright ones rise, they marry equally well-educated spouses. The result is their children are likely to be smarter than the children of those who are gardeners,” he said.
“It’s a fact of life. You get a good mare, you don’t want a dud stallion to breed with your good mare. You get a poor foal.”
People who are “attracted by physical characteristics” may regret it, he said.
Lee also revealed that he had donated to charity all his earnings of 13 million Singapore dollars ($10 million) since stepping down as prime minister in 1990 after 31 years in power.
Singapore’s cabinet ministers are the highest paid in the world as part of a strategy to prevent corruption and attract talent from the private sector.
Lee, who holds the special title minister mentor, now serves as an adviser to his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who came to power in 2004.
Amid all the hard-edged talk, Lee showed his tender side when asked about his late wife Kwa Geok Choo, who died aged 89 in October last year.
“It means more solitude. No one to talk to when the day’s work is done,” Lee said in the book, the result of exclusive interviews with journalists from the country’s leading daily, the Straits Times.