SINGAPORE — A red dot in a sea of green. That was how former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, talking to a Singapore minister who was paying a courtesy call, once described Singapore’s position among its bigger neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Habibie’s contrast could not have been more striking from the ethnic angle: Singapore is a tiny Chinese-dominated island surrounded by very much larger Malay countries — Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — in a turbulent region rich in natural resources in one of the world’s busiest crossroads.
And when one primordial factor like race becomes intertwined with another equally salient issue like religion, a potentially dangerous situation emerges — with disastrous consequences for all in Southeast Asia if wrongly managed.
Should the powder keg explode, at worst, tiny Singapore could be blown to bits. At best, it would tend to suffer more than its larger neighbors in view of its extreme vulnerability. Singapore, which began life as a port when Englishman Stamford Raffles founded it in 1819, has virtually no natural resources.
Even its water has to be imported from Malaysia. Its very survival in a turbulent region experiencing globalization thus depends on cultivating and sustaining close and cordial ties with its immediate neighbors which serve as its natural hinterland.
It is against this background that Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of its gleaming success as the commercial, industrial and technological hub of Southeast Asia, intends to visit Kuala Lumpur to have talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Though no official date and program of the visit are yet available, it is understood that one of its highlights will be Lee, (who was prime minister from 1959 to 1990) being briefed by Mahathir on the latest developments in Malaysian politics, which has the Islam religion as its focus.
The green tide of orthodox Islam expounding a theocratic state along the lines of Iran, has been sweeping through Southeast Asia since the Asian financial crisis reared its ugly head in July 1997.
The tide poses a serious threat to Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia (90 percent) and Malaysia (60 percent), whose open-market economies had already been badly hit by the contagion. Being former colonies of the Netherlands and Britain, both countries had opted for secularism via Western-style constitutions which have been blamed by orthodox Islamists for a host of social and cultural ills affecting their Muslim populations.
So strong is the Islamic tide in Southeast Asia that even Catholic-dominated Philippines has not been not spared. Manila’s Muslim-dominated southern flank is threatened by Muslim secessionists like the Abu Sayyaf group. Recently, it kidnapped 21 foreign hostages (one of whom has since been freed) to strengthen their demands.
Indonesia, since the fall of Suharto in 1998, has seen the rise of Muslim-based parties fighting hard to restore their political clout taken away by Suharto’s emphasis on the national ideology Pancasila, which gives equal treatment to all religions.
In Malaysia, the opposition theocratic Islamic Party (PAS) with its clarion call for an Islamic state, made a breakthrough in the country’s last general elections in November. It now heads an alternative broad-based coalition of parties which has the potential to topple the incumbent National Front (NF) coalition government, whose backbone is Mahathir’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Of its two Muslim neighbors, Singapore appears to be more concerned with political trends in Malaysia than Indonesia. It is not that Indonesia is less important, but that Singapore’s ties with Malaysia are closer, based on geography, history, culture and an interdependence that has economics and security as its thrust.
Whatever happens to Malaysia must necessarily affect Singapore. Singapore was once part of the Malaysian federation until 1965 when political differences between the two entities led to their separation and Singapore’s independence.
Since then, Malaysia has chosen a nation-building strategy based on affirmative action, where among other things, preferential treatment on economic and educational opportunities is given to the indigenous Malays who are Muslims.
Singapore with its 77 percent Chinese-majority on the other hand has opted for nation building on meritocratic principles where no race is given any preferential treatment.
Both are secular states, with Malaysia having Islam as its official religion and Singapore giving equality to all religions. Bilateral ties, which have blown hot and cold over 35 years, are generally cordial since their top leaders get along well together.
Singapore has been intently watching the challenge to UMNO posed by PAS and other fringe Islamic groups, some of which have taken a militant stance like the cultlike Ma’unah, which recently staged a Hollywood-style heist against military camps.
They have been attacking UMNO’s secularism, which accepts certain Western values, blaming it for vices like alcoholism, prostitution and drug addiction among Muslim youth. They have used the idea of an Islamic state as a panacea for all these ills. This appeal, together with Malay anger over Mahathir’s treatment of his former Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, caused UMNO to lose much Malay support to PAS in Malaysia’s last general elections.
As there is free movement of citizens between the two countries, Singapore fears that some overzealous Malaysian Muslim preachers — either affiliated to PAS or the deviant Muslim groups — could in their sermons, propagate the concept of an Islamic state to Singapore’s 14 percent Malay minority who are Muslims.
Among other things, they are proposing laws to ban alcohol and all forms of gambling, advocate separate queues for men and women in public places and allow the stoning to death of adulterers and chopping off the limbs of incorrigible thieves.
Such a move would not only create problems for the Singapore government to integrate the Malays within the mainstream of a Chinese-dominated secular society, particularly if the preachers continuously harp on separate Islamic laws for Muslims.
Worse still, a volatile struggle for an Islamic state would eventually frighten foreign investors, upon whose money Singapore’s prosperity is largely built on — and transform the island republic from a throbbing metropolis embracing the vibrant strains of Asian culture and Westernized values to a ghost city. There have been speculations that Lee might bring up this issue in his discussions with Mahathir.
Already PAS, which is monitoring this development since Asiaweek news magazine broke the story in its June 30 issue, has said through its Secretary General Nasharuddin Mat Isa, that though some of the speakers before Singapore mosque congregations may be PAS members, they were speaking in “their personal capacities.”
Although PAS has indicated that it has no right to object to any foreign leader having discussions with Mahathir, such discussions could be construed as political interference in the domestic politics of Malaysia if they in some way become responsible for the federal government’s crackdown on PAS, said Zulkifli Sulong, editor of the PAS organ, Harakah.
Lee’s impending visit has underlined Singapore’s sharp instincts, not only for survival, but also progress, in a turbulent region that is currently in the throes of globalization. Analysts say that Singapore’s present success as a nation is due to its ability to analyze trends in the region affecting it and plan far ahead to meet whatever challenges that might crop up. Singapore feels it is better to anticipate the problem now and make preparations to meet it rather than wait for it to reach its shores.
By then it might be already too late.
Remote but possible
Seen in this context, one can say that Singapore is already making preparations to deal with the possibility of Malaysia becoming an Islamic state sometime in the future, remote though this threat may be today, owing to the tight control UMNO has on the government.
Singapore’s readiness is premised on the Islamic tide spearheaded by PAS, which has so far engulfed two northern states — Kelantan and Trengganu — since Malaysia’s last general elections last November. The country has not discounted the possibility of tide coming down and sweep Malaysia’s southern states like Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor (which is separated from Singapore by a 1-km long causeway).
Even if the tide does not somehow reach the “danger zone” so far as Singapore is concerned, whatever intended measures to deal with it would not have been made in vain. They would have sharpened further the island republic’s instincts to keep flourishing in a volatile region.
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