Friday, November 11, 2005

You Will Get Along!

July 21, the birth date of the Prophet Muhammad, is known in Singapore as Racial Harmony Day. It commemorates and reminds everyone of that day in 1964 when the island nation suffered the worst turmoil in its history, worse than what’s happening now in France. The communal rioting killed 23 and injured 454.

Forty years later it is a time for celebrating multiculturalism and reminding school children about the country’s diversity. If this sounds all woolly and touchy-feeling, it is. But Singapore goes far beyond mushy school programs. This is a country that is serious about maintaining racial and religious harmony and assimilating minorities.

Take public housing. We’ve been reminded repeatedly over the past few days that France’s significant Muslim minority has been relegated to ethnic ghettos and “no go areas” surrounding Paris and other French cities. In Singapore by design there are no ethnic enclaves.

About 80 per cent of Singapore’s people live in public housing estates that are maintained according to rigid racial quotas that reflect the ethnic make up of the country as a whole, which is about 75 per cent Chinese, 15 percent Malay, most of whom are Muslins, and 10 percent Indian.

For Singapore, it is not enough that the different religions and races mingle with each other in school or in the armed forces – with a population of only about 4 million, Singapore has military conscription, National Service, as much for assimilation and building a sense of common national identity as for defense. France unwisely abandoned the draft.

The government encourages homeownership, and many people use their mandatory savings to buy the apartments they live in. But even here there are restrictions. The government can and does step in to stop a citizen from selling his apartment if the sale would alter the ethnic balance of the neighborhood.

Some Malays consider the quota system to be politically motivated to discourage concentrations of voters of one race or religion and thus prevent the formation of political parties based on race, something common in next-door Malaysia. Still, the government has found other means to encourage minority participation in politics.

About a decade ago it altered its Westminster-style parliamentary voting system to create a number of Group Area Constituencies. In these districts three candidates run as a team. One of them must be a Malay or an Indian.

The introduction of the GRC system was dismissed by most Western commentators as just another way for the ruling People’s Action Party to make things difficult for the opposition (such as it is). Maybe so, but it was also a way of ensuring more minority Members of Parliament.

But the lengths that Singapore’s government will go to ensure racial harmony were vividly demonstrated last month when two young ethnic Chinese bloggers were jailed for saying disparaging things about Islam on the Internet.

This curious incident started when a Malay woman wrote a letter to the main Singapore newspaper, the Straits Times, complaining about uncaged dogs in taxi cabs, which she said was offensive to Muslims. That teed off one Benjamin Koh, 27, who happens to be a kennel employee and ran a website for dog lovers.

He posted some disparaging things on his site. The exact words were not made public (to my knowledge anyway) but reportedly included expletives and urging the desecrating of Islam’s holy site in Mecca. Another youth chimed in on a chat room as did another 17 year old. All three were charged under the Sedition Act. Imagine a 17-year-old being charged with sedition.

The Act makes it illegal to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between the different races or classes of Singapore.” In October Koh got one month in jail; the younger Chinese one day, the 17-year-old a warning. Said the judge: “The callous and reckless remarks on racial and religious subjects had the potential to cause social disorder.”

To say that the incident has caused consternation among bloggers in Singapore is an understatement. Even the person who alerted the authorities seemed taken aback. She seemed to think that they would be let off with just a warning.

This incident may have been over the top, but the Singapore model reflects the tough-minded realism of its founding father Lee Kwan Yew. Racial peace does not flow naturally from the human breast, at least not in Asia. You have to work hard at it.

A SIGH OF RELIEF
Indonesian authorities scored a major coup by cornering master bomb maker Azhari bin Husin near Malang in east Java this week. It is not clear yet whether Azhari died in his own bomb blast or in a gunfight. His sidekick in terror, Noordin Top, barely escaped and may soon be captured. The two were the brains behind most of the recent bombings in Indonesia, going back to the first Bali bombing in 2002. It’s a pity that this success in the global war on terrorism has received almost no attention outside Asia. If it doesn’t happen in Iraq, it doesn’t happen.

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