A tale of two neighbours

August 17, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Salbiah Ahmad
Malaysiakini
4 August 2004

Islam Hadhari is rather a hit in the island republic of Singapore. The
Straits Times (ST) has followed the lead of the New Straits Times (NST) in extolling the triumph of progressive Islam. In the process, the 2004 general election has been simply whittled down as a battle between Umno Islam and PAS Islam.

There appears to be no distinction in the reporting between the two
newspapers on this. NST however, in a post election editorial, raised a
speculation of PAS resorting to militancy in a bitter harvest. That
journalistic licence is apparently not founded on historical facts.

Dr Farish A Noor responded to a question on radical Islam during a public seminar on July 15 at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas), based in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He is currently with the Zentrum Moderne und Orient, Berlin.

He said nothing in his research on PAS showed militancy in its leadership. PAS has been seen as conservative but this is not to be confused with militancy. The 1985 incident at Memali with Ibrahim Libya was an isolated case.

Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew (SM Lee), is no less an admirer. In praise of Malaysian premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawis electoral victory, he said: “In the March elections, Datuk Seri Abdullah won back the Muslim seats and the one state government former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad lost to PAS in 1999.

His victory showed that Muslims will support a progressive Islamic
government led by an honest leader over Islamists who present themselves as the only force able to prevent the corruption and debasement of Muslim societies.

Islam Hadhari, he opines, is one which stands against corruption and
nepotism and encourages co-operation with other races and religions.

His article, Islam and democracy in Southeast Asia was first published in Forbes magazine and reproduced in ST on July 21.

Lee also said: Umno has taken a firm line with PAS, rooting out terrorists because they threaten its power base. Even a son of a PAS leader was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for being a member of a terrorist group.

It is no surprise that the 80-year-old former head of government, having ruled Singapore for 31 years, is toeing the government line.

Bypassing due process

Malaysian human rights groups like Suaram and Abolish ISA Movement have
consistently opposed the repeated use of the ISA to quell dissent and
bypass due process.

Torture is not uncommon during such detention according to the experiences that human rights defenders and former detainees have written, published or spoken about. Confessions are induced under conditions of torture.

Singapores ISA is a kissing cousin of the Malaysian ISA. Both share a
common predecessor in a 1948 British emergency law. Three of Singapore’s longest serving detainees were Chia Thye Poh (for 23 years), Said Zahari (16 years) and Lim Hock Siew (15 years).

In 1998, some very brave Singaporeans developed the first-ever and the only petition for the repeal of the Singapore ISA. Chia was 57 when he was released. Utusan Melayu journalist extraordinaire Said Zahari was released at age 51.

They were never charged in court. The ISA petition inter alia states that in the name of national security, innocent people were arrested and detained without trial for many, many years.

For the record, the Peoples Action Party (PAP) had occasion to call for repeal of the ISA in the British colony in 1955. That was when it formed the opposition. This was not rehearsed when it came to power.

The PAP has ruled Singapore from 1959 (self government) through merger in 1963 and full independence in 1965. The ISA is alive and well in Pak Lah’s Islam Hadhari and SM Lees Singapore.

The premiership of the city state will be handed to Lee Hsien Loong, 52 – SM Lee’s first born – on Aug 12 when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, 63, retires. Goh will become senior minister, the No 2. SM Lee will remain as adviser in the cabinet having vowed to remain in politics for as long as he is able to.

In announcing his plans on July 28, Goh said he would use his experience to improve international ties and said that he plans to develop relations with the Middle East.

He recently returned from Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Iran – an area where we have not had sufficient (economic and political) attachment until now and where there is now a convergence of interests.

Which shade of green?

Two years ago, Goh had expressed particular views about Islam in the Middle East. He had authored a four-page section in a six-page national rally address where he spoke on Islam, the Singapore Muslim community and terrorism. Like SM Lee, he painted Muslims and Islam in binary terms; either extreme or moderate.

In Which shade of green?, Goh said: The struggle between moderate and extremist Muslims is going on in Egypt, Turkey and many other Muslim countries. The moderates want to embrace modernity, worldly knowledge and openness, while the extremists want to adopt a narrow and rigid interpretation of Islam. Some Singapore Muslims too, have become more rigid in the practice of their religion.

He cited two examples, one of these being the episode of wearing the tudung in schools. The other was the refusal of Muslim grassroots leaders to attend an official PAP dinner because the premises served alcohol, even though halal food is served- a faux pas, to put it mildly, with most Muslims on both sides of the causeway.

Which path Singapore Muslims choose will have an impact on the cohesion of our country, he said.

Goh reasons that if our Muslims choose to interpret their religion
narrowly and rigidly, this will stifle the community’s economic
development. His examples of moderate Muslims are Guntor Sadali, the editor of the only Malay newspaper Berita Harian and a minister in his government, Yaacob Ibrahim.

Gohs reasoning puts any blame for the backwardness – or whatever is the operative word for the time being – of the Malays squarely on their
shoulders for being rigid or extremist Muslims. Root causes are fudged this way. There are enough decent studies on minorities and multi-culturalism for instance which indicate that ethnic/religious consciousness is often a result of state oppression.

Singapore has menganaktirikan (treated as unwanted step-children) two outspoken Singaporeans, academic Lily Zubaidah Rahim (1999) and human rights defender Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff (2004) for saying it like it is.

It would appear that extreme Islam and iron-fisted governments in the Middle East would not deter the island republics administrators from expanding its economic interests there.

But its Muslims (Muslims in government are clearly excepted) supposed
inclination to rigidity and alleged extremism will stifle the economic
development of that community.

Economic interests

Both Malaysia and Singapore do not appear to have much concern for the state of civil liberties in the Middle East. Their convergence of interests is economic in nature.

New Iraq has already installed its version of the Patriot Act-ISA. There are no elections in some states in that region. Dissidents have been known to have disappeared or have been gassed or incarcerated. Both Iraq and Turkey have suppressed the Kurds, an ethnic minority who are mostly Shiite Muslims.

Egyptian human rights defender Saad Eddin Ibrahim was detained in 2002 by the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Saads many crimes included his advocacy of free and fair elections, his struggle against the civil rights abuses of the Coptic Christian minority and last but not least, his criticism of the succession of the presidency to Hosni Mubaraks son.

The reference to Islam, a political-religious movement, in terms such as extreme, modern, progressive, fundamentalist, traditional can be
problematic. Talal Asad, distinguished professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, questions the standard by which these terms are being compared.

The development of politico-religious movements ought to force people to rethink the uniquely Western model of secular modernity…It wont do to measure everything by grand conceptions of authentic modernity. But thats precisely the kind of a priori thinking that many people indulge in when analysing contemporary religious movements.

Contextual negotiation

There is another concern – the treatment of minorities in both countries. As an example, Singapore Malay-Muslim children are not permitted to wear headscarves in schools. There is simply no room for contextual negotiation for civil society actors. The state decides.

This is even so when the school friends of one of the barred Muslim
schoolgirls wrote on the classroom blackboard for her return to school. The headscarf did not prevent interaction among the children, nor did it prevent teachers from teaching (Zulfikar, 2004).

A school in Malaysia has barred non-halal food from being eaten in the
canteen, apparently guided by a document from the education ministry.

Non-Muslims in a public educational institution were told in another case to hold their palms up when Muslims recite the doa or prayer. The 1999 Suqiu appeal is considered extremist. Unruly youths from Umno threatened to burn down the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, a stones throw from the Jalan Stadium police station.

The rule of the majority prevails in both cases.

According to official state history, Singapore Malays remained in Singapore in support of Lees meritocracy policy, when his Malaysian counterpart Tunku Abdul Rahman (photo) offered Malaysian citizenship upon separation in 1965, an anniversary which falls on Aug 9.

Said Zahari says Singapore Malays view Singapore as home, and he doubts the official history. Zulfikar (2004) thinks that if the support for Lees meritocracy claims is real, then there should be more reason for Malays to feel slighted at being marginalised.

Singapore poet/playwright Alfian Saat laments the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of the island as per Article 152 of the Republic of Singapore Independence Constitution.

He said there is a defect in the Singapore multi-cultural project.

In attempting to homogenise ancestral experiences in order to create an illusion of equality, the voice of the native becomes an unfortunate casualty. In fact the tongue of the indigene is severed to allow him to hum along with the rest in a peaceful, yet artificial chorus of harmony”, he reminisces the dilemma in a telling snapshot.

Note: The author referred to the following sources for this article:

Lily Zubaidah Rahim (1999), ‘The Singapore Dilemma’: The Political and
Educational Marginality of the Malay Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff (2004), ‘Fateha.com: challenging control over
Malay/Muslim voices in Singapore’, in Steven Gan et. al (eds), Asian
Cyberactivism: Freedom of Expression and Media Censorship. Bangkok:
Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

SALBIAH AHMAD is a lawyer and an independent researcher. MALAYA! as the name for this column was inspired by the meaning of ‘Malaya’ in Tagalog which means freedom. The events at the end of 1998 in KL offer a new inspiration. MALAYA! takes on the process of reclaiming the many facets of independence.