Singapore was bound to become a target for Islamic terrorists. The island city-state of some 4 million people is surrounded by far larger Muslim-dominated societies—Indonesia to the south, Malaysia to the north—that serve as terrorist spawning grounds, and it harbors a sizable Muslim minority. Moreover, the U.S. has a military presence here. And as a free-market redoubt in East Asia, Singapore is host to extensive American business interests.

But there’s a deeper reason for the hatred the bin Ladins of the world have for Singapore. Like the U.S., Singapore has tried to create a non-religious, supra-ethnic, Singaporean identity out of a multiethnic and religiously diverse population—more than 70 percent ethnic Chinese, with sizable Malay, Sri Lankan, and European minorities. The sometimes draconian methods the “Lion City” has used to meld its disparate peoples into “Singaporeans” are among the reasons that many dismiss the city-state as (at best) only a quasi-democracy. But with tensions simmering between the Chinese majority and the Malay Muslim minority, the problem of national unity has been thorny.

If Singapore is multiethnic, it is decidedly not “multicultural.” When the island became an independent nation in 1965, the ruling People’s Action Party made English the national language, even though few Singaporeans spoke English at home. Today, when I ask an American expatriate to describe the difference between Singapore and his former home of Los Angeles, his deadpan reply speaks volumes: “More people speak English here.” Another key government step to construct a sturdy sense of citizenship was to introduce universal military service.

Singapore has also launched innumerable national self-improvement campaigns that, officious as they sometimes are—one urged men to marry well-educated women to improve the nation’s gene pool—have helped forge a national identity. In another example, long-time prime minister Lee Kuan-Yew opened a “courtesy” campaign back in the early 1980s: “As a society of migrant stock,” he said, “we have tended to be helpful and charitable only within the family and, at a pinch, within the extended clan.” Lee grasped that great trading cities like the one he aspired to build had to extend the circle of trust and become cosmopolitan, just as bin Ladin knows that cosmopolitanism is something he must destroy.

Certainly some of the means Singapore’s government has used to prevent the formation of sub-national animosities have been particularly controlling. Take housing: the government, which builds the bulk of the high-rise developments that most Singaporeans live in, sells new units by rigid racial quota, so that racial and religious enclaves don’t develop. Coercive though it might be, the policy at least doesn’t produce the subsidized-housing problems of England and France, where large concentrations of Muslims seethe with a resentment that often spills over into violence and makes terrorist recruiters welcome. 

More worrisome as a means of homogenization is the partly government-owned press, where a kind of soft censorship prevails.  It’s not that the Straits Times, Singapore’s leading daily, is a state mouthpiece. It’s just that it faces government pressure to downplay hard news in favor of positive stories. The most interesting part of the paper is often the letters page, where questioning voices sneak in.

There’s some evidence that Singapore’s compulsory melting pot has kept the lid on conflict. A recent study found that “in daily life, the significance of ethnic affiliation had apparently diminished.”

The threat that Singapore has worried about surfaced after September 11, with the arrest in January of 13 suspected al-Qaida terrorists—all Malay Muslims—accused of plotting to kill U.S. servicemen and blow up the American and other embassies. Hostility toward Muslims is rising as a result.

The government has responded to the new tensions by reasserting its secular ideal, launching community get-togethers to build “trust among the races,” yet at the same time refusing a request from four Muslim families that their daughters be allowed to wear Islamic headscarfs to public school, where standard uniforms are required. Whether Singapore succeeds in keeping its ethnic and religious animosities in check only time will tell. But whatever qualms we Western democrats might have over the limits of Singapore’s democracy, we should recognize the magnitude of the problem the Lion City must solve.


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