Malay factor in national service

  The Star, Malaysia
Insight: Down South

February 10, 2002


Tudung's a mark of difference, not subversion
ITH terrorist cell members still at large, Singapore is doubling the screening of servicemen in the armed forces to make sure they are not inside where they can do harm.

In the recent crackdown, several of the 13 arrested terrorist cell members were found to be national servicemen or reservists, but none were in top positions. They held low-level support positions and were not in charge of weapons or explosives.

But the news created shock - then unease - among the population, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Their fear is there may be "sleepers" among national servicemen who are in command positions or in control of ordinances capable of inflicting harm on crowds.

Young Singaporeans are shocked by two revelations. The first is there are national servicemen among them who are ready to help foreigners destroy their own country.

Secondly, that a call for jihad by foreign clerics is a stronger pull than their love of nation that they are sworn to defend.

In the early years, the government had said it was this religious pull, not ethnic distrust, which made it exclude Malays from national service.

(All Singaporean men who reach the age of 18 have to enter national service for two-and-a-half years before going into the reserves, a front-line army. Some are accepted into the police.)

Between 1969 and 1973, no Malays were conscripted into the armed forces. This created a sense of alienation among the Malays who felt that their loyalty was being questioned.

Their unhappiness over the issue, accompanied by occasional criticism from Malaysia, persisted even when limited conscription of Malays was introduced in 1973. However, they were still barred from senior or "sensitive" command posts - until later.

In 1987, Brig-Gen Lee Hsien Loong explained - to strong protests from Kuala Lumpur - that the policy was to avoid forcing the Malays to have to choose in a conflict between their religion and country.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards inside the garden of her New Delhi residence, I was told, had left a deep impression on Singaporean leaders.

It was religion - not race - that caused her death. Several months earlier, Indira had ordered the storming of the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

In normal times, those men had been loyal bodyguards who would have given their lives to protect her.

From 1985, all eligible Malays in Singapore were called up for national service, although most would end up in the police force rather than the military.

The government soon hired Gurkhas to guard the Istana.

The integration of the Malays into the armed forces had been gathering pace in the 90s, but it was still too slow to satisfy the critics.

By the mid-90s, it had produced a crop of senior officers ranging from colonels to captains, some of them trained in USA. In 1992, the SAF had its first Malay fighter pilot.

But many Malays here are not satisfied with anything less than full integration and representation in all military fields, and in numbers that reflect their population.

Of the 3.25 million Singaporeans, Chinese make up 77 percent, Malays 13 percent and Indians and others, the rest.

Sidek Saniff, Senior Minister of State for the Environment, last August appealed for public understanding of the state's security needs.

"The government has to evaluate the security risk in the deployment of individuals for national service. Again I must emphasise: it is prudent and not discrimination," he said.

"Hence, if certain individuals - whether Malay, Chinese or Indian - are not given responsibilities or deployed in certain areas, it should not be made into an issue.

"Such practice is openly or subtly carried out by almost all the so-called western democracies and even in Third World countries."

According to one unconfirmed report, there are 60 to 80 Singaporean cell members, most of who are organisers, runners and money collectors rather than actual killers or bombers.

Their job is to prepare the ground for attacks carried out by foreigners. Some have fled the country and are being sought.

The government has advised citizens to be alert about suspicious characters without being suspicious of each other. It also pledged to protect the Malays from any discrimination - or retaliation - from the Chinese.

How can the Defence Ministry weed out potential Muslim terrorists and assure a worried public without upsetting the Malays?

After the arrests, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Dr Tony Tan immediately assured the Malays there would be no change on the policy of allowing Muslims to join the military either as regulars or national servicemen.

The detained suspects who were national servicemen, Dr Tan added, had held junior positions.

"We have to face facts and SAF manages the realities of race and religion carefully and sensitively," he said.

In deciding where to post soldiers, he said, the Defence Ministry took into account various factors, such as the sensitivity of the post and the racial and religious mix of the unit.

Before an individual was assigned a sensitive job, it was normal practice to check his background, whatever his race or religion, he added.

The government has a three-pronged strategy to meet the threat of al-Qaeda's infiltration into Singapore, where national service is a way of life.

The first is to continue the gradual integration of Malays into - and their promotion up the ranks of - the armed forces.

Secondly, adopt stricter screening of all people before promoting and assigning them.

And thirdly, a nationwide programme to build ethnic trust.

There are more ways to destroy Singapore than just setting off bombs - like setting off the Malays against the Chinese, or vice-versa, especially on matters of religion.

For weeks, the open-air coffee shops and gleaming office towers of this city have been buzzing with talk reflecting suspicion and fear.

One journalist said some Chinese businessmen had wondered if they should fire all their Muslim workers, and that Malay men should tell one another that wearing sarong and other traditional attire could get them stopped by police.

Both are untrue, hence the danger.

Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website