Dragnet in Disneyland

  BULLETIN, Australia
September 25, 2002

A FURTHER 21 terrorism suspects were rounded up in Singapore last week, bringing the total number detained since last December to 36. Why is the only shopping mall with a UN seat suddenly near the centre of the terrorist map? Eric Ellis seeks signs of foment amid the frangipani.

Singapore facts stranger than fiction

e've all had our fleeting brushes with fame ... A banker friend of mine went to primary school with Madonna in Bay City, Michigan, while I once grappled with Henry Kissinger for the last International Herald Tribune in the kiosk of Hong Kong's Mandarin Hotel.

The Kissinger encounter deserves elaboration for this was no gracious "no-you-have-it/no-no-I-insist" exchange with this diplomat's diplomat. The two of us duelled toe to toe right there in the foyer, a grim Henry gripping below the fold, me determinedly claiming the higher ground of the masthead. But since HK was in HK speaking on China's future, I gallantly surrendered for the sake of world peace.

My latest fling with fame is rather more than a brush, elongated over a year keeping fit in Singapore at one of those massive every­thing-catered-for residential utopias the one-time socialist Lee Kuan Yew did a much better job creating than V.I. Lenin.

En route to the squash court, I'd nod pleasantries with one Halim Hussain, a 41-year-old gardener who lovingly tended the flowerbeds in white robe and songkok, the traditional headdress of the pious Malay Muslim male.

As we mumbled our greetings, I liked to think he was remarking on the health of his pandanus. And isn't the frangipani lovely this season, I'd politely admire back.

Sadly, it seems the reality could've been more like "die, you western infidel" for the amiable Halim and 14 erstwhile friends were arrested last December by Lee's secret police for being members of Jemaah Islamiah, a militant cell of Singaporean Islamists plotting to level the Australian, American, British and Israeli missions here (the latter plan being particularly chilling, it being only 50m from your correspondent's front door in Singapore).

This week, as war clouds gathered over Iraq, and Washington picked off more al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and New York, it got even more serious with another 21 alleged plotters rounded up and processed with Singapore's typical efficiency and spin. The crackdown in Singapore puts the city-state if not quite at the centre of the world terror map, then certainly inside the ring and helps explain why Washington, London and Canberra closed their embassies on September 11.

Terrorists in Singapore? Yes, polite, saccharine, sterile Singapore. The only shopping mall with a seat in the UN. The famous Disneyland with the death penalty. The molly-coddled Southeast Asian city-state so beloved by the West and so protective of its citizenry that the government censor even clipped Titanic. Twice.

So Singapore, too, is having its brush with fame. Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia Singapore patently is not, but Islamic terrorists it apparently harbours. And to hear Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong tell it, there may be more.

As they stoically hunker down behind hastily acquired barricades, western diplomats here are chuffed by their unexpected relevance. Before these arrests, terror in Singapore could mean learning that the second secretary (economic) at the Swedish Embassy got a better deal on a new DVD player or, worse, having a three-year tour of duty extended to a cloying four.

Swingapore this posting ain't, to a thrusting foreign office careerist.

But with Singapore's own War on Terror arriving on international front pages, it means that at last someone important back home will read their diplomatic cables. At last there's something more compelling to muse over than oil futures and multilateral trade talks, the usual despatches from here.

The most interesting it gets here are the comings and goings - often to the defamation court - of Singapore's emasculated opposition, notably a clean-cut lad called Chee Soon Juan who shockingly thinks it reasonable to suggest that 43 years of uninterrupted power for Lee's People's Action Party (the world's fourth-longest tenure after the North Korean, Chinese and Cuban communists) might be enough.

Lee hates Chee. Indeed, if George W. Bush's speechwriters are short of insults to spray at evil-doers, they could hire people like Chua Lee Hoong, a former "analyst" with Singapore's secret police, cum Straits Times columnist.

Chee's been called a liar, a fraud, a gangster and a loser. But in the cruellest cut of all for local xenophobes, Chua dubbed him a "Sarong Party Boy" seeking solace with sympathetic foreigners, just like Singapore's notorious Sarong Party Girls, the local temptresses who prowl for (willing) erstwhile foreign studs possessing the coveted "five Cs" - condo, car, cash, credit card and club membership.

A loser Chee certainly is. The PAP controls all but two of Singapore's 85 parliamentary seats and neither maverick seat is carried by Chee.

Still, that doesn't deter official obsessing about Chee, who gets the Lee family's goat by pointing out that its half-a-dozen-odd members run or chair some of Singapore's biggest public and private companies, its two leading government investment companies, founded its leading law firm while also running the central bank, the finance ministry, filling the positions of the senior minister and deputy prime minister and sitting on a number of corporate boards, local and foreign. (It's not nepotism, insists the government - it's just that the Lee family is very capable and there's not enough qualified Singaporeans to fill the posts. And Singapore insists it abides by world's best practices of corporate governance.)

But as "terrorised" Singaporeans have found, such obsessions may be diverting. While the official machinery was crushing the ultimately harmless Chee, more sinister enemies emerged within. Within Singapore's own Muslim community.

As we now know, for years Halim the Gardening Terrorist and friends were allegedly plotting the West's downfall with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda friends, with whom they seemed to have rather more than my nodding acquaintance, as videos of Singaporean targets found in the Afghan rubble by US special forces suggested.

Nodding is how one tends to interact with Singapore's downtrodden Malay community, be you a (relatively) wealthy expatriate or an even wealthier member of Singapore's ethnic Chinese majority, descendants from mainland immigrants who, as many Malays here see it, are occupying their land.

In Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad calls ethnic Malays the bumiputra, the princes of the soil. In Singapore, a public pronouncement of ethnic nationalism like that might get you locked up, or at the very least your collar felt by an inquiring Internal Security Department. This is the country where the government sends citizens letters around its August 9 national day to say they can put up Singaporean flags.

But though the government can never admit it, the indigenous Malays are Singapore's underclass. Although they comprise 14 percent of Singapore's 4 million population, it's rare to encounter Malays in any profession, or doing much more than menial work or, irony of local ironies, as security guards at those huge residential complexes.

What isn't rare is to hear Chinese Singaporeans privately slag Malays as lazy and unreliable. Nor is it rare to hear Singaporean Malays slag the Chinese as arrogant chauvinists living on "our land". Another Malay infuriation has been the overwhelmingly Chinese government's refusal to allow Malay schoolgirls to wear their traditional tudung headscarves to class in the interests of racial harmony. Although that noble notion was recently abandoned by the government-controlled Business Times who described a local resident artist, an American, as a "vocal Jew" in dispute with the Singapore arts chief, a member of Singapore's "Chinese-educated elite".

The Malay dilemma is Singapore's truth that dare not speak its name in a place that continually - and correctly - congratulates itself on its racial cohesion. That cohesion, aided by the threat of the government's iron fist, is part of what makes Singapore stable and peaceful, the "Southeast Asia Lite" so beloved of foreign businessmen who set up their electronic plants here.

Ever sensitive, Lee's Chinese establishment placates the Malay minority by encouraging the 75 percent Chinese majority to learn Malay, embrace various Malay festivals while keeping a handful of streets and the official title of the national anthem - Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore) - in Malay.

And there is the subtle but constant reminder that while Singaporean Malays may not have much pull - there is just one Malay minister in the 17-member cabinet, a civil engineer on secondment from Singapore's main university who is Acting Minister for Sport and Minister for Muslim Affairs - they are still mostly better off economically than their cousins in neighbouring Malaysia. There, the Malay bumiputra, those princes of the soil, are Mahathir's favoured majority because he recognised 20 years ago that Malaysia's Chinese and Indian community were economically more aggressive.

Still, Singapore's Jemaah Islamiah incident is a wake-up call for the government, one it is skilfully turning to its advantage. The government claims it was onto the JI plot before those incriminating videos were found in Afghanistan. September 11 provides a pretext, if one were needed, to maintain its famously strict control regime.

Halim and his allegedly scheming mates were detained under the Internal Security Act, controversial legislation inherited from the British, who enacted it to crack communist heads during the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s.

The government has found the ISA a useful stick over the years to whack opponents into submission. The Internal Security Department ties run deep.

The current president, S.R. Nathan, used to run it, as did Newcastle University-educated Tjong Yik Min, the former chief executive of the quasi-monopoly press giant SPH, publisher of the Straits Times, the English-language flagship title euphemistically described as "government-leaning".

But since the end of the Cold War, Singapore has been under pressure from people such as Chee Soon Juan and, subtley, western governments to repeal the ISA, more so as Singapore tilts West. And as tightly wound Singapore enjoyed a careful but nevertheless definite liberalisation in recent years, it even looked for a while like that might happen.

But Singaporeans don't expect too much freedom. Not while there could be terrorists in the frangipani.