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The Cost of Casual Racism

Roger Mitton, Asia Week, 28 November 2001
There is much to admire about the People's Action Party (PAP) government in Singapore. Most admirable, perhaps, is its splendidly honest policies on race and religion. In 1991, I asked Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong how he responded to criticism that the Singapore Armed Forces discriminated against his country's Malay community. It was said that Malays could not be trusted to fight for Singapore in any conflict with Muslim neighbors Malaysia or Indonesia. Goh never fudged the issue. He said there was no formal prejudice, but that it would be foolish not to bear in mind that when the cry of "Allahu Akbar" is heard, Malay-Muslims might feel divided loyalties. It was a brave answer that cut to the core of the issue.
Likewise, Lee Kuan Yew, Goh's predecessor, discussed Singapore's race relations during an interview last year. He talked about the policy of racially integrating the housing-development-board flats where most of the population live. People want to be among their own kind. It feels more natural and comfortable if the people next door speak the same language, have the same religion, eat the same food -- and have the same color skin. We all lack tolerance in this regard; some of us just admit it less readily than others. But if this intolerance is left unchecked, it results in ethnic ghettos in which the intolerance feeds upon itself and leads ineluctably to violence.
To forestall this, Lee made sure that flats were allocated in proportion to the racial makeup of the country. In a block of 100 units, roughly 70 would be taken by Chinese, 16 by Malays, 8 by Indians and the remainder by Eurasians and others. And they were mixed up together, Chinese next to Malay-Muslims, next to Indians. Of course, as Lee himself told us, people did not like it. As a politician who had to contest elections every five years, he would do better in a vote-winning sense by letting the Chinese have their own blocks, the Malays theirs, and so on. But, as he put it, with one of his trademark piercing glares, the alternative was worse to contemplate.
I have thought about this often. As a libertarian, my instinct is to let people live where they want to live. So this PAP policy grates on my liberal outlook. But reality increasingly makes me concede that Lee is right. By reality, I don't just mean Sept. 11 -- though, of course, that is a major factor; but other incidents I've encountered recently in traveling around the region. Right now, I'm in Ho Chi Minh City. The other day I met one of my favorite people here, Andy Tran Dao Anh, the youthful chairman and CEO of Diginet Technologies, one of Vietnam's booming software developers. Andy was explaining why he thinks his country is continuing to do well while others in the region are tanking. He concluded: "And it's safe. No terrorists here. We have almost no Muslims."
A few days earlier, when overnight in Singapore, I had inquired at a Singapore Airlines desk about flying to Cotabato City in the southern Philippines. I knew the flight times from Singapore to Manila, but I needed those for the connecting flights to Cotabato. It was after hours and I was sure it would be difficult to get the information from Philippine Airlines. The woman at the desk, a mature ultra-efficient "Singapore girl," tried everything, but with no luck. She was upset at not being able to help. "Are you going to Cotabato on business?" she asked. I said I was. "It's very dangerous there, you know," she said. "They have a lot of Muslims there."
In Thailand and Myanmar, colleagues of mine have made similar comments -- before, as well as after, Sept. 11. No one now makes even a token attempt to deny that Thais and Burmese dislike their own Muslim citizens. My Burmese friend told me one evening in the bar of the Strand Hotel: "Muslims don't belong in Myanmar. We don't trust them." I am becoming weary of arguing back. I have turned purple with rage at such comments. I have come close to losing friendships. But now I hear these remarks all the time -- and from otherwise intelligent and tolerant people. I don't know what to do. It is deeply depressing.
I wonder if perhaps there's a bit of inverted prejudice on my part. I lived for five years in Malaysia. I've traveled many times to Brunei and Indonesia, as well as to places like Aceh and Mindanao. I've visited other Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. I have many Muslims who are among my dearest friends in the region. I feel for them and I understand their confusion, their anxiety -- and their anger. I don't blame them. I tell them openly that if I were a Muslim, I'd be tempted to protest in the streets and in front of American and British embassies. I'd be tempted to wear an Osama bin Laden tee shirt and strut about sticking a finger up at Uncle Sam. This is the horror. In reaction to the foul and insidious prejudice one begins to act like a fascist.
Right now, I am reading Anthony Loyd's book My War Gone By, I Miss It So. It is an account of his time in Bosnia and Chechnya. His reportage of the Russian bombardment of Grozny should be required reading for those applauding the bombing of Afghanistan. Loyd was one of the few reporters in Grozny when the Russians first leveled the city. The carnage defies belief -- and, horrors, it is still continuing. There are many heart-stopping passages, but there is one that made me go cold in the heat of Saigon. Loyd visits a hospital as the victims of a Russian bombing raid on a mountain village are brought in. Marika, 4, was "missing the lower part of her back and buttocks, but was still alive, just, and her pale, doll-like form lay motionless face-down on a table as a doctor removed large pieces of metal from her wounds, allowing each to drop on the table with a heavy clunk."
Her sister Miralya, slightly older, had a head wound and was crying blood and shaking uncontrollably. Loyd goes to the village and finds the girls' family. He reports that they are all dead -- "laid out on a bed in bundles, none of which was bigger than a supermarket bag. The boy was the best preserved, the mother barely recognizable as human. Of the other sisters, a small pair of legs emerged from a cloth, and the two heads lay at the end of the bed." Like Loyd, I think of this scene when I hear the term "collateral damage." What is so odious is that journalists and anchormen have adopted the term -- just as they have adopted the prefix "Islamic" or "Muslim" before they say terrorist. I don't know what is worse -- all this or the growing anti-Muslim sentiment itself. Both are on the rise and will lead to more unspeakable acts like those already seen in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Where do we go from here? Will someone tell me, please?

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