Singapore Beats Drum of Harmony After Attacks

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore, ever mindful of its giant Muslim neighbors and the race riots of the mid-1960s, has been banging the drum of harmony even harder since the American suicide attacks.

There are no signs of rising tension in the multi-racial city state but Singapore is acutely aware of anti-American anger flaring in nearby Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, as it keeps watch for any local links to extremist groups.

Newspapers have devoted pages to official comments on racial harmony and editorials have stressed the need for tolerance among the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities.

Almost all of Singapore's 450,000 Malays are Muslim, making Islam the second largest religion after Buddhism.

``We're bound to be tugged in different directions and we have to make an extra effort to stay together,'' Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

But as Washington marshals support for its war on terrorism and threatens to strike at Afghanistan (news - web sites) for harbouring its prime suspect, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden (news - web sites), any backlash in Indonesia and predominantly Muslim Malaysia will be felt in Singapore.

``If the activities in these neighboring countries were to generate a high degree of instability, then there would be a kind of knock-on effect on Singapore,'' said Ananda Rajah, associate professor of anthropology at National University of Singapore.

``A likely knock-on effect is people fleeing to escape violence or smaller-scale attacks.''


While the island of four million people is 77 percent Chinese and heavily stage-managed by the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP), it is also a teeming amalgam of races, dialects, religions and cultures.

Life goes on much the same as before the attacks in New York and Washington, with the exception of stepped-up security at the U.S. embassy, military installations and Changi airport.

But Gillian Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies think-tank, said it was ``still important for members of government as well as civic leaders to remind people'' not to view the events as ``a religious war.''

``It's not going to be a huge turning point,'' she said. ''It's just necessary to say that.''

Singapore's top Muslim religious leader has called for all to live in harmony, even if Afghanistan is attacked by the United States. And Muslim groups were quick to pledge allegiance.

``Loyalty to Singapore is without any doubt. We're always with Singapore, ``Abu Bakar Maidin, president of Jamiyah Singapore, the largest Muslim non-government organization, told Reuters.

He said that there was little sign of nervousness in the city state and that people carried on as on ``an ordinary day.''

An American lawyer who has lived in Singapore for more than three years said he had noticed no change in his ability to blend into the cosmopolitan crowd since the attacks.

``I'm not segregated out as a particular nationality,'' he said. ``I feel as safe as I did before.''


Sociologist James Jesudason said the fear was of ``people here who might be very absolutist in perspective -- their allegiances become of a pan-Islamic kind rather than internal.''

But he added he had seen no change in Singapore's racial relations since the attacks, partly due to the strong political structures which have long been in place to keep the peace.

Since independence from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, the PAP has taken a proactive approach to maintaining harmony in the tiny republic, ranging from legislation on equality to censorship of material that might foment division.

The year before, 23 people had died and 460 been hurt in several days of violence after Malay-Chinese tensions flared during a parade to mark the birthday of the Muslim prophet Mohammad.

``We've not seen any serious eruption, not since then. The government has acted to contain the potential for this type of conflict,'' Rajah said.

``Different ethnic groups in Singapore say that life has been improving for them over the years and there's probably less likelihood of disgruntlement.''

Local schools received guidelines on discussing the attacks after ministers alluded to cases of ``inappropriate behavior'' between Muslim and non-Muslim students but did not elaborate.

Still, Singapore is on guard for something more sinister.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said the government ''had not found any domestic group to be involved in politically motivated violence'' but could not rule out potential threats.

``We are conscious of the possibility for local groups, even if only a minority, to be influenced or misled into participating in an agenda of violence purveyed by external extremist groups,'' he told parliament last week.