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Shifting sands in Middle East leave mark on South-east Asia

Supporters of Tunisia's newly-elected President Beji Caid Essebsi on Dec 22. The country was where the Arab Spring movement began. However, naive Western responses to the movement, along with the ill-considered 2003 American intervention in Iraq, bro
Supporters of Tunisia's newly-elected President Beji Caid Essebsi on Dec 22. The country was where the Arab Spring movement began. However, naive Western responses to the movement, along with the ill-considered 2003 American intervention in Iraq, broke the Middle East many have known for most of the 20th century.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Middle East has grown in influence over South-east Asia, profoundly changing the texture of societies in this region.

It was only very late in my career that I had much to do with the Middle East. And this despite the fact that when I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs some 34 years ago, my very first assignment was as desk officer for the Middle East. I held that august position for all of an hour. Then, as was later recounted to me, our permanent secretary found out and decreed: "Give the boy a proper job." I thankfully fled to other assignments which occupied me for most of my career.

I do not know if my then permanent secretary was accurately quoted, but the spirit of his remark was a more or less accurate reflection of the state of Singapore's relations with the Middle East as they existed more than three decades ago.

At that time, we had only two diplomatic missions in the Middle East: A consulate in Jeddah whose primary task was to take care of Singapore Muslims on the haj or umrah; and an embassy in Cairo. Egypt was a leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which was then important for an unexpectedly independent Singapore to gain diplomatic recognition. Our main interests in the Middle East were energy, which as Singapore is an oil-refining centre, was mainly taken care of by the oil majors, and our relationship with Israel.

After we had independence thrust upon us, only Israel, of all the countries we approached, agreed to help us establish an armed force; by its nature such a relationship had perforce to be discreet. Non-energy trade with the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) was minuscule. Our main interactions with the Middle East were in the United Nations, NAM and other international organisations.

Today we have eight resident diplomatic missions in Mena (including Turkey) and non-resident ambassadors are accredited to most of the other countries in the region. We have free trade agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Jordan. Two- way non-oil trade with Mena was more than $20 billion last year. As of 2013, Singapore firms had secured projects amounting to almost $21 billion in the GCC. There are regular exchanges of high-level visits that discuss a broad range of subjects. Our relationship with the Middle East grew to this level in only slightly more than a decade.

Influence on South-east Asia

WHAT happened?

Despite our best efforts to ignore the Middle East, the Middle East refused to ignore us. By the turn of the 20th century, it became evident that, for a variety of reasons, Middle Eastern varieties of Islam were influencing the evolution of Islam in South-east Asia and profoundly changing the texture of the societies of the Southeast Asian countries with sizeable Muslim majorities, 88 per cent in Indonesia, more than 60 per cent in Malaysia and over 50 per cent in Brunei.

This is true in lesser degree even in multiracial, multi-religious Singapore, a secular state in which Muslims account for 15 per cent of our population.

When I was in school and university in the 1960s and 1970s, it was somewhat unusual to see a Muslim Singapore woman cover her head. Now it is not uncommon. It is not as if all our Muslims suddenly became more pious. But as one young Muslim woman of my acquaintance, whom I know is not particularly religious put it, it is less troublesome for her to cover her head than to constantly argue with her mother and aunts.

What the ultimate political effect of such social changes will be for Singapore is still not clear. But the politics of Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have clearly already changed. The impact has been greatest in Malaysia where the political space for non-Muslims has significantly narrowed.

It is more diffuse in Indonesia for two reasons.

First, Indonesia is a huge and somewhat-messy country and the very messiness creates some measure of checks and balances.

Second, Indonesia has a long and rich pre-Islamic history which is a source of national pride to most Indonesians of all religious faiths, and this provides a measure of social ballast that stabilises Indonesian society.

Still, there have been sporadic tensions and even violence between Muslims and non-Muslims in some parts of Indonesia. And Pancasila - which lists belief in God as one of the five unifying principles of nation without specifying any particular God - has almost disappeared from contemporary Indonesian political discourse.

Islam is today probably as important a factor in Indonesian politics as nationalism. President Joko Widodo was forced to go on an umrah during the recent presidential campaign to dispel rumours spread by his opponents that he was a secret Christian.

Singapore began to systematically and more broadly engage the Middle East in order to better understand the sources of these influences, particularly after an Islamist plot by a terrorist organisation, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) with links to Al-Qaeda, whose ultimate aim was the creation of a caliphate in South-east Asia, was uncovered in 2001. JI was responsible for several terrorist attacks in Indonesia.

A few years ago, an Iranian organisation was responsible for a failed assassination attempt on the Israeli Ambassador to Thailand. The Philippines has also been a victim of terror attacks by organisations that profess Islamist ideologies. Our deeper political and economic engagement of the Middle East initially grew out of such defensive concerns.

Exporting Islam and the Ummah

SOME Middle Eastern countries have, as state policy thinly disguised, attempted to export their brands of Islam.

But even without such acts of state, modern communications technology - the Internet and social media - has for the first time in history created a truly global Ummah that transcends national boundaries.

The immediacy of the Internet and social media - sites are often in English which has greater currency in South-east Asia than Arabic - has amplified the impact of developments in a Middle East that is now in greater-than-usual turmoil.

Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites, previously unknown in South-east Asia, where Muslims are overwhelming Sunni, have surfaced in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Regrettably, some politicians in these countries have been unable to resist the temptation to use sectarian tensions for partisan purposes.

Some Malaysians and Indonesians and even a few Singaporeans have been inspired to go to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The ill-considered 2003 American intervention in Iraq and naive Western responses to the so-called "Arab Spring" broke the Middle East as we have known it for most of the 20th century. It cannot be recreated in its previous form.

The turbulence we are currently witnessing may have been catalysed by external interventions. But there is very little that countries outside the region can now do to influence developments in the Middle East, particularly the sectarian and tribal conflicts that have become the most salient characteristics of that unfortunate region and which now colour and shape broader geopolitical conflicts. These are Arab problems that will have to be resolved by Arabs.

The rest of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can only try to insulate ourselves the best we can - and there can be no complete insulation in a globalised world - from their spillover effects, try to mitigate the worst humanitarian excesses, and wait for the conflicts to burn themselves out. This is likely to take decades.

S-E Asia no role model for Arabic countries

FORTUNATELY, the Muslim-majority countries of South-east Asia are far more stable and, Brunei excepted, economically diversified than any Middle Eastern country.

But in secular matters, the socio-political circumstances of the Arab countries are so different that the relevance of the Southeast Asian model is at best limited. And it would be naive to think that South-east Asia can serve as a role model for any Middle Eastern country in religious or cultural matters.

Iran considers itself as a higher order of civilisation. I very much doubt that any Arab country really considers any South-east Asian country to be an authoritative guide on Islam. Some Arab friends have been bewildered by recent developments in South-east Asia, for example, the prohibition on the use of the word "Allah" for "God" by non-Muslims. But the converse direction of influence certainly holds. Since the language of the Quran is Arabic, it sometimes seems that almost anything coming out of the Middle East has an automatic credibility in South-east Asia, at least in some quarters.

Political and religious developments in the Middle East undoubtedly influence South-east Asia. But it does not necessarily follow that South-east Asians really understand Middle Eastern complexities. The Palestinian issue is certainly the most important Middle Eastern issue in South-east Asia. Positions taken have on occasion become domestic political issues. Support for Palestine has become a central component of identity for many South-east Asian Muslims.

But this is no longer as clearly the case, if it ever was, in the Middle East. Palestine is, of course, still an important issue, but Palestine is no longer the highest priority for most Arab governments who are now seized with more existential questions.

This was starkly brought home to me when I visited an important Gulf state during the 2008-2009 Israeli intervention in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.

The morning I was scheduled to meet my host for talks, I awoke to horrific pictures of civilian Palestinian casualties splashed on the front page of the local English-language newspaper. It is no secret that Singapore maintains close relations with Israel. I braced myself for an earful.

My host did indeed begin by talking about Israel's intervention. But only for about five minutes. The remainder of our hour- long meeting was devoted to his complaining far more vehemently about the perfidy of Shi'ites and the dangers of the Iranian nuclear programme. And, as he walked me out of his office, he whispered "tell your friends not to wait too long". I don't think he was referring to the Americans.

I have had similar experiences on subsequent trips to the Gulf. I have never found our close relationship with Israel an obstacle to forging relations with Arab states or, for that matter, Iran.

Indeed, Israel and the Gulf states are quietly establishing their own ties. Nothing is as it ever seems in the Middle East, as the tangled and shifting alliances fighting the ISIS demonstrate.

The writer is a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The article is based on a speech he delivered last week at the Institute of Security and International Studies (Thailand), Chulalongkorn University.