Flare-up in Middle East unlikely to spark major friction in Singapore, say experts

Iranian anti-riot policemen scuffle with protestors during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy in Teheran, on Jan 3,  2016.
Iranian anti-riot policemen scuffle with protestors during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy in Teheran, on Jan 3, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

The diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran is primarily a political issue, even if both nations couch it as a sectarian dispute, said Singapore-based academics and religious leaders yesterday.

The latest flare-up in the Middle East is therefore unlikely to spark major friction here, they said.

The reason: Singapore has spent decades promoting harmony between and within religions, regardless of the size of their following, said Syed Hassan Alattas, head of Ba'alwi Mosque.

 
 
 

"There has never been a Sunni- Shi'ite issue in Singapore because we identify ourselves as one people - there is intermarriage and interaction - and Singapore Muslims understand that the Shi'ite community is part of the society," he said.

The past three days have seen Saudi Arabia and three of its allies - Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan - cut or downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran in a row that erupted over the execution of a Saudi Shi'ite cleric.

Saudi Arabia and Iran follow separate strands of Islam - Sunni and Shi'ite, respectively. Most Muslims in South-east Asia belong to the Sunni branch.

In Singapore, the major factors that have helped build understanding and respect among the various Islamic groups are the open-concept mosque system - where adherents of different sects pray alongside one another - and sermons that preach the importance of harmony and peace, said Mr Abdul Halim Kader, president of Muslim community group Taman Bacaan.

And while the Muslim community here has always been interested in discussing different theological ideas, it is far less interested in the sociopolitical elements that underpin the Saudi-Iranian conflict, said Mr Mohammad Alami Musa of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Unity is of primary importance for Muslims in Singapore because we are a very small community, and we cannot afford any division."

But the academics said Singaporeans should pay attention to the Middle East developments, lest they heighten sectarian sentiment in places such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where anti-Shi'ite rallies have been held.

"But while sectarian bigotry should always be a concern, given how minuscule the Shi'ite communities in the region are, it is unlikely to be a cause for major instability," said research fellow Fanar Haddad of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Flare-up 'unlikely to spark major friction in Singapore''. Print Edition | Subscribe