The Middle East: A useful foil for thinking about Singapore’s past and present

Academic Views / Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

Koh Choon Hwee, Visiting Assistant Professor at NUS LKYSPP and a historian of the Ottoman Empire, highlights Singapore’s forgotten connections to the Middle East and shows how polarised narratives and misrepresentations about this region—some of which are deeply Islamophobic—are already present in Singapore, posing a threat to social justice and harmony.

As recent explosions in Beirut, and now, Syria, blur into one another, Singaporeans can hardly be blamed for flipping the page or scrolling to the next news item. After all, what value could the Middle East possibly offer us here?

Yet the “Middle East”, first defined in the 1900s as “an indeterminate area guarding a part of the sea route from Suez to Singapore”, has a closer relationship to Singapore’s overlooked and under-researched pasts than we may think. Southeast Asia has a long tradition of madrasah students seeking higher education in Cairo, Damascus, Hadhramaut and other parts of the Middle East, a tradition that continues till today in Singapore. Local Arab Muslim and Arab Jewish communities have bequeathed us landmarks like Aljunied MRT station, Alkaff mansion, and Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, reminding us that Singapore’s colonial past did not always look like Sir Stamford Raffles. When Albert Einstein visited in 1922, it was Manasseh Meyer (whose name graces a building at the NUS Law school today) who hosted him. Like Meyer, the founder of the Workers’ Party, David Marshall, was a Baghdadi Jew.

While important works by scholars such as Ho Eng Seng, Ronit Ricci, Norshahril Saat, Ismail Fajrie Alatas, Nurfadzilah Yahaya and many others have detailed circulations and connections between the two regions, such knowledge has yet to acquire currency outside of academia. This popular neglect might make us wonder: what kinds of forces have estranged us culturally from certain parts of the world, priming our sympathies one way and inciting antagonism or mistrust another way? Why is Baghdad foreign, but New York familiar?

During the Cold War, Singapore’s political, economic, and cultural alignments were a conscious choice to emphasise continuity with the colonial order and to signal unambiguous allegiance with the U.S. Many of us have benefitted, to unequal degrees, from the choices made by our political leaders, past and present. But perhaps we could acknowledge too the overlooked consequences of these choices, and consider how they have estranged us from who we once were, from who we are still. Perhaps these cultural dispositions have also clouded our analytical ability to forge a new Singapore Story, beyond the well-worn, and increasingly contested “From Third World to First”.

David Marshall, founder of the Workers’ Party and former Chief Minister, was a Baghdadi Jew. Why, to Singaporeans, the author asks, is Baghdad foreign, but New York familiar? (Photo: Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

One consequence of our Cold War alignments is the proliferation of inaccurate, polarised narratives about the Middle East among Singaporeans today. Such narratives, manufactured and disseminated by western media, have shaped our worldviews, our understanding of Judeo-Christian religions, our politics and even our identities. But many are not fully aware of this and may not recognise their imprints. When concerned citizens suggest on social media that we should “learn from Israel” in dealing with suspected Singaporean terrorists and their children, and when members of the public respond by objecting to the use of Israel as a reference and expressing support for the Palestinians, it shows how different versions of histories regarding distant Middle East conflicts are already familiar locally among different communities, and are used to articulate their positions on local matters. When US preachers propagate Islamophobic views at local church camps, and are only uncovered through investigative journalistic work by online news outlets, it exposes the mechanisms by which some local communities are taught grand, fundamentalist and decontextualised ‘civilisational’ narratives.

The adoption of Christianity as the unofficial ideology of the ruling global power, the U.S., has divorced the religion from its birthplace of the Middle East, recasting the region as synonymous with Islam, and as Other. At the same time, the endless ‘war on terror’ has reduced the Middle East to a proxy site of wars, revolutions and dysfunction. Although it is public knowledge that weapons manufacturers, private security and logistics contracts, and other businesses have reaped large profits from these wars, these conflicts are often simplistically and dishonestly branded by news media as a civilisational/religious struggle, leaving ‘Islam/Arab/[fill in your Middle East-related noun]’ to shoulder the blame for the unrest. By conflating a whole diverse region into one religion, and by obscuring real geopolitical and economic motives with cultural explanations, these Islamophobic narratives gain widespread currency, especially among non-Muslims.

This asymmetry of knowledge lies uncomfortably along racial and religious faultlines. For instance, pro-Israeli sentiment may appear to be gaining ground among some Christian communities in Singapore. In 2017, a local Christian pastor openly expressed support for Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and called it the “indivisible capital of Israel and that is really non-negotiable”. This directly contradicts Singapore’s official foreign policy position; the relevant detail here is that Israel’s 1967 annexation of Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories is considered illegal under international law. This is why, in December 2017, Singapore joined 127 other countries and voted in favour of a United Nations General Assembly resolution “calling for the US to drop its recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital”. Although Singapore has a long-standing relationship with Israel, it also has a history of providing technical assistance and aid to Palestinians.

But let’s try to unpack this political opinion by the Christian pastor. This pro-Israel position has resonances with Christian Zionism, a movement and ideology that emphasises support for Israel, whether as penance for the historical mistreatment of European Jews by European Christians, or as central to the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. This is a worldview that conflates a civilisational and religious ideology with modern, geopolitical history, that maps biblical Israel onto the modern state of Israel (est. 1948), and that ignores the Palestinian perspective. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not a religious issue at heart; it is a struggle over land where both parties have used religion to mobilise support for their political agendas. “Palestinian” is not a religious marker: there are Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and a living community of Samaritans in the West Bank. In the same vein, not all Israelis are Jews, not all Jews are Israelis, and there are Jewish and Christian communities outside of Europe and indigenous to the Middle East: Arab Jews, Arab Christians, Iranian Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians etc. Christian Zionism likely comes to Singapore via the U.S., where it has an explicit political agenda and is a component of what John Mearsheimer (U. Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard) have called the Israel Lobby. Mearsheimer and Walt critiqued this lobby for the influence it has on U.S. foreign policy, which, they argue, go against U.S. interests. To sum up, it is not clear if Singaporean Christians who support Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem understand the full context, history, and political interests involved. Could there be a risk of allowing outside political agendas to shape our hearts and minds, to influence our foreign policy?

Che Guevara visiting the Gaza Strip in 1959 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A similar story could be told about Muslim support for Palestine. The Palestinian cause was not always an “Islamic” cause; the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is better understood in the context of a global, anti-colonial left, and it enjoyed the support of figures such as Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, and the militant communist group, the Japanese Red Army. The later championing of the Palestinian cause by putatively Islamic organisations, from al-Qaeda, ISIS, to the Islamic Republic of Iran (all of whom were/are fighting against each other in various battlegrounds at some point) should be seen as the mirror image of the U.S. and Christian Zionists that brand their political support for the modern nation-state of Israel in religious, Christian terms.

Perhaps the larger story here, for now, is that better public education about the Middle East may play a role in neutralising these polarising narratives that are already circulating among us, and that are being used to anchor religious identities and generate intense emotional loyalties. For over seven years I have tried to combat, in a small way, these divisive forces and learned prejudices by giving talks that combat negative stereotypes about the region and by offering historical context to mainstream news headlines. A particular challenge I faced was in getting my audience to become aware that some of the most widespread and deeply rooted worldviews in Singapore are deeply influenced by Islamophobic and racist narratives.

A popular narrative trope pairs admiration for Europe and its ‘secular’ culture with condescension towards ‘religious fanaticism’ of the Middle East (sometimes collapsing South Asia together with it), where, in their views, minorities, gays and women are constantly threatened. As supporting evidence for such views, they draw upon anecdotal observations of the ‘bad’ behaviour of Muslims locally or elsewhere (for example, Singaporeans who have lived in the UK might blame Muslim immigrants for keeping to themselves, without considering historical, social, political and economic factors that might have worked against integration). These views sometimes colour their views of our neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia as well, as they mirror the media’s tendency to homogenise diverse Muslim communities and collapse them into one monolithic bloc. Some cite political institutions in the Middle East region—absolute monarchy, military dictatorship, failed states—as evidence that something is inherently wrong with Islam, ignoring other factors such as politics, economic exploitation, and colonialism. In other words, these Singaporeans see this region as comprised of “shithole” countries, adopting Trump’s racist and racial hierarchy without necessarily using the same vocabulary—although certain local influencers have, in fact, embraced the term and legitimised it somewhat for a local audience.

US President Donald Trump infamously used “shithole” to characterise particular countries—a framing, the author argues, which some Singaporeans have implicitly or even explicitly adopted. (Photo: Darron Birgenheier)

For a society that claims to cherish its racial and religious harmony, it is a tragedy that we have not had many opportunities to collectively work through and counter the implications of the polarised worldviews already here among us—but make no mistake, sooner or later we will all be collectively forced to confront their consequences. For now, though, these consequences are disproportionately borne by our minorities and Muslims, most recently and egregiously in the Tangs incident where a promoter was asked to remove her hijab in order to continue working at her job.

Lebanon, Singapore’s unlikely foil

Moving from a broad view of the Middle East to a more focused look, let’s consider Lebanon, a country that presents an interesting foil to Singapore. Both are small countries with diverse societies in their respective regions, and have explicit constitutional provisions to ensure political representation from every community, whether defined in terms of confessional (in Lebanon) or racial (in Singapore) groups. But apart from that, our historical experiences could not be more different. Lebanon’s tumultuous twentieth century was marked by a brutal civil war which many feel has never truly ended, since former warlords merely rebranded themselves as politicians. Even the post-war decades of economic growth and investment were recently revealed to be, in the words of the Financial Times, a giant “Ponzi scheme”: ruling elites profited off the backs of the common people, many of whom lost their entire life savings. This led to hyperinflation during an unprecedented pandemic. Then, to top it all off, recent explosions literally levelled a whole city. In contrast to that grim scene, Singapore’s biggest political drama of recent months was the loss of one more Group Representative Constituency (GRC) to the Workers’ Party, leaving the political establishment structurally intact. Severe inequality plagues both nations, but thankfully, Singapore has not seen civil war or hyperinflation since independence.

Yet before the Lebanese civil war began in 1975, both nations did not look quite so different. As historian Cyrus Schayegh observed, between the 1940s and 1970s, city hubs like Beirut, Dakar and Singapore were specific types of “go-between” or “switch-cities”, connecting newly decolonised regions (the Arab East, West Africa and Southeast Asia respectively) with Western finance markets, global trade circuits, transport and communication networks. Experts, post-colonial leaders, finance and raw material alike were routed through these cosmopolitan hubs, laying the groundwork for the globalised world we take for granted today. The questions that remain, then, concerns the consequent divergence of these three cities. Why did the finance hub of the Mediterranean fail and that of Southeast Asia flourish? How contingent were the reasons underlying both cases?

The port at Beirut in 2003. Why, the author asks, did the finance hub of the Mediterranean fail and that of Southeast Asia flourish? (Photo: Ismail Küpeli)

The twentieth-century circulations of certain individuals between both cities bolster Schayegh’s working thesis of “switch-cities”. Professor Roland Puccetti was a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) before coming to Singapore in the late 1960s and early 70s to head the Philosophy department at what is now the National University of Singapore. In 2012-14, when I was studying in AUB, professors there still remembered knowing Puccetti personally. Another salient connection is Dr Ang Swee Chai, an exiled Singaporean featured in Tan Pin Pin’s banned documentary, To Singapore with Love, remembered till this day by Palestinians in Lebanon as a hero for her contributions during the Sabra and Shatila massacres. These twin circulations of foreign expert and local exile may belong to larger historical patterns not yet fully clear to us, but their traces of a forgotten structural connection continue to haunt the dramatically diverged paths of Singapore and Lebanon today.

Schayegh’s project may provoke us to challenge certain assumptions deeply embedded in our Singapore Story: to consider, for instance, the role which luck and external circumstances, in addition to political judgment and strategy, might have played in our economic leap. By inviting us to consider the element of chance, I am also asking us to be humble: let us not be so arrogant as to suppose that there is something inherently superior in us Singaporeans, compared to the Lebanese, which alone determined our present, relative stability, compared to Lebanon’s dire straits. Accepting that ‘we got lucky’ in some respects may free us up to question sacred cows we never thought to challenge. Singapore’s size and openness compel us to accept the crucial link between the domestic front and the external face, and it is this very dependency on the world order that obliges us to understand its true nature, as well as its highly unequal and uneven effects on different nations. Among the difficulties that Singapore faces at this present moment, from the pandemic to the recession, from reimagining a new economic model to cultivating home-grown Deep Tech startups, is also a difficulty in telling a new story about ourselves. Even if we don’t want to fundamentally challenge “Third World to First”, we might want a vision and story for what comes next.

Perhaps historians and the humanities have something to offer in this respect, given that past narratives and present possibilities are inextricably linked. Our understanding of our past and how we ended up here affects the locus of thinkable trajectories and imaginable paths forward. To that end, the Middle East is one among many heuristic tools we have to understand Singapore’s place in the world, and we are richer for the use of it.

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