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Singapore: Muslim Affirmative Action Proposal Sparks Controversy - 2003-01-23

A member of Singapore's ruling party has sparked controversy by proposing an affirmative action program for Muslim minorities, so those feeling disaffected would not be susceptible to recruitment by terrorist groups.

Singapore's Parliament has been reeling with debate this week on the controversial idea of special preferences for Muslims as a way to counter the appeal of militant Islam used by some terrorist organizations. The issue was introduced Monday by lawmaker K. Shanmugam, a prominent trial lawyer elected to Parliament in 2001. He made the suggestion at a session devoted to the government's White Paper on regional terrorist threats.

Mr. Shanmugam acknowledged he was risking mild heresy in the city-state, which upholds the principle of merit and rejects favoritism in the multi-racial society. But he said there is a perception in Singapore that the Muslim minority, mostly ethnic Malays, is less able and competitive and this creates a social divide - which can be exploited by terrorists and militants looking for recruits.

But critics of the idea, like another ruling party lawmaker, Tan Cheng Bock, dispute the premise that Muslim Malays are disadvantaged and want preferential treatment. He says they had made significant advances in education and income. "They don't want symbolic icons of success. They want to be at the top on their own merit," he says. "They've come this far on their on, so there's no need for special treatment. They don't want to devalue the Malay community's position in society. So let us be on our guard. Affirmative action is potentially divisive."

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng came down even harder when he rejected the caricature of the Malay community as an under-performing, discriminated ethnic group, which needs a hand-out by way of affirmative action in order to succeed. Singapore's population is 77 percent ethnic Chinese, 14 percent Malay Muslims and the rest ethnic Indians, Eurasians and other races.

Singapore has been at the forefront of identifying and foiling terrorist plots from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Southeast Asia's link to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

JI aims to create a Muslim super-state compromising Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Thirty-one suspected JI militants are in custody in Singapore, accused of planning to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other targets as part of efforts to destabilize the region.

Mr. Shanmugam said he did not regret raising the prickly issue of affirmative action for Muslims despite the barrage of rejections. He defends it as necessary and useful in the fight against terrorism.