Uneasy Birthdays for Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia
Fabio Scarpello | Bio | 10 Aug 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive

DENPASAR, Indonesia -- August is celebration time in Southeast Asia, where Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are donning their best dresses and marking their respective independence days.

However, while parades snake through the streets, fireworks light up the night sky and politicians try to outdo each other with poignant speeches and lists of their countries' achievements, unresolved problems and the emergence of new ones in the three countries are dampening the spirits of average citizens.

Singapore's Income Gap

Behind Singapore's glitz and gloss, the country's long-term prosperity -- and perhaps its social harmony -- is threatened by an ever-widening wealth gap that indicates the poor are missing out on enjoying the benefits of the country's remarkable success.

Singapore was founded as a British trading colony in 1819. It joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, but left two years later and became independent on Aug. 9, 1965. A former fishing port with no natural resources, the city-state has been an extraordinary success story, becoming one of the world's most prosperous countries and Asia's second-richest nation in terms of per capita income.

Yet not everybody is reaping the benefits of the economic growth that has continued at an average rate of 7.6 percent since 2004.

According to official figures, over the past five years Singapore's wealthiest 10 percent have seen their income rise by 2.3 percent annually, while the poorest 10 percent have suffered a yearly 4.3 percent drop in their incomes.

The latest World Wealth Report, complied annually by Capgemini for Merrill Lynch, shows that the number of Singaporeans with at least $1 million in assets grew by 21 percent last year. Thus, 67,000 people -- or 1.48 percent of the city-state's 4.5 million inhabitants -- are millionaires. Yet 60 percent of the population earns too little to pay tax and must work long hours to make ends meet.

Economists and social scientists worry that long-term wage stagnation for Singapore's poor could lead to social instability.

Indonesia's Military Problem

Indonesia has seen remarkable democratic progress since the end of the Suharto regime in 1998, but the country's national military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) has progressed relatively little along the path of reform.

The Portuguese came to Indonesia in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch, who occupied most of the archipelago for 350 years. Indonesia was also under British and Japanese rule before it declared independence on Aug. 17, 1945. After a rocky start under President Sukarno and Suharto's 32-year military regime, over the last nine years the country has turned itself into the best functioning democracy in the region and an example of how a democratic system and Islam can coexist.

The TNI is a blemish on this otherwise positive record.

The military's reach into Indonesian politics has been diminished, considering that during the Suharto years it had its own faction in parliament and could nominate members to govern regions. But it remains only partly accountable to civilian authority, maintains a number of legal and illegal businesses, and is still accused of human rights abuses.

The need for urgent reform was once more highlighted by the death of four civilians at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers last May. (See: "Deadly Clash Renews Debate Over Abuses by Indonesian Military" )

The TNI's lack of accountability becomes a particularly dangerous cocktail when mixed with Indonesia's hysteria in dealing with independence movements that are still strong in some corners of the archipelago.

This is particularly clear in the easternmost region of Papua, where the TNI is accused of abuses as well as being involved in much of the organized crime that flourishes there.

Malaysia's Identity Crisis

Just across the Malacca Strait, in Malaysia, a debate about whether the country is an Islamic state is the latest episode in a saga that is testing the ability of Muslims, Chinese and Indians to coexist. (See: "Religious, Ethnic Tensions Threaten to Blow the Lid Off Malaysia's Melting Pot") )

In 1948, the British-ruled territories on the Malay Peninsula formed the Federation of Malaya, which became independent on Aug. 30, 1957. The Federation became Malaysia in 1963, when Singapore (briefly), Sabah and Sarawak joined.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has recently said that Malaysia is neither a secular nor an Islamic state. But his words have failed to stop the raging debate started last month by his deputy, Najib Razak, who said that "Malaysia has never been a secular state."

The country is experiencing creeping Islamicization, with shariah, or Islamic law, slowly encroaching on areas previous governed by secular law and radical Islamic groups more frequently allowed to vent their religious zeal in threatening fashion.

Often cited as an example of inter-religious coexistence, Malaysian non-Muslims are feeling more and more uneasy about the government's unwillingness to protect their constitutional rights. The tension threatens the country's political stability, which has allowed Malaysia to grow into one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant economies over the last decades.

Kuala Lumpur's pro-Muslim stance is also reflected in government social and economic policy, where ethnic Malays -- who are the country's Muslims, and make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people -- still enjoy positive discrimination that was meant to end decades ago.

Calls by ethnic minorities to return to a level playing field have been answered with threats from Muslim politicians, several of whom have said that Malay-Muslims are prepared to spill blood to defend against attempts to undermine their privileged status.