US hoping Singapore will help control Malacca straits

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abdar Rahman Koya

Jumada' al-Ula' 13, 1425 2004-07-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 5, Jumada' al-Ula', 1425)

A useful characteristic of George W. Bush and his cronies is their openness in dealing with America’s enemies, thus making known the US’s probable next course of action. Last month, a remark from none other than Donald Rumsfeld about bringing US forces into the busy Malacca Straits, shared by southeast Asian countries, laid bare the US’s grand designs for this Muslim-majority region.

Asked whether the US would start "hunting terrorists" in southeast Asia, Rumsfeld replied: "Well, I would hope pretty soon...We simply cannot wait for another attack and expect to defend against it. We have to go out and find those terrorist networks and the people financing them, and countries providing a safe haven for them. It is a tough thing to do." This remark confirms the widely held view among Muslims about the steady ‘Israelization’ of Singapore, the US’s staunchest ally in southeast Asia.

Rumsfeld’s comments were made in reaction to persistent efforts by Singapore, which has been hosting US naval and intelligence facilities in the region for more than a decade in defiance of its neighbours, to get a permanent American military presence in the region. Singapore’s argument of possible "terror attacks by al-Qa’ida" is the latest in a series of arguments it has put forward to Indonesia and Malaysia to convince them of the desirability of an American presence there.

Singapore’s predicament is clear. Nestled between its giant Muslim neighbours, it has always felt insecure even of its existence, and manipulated its tightly-controlled citizenry as Israel does its. Singapore is the only state in that region to have a military cooperation with the zionist state, and has its ‘national service’ (based on the zionist model of ‘military and economic contingency’) plans in place even in times of peace.

If events of the last few decades can be described as part of a greater script drawn up by various US governments, eventually to impose its military presence in the region, then the Bush administration is clearly jumping the storyline that was set up in the late eighties, when Singapore began to host American naval facilities.

Historically, the straits have been riddled with commercial and small-time pirates. Countries in the region have generally maintained control of such issues in their joint maritime defence. But for the last few months, the novel idea of "Islamic terrorists" plying the straits to disrupt shipping activities has emerged, using — yet again — conclusions from a report made by a government-backed study in Singapore. Such ‘reports’ and ‘findings’ are ten a penny in the region, issued by western-backed NGOs such as the so-called International Crisis Group, whose director was expelled by Jakarta recently, and some other terrorist-experts-cum-authors. These analyses, if true, would have resulted in Usama bin Ladin becoming the caliph of southeast Asia by the end of last year. Earlier reports of a ‘Jema’ah Islamiah’, an "offshoot of al-Qai’da" that Singapore insists does exist, have yet to be substantiated.

Last March Singapore alleged that al-Qa’ida and its affiliates could hijack cargo-ships and use them to deliver chemical or radiological bombs ("dirty bombs") to any large port city. The idea was that the Malacca Straits, which carry a quarter of the world’s trade and half its oil, will remain vulnerable to terrorist attack unless international co-operation improves. But Singapore’s idea of international ‘security cooperation’ has only one face: the presence of the US military in the region. With the US treating Singapore as its favourite poodle in the region (not unlike Kuwait during the early 1990s), the government of Singapore hopes to use this presence as a bargaining counter in its numerous disputes with Malaysia and Indonesia, which range from land-claims, migrants, border-checkpoints and water-supplies.

About 50,000 commercial ships ply the Straits of Malacca each year, carrying half of the world’s oil to countries in the East; this makes it the world’s busiest shipping lane. The Malacca Straits separates peninsular Malaysia from Sumatra and connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

In early April Thomas Fargo, the head of the US’s Pacific command, revealed a plan to use troops aboard high-speed vessels to police the Straits. Fargo also revealed that the American plans to use marines and special forces, in collaboration with ‘regional security forces’, to combat ‘terrorists’ in the Straits, had received "very large, very widespread support" from Singapore: "they’re going to help us with this," he said.

The US’s suggestion was immediately rejected by Malaysia and Indonesia, the two main countries that have rights over security in the Straits. Kuala Lumpur has issued a strong statement warning Washington to stay away from the Straits, as the security conditions there are under control. "Ensuring the security of the Straits of Malacca is the responsibility of Malaysia and Indonesia and for the present we do not propose to invite the United States to join the security operations we have mounted there," said Najib Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s defence-minister-cum-deputy-premier. "Even if they wished to act they should get our permission, as this touches on the question of our national sovereignty."

Realising that he had said too much, Fargo toned down his statement, saying that the US would work together with nations to "share intelligence", while "respecting the fundamental principle of sovereignty" of each nation, he said on June 23. Such statements tend to confirm suspicions about American grand designs in the area, now that it is finding itself short of space amid its difficulties in Iraq.

Many have opined that the current trend of Singapore to have close ties with Washington reflects its nervousness over its very survival, which is almost entirely based on strong governance and a stable economy. These two foundations, on which the country has been surviving since its expulsion from Malaysia in 1965, are now slowly collapsing. With the unemployment rate in Singapore at almost 5 per cent (the highest ever) and faced with a shortage of raw materials (unlike its neighbours), the regime has decided that cosying up to Uncle Sam may be its only chance of survival, taking cues from tiny Israel’s survival in an "ocean of Arabs".

Despite its size Singapore already has a history of confrontation with neighbouring Muslim governments. Its latest noise-making over ‘terrorists’ in the Malacca Straits is only one of several attempts to justify the direct physical presence of the US in the Far East. Ultimately, it hopes Washington will be able to handle its Muslim neighbours better. But at the moment Washington is keeping mum, saying that there will be no American troops deployed here. But what else should anyone expect? With a strong satellite state such as Singapore, and huge amounts of oil-wealth in the Muslim countries of the region, the only jigsaw-piece still missing is US intervention.

Fargo’s veiled threat in Kuala Lumpur on June 23 — that the US expects each nation "to take action within their own sovereign space to deal with these problems," is enough evidence that the US’s decades-old plans to turn the area into another Persian Gulf is entering its final phase.

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