Photo of Kishore Mahbubani Kishore Mahbubani
Why Singapore hums while riots sweep France
By Roger Cohen, Globalist, International Herald Tribune, 9 November 2005

Paris is burning. Singapore is purring. That contrast is worth some reflection.

Granted, a venerable European nation of 60 million people, set in its ways and uncertain about the future, is not readily comparable with a 40-year-old Asian city state-with a population of 4.2 million, a restless appetite for innovation and more love for its venerable "minister mentor," Lee Kuan Yew, than democracy.

But the world is getting smaller, a shrinking that France does not love. With distances bridged by technology, choices are made all the time, by individuals and corporations, about where best to locate. Singapore is a multiracial society with a large Muslim minority. So is France. But their approach to that shared characteristic could scarcely differ more.

Traumatized by deadly riots in the 1960s between ethnic Chinese and mainly Muslim Malays, Singapore has long practiced various forms of affirmative action what the French call "positive discrimination" in an effort to smooth relations between its various races and religions.

It has prevented the formation of ethnic ghettos of the kind now ringing Paris and Lyon by imposing mixed populations, through a system of quotas, on all public housing projects. Educational subsidies have been designed to spur the social mobility of less privileged Malays in a society where more than 75 percent of the population is of Chinese descent.

"Our goal has been a race-blind meritocracy and we have been ruthless in pursuing it," said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Mahbubani, a former ambassador to the United Nations, is himself Hindu, the son of penniless immigrants from what is now Pakistan, married to a Christian, and the recipient of scholarships that hoisted him from poverty that once saw him in a feeding program for undernourished children.

Of course "race-blind meritocracy" is a description many in France would embrace for their own society, although a strict link between merit and reward might smack too much of unbridled capitalism for some Gallic tastes.

Still, the Republic, with its fine public schools, is supposed to be a land of opportunity for all, irrespective of race or religion. That, in some degree, is what the catalytic slogan for the modern age "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" is mythologized to be all about.

The problem is that a French system that successfully absorbed waves of Portuguese, Polish and other immigrants is bust. That's the lesson of the mayhem that has followed the deaths of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, two Muslim youths of African origin electrocuted in a power station as they fled the police in Clichy- sous-Bois on Oct. 27.

Nobody knows exactly how many Muslims there are in France perhaps four million to six million. Nobody knows in part because it's illegal to compile a census based on religious or ethnic criteria. Everybody's French, you see, or so the official line goes.

The problem is that if you apply for a job and your name is Muhammad you're a lot less French than if your name is Pierre. The problem is that if you aspire to sit in a corporate boardroom or get elected to the National Assembly, being black or Muslim is, on the evidence, a serious handicap.

That's one reason Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister who has unhelpfully dismissed the rioters as thugs, suggested this year that France may be ripe for some "positive discrimination." He has a point.

A deeper problem is that the Muhammads of Clichy-sous-Bois, or any ghettoized suburb, are scarcely encouraged to apply for jobs at all. They live in a culture where various unemployment benefits, and the various protections offered legions of fonctionnaires, promote dependency and discourage initiative.

The result is low growth, unemployment in the 10 percent region, a culture of grumbling, the growth of suburban Islamic radicalism, and, when the simmering pot boils, devastation. Without economic opportunity, racial and religious tensions fester.

Contrast the French malaise with Singapore, where the economy grew 8 percent last year, unemployment of about 4 percent is high by historical standards, and talk is of the opportunities offered by the dramatic rise of China and India.

A Louis Harris poll this month showed 61 percent of French people have a negative view of capitalism. Singaporeans, and they are not alone, find that weird.

Not that Singapore is free of ethnic tensions, of course. Last month, a court sentenced two ethnic Chinese to short prison terms for posting racist remarks on the Internet about Islam and ethnic Malays.

Benjamin Koh, 27, and Nicholas Lim, 25, had become incensed by a public debate over whether Singapore taxis should be barred from carrying dogs out of respect for Muslims who view the pets as unclean.

In a blog, Koh, an animal shelter worker, mocked Islam and its most holy site, Mecca. The two men were convicted under the country's Sedition Act, never previously used, which bars the incitement of racial hatred.

As the invocation of that act suggests, Singapore takes its laws and religious harmony seriously. It prizes stability and discipline above all, values inculcated by Lee Kuan Yew, the modern state's founder, and only modestly loosened by his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister. Books and movies deemed destabilizing are banned. So, astonishingly, are satellite dishes.

France's troubled suburbs are full of such dishes receiving programs from Algeria and Morocco. That's fine although it's also a reflection of a cultural gulf seldom acknowledged by the French government. The Singapore model, to state the obvious, is not an option for France.

But France might reflect on this. Mahbubani's son was just commissioned as an officer in the Singapore Army. Religious leaders were invited to bless the young lieutenants. Among the religious authorities present were Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, Sikhs and Zoroastrians.

France is a lay society officially blind to religious differences. Such a ceremony would be unthinkable. But differences, of races and religion, are growing and can only be bridged if acknowledged.

Last modified on 23 July, 2007 by Wang Deliang