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Indonesia sends terror suspect to Singapore (6 February 2006)

Singapore shocker: Maid's day off (14 November 2005)

Paris is burning. Singapore is purring. That contrast is worth some reflection (9 November 2005)


Indonesia sends terror suspect to Singapore (6 February 2006)

Indonesia has arrested Singapore's most wanted man, believed to have planned bomb and plane-crash attacks on the city-state's Changi airport, and handed him to Singapore, a Jakarta official said on Monday.

The alleged plots were never carried out.

Mas Selamat Kastari was jailed on Indonesia's Riau province in 2003 for 18 months on immigration charges. Police sources said that after his release he faced another immigration problem last year and was incarcerated again, this time in East Java.

It was unclear when he was freed in East Java province but deputy national police spokesman Anton Bahrul Alam said police arrested him again two weeks ago.

"And because Mas Selamat Kastari was on the wanted list in Singapore, we handed him over to them," he told reporters.

Malaysia's the Star newspaper, quoting unnamed sources, had reported that Kastari was arrested in Java last week where he had gone to visit his son studying at a religious school.

Indonesia and Singapore have no formal extradition treaty.

Kastari, believed to belong to the Southeast Asian Islamic militant network Jemaah Islamiah, had fled Singapore in 2001.

Singapore intelligence had information that Kastari had planned to bomb Changi airport in 2002 and had also discussed with Jemaah Islamiah commander and militant cleric Hambali a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into the airport.

That alleged plan never materialised. Hambali has been in U.S. custody since 2003.

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Singapore shocker: Maid's day off (14 November 2005)

Recent news out of Singapore caused jaws to drop: Foreign domestic workers there may become entitled to one day off a month!

 
Stories of exploitation and abuse of migrant workers, especially women, in the richer countries of East Asia are so common as to barely elicit comment. But the Singapore report set off a media debate about the wisdom of allowing maids any days off. It emerged that it was common for maids not to be allowed out at all, for fear that they might wind up pregnant. Currently, an employer must pay a government fee, in addition to food, housing and medical care - and repatriate any maid who becomes pregnant. Many employers regard these impositions as reason to deprive maids of the normal rights of adults.
 
"We can't control the maids. So it's best that when we employ the maid, we tell the agent we don't want to give days off," one employer wrote to a local paper. A 2003 newspaper poll showed that 50 percent of maids got no days off; a lucky 10 percent got one day a week.
 
The news also focused attention on the role that foreign contract workers play in raising the living standards of citizens of several countries. The Singapore case stands out because of the wealth of the country, the size of its foreign labor force, the racial identity of its domestic workers and its strict regulation. Also highlighted was the widening income gap generally and the relationship of income to ethnicity in a society where the Malay 14 percent is well behind in earnings, education and unemployment but has a fertility rate double that of the Chinese majority.
 
Of a population of 4.35 million, 747,900 were nonresidents with various kinds of work permits as of 2003. The number of nonresidents has more than doubled since 1990, while the natural increase in the citizen population has been small.
 
Some nonresidents are professionals and their families, but most are manual workers, sex workers and, by some estimates, about 150,000 domestic workers. The latter are at the bottom of the underclass and are specifically exempted from the Employment Act, which provides minimum days off and maximum weekly hours.
 
Maids are allowed only from specified Asian countries, with the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka heading the list. Chinese are not on the list, which leads some to allege that only "brown people" or those from non-Confucian societies are to be employed in this most menial job. Like days off, pay is subject to individual contract and varies widely; it probably averages around 15 percent of the median income of Singaporeans in full-time employment.
 
No middle-class home is complete without a maid, which explains why the labor force participation rate, at 64 percent, is one of the world's highest.
 
Exploitation of migrant labor may be worse in countries like Malaysia and Thailand, where law enforcement is lax. But in Hong Kong, the most comparable territory, there is a minimum wage for domestic workers, and they are entitled to one day off a week and all public holidays. Admittedly, the law isn't rigorously enforced, and as everywhere, maids are gouged by employment agencies. But social restrictions are few.
 
Singapore has been making some effort to improve conditions. Prosecutions for abuse have increased and the minimum age for maids raised to 23. However, the one-day-a-month requirement will still be just a part of the individual work contract, so the employee will have to initiate action to enforce it. It can also be commuted to an overtime payment.
 
Maids apart, the rise in income inequality in Singapore has been of concern locally. The government prevents the formation of ethnic low-income ghettos by dispersing minorities around the public housing in which 78 percent of the population live. Likewise, it seeks to keep religion from becoming a public issue by stifling all debate in the name of harmony.
 
Singapore's success in keeping the lid on its growing underclass is clear enough. But behind the abundant prosperity, clean streets and superb infrastructure is another Singapore of labor exploitation. In the case of domestic workers, it is nothing less than shocking. International Herald Tribune

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Paris is burning. Singapore is purring. That contrast is worth some reflection (9 November 2005)

 
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. International Herald Tribune

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