A Geographer Reads the Newspapers 1.


Singapore is a microscopic island-country. It should be poverty-stricken: it’s tiny and has no natural resources. In fact, it is very prosperous. It has a great port and it is located at one end of the Malacca Straits, a major world shipping channel between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Need fuel or repairs or supplies? Stop in Singapore. Picking up or dropping off a cargo for anywhere in Southeast Asia? Stop in Singapore. Business generates profits (ka-ching!) and those profits mean that Singapore is a good place to borrow money. So, you’ve got a good idea for a pot plantation on a remote island or a new textile factory in Bangladesh or a TS brothel on Soi Cowboy? Stop in Singapore. These “core” businesses than send out local shock-waves. What that means is that there are sky-scrapers, office buildings, and slums all over the place. However, you can’t build these without construction workers.

In contrast, Bangladesh is an economic disaster area. It is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of poor people. The “surplus” population is shoved off to work abroad in Malaysia, the Persian Gulf, and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi workers abroad then send home part of their pay to the wife or mother back home. These are called “remittances.” The remittances help keep afloat the national economy. At the same time, Karl Marx mistakenly described religion as “the opiate of the people.” Truth is, sometimes it is the “speed” of the people. A lot of miserable Bangladeshis have embraced radical Islam. This scares the government of Bangladesh, so it locks up a lot of the leaders.

Singapore’s population is 74% of Chinese descent, 13.4% of Malay descent, 9.2% of Indian descent, and 3.3% of other descent. About 15 percent of the population is Muslim. In short, it is a Chinese island with a bunch of non-Chinese. Most Muslims are immigrant laborers.

Sometime in the week of 17-24 January 2016, Singapore deported 27 men back to their home country of Bangladesh.[1] The police in Singapore had suspected the men of being involved with Islamic militants. They were all members of the same “study group”[2] that had turned to Islamic radicalism. Singapore announced that the men were linked to Al Qaeda and/or ISIS, and that they had been planning terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.

The government of Bangladesh then charged 14 of the men as terrorists. The other 13 were released to their families (whose addresses were, no doubt, noted for future reference). The police said that the men held radical Islamist beliefs, but they hadn’t broken any law in Singapore.[3] However, the government press release insisted that the accused were not affiliated with either Al Qaeda or ISIS. They were just, you know, ordinary Islamist fanatics. Possibly, the government suggested, they were linked to the opposition parties. (Wink, wink.) Nor were the men planning a terrorist act inside Bangladesh. Nor had they been “radicalized” while they were in Bangladesh. Instead, they had become radicalized while in Singapore.[4]

Singapore is a golden link in a chain of prosperity, poverty, and migration in South-East Asia.   That chain is now under stress.

[1] Julfikar Ali Manik, “Terrorism Charges Filed in Bangladesh Against 14 Men,” NYT, 24 January 2016.

[2] Probably they weren’t debating “what would Mohammad drive?”

[3] So, in Singapore you can be arrested and deported because the cops don’t like the look on your face. Bear this in mind when you’re making vacation plans. Still, see Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952).

[4] I still can’t give blood to the Red Cross because I was in France when there was an epidemic of “mad cow disease” and I might be a carrier. (Certainly would explain the teaching evaluations.) Same thing goes for the idea that Muslims had been radicalized in Bangladesh. If people start thinking that Bangladeshi = suicide bomber, then no more labor permits for Bangladeshis. No more remittances. The whole country sinks even before global warming goes to work.


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