MFA Press Release: Speech by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed at the Welcome Dinner for the Conference of Asia-Middle East Research Institutes on 5 July 2009 at 7pm

05 Jul 2009

MFA Press Release: Speech by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed at the Welcome Dinner for the Conference of Asia-Middle East Research Institutes on 5 July 2009 at 7pm


"Renewing Ties and Rebuilding Knowledge"


1 Good evening. Ahlan Wasahlan. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to Singapore and I am delighted to see so many distinguished scholars on the Middle East from both Asia and the Middle East gathered here this evening. I recall in 1976, when I first became the Editor of Berita Harian (Daily News, in the Malay Language), a local Malay daily serving basically the Muslim community here, I was given the opportunity to do short annual 'sabbaticals' overseas to widen the Editors' horizon and thinking. I chose to look at Islam/Muslims and social change. This included the Muslim world-view and their attitude towards relations with the West and non-Muslims. I went to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei to have a closer look at the communities there and how they were coping with social change, modernisation and the breaking down of borders through science and technology, trade and travel. I even went to the US and Western Europe to look at Muslim minorities there. That journey - more than physical and geographical - continues till today. In fact it is even more interesting and useful now, post 911. Among the many leaders, academicians and lay people I met, that network remains till today. They are just too many to enumerate, but I clearly remember visiting the
Al Ehram Research Institute and newspaper offices, a few universities in Ankara and Istanbul, in Amman, Saudi newspaper Editors, University Indonesia, the Institute for the Advancement of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) and the Institute for the Studies of Islam (IKIM) in Malaysia.

2 Through this and subsequent visits to the Middle East, I have been fortunate to have not only gained a better understanding of the region, but also grasped the value of first-hand interactions and direct exchanges of views. This gathering tonight is yet another valuable opportunity for such direct interactions.

Historical Linkages

3 Such exchanges between representatives from the Middle East and Asia are not unprecedented. A vessel full of Tang Dynasty ceramics and precious gold and silver dating back to the 9th century was found sunken in Indonesian waters off Belitung Island. This was not a Chinese ship; it was an Arab dhow, with wooden planks stitched together in a pattern identical to that of modern Omani dhows. Scholars believe the dhow was likely built on the Omani coast with wood from the Middle East, Africa and India's Malabar coast.

4 The dhow was probably loaded in Southern China, before setting off with its lucrative cargo for the Persian Gulf. Was this routine commercial cargo, or was it meant as a special diplomatic gesture, empire to empire, a cargo of gifts at the highest imperial level? We may never know. Why the dhow sank also remains a mystery. What is certain is that the dhow is evidence of an ancient maritime silk route that complemented the overland Silk Road and connected the peoples of Asia and the Middle East.

5 You may be interested to note that Singapore and Oman are collaborating in the reconstruction and sailing of a replica of the 9th century dhow. This project is officially called "Jewel of Muscat'". Construction on the dhow started in October 2008, and it is expected to be completed in September 2009. Following sea trials, the sailing to Singapore is projected to take place in 2010. When I was in Sana'a, Yemen, ten days ago to attend the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) Council of Ministers Meeting, I met Dr Sayyid Badr Hamad Bin Hamood Al-Busaidi, the Secretary-General of the Omani MFA, and he was all excited about the project and the potential it holds to enhance bilateral and regional cooperation.

6 The ancient dhow that was found and its cargo were part of a thriving inter-regional trade that linked Asia and the Middle East from as early as the 9th century. Then, traders from both our regions had already begun gathering together in key trading hubs to exchange valuable goods. Beyond economic exchanges, these gatherings also saw the exchange of ideas and peoples. Muslim traders brought Islam from the Muslim heartlands of the Arab peninsula to the island archipelagos of Southeast Asia. Some Arab traders sunk their roots in Southeast Asia. One of them was Syed Omar bin Ali Al-Junied who migrated from Tarim, Hadramaut in Yemen to Palembang, Indonesia. Syed Omar was not only a successful merchant, but also a philanthropist. My electoral constituency - Aljunied GRC - is named after him.

7 In Sana'a, I also met Dr Hussien Al-Gunied, the Yemeni Deputy Minister for the Environment, who, together with the Deputy Governor of Hadramaut, Mr Ahmed Junaid Al-Junaid, and the Director-General of Health and Population in Seiyun, Hadramaut, Dr Hussien Al Haddad, facilitated my visit to Tarim, the centre of Islamic scholars and religious Ulamas, in Hadramaut. Personally, it was like a dream come true visit as I had always wanted to visit Hadramaut where most of the Islamic scholars in the earlier years came from. That visit has also opened the way for more research and joint projects in terms of the early spread of Islam and the influence the Hadramis have had on this part of the world. The National Library here will also be organising an Exhibition called "Rihlah - Arabs in Southeast Asia", from February to August 2010. The exhibition would cover various aspects of Arab lives in Hadramaut (where most of the early Arabs in Singapore originated) and focus on the culture and contributions of the Arabs in Singapore and Southeast Asia. It will showcase both historical and current information, including artefacts, documents and photographs from local and international Arab associations.

8 Indeed, many Muslims in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can trace their roots all the way back to the Hadramaut in Yemen. In the Arab district here in Singapore, there are also streets named after Arab cities likes Muscat and Baghdad, a reminder of our historical exchanges. Peoples from Asia and the Middle East interacted directly with each other, contributing to a prosperous exchange that made up the ancient overland and maritime silk and spice routes; ancient links that connected the far reaches of the world economically and culturally.

Overshadowed Connections

9 However, major global developments gradually displaced these rich historical linkages. The Ming Dynasty's ban on private overseas trading contributed to the eventual halt of the bustling maritime trade route; while the overland route lost its importance as it became increasingly insecure. Direct connections between Asia and the Middle East also became overshadowed by an overarching imperial architecture. As each region succumbed to the force of imperialism, relations to Western colonial powers gained primacy. We began viewing each other through the lens of the Western colonial powers. Over time, the Western discourse began to dominate our perceptions of each other and we gradually lost direct sight of each other. Subsequently, even as we overcame colonialism through nationalist struggle, our perceptions remained mediated by dominant Western paradigms.

Current Upheavals

10 Today, the world is once again undergoing dramatic change. The current global economic crisis has plunged the world into great uncertainty and accelerated some existing trends. This economic upheaval may be accompanied by political ones, and some countries will respond better than others to these changes. It is unclear how exactly the world will look like after the global economy finally recovers. But it is likely to be a different world, and we are likely to see enhanced roles for emerging regions such as Asia and the Middle East. Even before the current turmoil, Asia was steadily gaining a larger slice of the global economic pie. According to the Economist, Asia's share of the world GDP has increased from 26% in 1990 to just under 40% [38%] in 2007. Powered by the twin engines of China and India, this share is expected to increase. With its growing economic clout, the likes of China and India would also seek to play a larger role in global affairs, if only to safeguard their global economic interests.

11 Energy will remain an important pillar in Asia-Middle East relations. The Arab world, together with Iran, will account for a rising share of the world's oil production, from 30% today to almost 40% [about 38%] in 2030. At the same time, Asia is expected to increase its oil consumption, with China alone expected to account for over 40% of the increase in the world's oil demand through to 2030. Nevertheless, Asia is shedding its one-dimensional view of the Middle East as simply a source of energy. In the wake of 9/11, some Muslims faced increased restrictions on movement and investment in the West. The Dubai Ports World incident in 2005 is a good example. And these difficulties compelled Middle Eastern investors to turn eastward for easier and better investment opportunities, expanding the economic scope of engagement between the two regions.

Renewing Ties

12 The events of 9/11 also reminded the world of the Middle East's great cultural and political significance. Politically, issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue continue to resonate strongly with Muslim communities everywhere, including here in Asia; issues such as the Iranian nuclear issue also have serious security implications for the world. Countries increasingly recognise that maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East is in everyone's interest. Asia is no exception. We are interested in all aspects of developments in the Middle East - political, economic and social. In order for Asia to better engage the Middle East, there is a need to better understand the region. There is already growing Asian interest in the Middle East and scope for further collaboration. For example, on Singapore's part, we became the first country to conclude an FTA with the GCC when we signed the GCC-Singapore FTA in December 2008. Beyond trade, we have seen increasing investments in projects in the region, assisting in training officials, infocommunications development and cooperating in education. Indeed, we are honoured that a Singaporean was chosen as the first President of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology! However, this is just what a small country like Singapore can do; larger Asian countries can no doubt do even more.

Rebuilding Knowledge

13 As we reinvigorate ties with the Middle East, we do not focus solely on economic and political collaboration. Instead, we also seek a fuller understanding of the multi-faceted and complex Middle East. We recognise it is not a monolithic region but rich and diverse like our own region. A better understanding of the region will better facilitate our engagement. Fortunately, Asia is not starting from a blank slate. We are merely brushing away centuries of dust to rediscover the historical ties that had bound our regions together. But as we retrace the connections first established through the ancient trade routes, we must acknowledge the passage and effect of time. A look at the towering skylines of modern cities such as Shanghai and Dubai will impress upon us that both regions have changed and progressed.

14 Here in Asia, we need to update and rebuild our knowledge of the Middle East through direct interaction and understanding. No longer should Asia and the Middle East rely solely on prevalent Western paradigms and scholarship to understand each other. Asia has a different point of reference from the West.

15 Asia already has some experience in such an endeavour. Asian media channels have been established to share Asian perspectives on developments right here in our region. Our Channel News Asia in Singapore is one such example. Sometimes, the views articulated are different from the prevalent views presented on Western media giants like CNN and BBC. Sometimes, the views are similar. But always, these media channels project an Asian point of view that contributes to the discourse on Asia, ensuring that it is not shaped entirely by the Western media giants.

16 In a similar way, we in Asia have our own unique basis for understanding the Middle East. Our relations with the Middle East are tainted neither by the Crusades nor colonialism. While we do not start with a completely blank slate, we also proceed with no historical baggage. As such, we Asians must strengthen first hand research and generate Asian scholarship that is distinct from Western scholarship. This is not to say we should ignore Western scholarship. Rather, Asian scholarship, with the collaboration of Middle Eastern academics and experts, can complement and challenge dominant Western views of the Middle East, contributing to a fuller debate and a clearer understanding of the region. Western scholarship has its merits and should be used to augment and enhance our own understanding. But first, we must have our own views.

17 To do so, we must encourage Asian researchers to focus on the Middle East. We can also stimulate inter-regional discussion and collaboration: Middle Eastern academics can guide Asian scholars and facilitate direct understanding and analysis. To this end, I am glad there is a growing number of research institutions on the Middle East in Asia engaged in precisely this endeavour. A number of such institutes are represented right here at the Conference, including Singapore's own newly established Middle East Institute, which is hosting this inaugural Conference. It is my hope that this Conference can serve to initiate long-term collaborative relationships between Asian and Middle Eastern institutes, and become a regular event for scholars from both regions to gather, network and exchange views.


18 My understanding of Islam and social change was enriched immeasurably by the numerous conversations and direct interactions I had when I was travelling in the various Arab and Islamic countries. It cemented my firm belief in the benefit of direct dialogue and inter-regional discussions. Like my learning experience throughout my 'journeys' since the 1970s, this Conference provides a valuable opportunity for inter-regional interactions. It is also a platform for further wide-ranging interactions between our two regions on the developments in the Middle East. And at its heart, the gathering of peoples from Asia and the Middle East is a revisiting and reinvigoration of ancient ties that have been neglected for too long. As such, I would like to thank MEI for providing this valuable opportunity to encourage inter-regional interaction and greater Asian scholarship on the Middle East. Thank you also to everyone supporting this Conference and its objectives. I hope this will be the first step in a long and continuous process of rediscovery and wish all of you a successful and fruitful Conference. Thank you.

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