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Religion, terrorism and threats to Singapore, the region

Politics and events in the Middle East have made the region fertile ground for terrorism, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said at a symposium by RSIS' Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme yesterday. Below is an edited excerpt of his speech.

Over the last few decades in this region, religion, particularly Islam, has been used as a tool in political power play. Exclusiveness based on religion was advocated. A nexus between political power and the clergy developed in some places. Broad-minded multiculturalism was de-emphasised. An "us" versus "them" mentality was encouraged. Sometimes it was cynical exploitation, for very secular ends.

The zealots want to overthrow elected governments and establish a caliphate.

Malaysian society has fundamentally changed. Look at a study by Merdeka Centre last year. Among Malay respondents, the most important trait was that the Malaysian Prime Minister should have Islamic credentials. Sixty per cent of Malaysian Malays identified themselves as Muslims first, rather than as Malaysians or Malays. If you look at support for syariah law, 71 per cent of Malay respondents supported hudud laws, which include the amputation of hands for thefts and stoning for adultery. Support was greater among younger Malays than older ones.

The current situation has been shaped by deliberate choices made over decades, about how public discourse on religion was to be conducted. It is useful to see some trends on what is happening in the public sphere in Malaysia. What happens in Malaysia is highly relevant for us.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, in his opening address at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme yesterday, emphasised the importance of tolerance, and of safeguarding Singapore's multiracial, multi-ethnic
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, in his opening address at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme yesterday, emphasised the importance of tolerance, and of safeguarding Singapore's multiracial, multi-ethnic society. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Terengganu, an Umno-ruled state, introduced closure of supermarkets and shops during Friday prayers, public shaming of Muslims who skip Friday prayers. Then there was criticism by some leaders against Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi. She won multiple SEA Games medals, including two golds. She was criticised for her gymnastics attire.

These are some indications that help us understand the trends in society. Malaysia as a whole has become much more Islamic. Politics led the change. Now that society has changed, politics will change even more and religion and politics will become even more closely linked. Against the backdrop of such changes, a section of the Malaysian population has begun to support extremist terrorist ideology. A recent Pew Research Centre study showed 10 per cent of Malaysian Malays had a favourable opinion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Consider the nature of the threat posed, if even a small fraction of these become radicalised.

The Malaysian authorities have foiled several ISIS-inspired attack plots and arrested several persons involved in ISIS activities. There were personnel from the armed forces and security forces including commandos (as was reported in the media), police officers, civil servants and healthcare workers. These individuals enjoyed access to weapons, sensitive locations and information. They would have posed a great and severe security threat. The developments are obviously very, very troubling.

INDONESIA

In Indonesia, several militant groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Some pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and madrasahs are suspected to be linked to terror networks. There is suspicion that money from the Middle East has been funnelled through these institutions. The prisons, where many Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorists are held, have been breeding grounds for radicalisation and recruitment for ISIS.

The threat is made worse by the impending release of a large number of terrorist prisoners which increases the risk in the region. Indonesia does not have preventive detention laws which can be used against these people. So hundreds of prisoners have already been released or will become eligible for release by the end of this year. They include JI-linked terrorists previously involved in plots against Singapore and Western targets in Indonesia.

In fact, two of the attackers in the recent Jakarta attacks had been convicted of terror-related crimes and were reportedly released from prison earlier.

Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar all face possibilities of inter-religious strife with their ethnic Muslim populations.

The home-grown conditions and politics in our region have now been aligned with events in the Middle East, such as the rise of ISIS in Palestine and Syria. There is a proliferation of charismatic preachers who advocate intolerance and violence, with such teachings available on the Internet, with glorification of terror, violence, beheadings. These international events and trends are fusing perfectly with fertile conditions in this region, to beget violence and terror.

FOUR THREATS IN S'PORE

What does all this mean for us, in Singapore? Our very existence, as one of the most religiously diverse and tolerant societies in the world, where mosques, churches and temples are situated side by side, is unacceptable to the zealots. They consider us infidels, kaffirs who ought to be exterminated. Singapore, in their scheme, has to become part of a caliphate.

We face four types of inter- related threats in Singapore, and they are becoming more urgent. First, of course, is the threat of a terrorist attack. It is not a question of "if" but "when". Second is the threat of radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population. The third problem we face is our Muslim population growing somewhat distant from the rest of our society. The fourth, which is a very serious threat, is Islamophobia among our non-Muslim communities. Let me deal with each of these in turn.

Extremists are evolving new ways of attacking defenceless people, killing maximum numbers. We have to anticipate and prepare for the attacks which will come. This requires a strengthening of our security forces, our intelligence capabilities and border controls. Border controls, especially at the land checkpoints may be irksome, especially the long waits during festival periods and holidays. But there is not much choice.

Singapore is fairly secure. We have tight laws, tight gun control, and with intelligence work, we try to prevent attacks from happening. But attackers are likely to gather and plan just outside Singapore and attack us, like the attack on Paris was probably planned in Molenbeek, Belgium, where security was less tight. So, in addition to hard security measures, we have to do one more thing which is very urgent. We have to move to change mindsets. Our people must realise that everyone is responsible for our collective security.

Over the next few months, my Ministry will announce some of the measures covering both the hard and soft aspects of Singapore's security, including the response by the community.

Our Internet penetration is over 100 per cent. More than 90 per cent of each cohort of our young people go on to some form of tertiary education - university, polytechnic or ITE. The young are very Internet savvy, and they can see and hear preachers who glorify violence on the Internet. The talks are very slick, evocative and increasingly aimed at populations in this region, and in Malay and English. Some of our young people have been brainwashed.

Just to share with you a couple of examples. The first, a young boy in NS. He decided he will go and learn demolition specifically. He began surfing the Internet for jihadist propaganda and videos when he was in polytechnic. He wanted to take part in armed jihad overseas, and went online to search for information on bomb-making. He also produced and posted a video glorifying martyrdom and justifying suicide bombing. We detained him.

For us, National Service is the place where all our young men come together. Our parents believe that the boys are safe in National Service. If one of the boys turns his weapon on another, that will be a deep tear in the fabric of our society. Faith will be shattered and communal harmony will be at risk and Islamophobia will grow.

Another self-radicalised boy decided that he would go and fight in Syria and Iraq. If he could not, he wanted to go to the Istana during an open house and use a knife to kill the President and the Prime Minister.

RISK OF GROWING APART

As religiosity sweeps the world, Singaporeans are not immune. There is a sense that Singaporeans as a whole are becoming more religious, across more religions. There is research which backs up this conclusion. Influences from the Middle East have had an impact on our Muslim population as well.

There is a fine line between having a greater understanding of religion and practising one's religion as opposed to believing that our religion requires us to be separate. Remaining an integral part of society as a whole, celebrating our diversity, being Singaporeans first and Chinese, Malay or Indian second, as opposed to being indifferent at best, more often intolerant towards other faiths. The latter approach will spell trouble to Singapore, and the wonderful multiracial, multiethnic society that we have here will be destroyed.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke about Singaporean Chinese, Singaporean Malay, Singaporean Indian, in contrast to Chinese Singaporean, or Malay Singaporean, or Indian Singaporean. However, we have picked up among sections of our younger Muslim population, sentiments against wishing Christians "Merry Christmas" or wishing Hindus "Happy Deepavali".

Some groups preach that it is wrong for Muslims to recite the National Pledge, or sing the National Anthem, or serve National Service, as doing so would contradict the Muslim faith. Or that the democratically elected Government that we have in Singapore is incompatible with Islam, and that we should be a caliphate. These are worrying trends and if these sentiments become widespread, a Muslim community that grows apart from the mainstream is not good for Singapore and will have serious long-term implications.

We watch this closely and will do what we can. Foreign preachers are sometimes not allowed in. This is because we will not allow anyone, of any religion, who preaches that people of other faiths should be shunned or ignored.

The Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion, but the Government has to step in to protect our racial, religious harmony. We cannot allow someone to preach values which are contrary to our multicultural, multiethnic harmony. We take a firm, clear stand on that and make no apologies.

We face four types of inter-related threats in Singapore, and they are becoming more urgent. First, of course, is the threat of a terrorist attack. It is not a question of "if" but "when". Second is the threat of radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population. The third problem we face is our Muslim population growing somewhat distant from the rest of our society. The fourth, which is a very serious threat, is Islamophobia among our non-Muslim communities.

The threat of Islamophobia is a serious risk. Singapore is a unique place: Chinese comprise 74 per cent of the population. But Mandarin is not our working language, nor do the Chinese get the sort of privileges which 74 per cent of the population will expect in many societies.

We have crafted a unique set of policies emphasising multiracialism, tolerance and equality.

However, the daily, incessant news coverage of some attack somewhere in the world ranging across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia can create a general sense of suspicion of Muslims, Islam as a whole. Any home-grown radicalisation will seriously exacerbate this.

There are increasing reports of intolerance towards Muslims by non-Muslims. Singapore is not immune to such intolerance. In September, a Malay woman was walking towards a bus stop when she was approached by a man of another race, who uttered the words "suicide bomber" to her. In November, about a week after the Paris attacks, the words "Islam murderers" were found scribbled at a bus stop in Bukit Panjang and on a toilet seat at Jurong Point mall.

As yet, such acts are few and far between in Singapore. But it is difficult to assess how the mental landscape within people is shifting. If the mental landscape among a significant part of the population changes, then we will have a serious problem.

How our non-Muslim population treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. And if we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will be further pushed. The harmonious society that we have built will be at risk.

It is therefore vital that we ask the non-Muslim communities to look squarely at themselves, their attitudes and viewpoints. How supportive are they really or are they only being superficially, politically, correct? Do they accept that the vast majority of our Muslim population are tolerant, positive and are in every way Singaporean? Do we accept that it is our duty to reach out, encourage and continue to build a harmonious society where each of us, including our Muslim brothers and sisters are bonded, and keep to the ideals of Singapore?

It is important that we ensure that Muslims in Singapore enjoy good opportunities, that there is no discrimination in schools, in jobs, in society as a whole. Islamophobia will tear our society apart. We have to guard against it. It is completely unacceptable.

RESOLUTELY "US"

In the face of these threats, what will our response be? How will we respond as a Government and one people to these challenges? Since Independence, we have made determined efforts to pursue policies that bring people from all races and religions together. We live in the same neighbourhoods, our children attend the same schools; and our young men all serve National Service together.

Our religious groups and communities have come up with initiatives to preserve our common space and to contribute to the well-being of Singaporean society as a whole. In this regard, the Muslim community in Singapore has much to be proud of. You are a successful model to the modern world for your moderate, respectful worldview and practices. The community must continue to preserve and protect their way of life, despite challenges from within and without.

As tendencies towards greater religious extremism and exclusivity grow in the region, both the Government and our people must make a bigger collective effort to safeguard our racial and religious harmony. The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create sharp and violent divisions between "us" and "them". If we remain resolutely "us", one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, no force can divide us, and terrorism will be defeated.

Religious leaders have to help our population understand the true nature of terrorist ideology. The ideology of ISIS has to be countered doctrinally. That has to come from religious scholarship. The fight for hearts and minds has to come through powerfully, and through simple messages, including on social media.

The community leaders have to help lead the fight for hearts and minds in a community context for a united Singapore. The Government has an important role. It has to be vigilant. There are tough laws to prevent race and religion being used to create divisions. For example, we will not allow the burning of the Quran or the Bible, in the name of free speech in Singapore. Nor will we allow denigration of any religion or person of another race. There are limits to free speech and we will be very tough on that. We will do our best to keep Singapore safe, and ensure equality of opportunities, fairness and a fair stake for all in Singapore. We will also ensure everyone has the freedom to practise his or her religion.

Over the course of this year, in the context of challenges and terrorist threats that we face, we will announce and roll out a significant number of policies which will seek to achieve these objectives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Religion, terrorism and threats to S'pore, the region'. Print Edition | Subscribe