The recent detention of Singaporean Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff for terrorism-related activities reveals yet another layer of subterranean threats to the country's multi-religious and secular existence. The 44-year-old had lived in Australia for 14 years since leaving Singapore with his family, after he had agitated for primary schoolgirls to be allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf in schools here. A doctoral student at an Australian university, he could have been expected to possess the critical acumen to adopt an intellectually reflective approach to religion and society in the contemporary world. Instead, he has been arrested for having employed the subterfuge of countering Western media to spread an insidious ideology. It would replace, through violence if necessary, the secular, democratic nation-state with an Islamic caliphate governed by syariah law in Singapore.
The impressionable are swayed by the persuasions of those whom they view as their intellectual superiors. This case provides a sad example of those whose words motivate others to harm and kill while they remain in the shadows of retribution. Their indirect warfare is as dangerous, if not more so, than those who actually fight. Unlike the latter, who have to consider the personal calculus of choice and consequence, ideologues enjoy physical impunity until they are discovered and prevented from misleading others. The detention of the man, who had radicalised other Singaporeans, sends out that deterrent message.
The larger message, however, is that Singapore is not a battlefield for religious warriors in the making. It is reasonable for religious communities to employ the vocabulary and idiom of their particular faiths in communicating and interacting with believers within the fold. However, particularist religious discourse cannot be allowed to dominate - let alone silence - the voice of the wider multi-religious society which makes the open pursuit of religions possible in the first place. Secular law, precisely because it does not originate in religion, exists to facilitate civility in speech and action among faith communities. Incendiary speech geared to incitement is an attack on that common space. It is ironically instructive that Zulfikar practised his right to free speech in a country wedded to that idea when, in reality, his words were designed to undermine the very foundations of Australian, Singaporean and other democratic secular societies.
The move to bring all Islamic teachers in Singapore under a national recognition scheme helps to reaffirm the parameters of religious coexistence. And the setting up of an Islamic college, to produce religious leaders who are well-grounded in Singapore's multiracial and multi-religious society, could lead the way in producing an elite whose academic credentials and personal credibility would guide their co-religionists.