No fears here: Bangladeshis in Singapore on recent ISA arrests

Last Wednesday's news that 27 radicalised Bangladeshi construction workers had been arrested under the Internal Security Act marked the first time that a foreign terror cell has been uncovered here. It was also the largest security crackdown in Singapore in 15 years. Zhaki Abdullah speaks to Bangladeshis working in Singapore to find out how they feel the arrests will affect their community here.

'I am not doing anything wrong'

Mr Alamin, a general worker who holds informal weekly religious classes with a small group of his peers, was told by his boss to stop them for the time being, out of concern that he would be arrested by the authorities.

"I told him I was not doing anything wrong," said the bearded 40-year-old, who peppered his conversation with quotations from the Quran and the hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

Mr Alamin first came to Singapore in 1997 and has been working in the country since then.

He is a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, an informal international Muslim missionary movement founded in India in 1927.

He said the movement has had a positive impact on his life and allowed him to reconnect with his religion.

"When I first came to Singapore, I did not pray until I joined the Tablighi Jamaat," he said.

Though a regular congregant at the Angullia Mosque, one of the places where the detainees are believed to have met to plan attacks, Mr Alamin said he had never met any of them.

He added that extremists did not properly understand the teachings of Islam.

"The Prophet Muhammad did not teach us to be violent," said Mr Alamin.

"Our jihad is not to kill people, but to encourage them to do good deeds."

Mr Alamin, who is married with two children, plans to reconvene his informal religious classes, and does not fear any possible backlash against Bangladeshis in the wake of the recent arrests.

"Allah will protect me," he said.


'Most of us are here to earn a living'

Though an S-Pass holder, commercial officer Faruk Hossain has put down roots here.

The 33-year-old has worked in Singapore for the past 12 years and lives with his wife in a rented flat in Woodlands.

Mr Faruk said he has not experienced any discrimination since news of the arrests broke.

"Most of us are here just to work and earn a living," he said. "These people who get involved with terrorism have been brainwashed. They are only causing their families to suffer."

Mr Faruk said Ali Abdul, one of the 27 arrested, was his former colleague.

He described him as a "nice guy" and said he believed Ali was an unwitting accomplice.

"I don't think he was a mastermind, I think he just got involved with the wrong people."

He said he got word of Ali's capture last November, but did not know what he was arrested for.

"There were rumours that he had been caught for terrorism," said Mr Faruk, adding that the suspicions were only confirmed when news of the arrests was reported last Wednesday.

Mr Faruk does not believe the arrests will negatively impact Bangladeshis working here in the future.

He admitted though that he was aware of the negative sentiments some locals had towards the Bangladeshi community and other foreigners working here.

"Some people think that we are here to take their jobs while other people see us as their colleagues, here to help them and work with them," said Mr Faruk. "This is more a reflection of their own mindsets than of us."


'In S'pore, people of all religions get along'

Though Bangladesh's population is more than 80 per cent Muslim, 33-year-old Kajal Bepary is more comfortable practising his religion in Singapore.

"In Bangladesh, you can get killed going to the mosque," said Mr Kajal, referring to an attack by extremists on a Shi'ite mosque last year, as well as other incidents of religiously inspired violence.

Mr Kajal, a Sunni who has worked in manufacturing here for seven years, added: "In Singapore, people of all religions, whether Muslim, Christian or Buddhist, can get along."

He said that after the arrests here, non-Muslim colleagues asked him why his countrymen would want to kill others.

"I told them that their actions don't reflect the majority of Bangladeshis or the teachings of Islam."

Mr Kajal, who studied in a madrasah (religious school) while in Bangladesh, occasionally teaches the Quran to a small group of his peers in the dormitory where they live.

He admits that due to his hectic work schedule, he is not always able to make it to the mosque for Friday prayers. However when he does, his boss, a non-Muslim, drives him and his colleagues to the mosque and picks them up after prayers.

"He is very understanding," said Mr Kajal, who plans to stay in Singapore if given the chance, and does not expect any negative reactions to Bangladeshis from people of other nationalities.

"It is very peaceful here," he added.


'Most Bangladeshis are peaceful people'

Technician Wazed Uddin believes the 27 arrested Bangladeshis were motivated by the turbulent political situation in their country.

"The government is not supportive of Islam," said the 28-year-old, who has been working in Singapore since 2009.

Bangladesh is currently governed by the secular Bangladesh Awami League, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The government has executed several members of the opposition Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami since 2013 for their involvement in war crimes during the 1971 liberation struggle

The executions were viewed by some as being politically motivated, and they are believed to be a factor in the rise of extremist violence in recent years.

"I think the ones who were arrested were members of the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT)," said Mr Wazed, referring to the banned Bangladeshi extremist group.

It is believed to be responsible for numerous incidents of violence in Bangladesh since 2013, including the high-profile murders of four atheist bloggers last year. Bangladeshi authorities believe the 27 arrested were influenced by the ABT.

Mr Wazed said he is not afraid of being repatriated to Bangladesh, and does not believe there will be any restrictions placed on his countrymen coming to Singapore to work.

"My boss said my job is safe," said Mr Wazed, who has a wife and child back in Bangladesh. "Most Bangladeshis are peaceful people. I only hope my country will be peaceful again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'No fears here'. Print Edition | Subscribe