Terrorists have us in their sights, warns PM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chatting with Monsignor Philip Heng (second from left), vicar-general (interreligious relations) of the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh; and Minister for
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chatting with Monsignor Philip Heng (second from left), vicar-general (interreligious relations) of the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh; and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu (back to camera) yesterday.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Community leaders must ensure social cohesion is not affected

Singapore remains a target of terrorists, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday, as he highlighted how South-east Asia is on the front line of the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

"They have us in their sights, and we have to know that," said PM Lee, in a speech at ITE College Central where he called on about 300 community leaders to ensure social cohesion is not disrupted by the terror threat.

Singapore might be an "oasis of peace", but it is not disconnected from the rest of the world, he said.

His speech comes a week after he held a dialogue with Malay/Muslim leaders on the issue, to hear their concerns and let them know the Government is on their side as they counter extremism and protect the social fabric.

The fight against terrorism is not theirs alone, he added yesterday, saying: "We are all in this together."

PM Lee pointed out that while ISIS is on the defensive in the Middle East, its followers could disperse and return to South-east Asia. Prominent ISIS fighters have been recruiting more from Malaysia and Indonesia and directing attacks on countries, including Singapore.

In a report last week, the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict said the terror network responsible for the ongoing siege of Marawi in the Philippines had urged militants to attack targets in Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar, among other places.

PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE

Our religious leaders all understand the need for accommodation. They reject extremist ideologies, they oppose exclusivist teachings. And all communities live side by side, interact with one another, each one practising its own faith and customs peacefully.

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on Singapore's racial and religious harmony.

PM Lee said ISIS has been using the fighting in Marawi as propaganda to recruit more fighters, and directing them to the Philippines, where it hopes to set up a wilayat, or province. And it is "unrealistic" for Singapore to think it will be unaffected by this, he said.

He cited a foiled plot by an ISIS-linked group last year to launch a rocket at Marina Bay Sands from Batam. "We know that there are others out there, and we also know of other attacks that had been planned but have not been carried out," said PM Lee. "Singapore is a target, we know it, they've said it, and they've acted on it."

The developments in Singapore are just as worrying, said PM Lee, highlighting three trends.

First, the authorities have detected radicalised foreigners. Several Indonesians, including maids with links to ISIS, have been sent back. Over the last two years, 40 Bangladeshi workers, who had formed a radical group here and were planning attacks in their home country, were also arrested.

Second, Singapore is seeing a steady trickle of self-radicalised citizens. "We pick up one every month or two in recent years," he said.

Last month, three Singaporeans were arrested under the Internal Security Act for terror-related offences. Infantcare assistant Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, 22, planned to travel to Syria to be a "martyr's widow". Auxiliary police officer Muhammad Khairul Mohamed, 24, was detained for planning to travel there to fight, and his colleague Mohamad Rizal Wahid, 36, was issued a Restriction Order for supporting his plan.

These cases will not be the last, PM Lee warned. He added that the psychological imp act would be much worse if Singaporeans carried out a terror attack here, compared to an attack by foreign terrorists.

A third worrying trend is how extremist and exclusivist teachings, which reject accommodation with other faiths and divide Muslims from non-Muslims, are creeping into the mainstream religious narrative here. Such practices could see Muslims told not to shake hands with non-Muslims, forbidden from wishing believers of other faiths well on holidays such as Christmas or Deepavali, and barred from accepting non-Muslim leaders.

If these "exclusivist views" gain ground, it will weaken racial harmony and make Singapore more vulnerable to extremist terrorism, PM Lee said. "It will also encourage a backlash - there will be Islamophobia, non-Muslims will begin to see Muslims in a negative light, and that would be very bad and equally unacceptable," he added.

PM Lee noted that different religions have coexisted in Singapore for more than a hundred years.

He pointed to areas such as Telok Ayer Street and South Bridge Road, where places of worship of different faiths are "all coexisting peacefully, all neighbours and friends".

Such racial and religious harmony was built through years of patience, where people understand the need "to accommodate one another, to exercise give and take", he said.

"Our religious leaders all understand the need for accommodation. They reject extremist ideologies, they oppose exclusivist teachings. And all communities live side by side, interact with one another, each one practising its own faith and customs peacefully."

After his speech, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu chaired a panel comprising PM Lee, Deputy PM Teo Chee Hean, and ministers Yaacob Ibrahim, Heng Swee Keat and Masagos Zulkifli.

Jamae Mosque chairman Shaick Fakrudeen told The Straits Times that the session was "fruitful and open". He said: "We understand that we have to support each other and stay united to face these challenges."

Said Eurasian Association president Benett Theseira: "Only through such discussions can people understand what the problems are, and how we can work together to overcome issues and bridge gaps in understanding."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'Terrorists have us in their sights, warns PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe