Twenty years ago today, Prof S. Jayakumar called me at home to tell me about a major terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Prof Jayakumar was then Minister for Foreign Affairs (and concurrently for Law), and I happened to be Acting Prime Minister in Mr Goh Chok Tong's absence. I turned on the television to see the two towers in flames, and watched in horror later as they collapsed one after the other.
Our world changed overnight. But what we needed to do immediately was clear. We issued a strong statement to condemn the attacks, express solidarity with the United States, and convey condolences to the victims and their families. We reached out to Singaporeans in the US to make sure they were safe, and checked if they needed consular assistance. We put the SAF and Home Team on alert, and tightened security measures across the board, to prepare for the worst.
Beyond physical security
The dangers appeared far sooner and nearer than we had imagined. We discovered right here among us a terrorist group having a common ideology and direct links with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan - the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group.
On 9/11, JI members were already in advanced planning for simultaneous truck bomb attacks on multiple targets in Singapore, including the US Embassy and other Western interests. Fortunately, the Internal Security Department acted swiftly to disrupt the group, in time to prevent a disaster.
Internationally, we cooperated with other countries to share intelligence and to fight a common scourge. The SAF participated in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and contributed to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Iraq. Terrorist groups in these faraway places were serious threats to Singapore.
But for multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore, terrorism was not just a threat to our physical safety. The greater danger was to our mutual trust and social cohesion.
In the face of jihadist terrorism, and especially after several Singaporean members of the JI were detained, non-Muslims in Singapore could easily have become fearful and suspicious of their Muslim neighbours, colleagues and friends. And Muslims in turn, feeling distrusted and threatened, could have closed in on themselves. We would have been divided by race and religion. And if an attack had actually taken place here, our society could have been torn apart.
But we drew on the trust built up over many years among our different communities and with the Government, overcoming sensitive issues together in an even-handed way for the collective good. In an existential crisis, Singaporeans instinctively pulled together, and responded strongly and cohesively to keep ourselves safe.
Community and religious leaders from all groups and faiths came out to condemn the terrorist attacks, and stood in solidarity with one another. In particular, Muslim leaders were forthright in repudiating the terrorists, and they guided the community on the true teachings of Islam. Non-Muslim leaders, too, spoke up in support of religious tolerance and to express confidence in their fellow Singaporeans.
The Government held open discussions with leaders of all groups, so that everyone understood the stakes, and that the public signal was clear and reassuring. We gave closed-door briefings to the key leaders, to take them into confidence and share with them sensitive intelligence and threat assessments.
At the grassroots, we organised Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles all over Singapore. These local networks of leaders who knew and trusted one another were meant to manage any racial and religious tensions after a terrorist attack.
We also sought to rehabilitate those led astray by the violent extremist ideology. This relied on close partnership between the Government and the Muslim community. Respected Muslim leaders like Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamed and Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi bin Hassan formed the Religious Rehabilitation Group. They laboured patiently and unremittingly to persuade these individuals of the error of their ways, and guide them back to become good Muslims and citizens. Several Muslim organisations came together to form the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group. They helped these individuals put their lives back on track, and provided social, emotional and financial support to their families. Happily, in most cases, these efforts succeeded.
Because we did all this, our racial and religious harmony held, and indeed strengthened. This was vital, as the threat was real and continuing. In the years since 9/11, we witnessed the Bali bombings, attacks in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, and the siege of Marawi in southern Philippines.
Singapore, too, remains a prime target. More than once, terrorists planned attacks on Singapore, including one to hijack and crash an airliner into the Changi Airport control tower, and another to launch rockets at Marina Bay Sands from Batam. Thankfully, these attacks were pre-empted, and Singapore stayed safe.
The legacy of 9/11
Two decades after 9/11, the fight against terrorism is far from over. Extremist terrorism has metastasised. Digital media has amplified the poison. Al-Qaeda was succeeded by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has lost physical territory but continues to operate, including online. Lone-wolf attackers have self-radicalised on the Internet. Some are jihadists, but others espouse other violent rabid ideologies.
This year, we arrested two self-radicalised Singaporean youths who were preparing lone wolf attacks - one on a synagogue, the other on a mosque. And now that the US has left Afghanistan, we will have to watch closely how the situation there develops, whether groups based in Afghanistan will again threaten our security, and where else new fronts of terrorism may emerge.
At the same time, our racial harmony is still a work in progress. 9/11 showed how powerful are the forces that can pull us apart, and how careful we must be when making any changes to the formula that has delivered racial and religious harmony for Singapore.
Never assume we have overcome for good the tendency of people to identify with their own racial and religious groups. We have to keep on bringing all the communities closer together, and from time to time adjust the delicate balance that the different communities have reached.
The price of security is eternal vigilance. The price of harmony is an unflagging effort to uphold and realise ever more fully our nation's founding ideal to become one people, regardless of race, language, or religion.
Singaporeans' shared experience of 9/11 and its aftermath is another formative chapter in our nation-building journey. On its 20th anniversary, let us resolve to fortify ourselves so that should we ever face another such test one day, we will come through again, stronger, as one united people.