Difficult for vetting process to pick up on signs of radicalisation; employers should not start looking at race or religion of potential hires: Shanmugam

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also cautioned that people may start thinking along racial lines due to recent arrests.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also cautioned that people may start thinking along racial lines due to recent arrests.ST PHOTO: ROYSTON SIM

SINGAPORE - Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said no vetting process could have detected Muhammad Khairul Mohamad's radical leanings when he signed on as an auxiliary police officer in 2015.

The Ministry of Home Affairs on Tuesday (June 20) announced that Khairul, who was part of the Aetos Traffic Enforcement Division, had been detained under the Internal Security Act for his intention to undertake armed violence in Syria with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

An outrider at the Woodlands Checkpoint, Khairul began reading up online about the conflict in Syria in 2012, and in 2014 tried reaching out to a foreign militant and supposed FSA supporters.

On Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam told reporters Khairul studied in an ITE, and held some odd jobs before joining Aetos.

"I'm not sure that any vetting process would have picked it up at that time the officer joined in 2015. There were no obvious signs and it would have been difficult to have picked it up," he said.

"And I think it would be very wrong to suggest that employers start vetting Muslim candidates in a different way, and that will have the very opposite effect of what you want."

He cautioned that incidents like these may cause people to start thinking along racial lines, or prompt employers to start looking at race or religion of potential hires.

However, he added that Singapore's social compact is strong enough to withstand this, and the firm bonds between the different races and religions will stand the country in good stead.

The non-Muslim community has a responsibility to keep this incident in perspective, and understand such episodes are isolated, he said, as he warned against allowing Islamophobia to creep in.

"It is our duty to reach out and make sure that the Muslim community feels and continues to feel the bond, and be able to strengthen these bonds," he added.

But the Muslims too - particularly community and religious leaders - must ensure the community reaches out and participates in activities to strengthen the bonds between the different groups here. This can help inoculate society against radicalism.

MHA said Khairul became convinced that the Syrian conflict was a "holy war" after he read up about it online. As a Sunni Muslim, to join the fight against the Shi'ites in Syria by joining the FSA.

In 2014, he reached out to a foreign militant over Facebook, as well as two other individuals he believed to be FSA supporters, in a bid to find out how he could make his way to Syria.

Several of Khairul's friends and relatives knew of his intention to fight in Syria, but none of them alerted the authorities, said the MHA.

Meanwhile, his colleague Rizal Wahid - who worked as an armed officer conducting general security duties at the Woodlands Checkpoint - not only failed to alert the authorities or Aetos management, he even suggested to Khairul various ways to get to Syria and die there as a "martyr".

Rizal was issued a restriction order for supporting Khairul's intentions to fight overseas.

The absence of reporting in Khairul's case prompted Mr Shanmugam to reiterate his call for friends and family to report those at risk of radicalisation.

"It is not possible for intelligence agencies to know everything that's going on. And family members really have a very serious responsibility, which they didn't discharge here," he said. "They have to come forward. They are helping the individual, they are helping us, they are helping the country, and we have to urge, and where we think it's necessary we will take steps."

He also told reporters Singapore is turning to diverse sources abroad for its auxiliary police officers.

It was reported last year that private security firm Certis Cisco was looking to hire Taiwanese nationals to be auxiliary police officers, making them the first group of potential hires who are not Singaporean or Malaysian.

Mr Shanmugam noted that there are now several thousand officers from Malaysia due to the difficulty of getting more Singaporeans aboard.

"Ideally we would like to get and fill up what we need from Singaporean source alone. We've been forced to go overseas because we haven't been able to get Singaporeans, even though Singaporean officers get better terms than the foreign officers. When you go overseas, I think you need to diversify your sources because if, for example, for some reason we cannot get more officers from Malaysia, we'll be stuck without any other source. That's why we look at Taiwan."