Anti-Muslim sentiments are growing in Singapore, and this is a trend the country needs to guard against in its fight against terrorism.
Stressing this point yesterday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam warned that internal government surveys have found that while people might be "politically correct" in public, such sentiments are spreading.
He was speaking to reporters in the light of a spate of recent terror attacks, and as the terror threat in Singapore continues to be at its highest level in years.
He cited a recent act of vandalism in which the word "terrorist" was scrawled on an illustration of a Muslim woman in a hijab at the construction site of the upcoming Marine Parade MRT station. The contractor made a police report last Friday, and police are investigating.
"The Government will act strongly and without any equivocation on this. We must set our face against it, should not allow it," he said. "And non-Muslims have a duty to make sure that we also embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the Government will work towards that."
Speaking to reporters a day after a terrorist attack on London Bridge and Borough Market in Britain's capital city, Mr Shanmugam called on the community to step up and gird itself against terrorism.
"It has become routine for people to come forward and condemn. But that alone is not enough. We need to go beyond that," he said.
One way to do so is by condemning acts of terror unequivocally.
"No ifs, no buts, not just community leaders, not just religious leaders, but everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims. Come forward, make your stand clear and work for a united, tolerant, multiracial, multi- religious society," he said.
"Condemn these people and their actions in clear terms. Religious leaders have a duty to encourage their congregations to do so."
Mr Shanmugam also warned against exclusivist, divisive teachings that preachers in many other countries propagate, calling these a "poison" that feeds extremism.
Some of these teachings based on an "us versus them" mentality are insidious, create divisions within society and are at odds with Singapore's tolerant, multicultural and multi-religious approach, he noted.
He added that while the Government has frowned upon them, further steps have to be taken. He said: "Community leaders and religious leaders have a particular duty to make sure that our people are tolerant, that we greet each other, that we celebrate each other's festivals without ifs and without buts, that we understand that we live in a multiracial, multi-religious society.
"Anything else leads to society riven apart with deep rifts and, eventually, you will get (an attack)."
The minister added that as more terror attacks are carried out with everyday objects such as cars and knives, making them hard to prevent, it is critical that conditions allowing people to become radicalised be "nipped in the bud".
The Government actively intervenes to ensure different communities living together are integrated, prohibits extremist preaching and arrests radicalised individuals, he said. "We have laws that allow us to intervene much earlier than agencies in other societies can."
Apart from relying on the law, the way to foster a moderate, tolerant society is by keeping unemployment low and giving people economic and educational opportunities, he said.
As for preventing terror acts, Mr Shanmugam said people have a serious responsibility to alert security agencies to family members and friends who show signs of radicalisation. "When we have an arrest, often the families or friends have told us, sometimes they have not," he said.
He said his ministry will give an update on some cases in the next few weeks, and highlight what the families did or did not do.
He also urged the entire community to participate in the SGSecure national movement, which was launched last year and aims to prepare people for how to respond in the event of a terrorist attack.
"Understand the Run, Hide, Tell message. Volunteer, get trained to save yourself, save your family and come together," he said. "We need everyone to participate."
Meanwhile, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng stressed the need to build up social cohesion in preparation for any attack.
"Before the day comes when an attack succeeds in Singapore, we must build the strength now in relative peace to overcome the tensions that would occur," he said at a community event.
• Additional reporting by Tiffany Fumiko Tay
Mr Shanmugam on dealing with terror incidents. http://str.sg/4LXg