A Singaporean man was arrested yesterday in connection with separate alleged attacks on three female madrasah students near an MRT station the morning before - incidents which drew widespread condemnation from ministers, MPs, religious leaders and the public.
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim called the alleged attacks "totally unacceptable" in a Facebook post, adding that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) is working closely with the madrasah to help the students, who have been counselled, as well as assisting the police.
The students, aged 14 to 16, were making their separate ways to Madrasah Al-Ma'arif Al-Islamiah in Geylang around 7.20am when the 48-year-old man allegedly accosted them near Paya Lebar MRT station.
The school's discipline mistress Nisha Mohd Hussein posted on Facebook that the first girl was allegedly kicked on the left thigh, the second was allegedly hit with a plastic bag containing "a heavy item" and the third was believed to have been hit in one of her eyes with the bag.
At 9.50pm yesterday, police revealed that a Chinese suspect was in custody. The swift arrest was praised by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean. "As a society, we should stand together against all forms of violence against innocent persons, especially if there may be racial or religious undertones."
Dr Yaacob said: "We should never tolerate any forms of aggression towards anyone, especially the innocent. We must stay calm and united and not let this incident divide us."
Last Friday night, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam posted on Facebook in response to the alleged attacks that "we will get to the bottom of it and ensure that justice is done".
Just two days before, after a closed-door meeting with 60 students from the six full-time madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools, here, he highlighted that feedback from Muslims indicates they are concerned about the rising Islamophobia in Singapore. He called on Singaporeans to reach out to their Muslim neighbours to build social cohesion and prevent prejudice against Muslims from developing.
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said yesterday: "An attack on the innocent can never be condoned. My thoughts are with the young girls and I hope they recover soon."
On the madrasah's Facebook page, members of the public shared their support for the students and called on Singaporeans to stand united and respect one another's race and religion. In its own statement, Muis called for the public to "stay calm and let justice take its course".
Similar calls were made by Muslim MPs, who said it is best to wait for investigations to be completed.
Mr Zainal Sapari, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, said this seems to be an isolated case as he has not heard of similar incidents.
That was a view shared by Mr Zaqy Mohamad, an MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC. "Even so, we can never take our social fabric for granted. How we react as a society against Islamophobia and incidents like these will be the true test of the investment we have made in multiracialism."
Ms Rahayu Mahzam, an MP for Jurong GRC, said that while "the fear that Islamophobia will creep into our community is real... I have faith that the non-Muslim community knows that Singaporean Muslims strongly reject terrorism..."
Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) leaders said the quick condemnation of the alleged attacks from ministers indicated that the Government will not tolerate such behaviour. Mr Anthony Au, vice-chairman of Bukit Batok East IRCC, said: "We cannot let our guard down against any possible disharmony and, as Singaporeans, we need to look after one another regardless of race and religion."
Deputy Commissioner of Police (Investigations and Intelligence) and Criminal Investigation Department director Tan Chye Hee said yesterday: "Any person who caused hurt to others on the basis of their race or religion will be dealt with severely in accordance with the law."
•Additional reporting by Calvin Yang.