What Singapore needs to do to combat scourge of terrorism

 

South-east Asia is fertile ground for terrorism and Singapore faces several threats, including direct terrorist attacks, the radicalisation of a part of the country’s population, the Muslim community’s growing distance from the rest of society, and Islamophobia among the Republic’s non-Muslim communities, said Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam yesterday. Delivering the opening address at the 2nd Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme Distinguished Lecture and Symposium, the minister discussed how Singapore can step up and respond to these threats. Below is an excerpt of Mr Shanmugam’s speech.

Throughout history, major religions have shaped societies in a fundamental, positive way. They have sought to make people better as human beings in society — compassionate, kind and charitable.

Religion can be a force for good.

Many of our modern societal values are derived from religious beliefs and values. And the moral values which underpin major legal systems are also, ultimately, derived from religious values and beliefs.

How our societies are structured, laws and morals. Indeed, civilisation as a whole owes a lot to religion.

At the same time, we have to note another facet about organised religions — the role they have played in encouraging intolerance, bigotry, the denial of another’s right to pray to a different God.

The untold sufferings and misery of millions through the confessional wars in Europe over centuries — the Crusades, the Inquisition, the attempt, through force, to bring God and civilisation to native peoples, the Muslim conquests in Central Asia, India, and the Hindu-Muslim-Buddhist conflicts in Asia.

The list is endless. And all religions have played a part in this. You can rightly ask: Was religion the cause, or was it an excuse in these conflicts?

Look closely and you may often see the real reason for the conflict was the basic human lust for power, profit, control of people and lands. Religion was often the vehicle, the excuse for pursuing these goals.

When those in power were enlightened, the results were different.

In Muslim Spain, for example, the rulers pursued and encouraged mutual co-existence among the various faith communities. In the last decade of the 20th century, after the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a sense that history as we knew it had ended. Liberal democratic values will flourish. Sweetness and light will triumph.

The events of the last 15 years have shown the innocence of such thoughts. Leave aside the contest between countries — that has not quite gone away.

Religion has again risen with renewed vigour. As a force for good. And also, in the hands of some, as a tool for terror.

The idea, for instance, that you should go out and kill as many people as possible. Or that such killing makes you a martyr, and that you are doing God’s will and will go to heaven.

These crazy ideas have taken root and are spreading. They are lethal and insidiously dangerous.

At the heart of it are the very same old human desires. The people who spread these ideas are often motivated by power. And they capitalise on issues that Muslims are concerned about to achieve their political ambitions.

These ideas won’t win. But the cost in terms of blood and misery will be high, and that price has to be paid, unfortunately.

Every week we get news of a new terror attack: Bangkok, Beirut, Paris, Istanbul, and now Jakarta. How will this affect Singapore and how will we respond?

THE REGIONAL SITUATION

South-east Asia has become fertile ground for terrorism. There are several reasons for this, but let me focus on two of them: Politics within countries and events in the Middle East.

Over the last few decades in this region, religion, particularly Islam, has been used as a tool in political power play.

Exclusiveness based on religion was advocated. A nexus between political power and the clergy developed in some places. Broad-minded multiculturalism was de-emphasised. An “us” versus “them” mentality was encouraged. Sometimes it was cynical exploitation, for very secular ends.

In Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar — Islam was and is not the dominant religion. In these countries, there have been sectarian conflicts along religious lines. The majority communities were, for long, not able to handle the legitimate demands of the Muslim minorities.

And that allowed sections of their Muslim minority communities to be exploited and radicalised by external as well as internal influences.

In Malaysia, a study done by Merdeka Center last year showed that among Malay respondents, the most important trait to have for a Malaysian Prime Minister was Islamic credentials.

Some 60 per cent of Malaysians identified themselves as Muslims first, rather than as Malaysians or Malays. About 71 per cent of Malays support hudud laws, which include the amputation of hands for thefts and stoning for adultery. Support was greater among younger Malays as compared to older ones.

What happens in Malaysia is highly relevant to us. Take, for instance, Trengganu’s decision to close supermarkets and shops during Friday prayers. Those who skip Friday prayers are put in a hearse and paraded around in the city centre. In Kedah, Muslims who miss Friday prayers would face criminal sanctions.

Then there was criticism from Muslim leaders against Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi. She won multiple South East Asian Games medals, including two golds, but was criticised for her gymnastics attire.

Another troubling development is the level of support for violent extremism. A recent Pew Research Centre study showed that 10 per cent of Malaysian Malays had a favourable opinion of the Islamic State (IS). Think about the nature of the threat posed if even a small fraction of these Malaysians become radicalised.

The Malaysian authorities have foiled several IS-inspired attack plots and arrested several persons involved in IS activities. According to media reports, there were personnel from the armed forces and security forces including commandos, police officers, civil servants and healthcare workers among those arrested.

These individuals enjoyed access to weapons, sensitive locations and information. They would have posed a severe security threat.

In Indonesia, several militant groups have pledged allegiance to IS. Some pesantrens and madrasahs (Islamic schools) are suspected to be linked to terror networks. Money from the Middle East has been funnelled through these institutions.

The prisons themselves, where many Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorists are held, have been breeding grounds for radicalisation and recruitment for IS. The impending release of a large number of terrorist prisoners also increases the risk in the region.

Indonesia has no preventive detention laws which can be used against the terrorists. Hundreds of prisoners have either already been released since January 2014, or are eligible for release or parole by end-2016. These include JI-linked terrorists. They were previously involved in plots against Singapore and Western targets in Indonesia.

Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar all face possibilities of inter-religious strife with their ethnic Muslim populations. And in all three countries, the socio-economic conditions of the Muslim populations and their grievances add to the potency of the terrorism threat.

Even a brief survey of the region shows just how ripe the conditions are — for an explosion of terrorism, based on religion.

These conditions have arisen because of past leadership failures, be it the cynical exploitation of race and religion by some secular and religious leaders, the relative lack of focus on development and education, and a lack of strong commitment to multi-ethnicity.

These homegrown conditions in South-east Asia have now been aligned with events in the Middle East, such as the rise of IS in Palestine and Syria.

These international events, trends are fusing perfectly with fertile conditions in this region, to beget violence and terror.

IMPACT ON SINGAPORE

What does all this mean for us in Singapore? Singapore’s very existence, as one of the most religiously diverse and tolerant societies in the world, is unacceptable to the zealots.

They consider us infidels, Kaffirs who ought to be exterminated. Singapore, in their scheme, will become part of a Caliphate.

We face four types of interrelated threats in Singapore: Direct terrorist attacks; the radicalisation of a part of our Muslim population; our Muslim population growing somewhat distant from the rest of our society; and Islamophobia amongst our non-Muslim communities.

First, we have to anticipate and prepare for the direct attacks which will come. This requires a strengthening of our security forces — the beefing up of our security forces, intelligence, and border controls.

Singapore itself is fairly secure. Attackers are therefore likely to gather, plan just outside Singapore and then attack us. In addition to the hard security, we have to now move to change mind-sets. Our people must realise that everyone is responsible for our collective security.

Over the next few months, the Home Affairs Ministry will announce some of the measures covering both these aspects of Singapore’s security.

The second threat is the radicalisation of a part of our Muslim population. The young are very Internet savvy, and some of them have been brainwashed after listening to preachers who glorify violence.

In April last year, a 19-year-old boy was detained for wanting to join IS, and to kill the President and the Prime Minister if he could not go to Syria.

Any successful attack would be disastrous in many ways, including for inter-ethnic harmony.

The third threat is that our Muslim population is growing somewhat more distant from the rest of society. As religiosity sweeps the world, Singaporeans are not immune. There is a sense that Singaporeans as a whole are becoming more religious, across more religions.

Influences from the Middle East have had an impact on our Muslim population as well. But there is a fine line between greater understanding of our religion and believing that our religion requires us to be separate, or worse, to be indifferent or intolerant towards other faiths.

That will spell trouble for Singapore. We have picked up among sections of our younger Muslim population sentiments like: We should not wish Christians “Merry Christmas” or Hindus “Happy Deepavali”.

Some groups have preached that it is wrong for Muslims to recite the National Pledge, sing the National Anthem, or serve National Service. These groups are growing. It is a worrying trend.

If these sentiments become widespread, then what we will have is this: A Muslim community that grows apart from the mainstream. This is neither good for the Muslim community or Singapore. There will be serious long-term implications.

We are watching this closely and intend to do what we can. For instance, foreign preachers are sometimes not allowed in. We will not allow anyone, of any religion, who preaches that people of other faiths should be shunned.

The Singapore Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion. But it has to step in to protect our racial and religious harmony. We cannot allow someone to preach values which are contrary to our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic harmony. We take a firm and clear stand on that.

The fourth threat we face is the possible spread of Islamophobia amongst the rest of our population. I consider this to be a serious risk.

The daily, incessant news coverage of some attack somewhere in the world ranging across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia can create a general sense of suspicion of Muslims, Islam as a whole. Any homegrown radicalisation will seriously exacerbate this. There are increasing reports of intolerance towards Muslims by non-Muslims.

In many major cities like London, hate crimes against Muslims have risen in the last few years. In the weeks following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, there has been a surge in threats and attacks against Muslims and mosques, and even Sikhs and their temples, as they were mistaken for Muslims.

Singapore is not immune to such intolerance. In September, a Malay woman was walking towards a bus stop when she was approached by a man of another race, who uttered the words “suicide bomber” to her.

In November, about a week after the Paris attacks, the words “Islam murderers” were found scribbled at a bus stop in Bukit Panjang and on a toilet seat in Jurong Point Shopping Mall.

As yet, such acts are few in Singapore. But it is difficult to assess how the mental landscape is shifting. If the mental landscape amongst a significant part of the population changes, then we will have a serious problem.

How our non-Muslims treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. If we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will be further pushed. The harmonious society that we have built will be at risk.

It is therefore vital that we ask the non-Muslim communities to look squarely at themselves, their attitudes, viewpoints. How supportive they really are or are they only being superficially, politically, correct?

Do they accept that the vast majority of our Muslim population are tolerant, positive and are in every way Singaporean? Do we accept that it is our duty to reach out, encourage, continue to build a harmonious society where each of us, including our Muslim brothers and sisters are bonded and keep to the ideals of Singapore?

Islamophobia will tear our society apart. We have to guard against it. It is completely unacceptable.

SINGAPORE’S RESPONSE

How will we, the Government and the people, respond to these challenges?

Since independence, we have made determined efforts to pursue policies that bring people from all races and religions together. We live in the same neighbourhoods; our children attend the same schools; and our young men all serve National Service.

Our religious groups and communities have come up with ground-up initiatives to preserve our common space and to contribute to the well-being of Singapore society as a whole.

In this regard, I commend the Muslim community in Singapore. You are a successful model to the modern world for your moderate, respectful world view and practices.

The community must strive to find the confidence to preserve and protect their way of life as they know it, in the face of challenges.

One example is the Singapore Muslim Identity, or SMI initiative. This was launched by the local Muslim community in 2004.

The SMI spells out principles and values for living in and contributing, to Singapore’s multicultural and multi-religious society, and secular state. These principles and values are taught in sermons, at weekly Friday congregations.

Religious groups have also made efforts to reach out to those of other faiths, in the provision of social services. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge, for example, gives out more than half of its bursaries to non-Buddhists and non-Chinese.

The Muslim Community’s Rahmatan Lil Alamin Fund, or Blessings to All Fund, channels donations to victims of natural disasters and in conflict zones around the world, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

A broad network of Islamic scholars and religious teachers have also come together, as the Religious Rehabilitation Group or RRG, to volunteer their services to counsel the JI detainees, and those who have been influenced by terrorist ideologies as peddled by IS and terrorist groups in the region.

There is also the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS). This is a community accreditation initiative introduced in 2005. Senior religious teachers and scholars get together to ensure that religious instructions are only provided by qualified teachers.

This scheme was the brainchild of the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS). It aims to guide Singaporean Muslims away from the divisive and extremist ideology propagated by terrorists.

The Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme has started formulating plans. It will work with MUIS and PERGAS to step up professional development programmes to help these religious teachers contextualise their teachings to contemporary Singapore.

STEPPING UP

The Government as well as our religious leaders and community groups have been working on these actions for several years. But as the waves of terrorist ideology sweeps the region, we have to step up even more.

Some of the approaches we have taken have to be re-examined.

As tendencies towards greater religious extremism and exclusivity grow in the region, both the Government and our people must make a bigger collective effort to safeguard our racial and religious harmony.

The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create sharp and violent divisions between “us” and “them”. If we remain resolutely “us”, one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, no force can divide us and terrorism will be defeated.

In essence, the following will be needed.

Religious leaders have to help our population understand the true nature of terrorist ideology. The ideology of IS has to be countered theologically and powerfully, and through simple messages, including on social media.

Community leaders have to help lead the fight for hearts and minds for a united Singapore.

The Government has to be vigilant. Tough laws are needed to prevent race and religion from being used to create divisions. The Government must keep Singapore safe while ensuring equality of opportunities, fairness and a stake for all in Singapore. And the Government must ensure everyone has the freedom to practise his or her religion.

Over the course of this year, we will announce and roll out policies which seek to achieve these objectives.

Sumber: Todayonline.com, 20/01/2016

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