Tackling Singapore’s terrorism threat: Bringing the people back in

Academic Views / Friday, September 10th, 2021

Eugene K B Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Yong Pung How School of Law, Singapore Management University, considers Singapore’s response to the threat of terrorism following 9/11. This essay is based on an article published in the journal, Law and Policy (2009).

Also in our 9-11 anniversary series:
Muslim extremism after two decades of the ‘Global War on Terror’ by Mohd Imran Mohd Taib
The song remains the same: The emergence of security studies in the wake of 9-11 by Farish A. Noor

In the January 2003 parliamentary debate on the ‘The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and the Threat of Terrorism’ White Paper, the discussion of the terrorism threat to Singapore was notable for the articulation of a subtle moral panic, which obliquely linked increased religiosity and perceived Malay-Muslim separateness with increased susceptibility towards terrorism.

The dominant view highlighted the concern with Muslims’ supposed exclusionary practices and self-segregation, and the formation of an isolated “micro-community” accompanied by the unilateral closing of common space. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, increased Muslim religiosity had become securitised.

With the rebooted Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan, it reminds us that even as the US and its allies tire of “forever wars”, the forces that seek to divide us, coupled with opportunistic geopolitics, are not tired of overt conflict and violence. So the “forever wars” will go on, like it or not.

In a sense, these wars are a daily plebiscite for the hearts and minds of people. Singapore is no different. In the past two decades, the approach towards tackling terrorism has evolved from a reliance on coercive counter-terrorism measures to an emphasis on strengthening social cohesion as a bulwark against divisive forces.

Part of a poster from SGSecure, a government campaign intended to respond to the threat of terrorism to Singapore. (Screenshot: SGSecure website)

Given the threat assessments, the hardnosed security approach pivoting on counter-terrorism measures persists. But this has been complemented by a conscious undertaking to make the response to the terrorism threat more holistic. In combating the destructive ideas and heinous acts that mislead, threaten and divide our societies, greater grassroots involvement and the bolstering of trust of fellow citizens is a sine qua non.

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it behoves us to consider how the battle against violent extremism can result in greater social resilience even with increased piety.

Post-9/11, the Singapore government maintains a watchful eye on external influences and remains prepared to move pre-emptively against any threat to social cohesion and harmony. The government operates from the realist premise that racial and religious harmony cannot be taken for granted, and that efforts must be continually exerted to ensure that moderation and social responsibility prevails in the practice of one’s faith.

Increasingly, there is appreciation of the need for greater interaction, grassroots support and participation to develop inter-religious understanding and appreciation, especially at the mass level, in order to counter religious entrepreneurs. While Singaporeans’ increased religiosity purportedly is not a concern, the fact that Singaporeans are interacting less with Singaporeans of other faiths is of concern to the government.

The overarching statist fear and vulnerability, made more pronounced since the “global war on terror”, ensures that close scrutiny, interventionist surveillance, and ultra-sensitivity to internal security concerns are hallmarks of the government’s policy towards religion.

Scrutiny and surveillance are key features of the government’s policies. (Photo: Wikimedia)

From the 1980s onwards, given the strong accent of Islamic revivalism globally including in Indonesia and Malaysia, the Singapore government paid attention to the religious dimension of Malay-Muslim community life. In particular, the re-Islamisation of daily life—not just outward behaviour but also inward attitudes and values—led to the government’s primary concern of the potential formation of a closed Malay-Muslim community.

This is in contrast to the Malay-Muslim community’s self-perception that its increased religiosity stems from a spiritual self-renewal, rather than the insistence of a particularised Islamic system of rituals, values and ethics, or of a vulnerability towards a militant, violent brand of jihadism.

The arrest and detention of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist suspects in Singapore under the Internal Security Act in late 2001 and early 2002 strained relations between Malay-Muslims and non-Muslims. Malay-Muslims were themselves confronted by self-doubt and ambivalence.

Quite evidently, the key challenge was to adeptly manage Malay-Muslim Singaporeans’ increased religiosity, their perception of being under siege, and the non-Muslim apprehension, fears and misunderstanding of Islam and Muslim-Singaporeans. The tenor of the political leadership’s exhortations has consistently been that the Muslim community practise their faith in the context of a multiracial society, with moderation as the defining attribute.

A hotline for the Internal Security Department. Arrests under the Internal Security Act have been used against individuals suspected of terrorism. (Photo: Wikipedia)

However, the stark realisation that inter-racial ties were not as healthy as they should be prompted the government to chart new directions to engender better inter-ethnic understanding. In the heightened post-9/11 environment, the government was concerned that the social fabric may not withstand the impact of a terrorist attack in Singapore.

Increasingly cognisant that a coercive legislative framework has limitations, the government moved carefully to clothe the concept of tolerance in a more tangible manner in the immediate aftermath of these arrests.  Rules of conduct in the religious realm must be clearly laid out, understood and internalised by Singaporeans.

The initial confidence-building efforts took two principal forms: the formation of the Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCCs) in January 2002 at the constituency level, and the unveiling of the Declaration on Religious Harmony (DRH) in June 2003. In 2019, the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony was launched to affirm the shared values to safeguard religious harmony, and the norms of social interaction across religions to foster a cohesive society.

This promotion of inter-faith dialogue and understanding at various levels tentatively emphasised that thick inter-faith relations require the buy-in of both the religious elites and their congregations. The DRH sought to educate and engage civil society while attempting to circumscribe the perimeters or moderate the conduct of religious elites and their followers.

Although the DRH is a non-legislative, non-enforceable document, it sought to exert moral suasion on the religious leaders and believers alike to practice moderation in their faiths fully sensitive to the multi-religious realities and secular constraints inherent in the Singapore polity.

As top-down initiatives in confidence building, the IRCCs and DRH suggest that the state continued to assert itself as an indispensable intermediary in facilitating better inter-racial and inter-religious understanding. This ensured that the government exerted a measure of control and influence over issues of race and religion.

However, genuine  and sustainable inter-ethnic understanding cannot be engendered by artificially induced interactions. Yet the unease and fear that social cohesion and resilience was fragile prompted the government to explore other means of enhancing inter-ethnic relations. Indeed, having declared itself “an iconic target”, Singapore geared itself for the inevitability of a terrorist attack on Singapore soil.

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, especially by home-grown perpetrators, the primary concern for policy-makers is the potential backlash against the Muslim community and the unravelling of Singapore’s social fabric. This took on added urgency following the London bombings by home-grown British terrorists in July 2005.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged in 2006 that the multi-faceted challenges posed by the post-9/11 security environment was “by far the most serious [security problem] that we have faced since the communist problem”.

The characterisation of the terrorist threat moved away from a focus on the “right, moderate Islam”. There is now official recognition that maintaining social cohesion and resilience requires a two-way process at various levels: between state and civil society, between political and religious elites, and between religious elites and their followers of various faiths.

In the clearest demonstration of the need for Muslims and non-Muslims to take collective responsibility in enhancing social cohesion, the Prime Minister stated that (emphasis added) “… [W]e must know that this is not a Malay-Muslim problem.  This is a national problem and non-Muslims also have to play your part, for example, by preserving the space for minorities in the majority-Chinese society by upholding the ideals of meritocracy and equal opportunity and treatment, regardless of race, language and religion and by clearly distinguishing the small number of extremists who are a threat to us from the majority of moderate, rational, loyal Muslim Singaporeans with whom we work together to tackle a shared problem”.   

It was in this context that the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) (now known as known as SGSecure) was launched in February 2006. This slew of initiatives sought to involve the entire population in developing Singapore’s social and psychological defences against terrorism.

Another aspect to the urgent forging of national resilience in the new security environment was the government’s efforts in engaging civil society, focusing on significant outreach to the Muslim community.

I use “Muslim civil society” as a short-hand for the community of believers of Islam including religious teachers and leaders. Although Islam, as with the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Judaism, does not separate the religious from the socio-political realms, it is possible to conceive of the faithful as constituting the space between the state and family in a secular state. It is in this space where society resides and where the Islamic faith community debates and negotiates with the Singapore state (whether through the government statutory board, MUIS, or not) on matters concerning faith and their relationship to the state.

In the battle of ideas and for the hearts and minds of believers, civil society can facilitate the establishment of an overlapping consensus on the nature and content of the practice of one’s faith in a secular, multiracial society. The centrality of bringing in Muslim civil society reiterates the fact that the state cannot unilaterally impose its view on a faith community’s desired practices. Instead, it highlights the patent need for (if not, commitment to) dialogue, cooperation and trust, if the state, with civil society, is to prevail against violent extremists.

The various efforts in engaging Muslim civil society stem from the overarching themes of promoting moderation and a distinctive Muslim-Singaporean identity as a bulwark against faith-inspired terrorism. This push towards engaging Muslim civil society incorporates the development of a Muslim-Singaporean autochthonous practice of Islam placing emphasis on religious moderation, a sensitive recognition of multiracialism, and the need for enlarged common space.

The four strands of this movement towards moderation and the deliberate engagement of the Muslim civil society can be summarised as follows: (1) Revamping Islamic religious education with a focus on Islamic values and strengthening the community against deviant and extremist teachings; (2) Re-modelling mosques as multi-functional institutions to remain relevant to a multiracial society; (3) Engendering (inter- & Intra-) civilisational dialogue such as through the Asia-Middle East Dialogue (AMED), which first met in Singapore in June 2005; and (4) Forging a distinctive Singaporean Muslim identity congruent with Islamic values and possessing progressive attributes consonant with the socio-political realities in Singapore.

To this end, the MUIS promoted a ‘Muslim Community of Excellence’ and an autochthonous Muslim-Singaporean way of life through the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) project in early 2005. The SMI project seeks to “facilitate religious life in a multiracial multireligious society with a secular government” and embodies the “Ten Desired Attributes of Singapore Muslim Community of Excellence”. These attributes seek to promote an identity that is not only religiously profound but also socially progressive and therefore conducive to a secular, multiracial and multireligious Singapore.

This involves a deliberate policy re-calibration and leavening towards a broad-based community approach concentrating on the Muslim civil society but also inducting the non-Muslim communities in engendering religious harmony and inter-communal trust, for which more needs to be done. The imperative to enhance social cohesion and resilience necessitates a strategic engagement of the Muslim community as well as religious elites across all faiths.

For more discussion of community relations, watch the recorded AcademiaSG virtual roundtable ‘Regarding Racism‘.

In the post-9/11 age, it is a cliché that states must take matters of faith seriously. The power of religions to rally faith communities to protest and oppose socio-economic and political injustices, perceived or real, is a force to be reckoned with.

Singapore’s earlier focus on dichotomising the moderate and radical elements of Islamic faith perhaps exaggerated the image and perception of Muslim-Singaporeans as susceptible to religious radicalism. Fortunately, this discourse quickly took a backseat and a more inclusive approach was adopted.

Had the government persisted in putting the terrorist threat at the feet of the Muslim community, it would have further marginalised the ‘moderates’ who are needed to form the bulwark in the proverbial battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims. The tendency of governments to ‘know it all’ and spotlight the relevant target community can have detrimental policy implications.

In dealing with the threat of extremism of any religious hue in Singapore’s context, the role of civil society, as an hitherto untapped resource, is critical. By their very nature, religiously-inspired ideas cannot be hemmed in by military threats and action, draconian laws, and coercive rhetoric. Given their potential appeal to the faithful, the strategy is to challenge those ideas head on in the marketplace of ideas. This requires the equally important vanguard action of strengthening society that terror entrepreneurs seek to fragment, if not to impose their nihilism.

In his 2021 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee said that Singapore’s policies on race and religion have to be kept up to date as “each new generation has its own perspective on racial issues … and from time to time, we must adjust our policies on race and religion”. He noted the desire of more Muslim women to wear the tudung (headscarf) and that the wearing of a tudung is “not just a matter for Muslims”, but a national issue.

The Prime Minister speaking at the 2021 National Day Rally. (Screenshot: Gov.sg)

Mr Lee also announced that, from 1 November 2001, Muslim uniformed healthcare staff working in the public healthcare sector can wear a tudung at work if they choose to do so. However, the tudung will still not be allowed in other uniformed services, including the Singapore Armed Forces and Singapore Police Force. He noted that non-Muslims are more used to seeing Muslim women wearing the tudung and that Muslim women wearing the tudung were generally “at ease” interacting socially with non-Muslim men and women in most settings.

This calibrated policy change is significant and points to the tudung, as an outward manifestation of religiosity, becoming less securitised. The announcement, coming on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, stands in contrast to the palpable atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust between Malay-Muslims and non-Muslims with the discovery of the JI terrorist cell in Singapore two decades ago.

Ultimately, robust inter-faith relations are obtained through societal understanding and appreciating the diversity and complexity that religion presents. The challenge, as the Singapore case demonstrates, is to make a virtue out of an accepted fault-line and the commitment to the perpetual work in progress that social resilience requires, drawing in both religious elites and their congregations.

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