26 Sep 2006

Conference on Security Cooperation and Governance in Southeast Asia: Responding to Terrorism, Insurgency and Separatist Violence in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines at Pan Pacific Hotel - Speech by Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister of State

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good afternoon. Thomas Friedman in his new bestseller, “The World is Flat” argues that the globe is “flattening” because of globalisation. The convergence of technology and events that made India, China, and so many other countries to become part of the global supply chain for services and manufacturing, has shrunk the world, requiring many countries to run faster in order to stay in place. The impact of a flat world is also very much felt in homeland security. Recent events in the Middle East and the British authorities’ recent discovery of a major plot to bomb transatlantic flights remind us starkly of the perilous world that we live in today. More importantly, these events demonstrate the speed with which events in one country or region can affect others in other parts of the world.

New Face of Terrorism

2. The attacks of 11 September are a good example of how events in the United States changed the way many governments are tackling the terrorism threat. This month marks the fifth year of the 11 September attacks in New York city. Over the last five years, governments the world over have been grappling with new challenges posed by terrorism. Attacks and terrorists after 11 September are distinct in at least two ways from those in the past.

3. Firstly, terrorist attacks after 11 September have a tendency towards inflicting high death toll. Nearly 3,000 people died in the 11 September attacks. The Bali bombing in Oct 2002, the Madrid train bombing in Mar 2004 and the Mumbai train bombing in Jul this year, each claimed around 200 lives. Last month’s discovery by the British authorities of the plot to bomb transatlantic flights has thwarted the loss of possibly even more innocent lives. The key implication of this change is the fear that terrorists seek to strike in the hearts of the general populace. As a result, there is immense pressure on the authorities, law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent and thwart terrorist attacks. However, the authorities cannot achieve this alone. This is why a vigilant public reporting suspicious activities and characters is so important. But we know this is easier said than done. It is indeed a perennial challenge for governments to maintain high vigilance among the general population.

4. The second change relates to the make-up of terrorist groups. Prior to 11 September, terrorist groups tended to be organised and they threatened to and carried out terrorist acts to gain political concessions. These included demands to free imprisoned extremists or terrorists, or for specific governments to take or refrain from taking certain action. Today, terrorists like the Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf Group and their affiliates are not structured and they are motivated by a vastly different cause. Some analysts and commentators have described their goals as being more ideological than specific political agenda. For instance, instead of fighting for political autonomy, such groups use violence to “establish the ummah and to evict infidels from the ummah”.

5. Understanding this new motivation explains why terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been able to survive despite the absence of a clear structure and organisation. This is because their goal appeals to many splinter extremist groups and individuals who find it easy to identify and associate with their cause. When they mount successful attacks, Al Qaeda and its affiliates are able to win new converts among potential supporters, intimidate potential enemies, and direct their supporters’ anguish towards punishing their so-called enemies.

6. The implication on enforcement is that intelligence and law enforcement agencies face new challenges in detecting perpetrators before they mount attacks. For instance, in the past, the authorities could track organised terrorist organisations and thwart their plans in a timely fashion. A new dimension to the terrorism threat that we face today comes from small groups of individuals who have no record of committing violent crimes, who may not even be organised and who do not report to a central command. They are enamoured by the ideology of creating a larger religious community and so they mimic the violence of other groups. Tracking such groups and individuals is a lot more difficult and certainly more challenging for law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

7. Understanding the new motivation for terrorist acts also creates additional dimensions to viewing insurgency and separatist violence. One, local conflicts can be dressed in a religious persona. If this happens, we face a terrorist who thinks he is acting on behalf of all his fellow faith followers and is pursuing the cause of God. Two, the response to insurgency and separatist violence may have to go beyond political concessions. In other words, making political concessions may not resolve insurgent or separatist violence that is cloaked in religious garb.

Terrorism, the Threat into the Future

8. The terrorism threat is likely to remain with us for many years more to come. There are several reasons for this. First, the root problems that give rise to the religious extremist terrorism which the world is facing today need time to be resolved. These root problems cut across social and economic imbalances, and perceived local political grievances. As a result, no single government alone can resolve such root problems. Instead, governments and the international community have to work together in order to reduce and eliminate the root problems. In this way, we can reduce the lure of terrorist organisations and prevent vulnerable and susceptible individuals from being exploited by such groups.

9. Second, the terrorism threat will continue to remain with us because we have not rooted out the space within which terrorist groups train their operatives. So long as terrorist training camps exist and terrorists can operate within certain territorial spaces, we will continue to have to deal with terrorists who are willing to die for their cause. Even as we round up leaders and operatives, new ones will take their place, not unlike the many headed Hydra snakes of the marshes of Lerna in Greek mythology.

10. A third reason why the terrorism threat will remain with us is because the threat has become even more insidious. The current infusion of jihad in terrorism by extremist groups like Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah fuels and festers other extremist groups and elements. Groups like Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah may die out eventually and other extremist groups and individuals could continue to grow and spread. They are like multiple cancerous cells which develop and spread and would only stop when the host finally succumbs to the disease.

11. These reasons remind us why a conference like today’s is important. This conference is part of an overall contribution to understand the root causes of terrorism and continually find ways to respond effectively to the threat. In effect, conferences like this keeps governments, law enforcement authorities, academics and others involved in the counter terrorism effort, trained on the trouble spots and weaknesses.

Implications on Government Response

12. Let me now turn to the implications on government response to present and future terrorism. I would like to highlight three implications. The first implication comes from the infusion of extremist religious ideology in terrorism. An extremist religious imprint on terrorism means that a government’s response has to also factor in the “other worldly appeal” of the terrorist’s ideology. This is especially challenging for secular governments which have no expertise or locus standi on religious matters. Hence, secular governments need to enlist the assistance and support of religious elites and teachers to correct misinterpretations of religious beliefs exploited by extremists.

13. We are fortunate in Singapore in that our religious groups understand the critical role that they play in preventing religious extremism. For instance, the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) and the Religious Rehabilitation Group are at the forefront promoting a better understanding of Islam and Islam in a secular society like Singapore by holding public forums and discussions.

14. The second implication is the impact of the religious extremist terrorism on a religious community. Extremist groups or elements cannot exist in a vacuum. They operate within a spectrum of the larger mainstream religious community. As a result, extremist groups and elements are often embedded within their respective religious community but contort the teachings. The challenge to any government is the appropriate way to extricate such extremist groups and elements without destroying or undermining the religious community. This means that any change must be effected from within the religious community. Governments have to dialogue with the affected religious community and work in partnership in eradicating extremism.

15. The third implication which I would like to address is the impact on overall society. Religious extremist terrorism targets not just governments but other religious groups and society at large. As a result, the appropriate response must be conciliation rather than division among religious groups. Inter-faith dialogue becomes especially important in enabling better understanding of each other’s religion, beliefs and practices.

16. Again, we are fortunate in Singapore in this respect. Various religious groups have initiated inter-faith dialogues to promote better inter-religion interaction and understanding. This is something which the Government alone cannot sustain over time. This is also why our Community Engagement Programme is very much a bottom-up approach. In this way, religious, ethnic and voluntary welfare groups would create authentic and sustainable activities and programmes and play key roles in sustaining the public’s vigilance and commitment to countering terrorism.

17. On this note, let me wish you a fruitful time for the rest of this conference. Thank you.

Last Updated on 11 Jun 2015
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