Ladies and Gentlemen;
A warm welcome to Singapore, and to this Fifth ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime. Since the events of 9/11, countries around the world have pursued and implemented numerous counter-terrorism strategies and initiatives to tackle the terrorist threat. However, despite significant inroads and successes in the last few years, the threat of terrorism is still with us. The upsurge of suicide bombings in Iraq, the back-to-back suicide attacks in Algeria and Morocco, the discovery of the military wing and assassination squad of the regional Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist network, the recovery of huge arms and explosives caches in Indonesia, and the recent beheading of road workers by the Abu Sayaff Group in Southern Philippines, are grim reminders that terrorism continues to pose a serious threat to global and regional peace and stability.
Countering the terrorism threat
2. Just as we adjust our strategies to counter the multi-dimensional threats and challenges posed by terrorism, terrorists and their organisations are also innovating and reconfiguring themselves in response to the pressures brought to bear on them. They are changing tactics and adopting new strategies to counter our anti-terrorism measures. In Feb and Mar this year, terrorists took to using unconventional weapons when they detonated trucks containing chlorine gas in their suicide attacks in Iraq. Terrorists have even turned to using children as decoys when mounting their suicide attacks. In a recent incident, a car bomb was detonated with the children still inside soon afterthe terrorists got past the security checkpoints.
3. At the last Inter-Sessional Meeting in Beijing last year, we discussed the need to focus attention on long-term strategies to address the terrorist menace. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels or flounder in our efforts to eradicate the scourge of terrorism. The stakes are high.
4. Beefing up our counter terrorism security measures will continue to be our first line of defence. At the same time however, we need to seriously address the ideological dimension underpinning terrorism. This is the key fodder feeding today’s terrorist phenomenon. It is no longer enough for us to just employ law enforcement and military measures to uproot terrorist infrastructures and deny them sponsorship, support and sanctuary. We need to counter ideological support for terrorism and recognise the essential role played by radical ideologies in motivating terrorists and their supporters today.
Polarisation of Peoples
5. Terrorism developments can potentially lead to increased polarisation. And this is where the public at large can take active steps to build bridges and defuse misunderstandings between and within communities to improve thesituation.
6. Embarking on interfaith dialogues is an important way of promoting understanding between different communities. In this sense, the timing and topic of this meeting could not have been better. Over the next one and a half days, you will explore avenues to promote and expand inter-faith, inter-cultural and inter-civilisational dialogue and relations. You will also look at measures that foster greater tolerance and understanding and improve religious and ethnic relations amongst our peoples. This meeting will make an important contribution to the overall effort to counter the threat of terrorism.
7. Winning the fight against the terrorist threat requires winning the hearts and minds of all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We need to take a sustained, balanced, coordinated and comprehensive approach. There is no “one size fits all” solution.
8. Let me take this opportunity to share with you how we in Singapore have taken an integrated approach in involving and engaging the significant stakeholders in our counter-terrorism effort.
Fighting the terrorism threat: Singapore’s Experience
9. Through our own experience in dealing with the terrorist threat, we recognise that Government action alone, i.e., arrest and detention, is not enough. Singapore’s strategy in countering the ideological roots of extremism is therefore predicated on a series of measures which include (a) enhancing internal security, (b) stemming the spread of extremist ideology and (c)strengthening cohesion and religious harmony.
10. We have found that it is more effective for religious and community groups to actively work through education and engagement to prevent extremist ideas from gaining a foothold in mainstream community. In this regard, our local Muslim community is out there engaging in several efforts to guard against extremist Islamist views and securing the understanding and cooperation of the other ethnic communities for their efforts. Let me cite a few concrete examples of these efforts.
Efforts by the Muslim Community
11. A key initiative is the Religious Rehabilitation Programme. This is essentially a religious counseling programme for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) detainees and their families. The programme is conducted by local volunteer religious scholars and leaders, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). Its aim is to correct JI members’ distorted understanding of their religion which had been fed to them by their leaders. The programme analyses and identifies core doctrinal concepts in the JI ideology which played a part in the conditioning and motivating these JI operatives. Apart from counselling the JI detainees, the RRG has also undertaken numerous outreach efforts such as organizing public forums on the dangers of terrorist ideology. In addition, RRG members contribute counter-terrorism articles to the local media that provide counter-argumentsto terrorist ideology.
12. Aside from the RRG, other local Muslim organizations have also come together to organise conventions to alert Muslims against terrorist ideologies and to enhance non-Muslims’ understanding of Muslims’ position on radicalism. Local Muslim individuals also play their part in educating Muslims and non-Muslims alike on important Islamic concepts which have been misinterpreted and distorted by radical elements. For example, two RSIS (S Rajaratnam School of International Studies) research analysts recently published some 22,000 copies of a free booklet “Questions & Answers on Jihad”.
13. While I have given some examples of initiatives by our Muslim community, we also recognize that all communities in Singapore, regardless of race and religion, have important roles to play. To prevent terrorists’ attempts to sow the seeds of distrust and animosity between the different races and religions in Singapore, it is critical for the general population to be well-plugged in on terrorism issues, as the impact and aftermath of any attack would be felt across all communities. Hence, we launched the Community Engagement Programme, or CEP, last year to strengthen our resilience and our ability to maintain social harmony in the event of a national crisis. This is particularly relevant in the context of Singapore’s multi-ethnic, multi-religioussociety.
14. The CEP seeks to bring together people from the various communities together to strengthen inter-communal bonds, and put in place community response plans to help deal with potential communal tensions that may surface.
15. The various communities in Singapore have responded positively and have stepped forward to take the initiative to organise activities under the CEP banner. A number of inter-faith events, dialogues and forums have since been held. In October last year, the Harmony Centre, which is housed within the An-Nahdhah Mosque was officially opened by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The Harmony Centre, which you will be visiting tomorrow afternoon, serves as an integrated hub to promote greater inter-faith understanding and bring people of different religions together by hosting exhibitions, seminars and forums to promote greater understanding of Islam and Muslims. For example, in January this year, the Harmony Centre together with Hartford Seminary, organised an interfaith training programme aimed at enabling participants to better comprehend and appreciate different religious fundamentals and its impact on society.
16. In January this year, an inter-faith forum and dinner was organised jointly by the University Scholars Programme, Ba'alwie Mosque and Inter-Religious Organisation to discuss ways to enhance inter-faith understanding. A group of youths also pursued a project on inter-religious understanding called 'Project Connect' in January 2007. Under this project, they attended a three-day camp, made study trips to different religious sites and agencies and held a Singapore Inter-Faith Youth Forum to promote inter-religious understanding.
17. The events and activities that I have just highlighted are exactly what we had hoped when we launched the CEP to see happening on the ground, as it shows that our people are taking ownership. So, in Singapore, much has been done but more can be done.
18. In summary then, we cannot afford to only rely on the police and security services to guarantee our long term security. Ultimately, it rests on whole communities to come together in a consolidated effort to challenge and defeat the extremist ideologies and to keep our society together. Each country must take into account its unique local characteristics so as to be able to effectively address the complex mix of factors that gives rise to terrorism. We can discuss and share our experiences, but each country must find its own formula toaddress the challenges.
19. On this note, let me wish you a fruitful discussion. I am confident that the exchange of ideas and sharing of countries’ experiences would shorten our learning curves and in turn contribute to our larger efforts of combating global terrorism. I look forward to your inputs and contributions both in the formal meetings and the informal exchanges. Thank you.