Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you very much, it is very nice to be here. I heard your discussions just now and I am very encouraged to hear your frank views and although you are a bit shy, I did keep my ears peeled when I walked away and the conversations got more animated and livelier. Good to see all of us having a good conversation about very important issues, perhaps the most important issues of our time. You know, speaking of times;
"It was the best of times, it was also the worst of times"
Those are Charles Dickens opening lines in his famous novel 'A Tale of Two Cities'.
I believe it describes our time now. The best and the worst of times.
Let me start with the bad part, about terrorism.
The Threat of Terrorism
2. The threat of terrorism in Singapore is at its highest level. While groups like Al-Qaeda and JI still pose a threat, the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS and its affiliates has dominated our security landscape for the last few years.
3. ISIS, as you know, is losing key leaders and territory in Syria and Iraq. But the fight against ISIS is far from won. ISIS is stepping up the momentum in its fight overseas, including directing and calling its supporters to mount attacks in home countries. We have seen several attacks in the UK, Turkey, Germany, France and Egypt and these, ISIS has claimed responsibility for. Foreign fighters who return home from the conflict zones also pose a serious threat. Battle hardened and more radicalised, they may carry out attacks in their home countries or influence others with their violent ideology.
4. A case in point is Salman Abedi? How many of you know him? How many of you know Ariana Grande? There is a link between the two. The link is that, Salman was a suicide bomber who set off a homemade bomb when people were leaving the Ariana Grande concert. This was in Manchester in May 2017. He killed 22 people and injured 59 others, including children. Salman was believed to have travelled to Syria and became radicalised and he returned to the UK to carry out the brutal attack.
ISIS Threat in Southeast Asia
5. ISIS has set its sight on Southeast Asia as part of its global caliphate. Just now, you talked about caliphate, it is real. It is not just things that you read about on social media. It is happening. People are plotting, people are thinking about this and they are planning. ISIS has made it very clear that they would like to set up a wilayat or a province in the region. Why? It is because ISIS sees Southeast Asia as a fertile recruitment ground because of the large Muslim population in this region. Over a thousand Southeast Asians have gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, including a Singaporean. You probably recall the name 'Abu Uqayl'. He recently featured in an ISIS propaganda video, where ISIS had referred to him as the "first Singaporean fighter" at the frontline with ISIS. Let me tell you – that is nothing to be proud of. In fact, he is foolish and has brought shame to his family and countrymen.
6. Closer to home, ISIS has been linked to some two dozen terrorist attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines since 2016. In 2017, the pro-ISIS militants claimed Marawi City in southern Philippines as ISIS territory. Over one thousand people dead and more than 350,000 displaced during that 5-month siege. It is worrying for Southeast Asia because it may embolden and inspire militants in the region to plot further "Marawi-style" or more attacks here in Southeast Asia.
7. Let me now talk about Singapore. Are we immune to it? Definitely not. In Singapore, we have seen a rise in the number of radicalised Singaporeans detected. After the rise of ISIS in 2014, we have taken action against 19 radicalised Singaporeans and for the first time since 2001, women were also dealt with for terrorism-related conduct. But I would like to highlight one crucial point – one that worries me a lot. More and more young people are drawn to the Syrian conflict and those radicalised are getting younger. In fact, between 2007 and 2014, the youngest self-radicalised individual dealt with was 20 years old. But, since 2015, we have already dealt with teenagers between 17 and 19 years old. This trend is disturbing. These teenagers are around your age. Now that is very scary. They have a whole life ahead of them. But what made them choose this? What made them stray onto the radicalisation path?
8. Let me share two such examples. The first, a youth aged 18, was radicalised by the online radical propaganda put up by ISIS. He harboured the intention to carry out armed jihad for ISIS. Prepared to train with ISIS and prepared to die just so that he could receive divine rewards for dying as a martyr or you may understand this term as 'mati syahid'. So he did some research on how to travel to Syria and then, tried to radicalise those around him to support ISIS so they could join him.
9. In another case, just last week, another youth, aged 19, also radicalised online. Brainwashed with pro-ISIS materials online, he considered going to Syria and fight for ISIS. But since August this year, he started to have some doubts. He questioned the legitimacy of ISIS's ideology and its use of violence. The authorities intervened early, so he was placed on Restriction Order (RO) and referred for counselling. In short, he got help.
10. As you can see from both these cases, they are very young. There are other young Singaporean victims too. What are their motivations? How did they become radicalised? I understand the youth cases typically started off quite innocently. For example, they were concerned about the suffering of Muslims in conflict zones, and felt the need to help. There were others who could not deal with life stressors such as boy-girl relationships, not doing well in school, social and family problems. They turned to religion 'online' as a coping mechanism. But unfortunately, they fell prey to ISIS' twisted lies and cruel ideology.
Singapore's Counter-Terrorism Strategy
11. The terrorism threat is not going away anytime soon. We have to step up and we have stepped up our efforts to respond to the heightened terrorism threat through enhanced protection, vigilance and response.
12. We have bolstered the capacities of our security agencies. We have set up specialist forces and emergency response teams so they can be the first line of response to a terrorist attack and we have conducted counter-terrorism exercises at various places, enhance security in public areas with high foot traffic, by installing more police cameras or PolCams and soft targets such as shopping malls and stadiums are often targets. We have seen this in many places from Las Vegas, Paris, Spain and many others.
13. We have to ensure that necessary security measures are put in place. Bag and body checks may inconvenience people but they are very necessary.
14. We also know it is not possible to totally secure all aspects of daily life. We remind Singaporeans: Not if, but when. It is not just a slogan. It is real. We have to prepare ourselves. We have to strengthen our resilience, be vigilant, and to identify and report potential threats. And when an attack happens, we must come together, united, stand as one and not allow the terrorists to divide us. Never.
15. I am sure you have also read about rising Islamophobia in other places. Some of you touched on it just now in your presentation. What is happening in other places can happen here. We must guard against this.
16. We must protect our way of life. The Singapore way – where we – people of different races and religions live in harmony. Where we respect one another as equals, as neighbours, as friends.
17. Singaporean Muslims reject extremism, exclusivist and divisive teachings. Other communities note this. They understand that this is not one community's fight but it is a battle that every one of us has a part to play. The end goal of terrorism is to inflict paranoia, terror and division between communities. We must not let terrorists succeed. We know that Islam is a religion of peace. But we also know that it is not enough to say that ours is a religion of peace. It is not enough to just wish some peace be upon you. We have to live it, we have to demonstrate it through our actions and deeds. As our Mufti, Dr Fatris Bakaram reminded us "The best ways Muslims here can help to dispel the idea that Islam is a troubled religion is to be a community that is productive, which contributes to the country and upholds the values and principles of peace".
18. It's a battle of hearts and minds. Tech-savvy terrorist organisations are designing sophisticated media content to target the vulnerable, to infect our young minds. We have to step up our counter-ideology efforts. Online or offline, wherever radical ideas proliferate, we have to be there, we have to counter untruths, to prevent a perverse version of Islam from infecting our people. MUIS has set up a network of asatizah and youth groups who will be trained in youth counselling and counter-radicalisation efforts.
19. Another important initiative by MUIS is the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS), which was introduced in 2005 and made compulsory in Jan 2017. The ARS provides a reliable source of reference. Seek out the wise counsel of good local teachers who can guide and provide a contextual response.
20. Other groups, such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group and the Interagency Aftercare Group, have also initiated upstream efforts to counter radicalisation, for example by producing digital content to clarify Islamic concepts misused by terrorists and organising counter-ideology forums and symposiums for the youth. The proactive approach of the Muslim community in tackling the issue head on is commendable.
21. My message to you is this. We have to continue to work together to build a cohesive Singapore community and guard against threats to our social harmony and security. As you continue your learning journey, use your knowledge to not just benefit yourself, but also your family, community and the nation at large.
22. I pray that each one of you, as madrasah students and future religious teachers and community leaders, will be the confident voice of our progressive Muslim community. A progressive Singapore. A community that is steeped in religious knowledge and thriving in a multi-racial, multi-religious, cosmopolitan country. How do we achieve this?
23. Let's start with today. You have all shared your thoughts and ideas at the breakout discussions just now. But it should not stop there. Actions speak louder than words. I said earlier: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". I spoke about the bad times. So why is this also the best of times? Because in tough times, we discover our true strength, we discover who we really are when our resolve is tested. It is a time we look deep in our history and traditions and discover the very best of it. You'll discover, if you look hard enough, a proud legacy that prides on social justice, prosperity, and compassion for all regardless of faith, a champion for humanity. It will be the best of times if you make it happen. Let's get together, organize yourselves, pursue the ideas that help build our community and our country, Singapore. Let's be the change, let's be the peace ambassadors of Islam, let's be good citizens of Singapore and I invite you to join me on this journey.
24. Thank you very much.