"When the Jemaah Islamiyah episode arose in late 2001, we had to confront the larger implications of this episode and its potential impact to create mistrust between Muslim and non-Muslim Singaporeans. Our response had to be more than one involving security measures to neutralise the threat.
2 So the Prime Minister and Cabinet members held two dialogues with 1,700 community and grassroot leaders to ensure that the issue, although sensitive, was dealt with transparently; to ensure that we do not allow distortions and misconceptions which may target Islam and our Muslims. The communication continued after the dialogue, as our MPs went down to ground to do the same with their constituents.
3 This political response is not something common in other countries. Some foreign visitors told me they would not have been able to do this in their own countries. We are fortunate to be able to do this because over the years we have built good relations among our communities and between them and the Government.
After London 7/7
4 However after the London incidents in July 2005, we asked ourselves whether we should do more. The threat of extremist terrorism was not going away and increasingly, we see involvement by homegrown elements. We asked ourselves ‘how would our people react after a terrorist attack in Singapore? Especially if the perpetrators were homegrown?’. While we think that our good communal relations built up over the years would stand us in good stead, we also realised that this is not to be taken for granted.
Extremist rhetoric and sensitive political developments around the world can have a bearing on our people over time. We must prepare our people to be psychologically and socially resilient.
5 Firstly, we must counter the extremist ideology. In this regard, our Muslim religious leaders have been active to counter the distortions of Islam which extremist and terrorist elements purvey.
6 Secondly, we know that it could be difficult for communities to remain calm and avoid knee-jerk reactions after a crisis has happened. Communities need to trust each other and know what needs to be done before any crisis strikes. A mental and emotional commitment to good relations is important.
But we need to do more – we need to exercise and prepare people to know what to do and what to expect in a crisis.
This was the background to the Community Engagement Programme or CEP.
What is CEP
7 The CEP is a long-term effort to strengthen our social cohesion and harmony so that we are better equipped to respond, should there be a terrorist attack in Singapore. It is an extension of our established efforts to involve the community in tackling safety and security issues at the local neighbourhood level, learning specific skills in emergency preparedness such as first aid and response to fires. We want to bring together Singaporeans from different communities, to take part in response plans dealing with potential communal tensions after an incident, e.g a terrorist bomb explosion.
8 In the dialogue sessions and discussions, we have received good feedback and views. One recurrent view is that:
in order for the CEP to be self-sustaining, it needs to be facilitated by Government but driven from bottom-up. People and groups need to take ownership of initiatives.
This is something experienced grassroots leaders and activists tell me as well.
Ground knows Domain Best
9 Hence one of the things we want to avoid is creating new layers of organizations and structures. The Government can facilitate and offer support and resources to help the process along. People on the ground know their own domains best.
10 There have been ground-up initiatives, whether at the community or neighbourhoold levels, eg the Yuhua CEP workshop and forum on religions for community leaders from Chua Chu Kang, Kim Keat and Yew Tee. To take ownership of CEP, the groups and their leaders will have to come up with their own ideas and activities. To be sustainable, it would need to ride on what they are currently doing.
11 We cannot take for granted the good inter-communal relations built up over the years. We should build on our strengths, and initiate dialogue and organise activities to deepen the trust and understanding.
12 This cannot be done by the Government alone. While the Government can facilitate and offer support and resources to help the process along, bottom-up initiatives to promote inter-faith understanding and bring people of different races and religions together are necessary.
13 On the ground, there have recently been a number of dialogues focused on building inter-faith dialogues, eg one by ISEAS (“How to fight Extremism through interfaith dialogue and interfaith cooperation”, 19 Jan) and another by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Peace Matters (“Promoting peace: the role of interfaith and intrafaith dialogue”, 27 Jan). The Harmony Centre, together with the MUIS Academy and the Hartford Seminary, recently had its first interfaith training programme.
Building on Existing Activities
14 We want to avoid creating new layers of organisations and structures, wherever possible. Instead, we want to tap existing organisations and their activities. For instance, if a grassroots group is planning an emergency exercise,
the organisers should not just look at the operational issues of evacuation, rescue and so on, but also look at how to address any adverse communal fall-out.
They may also organise themselves to watch out for and report ground sentiments like misconceptions or rumours which undermine racial/religious relations and actively work with the authorities to keep communal calm on the ground.
15 We want to establish ties and build rapport among the various communities and facilitate better understanding of each other’s cultures, beliefs and practices. We want the leaders to get to know one another well. This is to help minimize the possibility of racial or religious misunderstanding, and the resultant communal tension. However,
for the CEP to be sustainable in the long run, the community must take ownership and shape the CEP such that it is their plan and not the government’s edict.
16 So every effort from the ground is good. What we don’t want is a situation where in a crisis, community leaders who have to work together to diffuse communal tensions are seeing each other or talking to each other for the first time!
Facilitation of Networking
17 The Government will facilitate networking among leaders so that they know one another well. We hope that this networking will lead to a situation where in a crisis, the leaders will respond not as strangers calling each other, but of people who have met, discussed and exercised plans together; people who can pick up the phone and discuss how they can cooperate and help calm the ground.
18 We will continue this invaluable communication and dialogue process. The five cluster lead agencies have started engaging their respective community leaders at workshops and seminars. On 13 Jan, for instance, MCYS held a CEP workshop with the IRCC groups. Other cluster leads have or will be organising their workshops too. The various groups have to consider what they need and what they plan to do. In late March, we will have a national seminar that brings all the clusters together. Outside of these workshops and seminars, the dialogues should continue, as the community leaders communicate with their cluster lead agencies and vice versa.
Community engagement is always work-in-progress. The job is never finished.
Security Reflex and Resources for Empowerment
19 The Government will also provide the leadership and resources to empower groups and organisations on the ground to develop a security reflex and crisis mitigation competencies relevant to their area of natural interest and knowledge.
20 To this end, our SCDF and Police are expanding their emergency training resources to support development of such competencies within communities; likewise other agencies will grow their programmes whether in training for counselling or in how to draw up contingency and continuity plans.
20 There are other initiatives in the pipeline, the details of which will be announced in due course:
- MCYS is now working on the revamp of the IRCCs to re-align their mission to the CEP.
- The CEP community leaders will be trained and equipped with suitable knowledge and skills so that they can respond effectively to minimize the likelihood of inter-communal conflicts arising from crises. The Home Team Academy is working on an executive development programme to train the leaders.
Reaching out to the Foreign Residents
21 We should find ways to also address the foreign resident constituency in the country. In this regard, MOM has been looking at the issue of engaging foreign workers under the CEP. One of our Police divisions (J division) has also piloted a programme to establish a liaison channel to reach out to groups of foreign workers living in common dormitories1.The SCDF has also done so for fire safety in such dorms with some success2. For immigrants who have become Permanent Residents or citizens, we will engage them like we do with all Singaporeans.
22 For example, Singaporeans can start by inviting those foreigners who are working here for a dialogue to understand them better. Over time, mutual confidence trust and confidence will be built up. In times of crisis, they can help each other.”
MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS
29 January 2007
1Singapore Police Force: “The objective of the Foreign National Crime Prevention Ambassador Project is to promote crime prevention awareness amongst the current foreign community through the appointment of foreign nationals as ambassadors to their fellow foreign nationals. The project started out as a pilot project in Feb 06 by Nanyang Neighbourhood Police Centre with SCAL Dormitories, where ambassadors were trained by NPC Officers to spread the crime prevention message. With the success of the trial which allowed messages to be more effectively conveyed to their fellow foreign nationals, the scheme will be extended to other NPCs in Jurong Police Division and new ambassadors from various nationalities residing at major dormitories will be appointed in a ceremony in late February/early March.”
2 Singapore Civil Defence Force: “The cluster lead agencies have started engaging their respective community leaders at workshops and seminars. Engagement of workers, including foreign workers, will be one area that the cluster led by MOM will look into. It is work-in-progress, as the job of community engagement is never finished.”