Published: 24 November 2020
My Parliamentary colleague, Mohammad Faishal Ibrahim
Co-Chairmen of the RRG
Ustaz Ali Haji Mohd [who could not join us today]
Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan
Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir
Previous Mufti Dr Fatris Bakaram
Chief Executive MUIS, Mr Esa Masood
1. Good afternoon. I am happy to be able to join you here today at your 16th RRG seminar.
2. Many of you, including both co-chairs, Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi, have been with the RRG right from the beginning, 17 years ago.
3. In these 17 years, RRG has been an extremely strong, influential, important voice for both religious tolerance as well as strong religious beliefs, and standing firm against violence and terrorism.
4. This year’s format is obviously different. We are all living in a new normal. Dr Ali spoke about vaccination in the new normal – it applies to the rest of life as well. I am heartened to see that many people are still taking part, whether in-person or over Zoom. Thank you for your good work.
CURRENT SECURITY LANDSCAPE
5. Today I want to share some important points with you. Since the last RRG retreat in March 2019, the shape and nature of the terrorism threat has changed. ISIS has lost much of its physical territory – in fact, almost all of its physical territory, in Syria and Iraq – and a number of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have been killed.
6. But, the threat of ISIS remains. It is now a covert network with over 10,000 fighters. It still has over 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and they continue attacks. ISIS is taking advantage of the geopolitical unrest and weak governance in many of the conflict zones. The unfortunate thing about all of this, is that the people who suffer most, most of the people that ISIS kills, are fellow Muslims – more than 90 percent, children, women.
7. Its propaganda on social media continues to radicalise and inspire attacks around the world, including here in Southeast Asia.
8. There have been sustained counter-terrorism efforts in this region and that has led to a moderation, a slight reduction, in the number of attacks.
9. But, the terrorists in this region are adapting. They are going low-tech, adapting, changing their modus. For example, they use knives, they use lesser known explosives, and they are tapping on alternative funding sources for their operations.
10. We have all seen, and the spate of attacks in France and Austria tells us, that the threat of terrorism hasn’t gone away.
11. French teacher Samuel Paty’s head was cut off by an 18-year-old Chechen teenager. He had shown his classroom students, when they were discussing freedom of speech, cartoons that were put out by Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. You know that Charlie Hebdo, as a result of attacks of which there were several attacks on Charlie Hebdo, people died.
12. French President Macron issued a statement paying tribute to Paty and defending the right in France to publish such cartoons. He made a very strong speech, covering many different aspects.
13. That speech then got a very strong counter reaction from Muslims around the world, and some described the actions of France as Islamophobic.
14. Jihadists have jumped on it. They’ve called on followers to attack French interests, and to attack anyone who insults Islam and the way they define as insulting Islam.
15. As a result, there were then follow-up attacks. There were attacks in Nice, Lyon and in Vienna, Austria. It shows that when jihadists make such calls, there are people who will follow, and a few others, and more terror.
16. We all have said, we all know, jihadists don’t represent Islam. You have people like that in every religion who will resort to violence. It is not a problem with any particular religion, but you will always have people like this. The question is how we deal with them.
17. What has happened in France has restarted the debate on what freedom of expression means, how much you can say, and what is the boundary between free expression and your obligation not to offend someone’s religion.
18. In France, secularism, the French call it Laicite. It means that the government will not intervene in religious matters or stop publications that attack religions.
19. Freedom of speech is quite absolute to the extent that it even includes the right to blaspheme, which means you can publish anything that is offensive to any religion.
20. This didn’t happen overnight.
21. If you go back some centuries, several hundred years to the Middle Ages, the Church was extremely powerful. If a clergyman was walking on the streets and if you didn’t kneel and pay homage, you could be whipped, you could be arrested. The Church could get you arrested if it felt that you were a threat or you were contradicting the Church. It had a tremendous influence, the most important influence, in people’s lives and in the countries’ politics.
22. But over the centuries, with the Renaissance, with the assertion of nationhood, with the Kings asserting themselves, the balance shifted.
23. Along the way, but not before there were several religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics, and between the Kings and the Churches, and of course the French revolution, between the 17th and 20th Centuries, the principles of separation of State and Religion, and the secularity of the State, developed.
24. Post-World War, that became a stronger principle. At the same time, France, along with some other countries, faced greater immigration post-Second World War.
25. There are two principles worth noting about the French experience. One, the French State, the establishment, assumed that the new immigrants will accept the French way of looking at freedom of speech and that they will also accept the French approach to secularity, meaning you could say what you like about any religion and the State will not intervene. They expected that all the new immigrants will accept that.
26. The Government and the State did not engage in any active efforts to integrate the new immigrants, to see how their values can be integrated with the French approach, nor did they look at whether the French approach needed to be reconsidered and recalibrated in the light of the changing population. The French simply assumed that everyone will accept its traditional values.
27. And Laicite meant that the State couldn’t actually intervene, or seriously interact with different religions. They left the religions to themselves, and they couldn’t help bring people together, mould a common viewpoint, while protecting freedom of religion. Something like MHA interacting with RRG to promote uniformity, to promote unity, to promote a better understanding of religion, would not be acceptable in France, because that means the State is getting involved. But, it’s very difficult without the State getting involved. The State doesn’t tell people what to believe in – that must be for religious leaders – but the State has resources that can be brought in to help, to assist.
28. What is the result when the State takes a hands-off approach and if we took a hands-off approach? You have publications like Charlie Hebdo, which publish repulsive, highly offensive cartoons and articles on religions, in the name of free speech.
29. And the French expect all religions to accept this.
30. The French, we can understand, they are shaped by their own tradition, their own history. For them, this is new, they don’t realise it.
31. But looking at it as an outsider, you can also see and understand. Some will say that if you insult my religion, I am not going to stand by and say this is your right to free speech.
32. I’m not going to accept that free speech means that you can give offence to my religion. They published these images – I’ve only chosen the ones they published about Catholics – and you can see how offensive it is. They published similar ones about Islam with the Prophet, and for Islam, even publishing images of the Prophet is not acceptable. So, you can imagine, what would the Catholics do all these years? They try to sue Charlie Hebdo, they go to the Courts, they say this is bad, you shouldn’t be doing this about religion. And the Courts rule differently, depends, but free speech. If you did this in Singapore, we would arrest you, but in the French case, they say this is free speech, and therefore we shouldn’t intervene.
33. So, you can imagine when they publish something like this about Muslims, or Islam, or any other religion – and they publish about all religions – you can imagine how offensive it is. I’m not showing the ones on Islam here. So, France will have to find a way to bridge this gulf between its principles of Laicite and Freedom, and the expectations and beliefs of its people who don’t accept that their religions should be offensively caricatured.
34. Every now and then, we get debates in Singapore – why is the Government not allowing free speech, why is the Government so protective or so defensive when it comes to race and religion? This is why we are defensive when it comes to race and religion. Because if we take a hands-off approach, then people will say since the Government won’t do something, I will do something, and people are going to be upset with each other. The national harmony will be affected, and the majority of people will be affected. Some groups will be saying yes, free speech, it’s ok, I don’t get offended, you can say what you like about the Prophet, the Pope, or God. But many other people would feel offended. So that is why we take a different approach.
35. We take a secular approach, so, when the Government looks at policies, we are secular. We don’t favour any particular religion, and we guarantee freedom of religion. We are secular, France is secular; we guarantee freedom of religion, France guarantees freedom of religion. But how we achieve it, is different. France says that they prefer to achieve it by taking a hands-off approach; we are interventionist, we intervene.
36. Because we take the position, that the right to speak freely goes with the duty to act responsibly, the two must go together.
37. And, as a secular Government, we are neutral in the treatment of all religions.
38. We also do not allow any religion to be attacked or insulted by anybody else, whether majority or minority. Same rules.
39. We guarantee freedom of religion, the right of every person to practice his or her religious beliefs, and we protect everyone, majority or minority, from any threats, hate speech or violence.
40. That is the assurance one gets in Singapore. It is also what we need to do to make sure that we preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore.
41. Therefore, the Charlie Hebdo types of cartoons will not be allowed in Singapore, whether they are about Catholicism or Protestants or Islam or Hindus. Free speech for us stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion. There is a fence, and that fence protects religious sensitivities. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, if they were here, they would have been told to stop. If they didn’t stop, ISD would visit them, and they would have been arrested.
42. We believe that we can build a multi-religious, multi-racial society, based on trust, and only by taking a firm stance against hate speech, and dealing with all communities equally and fairly.
43. We have laws designed to ensure racial and religious harmony in Singapore. We update them regularly to make sure that they are relevant and effective as times change.
44. Many of you might know that we amended the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) last year.
45. One key amendment is that the Minister can issue Restraining Orders to take effect immediately, removing the requirement for a 14-day notice period, because when it was introduced several decades ago, you had to give 14 days’ notice. But today, if you give 14 days’ notice, it goes around the world several times before 14 minutes are up. With social media and the Internet, a 14-day notice period doesn’t work anymore.
46. Another key amendment we said, we’ve been noticing foreign groups intervening, using religion, not just in Singapore, but in many other countries. We didn’t want to wait until that happened here, so we made amendments to the MRHA to say that foreign actors should not be exploiting our religious groups, imposing their values here. Let Singapore Muslims, Singapore Christians, Singapore Hindus decide for themselves. You can adapt the religious beliefs, but foreigners shouldn’t intervene actively in the way we do it.
47. Religious groups are now required to report all donations they receive from overseas, and we have rules. It doesn’t prevent foreign leadership of our organisations, but we have rules restricting the number of foreigners who can be in committees in charge of religious institutions. There is a limit to what we can do, but the committees and societies in Singapore, the churches and the mosques in Singapore, who are the committee members, the number. We can have some foreigners, but there will be a limit on the number.
48. The Government can also issue a Restraining Order against religious groups to prohibit donations, or change the leadership, if we assess that foreigners are heavily influencing those groups.
49. In contrast to France, we maintain secularity, we guarantee freedom of religion, by putting a limit to free speech. We’ll say it cannot be used to attack religion and actively intervene to put in policies which promote religious harmony. And, I’m sharing this because France has been in the news, the French approach has been in the news, and in Singapore, the constant debate is about freedom of speech and the limits. So, we understand why 40 to 50 years ago, our first generation of leaders decided on these principles which are still valid. Now, that’s my first point – to contrast the French approach to our approach, so that everyone can understand.
ENHANCED SECURITY MEASURES ADOPTED IN RESPONSE TO DEVELOPMENTS IN FRANCE
50. Second, what has happened because of the events in France? We have had to ramp up our security in Singapore to prevent copycat attacks.
51. The Police have increased ground presence.
52. ISD has also stepped up monitoring of radicals, flush out potential radicals.
53. There have been many radical calls since the events in France, as I said earlier. As a result, we have picked up 16 Bangladeshis and 1 Malaysian in the last few weeks.
54. One of them is a construction worker from Bangladesh, Ahmed Faysal. Quite a serious situation. He has been arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), for suspected radicalisation and involvement in terrorism.
55. ISD’s preliminary investigations show that he became radicalised online and he wanted to take part in armed jihad overseas.
56. He bought knives and blades which we recovered from him, you can see that in the pictures. He specifically wanted to go back to Bangladesh and kill Hindu Police officers. He also actively shared jihadist propaganda on his social media accounts. The Commercial Affairs Department is also investigating him for possible terrorism financing offences. He is under detention by ISD.
57. The other 15 Bangladeshis that were picked up, they were in the process of becoming radicalised. They were stoking anti-French sentiments, and that is serious because one of the privileges of being in Singapore is that any one of you can go out there and walk and not worry that somebody is going to come and attack you. That is one of the privileges. But tomorrow, if a French man were to get attacked on the streets – and it doesn’t matter whether he is a French man, and whether you like him or not – if he gets attacked, your sense of security will also be affected, because people can be knifed on the streets. We can’t (simply) say this is against France. Not in Singapore. They made inflammatory comments, they incited violence and could have become dangerous. ISD picked them up early, and we have sent all of them back to Bangladesh.
58. Likewise, for the Malaysian, we picked him up and sent him back.
59. Faysal, as I’ve said, is under detention.
60. This is what we call a zero tolerance approach. That is my second message.
IMPORTANCE OF RRG’S ROLE
61. Third, I have said this before, and I will repeat it. The Government cannot do this alone. We need the community to come in. Only the community can protect itself. Community leaders can protect the community from extremism and terrorism. It takes a whole-of-society effort.
62. We need calm, credible and authoritative voices to lower temperatures, and to drown out and reduce hate speech.
63. After the attack in France, the RRG for example, came out quickly and issued a statement to condemn the acts of violence. It called on everyone not to play into the hands of extremists, and not to allow these acts to damage our social harmony.
64. In your individual capacities as asatizah, some of you also posted on your personal social media accounts to remind the community on the need to practise mutual respect, love and compassion.
65. Those sorts of strong and clear responses are important in setting the tone for our community. And this is something that the Government also welcomes, that shows that our community, our Singaporean community, is different. These strong and clear responses are important in setting the tone for our community.
66. During this COVID-19 pandemic, RRG’s work on the counter-ideology front is especially important.
67. Supporters of terrorist groups are always quick to capitalise on these changes, on the feeling that people are economically disadvantaged. When people have less money, these terror appeals become more attractive, and they are always looking to see how they can make it more violent.
68. Groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda actually framed the COVID-19 pandemic as divine retribution against the West. It is actually affecting all of us, but they have framed it as God’s retribution against the West. Others are using it to pit an “us vs them” mentality.
69. There is no shortage of these sorts of propaganda online, and at the same time, more and more of our people are spending their time online to stay connected with friends or connected to work. RRG’s work is becoming even more important online.
70. I am heartened that RRG has intensified the efforts to reach out to the community online.
71. RRG has published more than 60 articles and 30 online lectures, including a Ramadan lecture series and very interestingly, a number of animation videos which have been put out through various social media platforms.
72. It is also good that it has continued with its 5th run of the Awareness Programme for Youth (APY), all in the midst of the pandemic. I think the 10 participants are there appearing on Zoom. Thank you to them, and thank you to you for doing this. (Note: The 10 participants appeared over Zoom at this juncture.)
73. Since there is no formal graduation ceremony, I will take this opportunity to congratulate the 10 participants on their successful completion of the programme. Let’s give them a round of applause.
74. I hope that you will be able to contribute back to society and continue to be the voice of peace and harmony, especially amongst our young people. We look forward to much from you.
75. The hybrid format adopted for this retreat shows the new normal that we are all adjusting to.
76. The launch of a virtual 360-degree tour of the Resource and Counselling Centre (RCC) today, reflects this spirit of innovation.
77. RRG, has in recent discussions with MUIS and Warees, agreed on an expansion plan for the RCC.
78. That is a very important milestone. I thank Muis for engaging with those discussions with RRG. The expanded RCC will become a cornerstone upon which we can anchor our counter-ideology efforts. It can also be a platform to galvanise Singaporeans to be united in the fight against terrorism.
79. Let me conclude by thanking each one of you for the extremely important and good work that has been done, that each of you are doing, and how important it is.
80. Thank you very much.