Published: 19 January 2016
Mr Eddie Teo,
Ambassador Ong Keng Yong,
Mr Alami Musa,
Prof Julius Lipner,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for giving me the privilege of speaking here. This Symposium is both timely and relevant. It will look at how religion can increase the common space in society.
ROLE OF RELIGION
2 Throughout history if you look at the role of religion, major religions have shaped societies in a fundamental, positive way. They have sought to make people better as human beings in society - compassionate, kind, charitable. Religion can be a force for much good. Many of our modern societal values are derived from religious beliefs and values. And the moral values which underpin major legal systems are also, ultimately, derived from religious values and beliefs.
3 How our societies are structured, laws, morals. Indeed civilisation as a whole, owes a lot to religion. At the same time, there is the other facet about the history of organised religion that we have to note and acknowledge – the role that they have played in encouraging intolerance, bigotry, the denial of another's right to pray to a different God. The untold sufferings and misery of millions through the confessional wars in Europe over centuries.
The list is endless. And all religions have played a part in this.
4 You can rightly ask: Was religion the cause, or was it an excuse in these conflicts? Look closely and you may often see the real reason for the conflict - which is the basic human lust for power, profit, control of people and lands. Religion was often the vehicle, the excuse for pursuing these goals. When those in power were enlightened, the results were different. In Muslim Spain, for example, the rulers pursued and encouraged mutual co-existence among the various faith communities. Religion contributed much to history, some of it written in blood. In the last decade of the 20th Century, after the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a sense that history as we knew it had ended. That liberal democratic values will flourish, sweetness and light will triumph. The events of the last 15 years have shown the innocence of such thoughts.
5 Leave aside the contest between countries – that has not quite gone away. In addition to that, religion has again risen with renewed vigour. As a force for good, and also, in the hands of some, as a tool for terror, both within countries and internationally. Many chapters of history were written in blood - the idea that you should go out and kill as many people as possible, that such killing makes you a martyr, and that you are doing God's will and will go to Heaven.
6 These crazy ideas have taken root, and they are spreading. At the heart of it are the very same old human desires: the people who spread these ideas are often motivated by power. They capitalise on issues that Muslims are concerned with to achieve their political ambitions. These ideas will not win in the end, but the cost in terms of blood and misery will be high, and that price has to be paid, unfortunately.
7 Every week we get news of a new terror attack. Bangkok, Beirut, Paris, Istanbul, now Jakarta. Across the North and Central Africa, across Europe, Middle East of course. In this context, this afternoon, I will like to share some views on the following:
THE REGIONAL SITUATION
8 The Region has become fertile ground for terrorism. There are several reasons for this. I will mention two - politics within countries; and events in the Middle East. Let me deal with Politics first.
9 Over the last few decades in this region, religion, particularly Islam, has been used as a tool in political power play. Exclusiveness based on religion was advocated. A nexus between political power and the clergy developed in some places. Broad minded multiculturalism was de-emphasised. An "us" versus "them" mentality was encouraged. Sometimes it was cynical exploitation, for very secular ends.
10 In Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar – Islam was and is not the dominant religion. In these countries, there have been sectarian conflicts along religious lines.
The majority communities were not able to handle the legitimate demands of the Muslim minorities. That allowed sections of their Muslim minority communities to be exploited and radicalised by external as well as internal influences.
11 What is the result of all of these developments? As a young boy, I grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. There was a real threat of communism sweeping through Southeast Asia. But from the 1980s, the worst seemed to be over. Communism itself changed, and we had terms like Socialism with Chinese or Vietnamese characteristics which doesn't look very different from capitalism in many aspects. But just as we thought the worst was over, terrorism based on religion, particularly Islam, seems to be even more dangerous. The zealots want to overthrow elected Governments and establish a Caliphate. Let's look at Malaysia.
12 Malaysian society has fundamentally changed. I'm not saying this is good or bad. It is for Malaysians to choose how their society should be organised. The change however is a fact which is relevant to note because of the possible consequences. Look at a study by Merdeka Centre last year. Among Malay respondents, the most important trait was that the Malaysian Prime Minister should have Islamic credentials. 60% of Malaysian Malays identified themselves as Muslims first, rather than as Malaysians or Malays. If you look at support for Shariah law, 71% of Malay respondents supported Hudud laws, which include the amputation of hands for thefts and stoning for adultery. Support was greater among younger Malays as compared to older ones.
13 The current situation has been shaped by deliberate choices made over decades, about how public discourse on religion was to be conducted. It is useful to see some trends on what is happening in the public sphere in Malaysia. Again it's not a question of right or wrong, but simply that what happens in Malaysia is highly relevant for us.
14 Trengganu, an UMNO ruled state, introduced closure of supermarkets and shops during Friday prayers, public shaming of Muslims who skip Friday prayers, and parading them in a hearse around the city centre if they skipped prayers. Entertainment guidelines of the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM) stipulated separate seating for opposite genders, guidelines on the attire and hairstyle of artists, and restrictions on dance moves.
15 Kedah has also introduced laws, where Muslims who miss Friday prayers would face criminal sanctions. Then there was criticism by some leaders against Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi. She won multiple SEA Games medals, including two Golds. She was criticised for her gymnastics attire.
16 If you look at PAS, there has been a "Pro-Ulama Tsunami". There was overwhelming support for the Ulamas against the Professionals last year in PAS' internal elections. In fact, the professionals were wiped out. The Ulamas wanted Shariah law to be implemented. The professionals did not support it because they said that is not possible in a multi-racial country. The Rakyat overwhelmingly supported the Ulamas.
17 These are some illustrations, trends, signals, indications, changes that help us understand the trends in society. The trends can be summarised in this way. One, Malaysia as a whole has become much more Islamic. Politics led the change. Now that society has changed, politics will change even more and religion and politics will become even more closely linked.
18 Against the backdrop of such changes, a section of the Malaysian population has begun to support extremist terrorist ideology. A recent Pew Research Centre study a few months ago showed that 10 percent of Malaysian Malays had a favourable opinion of ISIS. Consider the nature of the threat posed, if even a small fraction of these become radicalised.
19 The Malaysian authorities have foiled several ISIS-inspired attack plots and arrested several persons involved in ISIS activities. There were personnel from the armed forces and security forces including commandos (as was reported in the media), police officers, civil servants and healthcare workers. These individuals enjoyed access to weapons, sensitive locations and information. They would have posed a great and severe security threat. The developments are obviously very, very troubling.
20 In Indonesia, several militant groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Some pesantrens and madrasahs are suspected to be linked to terror networks. There is suspicion that money from the Middle East has been funnelled through these institutions, and through them. The prisons, where many JI terrorists are held, have been breeding grounds for radicalisation and recruitment for ISIS.
21 The threat is made worse by the impending release of a large number of terrorist prisoners which increases the risk in the region. Indonesia does not have preventive detention laws which can be used against these people to detain them. So hundreds of prisoners have already been released or become eligible for release by the end of this year. They include JI-linked terrorists previously involved in plots against Singapore and Western targets in Indonesia. In fact, two of the attackers in the recent Jakarta attacks were previously convicted for terror related crimes and were reportedly released from prison earlier. The authorities are firm in Indonesia but there are inherent difficulties. It is a large country, 19,000 islands with a large population. Money flows in from the Middle East and it is really difficult to keep track of what is happening where. The authorities were on high alert through the Christmas and New Year periods and yet the attacks occurred in Central Jakarta. That's a ground reality.
Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar
22 Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar all face possibilities of inter religious strife with their ethnic Muslim populations. The socio-economic conditions of the Muslim populations and their grievances add to the potency of the terrorism threat.
23 Even a brief survey of the region shows just how ripe the conditions are for an explosion of terrorism, based on religion. These conditions have arisen because of failure of leadership in the past, such as cynical exploitation of race and religion by some secular and religious authorities, the relative lack of focus on development and education, and a lack of strong commitment to multi-culturalism, multi-ethnicity, and a multi-religious society
Influence from the Middle East
24 The home-grown conditions and politics in our region have now been aligned with events in the Middle East, such as the rise of ISIS in Palestine and Syria. There is a proliferation of charismatic preachers who advocate intolerance and violence, with such teachings available on the internet, with glorification of terror, violence, beheadings. These international events and trends are fusing perfectly with fertile conditions in this region, to beget violence and terror.
What Does This Mean For Us
25 What does all this mean for us, in Singapore? Our very existence, as one of the most religiously diverse and tolerant societies in the world, where mosques, churches and temples are situated side by side is unacceptable to the zealots. They consider us infidels, Kaffirs who ought to be exterminated. Singapore, in their scheme, has to become part of a Caliphate.
26 We face four types of interrelated threats in Singapore, and they are becoming more urgent. One, of course, is the threat of a terrorist attack. It is not a question of 'if" but "when". Second is the threat of radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population. The third problem we face is our Muslim population growing somewhat distant from the rest of our society. The fourth, which is a very serious threat, is Islamophobia amongst our non-Muslim communities. Let me deal with each of these in turn.
Threat of a Direct Terrorist Attack
27 Extremists are evolving new ways of attacking defenceless people, killing maximum numbers. We have to anticipate and prepare for the attacks which will come. This requires a strengthening of our security forces, our intelligence capabilities, and border controls.
28 Border controls, especially at the land check points may be irksome, especially the long waits during festival periods and holidays. But there is not much choice.
29 Singapore is fairly secure. We have tight laws, tight gun control, and with intelligence work, we try to prevent attacks from happening. But attackers are likely to gather and plan just outside Singapore and attack us, like the attack on Paris was probably planned in Molenbeek where security was less tight. So, in addition to hard security measures, we have to do one more thing which is very urgent. We have to move to change mindsets. Our people must realise that everyone is responsible for our collective security.
30 Over the next few months, my Ministry will announce some of the measures covering both the hard and soft aspects of Singapore's security, including the response by the community
Threat of Radicalisation of a part of our Muslim Population
31 Our internet penetration is over 100%. More than 90% of each cohort of our young people go on to some form of tertiary education – University, Polytechnic or ITE. The young are very Internet savvy, and they can see and hear preachers who glorify violence on the internet. The talks are very slick, evocative and increasingly aimed at populations in this region, and in Malay and English. Some of our young people have been brainwashed.
32 Just to share with you a couple of examples. The first, a young boy in NS. He decided he will go and learn demolition specifically. He began surfing the internet for jihadist propaganda and videos when he was in Polytechnic. He wanted to take part in armed jihad overseas and went online to search for information on bomb-making. He also produced and posted a video glorifying martyrdom and justifying suicide bombing. We detained him. I think in this region, we are one of the few countries who probably has fairly effective laws and use it appropriately. For us, National Service is the place where all our young men come together. Our parents believe that the boys are safe in National Service. If one of the boys turns his weapon on another, that will be a deep tear in the fabric of our society. Faith will be shattered and communal harmony will be at risk and Islamophobia will grow. Another self-radicalised boy decided that he would go and fight in Syria and Iraq. If he could not, he wanted to go to the Istana during an open house and use a knife to kill the President and the Prime Minister. This threat is likely to grow, unless both the Government and the community take resolute steps. Any successful attack would be disastrous in many ways, including for inter-ethnic harmony.
Threat of our Muslim population growing somewhat more distant from the rest of society
33 As religiosity sweeps the world, Singaporeans are not immune. There is a sense that Singaporeans as a whole are becoming more religious, across more religions. There is research which backs up this conclusion. Influences from the Middle East have had an impact on our Muslim population as well.
34 There is a fine line between having a greater understanding of religion and practising one's religion as opposed to believing that our religion requires us to be separate. Remaining an integral part of society as a whole, celebrating our diversity being Singaporeans first and Chinese, Malay or Indian second, as opposed to being indifferent at best, more often intolerant towards other faiths. The latter approach will spell trouble to Singapore, and the wonderful multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that we have here will be destroyed.
35 Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke about Singaporean Chinese, Singaporean Malay, Singaporean Indian, in contrast to Chinese Singaporean, or Malay Singaporean, or Indian Singaporean. However, we have picked up among sections of our younger Muslim population, sentiments against wishing Christians "Merry Christmas" or wishing Hindus "Happy Deepavali". Some groups preach that it is wrong for Muslims to recite the National Pledge, or sing the National Anthem, or serve National Service, as doing so would contradict the Muslim faith. Or that the democratically elected Government that we have in Singapore is incompatible with Islam, and that we should be a caliphate. These are worrying trends and if these sentiments become widespread, a Muslim Community that grows apart from the mainstream is not good for Singapore and will have serious long term implications.
36 We watch this closely and will do what we can. Foreign preachers are sometimes not allowed in. This is because we will not allow anyone, of any religion, who preaches that people of other faiths should be shunned or that people of other faiths should be ignored. And it is not only what he preaches in Singapore. We will also look at what he preaches outside Singapore. As his teachings would be available online, it is wrong to allow him to build up a following in Singapore.
37 The Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion, but the Government has to step in to protect our racial, religious harmony. We cannot allow someone to preach values which are contrary to our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic harmony. We take a firm, clear stand on that and make no apologies.
Threat of Islamophobia
38 The threat of Islamophobia is a serious risk. Singapore is a unique place: Chinese comprise 74% of the population. But Mandarin is not our working language, nor do the Chinese get the sort of privileges which 74% of the population will expect in many societies. We have crafted a unique set of policies emphasising multi-racialism, tolerance and equality.
39 However, the daily, incessant news coverage of some attack somewhere in the world ranging across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia can create a general sense of suspicion of Muslims, Islam as a whole. Any home-grown radicalisation will seriously exacerbate this.
40 There are increasing reports of intolerance towards Muslims by non-Muslims. In many major cities like London, hate crimes against Muslims have risen in the last few years. In the weeks following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, there has been a surge in threats and attacks against Muslims and mosques. Even Sikhs and their temples have been attacked as they were mistaken for Muslims.
41 Singapore is not immune to such intolerance. In September, a Malay woman was walking towards a bus-stop when she was approached by a man of another race, who uttered the words "suicide bomber" to her. In November, about a week after the Paris attacks, the words "Islam murderers" were found scribbled at a bus-stop in Bukit Panjang and on a toilet seat at Jurong Point Shopping Mall. As yet, such acts are few and far between in Singapore. But it is difficult to assess how the mental landscape within people is shifting. If the mental landscape amongst a significant part of the population changes, then we will have a serious problem.
42 How our non-Muslim population treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. And if we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will be further pushed. The harmonious society that we have built will be at risk. It is therefore vital that we ask the non-Muslim communities to look squarely at themselves, their attitudes and viewpoints. How supportive they really are or are they only being superficially, politically, correct? Do they accept that the vast majority of our Muslim population are tolerant, positive and are in every way Singaporean? Do we accept that it is our duty to reach out, encourage and continue to build a harmonious society where each of us, including our Muslim brothers and sisters are bonded, and keep to the ideals of Singapore?
43 It is important that we ensure that Muslims in Singapore enjoy good opportunities, that there is no discrimination in schools, in jobs, in society as a whole. Islamophobia will tear our society apart. We have to guard against it. It is completely unacceptable.
44 In the face of these threats, what will our response be? How will we respond as a Government and one people to these challenges? Since independence, we have made determined efforts to pursue policies that bring people from all races and religions together. We live in the same neighbourhoods, our children attend the same schools; and our young men all serve National Service together.
45 Our religious groups and communities have come up with initiatives to preserve our common space and to contribute to the well-being of Singaporean society as a whole. In this regard, the Muslim community in Singapore has much to be proud of. You are a successful model to the modern world for your moderate, respectful worldview and practices. The community must continue to preserve and protect their way of life, despite challenges within and without. One example is the Singapore Muslim Identity, or SMI initiative. This was launched by the local Muslim community in 2004. The SMI spells out principles and values for living in and contributing to Singapore's multi-cultural and multi-religious society, based on the Koran, and how we can contribute to the secular state. These principles and values are taught in sermons, at weekly Friday congregations. The Muslim Community's Ramadan Lil Alamin Fund, or Blessings to All Fund, channels donations to victims of natural disasters and in conflict zones around the world, regardless of race or religion.
46 I should mention the Religious Rehabilitation Group or RRG. This is a broad network of Islamic scholars and religious teachers who have come together to volunteer their services to counsel the JI detainees, and those who have been influenced by terrorist ideologies which are peddled by ISIS and other extremist groups in this region. RRG volunteers have also engaged in numerous outreach activities to educate the Muslim community on how the extremists have deviated from the true teachings of Islam.
47 There is also the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS). This is a community accreditation initiative introduced in 2005. Senior religious teachers and scholars got together to ensure that religious instructions are only provided by qualified teachers. This scheme was the brainchild of the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS). It aims to guide Singaporean Muslims away from the divisive and extremist ideology propagated by terrorists.
48 The SRP Programme has started formulating plans in these aspects. It will work with MUIS and Pergas to step up professional development programmes to help these religious teachers contextualise their knowledge to contemporary Singapore.
49 The Government, as well as our religious leaders and community groups have been working on these initiatives for several years. As waves of terrorist ideology sweeps the region, we have to step up even more. Some of the approaches we have taken have to be re-examined.
50 As tendencies towards greater religious extremism and exclusivity grow in the region, both the Government and our people must make a bigger collective effort to safeguard our racial and religious harmony. The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create sharp and violent divisions between "us" and "them". If we remain resolutely "us", one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, no force can divide us, and terrorism will be defeated.
51 In essence, the following will be needed. Religious leaders have to help our population understand the true nature of terrorist ideology. The ideology of ISIS has to be countered doctrinally. That has to come from religious scholarship. The fight for hearts and minds has to come through powerfully, and through simple messages, including on social media.
52 The community leaders have to help lead the fight for hearts and minds in a community context for a united Singapore. The Government has an important role. It has to be vigilant. There are tough laws to prevent race and religion being used to create divisions. For example, we will not allow the burning of the Koran, or the Bible, in the name of free speech in Singapore. Nor will we allow denigration of any religion or person of another race. There are limits to free speech and we will be very tough on that. We will do our best to keep Singapore safe, and ensure equality of opportunities, fairness and a fair stake for all in Singapore. We will also ensure everyone has the freedom to practise his or her religion.
53 Over the course of this year, in the context of challenges and terrorist threats that we face, we will announce and roll out a significant number of policies which will seek to achieve these objectives.
54 In conclusion, I would like to commend the SRP Programme and the organisers of this Symposium, for your work in promoting inter-religious understanding and social cohesion. I trust that you will have a meaningful time of learning and sharing over the next two days.
55 Thank you.