Published: 12 July 2016
Mr Benny Lim,
Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you for inviting me to grace the launch of the Handbook of Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific. The launch of this book could not have come at a better time.
2. Today, the world faces a significant terrorist threat. The deadly attacks in Saudi Arabia last week, and in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium and Orlando in the US, underscore the global challenge of terrorism. Nearer home, the terror attacks in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines demonstrate the serious threat in the region.
3. To keep Singapore safe and secure, the Government has pursued a multi-prong strategy because security responses alone are not sufficient. One part of our strategy involves countering ideological extremism and working closely with the communities. As we strengthen our legislation and enhance protective security measures, we will also need to continue safeguarding our community against terrorist and extremist ideology.
4. When it comes to terrorist ideology, the issue is not religion. Religion is often the vehicle, the excuse for pursuing terrorist actions. Terrorists have exploited religion to legitimise their actions. This perversion of religion to justify violent ends poses a grave threat to multi-religious societies and runs counter to the essence of pluralism.
5. To counter terrorist ideology, the existing close partnerships between religious and community groups must be strengthened and sustained. We must build cohesive and resilient communities which will help preserve our way of life, our social fabric, and to protect our common space.
Regional Threat Environment and Impact on Singapore
6. Let me elaborate on the terrorist threat in the region and its impact on Singapore. In the past, Singapore has had to contend with communist militants, the Japanese Red Army (JRA), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
7. Today, Singapore faces threats from both regional and international terrorist groups that are religion-based. They include the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah, Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS.
8. As you are aware, Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, developed into a regional group in the 1990s, and received training and finance from Al Qaeda. JI planned to further an Islamist agenda in the region including mounting attacks in Singapore. Fortunately, the attacks were averted. Based on information provided by a Singaporean Muslim, the Internal Security Department (ISD) prevented a major JI-Al Qaeda attack on Singapore's soil. The operational capabilities developed over the years enabled the Government to successfully disrupt and dismantle JI cells in Singapore. Nonetheless, the ideological resonance of the JI continues to linger in and sustain some militant groups in Southeast Asia.
9. Since the establishment of the so-called Islamic Caliphate in Syria in June 2014, the terrorist threat posed by the group that calls itself ISIS has grown rapidly. ISIS and its affiliates present a far greater threat worldwide, including Singapore.
10. In 2016, there have been numerous attacks that were directed or inspired by ISIS. In our immediate neighbourhood, we had:
11. In Southeast Asia, ISIS has received pledges of allegiance from dozens of Southeast Asian militant groups and found a steady stream of members, supporters and sympathisers. They include Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos and Singaporeans. ISIS has recruited more than 30,000 foreign fighters from all around the world. At least 1,000 Southeast Asians have departed for conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. Some of them have died fighting in the conflict zone.
12. ISIS has also created its own Southeast Asian wing, formed by Malaysian- and Indonesian- speaking fighters in Syria, called Katibah Nusantara. Katibah Nusantara serves to provide training and networks for Southeast Asian IS recruits in the Middle East.
13. Moving forward, a likely development concerns militant groups in the region which vie for ISIS recognition, subordinate itself to ISIS and carry out its instructions. The investigations into the attacks in Malaysia, Philippines and Jakarta reveal that the local cells and groups took instructions from ISIS elements in Syria. Returnees from Iraq and Syria may also return to carry out landmark attacks in their home country. The attacks in Indonesia and Malaysia clearly demonstrated ISIS' intent to achieve maximum publicity and trigger a climate of fear.
14. Another major security concern is the hatred and animosity which ISIS fosters among communities. With ISIS ideology being disseminated widely on the internet, its extremist and exclusive ideas have the potential to breed intolerance, prejudice and suspicion and adversely affect communal harmony in plural societies.
15. The emerging landscape is dotted with targeted killings by terrorists of secular bloggers, and attacks on religious monuments, Shia religious processions and churches. The re-emergence of terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and the prevalence of radical groups in Bangladesh need to be dealt with firmly. With the rise of ISIS, there have been several beheadings in Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh, an illustration of the growing extremism and barbarity of ISIS local supporters.
B. Our Vulnerability to the Pervasive Threat
16. The rise of ISIS has implications for Singapore's stability and security. ISIS has the intention to wreak havoc on societies through terror attacks and provoking sectarian conflict. The group's opposition to democracy and secular nations has already seen the group's perpetration of senseless acts of terror. ISIS is determined to establish a regional caliphate in this region and Singapore is not immune from the adverse developments arising from this effort. Recent events in Singapore indicate the growing threat.
17. In July 2015, two Singaporeans were detained for voluntarily taking up arms and participating in the armed sectarian conflict in Yemen. In March 2016, two other Singaporeans were placed on restriction orders. One had performed sentry duties in Yemen while the other had intended to travel to Syria to join a Kurdish militia group against ISIS. In addition, Singapore has so far arrested 40 Bangladeshi foreign workers in Singapore who were radicalised by ISIS' ideology. Most of them were planning on carrying out armed jihad against the government in Bangladesh. Although they were not known to have plans to target Singapore, there was no telling when they would heed ISIS' exhortation to carry out attacks wherever they are located. Indeed, the leader of the group of Bangladeshis detained in Apr 2016 admitted that he would carry out attacks anywhere if ISIS so directed.
18. ISIS' use of social media has bolstered its recruitment numbers. In Singapore, at least five people have been detained or placed on restriction orders since 2015 for being radicalised by ISIS' ideology. These Singaporeans had planned to take part in armed violence. Three of the five people detained were teenagers and two of the five had been prepared to carry out attacks, including against the Prime Minister and the President, on home-soil. The youth are internet-savvy and are prone to ISIS' messages and propaganda. The radicalisation of youth facilitated by easy access to online radical ideology is a major cause for concern.
19. The Singapore government, along with religious leaders and community groups have been working hard to stem the growing threat of terrorism and extremism. As the threat landscape has worsened in recent years, we must continue to think of new counter-terrorism approaches and re-examine existing ones.
20. The Singaporean Muslim community, including the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at RSIS, constitute an important front in Singapore's counter-terror efforts. Scholars and Muslim leaders must continue to work closely with the Singapore Government on various counter-ideological initiatives to inoculate the larger community from extremist ideologies, primarily through religious institutions such as mosques and madrasahs.
21. Direct and indirect counter-ideological initiatives, including community engagement efforts, form a bulwark in Singapore's overall response against radical extremist and terrorist ideologies. This is very much aligned with the SG Secure movement which aims to equip the community to respond to the terrorism threat.
22. In view of the importance of global security and the rising implications of the terrorist threat to the Asia-Pacific region, RSIS terrorism experts have edited a Handbook of Terrorism in the Asia–Pacific. Published by Imperial College Press, London, the handbook discusses both the threat of terrorism as well as governmental and societal responses. The handbook is an important guide to inform governments and their partners seeking to manage the emerging ISIS threat across the Asia–Pacific region.
23. The book attempts to go beyond the media headlines and simplistic analyses based on alarmist narratives. It provides a historical overview of the threat from countries across the Asia-Pacific and examines the operational and ideological threat of the existing local insurgencies and terrorist campaigns.
24. Given the rising implications of terrorism and extremism across the Asia-Pacific, this book is an invaluable contribution to the field of security. Its detailed country-by-country assessment of the terrorist and extremist threat in the region provide policymakers, journalists, scholars and businesses a better understanding of the threat landscape and come up with more nuanced ways to better manage the threat in the Asia-Pacific. The Handbook edited by Rohan Gunaratna and Kam Li Yee Stefanie is thus timely and of great salience. I would like to thank them for their contribution and look forward to their continued research in support of the national counter-terrorism efforts.
25. In conclusion, I would like to thank Ambassador Ong Keng Yong and the RSIS for inviting me to this book launch. As we continue to confront terrorism, may I end off with a call from the SG Secure movement - Let us stay alert, stay united and stay strong.
26. Thank you.