Published: 12 October 2023
Question: Do you have any comments on the conflict developing in the Middle East?
Minister: What is happening in the Middle East, Israel, Gaza – to say the obvious, is very serious. It’s going to evoke a lot of emotions across the world – in fact, it has evoked a lot of emotions across the world. And it will have an impact in this region too, in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
There are deep divides in how people are reacting. And as the conflict unfolds, these divides are inevitably going to become deeper.
If you look at the significant divide, in this region and other places, is often along racial and religious lines.
And the two sides hold their respective views, deeply, passionately.
Our position on Israel-Palestine, and our support for the Two-State Solution is well known. It has been stated repeatedly.
My remarks on the current situation are directed primarily at the security issues, relating to Singapore.
And I will make two points in that context:
One - in no circumstances can we accept any kind of terrorist attack. Hamas’ attack on Israel – attacking and massacring civilians is a massive terrorist attack. The kidnapping and unjustified murder of children – the acts of cruelty are shocking, and horrifying. And this extreme violence must be condemned in clear, unequivocal terms.
It is possible to hold very strong views on what is happening in the region. It is possible to deplore how the Palestinians have been treated over the years. It is possible to deeply sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians, and yet still unequivocally condemn the terrorist attacks carried out in Israel. These atrocities cannot be justified by any rationale whatsoever, whether of fundamental problems or historical grievances.
The second point I am going to make is that there is going to be a very severe reaction. Israel is going to react with its full might.
We need to be clear about our stance – we condemn all acts of terrorism and wanton violence.
But we must not let these events happening externally affect the internal situation within Singapore.
We must, in Singapore, maintain our racial and religious peace.
We have to stay vigilant. Terrorist groups will exploit such conflicts. They have already issued calls for followers to join in a wider jihad against Israel. There have also been reports of anti-semitic incidents overseas.
Our position has been made very clear over the years.
We act against anyone who promotes or espouses extremism and violence.
We have detained Singaporeans under the Internal Security Act because they fell for pro-Hamas narratives and wanted to fight. One was detained in March 2021 - he wanted to travel to Gaza to fight alongside Hamas, and he also planned a knife attack against Jews at a synagogue in Singapore. A second person was detained in November last year – he also made plans to travel to Gaza to fight with Hamas, after watching videos online.
But we have also detained individuals who intended to attack Muslim targets in Singapore. For example, a boy who was detained in December 2020 – he made plans to conduct knife attacks against Muslims, at two mosques in Singapore. He was influenced by the Christchurch attack. So far, we have managed to avoid letting international events like these, destabilise us within Singapore. This is going to be quite a tough period. But our fundamental attitude cannot change.We are all Singaporeans. We have a precious peace within Singapore, we must never let external events affect that.
Question: Are there plans to step up security alertness in Singapore, during this period?
Minister: Our security agencies are watching the situation closely.
For operational reasons, I cannot tell you the exact plans. But, additional measures have been taken. There will be stepped-up patrols at some events and places. Emergency forces are always on alert, to respond to incidents. Places which are possible targets have had their security re-assessed. And for places at higher risk, we are increasing security. ICA has also stepped up its measures.
This is a period everyone has to be a bit more alert and careful as Singapore is an attractive target.
Question: More broadly, how do you think the ongoing tensions will affect Singapore’s racial and religious cohesion?
Minister: We are talking about racial cohesion. We have to be very careful.
We have seen how various issues have polarised societies, caused divisions, created suspicions.
And as I mentioned earlier, the suffering of innocent civilians caught in the conflict, is a very emotive one.
But, in terms of our religious harmony and understanding, we are in a fairly good position. We have open and frank conversations. There is a lot of mutual respect and trust between religious and racial groups, and Singaporeans strongly value our racial and religious diversity and harmony. This is something that many, maybe, take for granted.
But I would refer to a Pew commentary, published last week. It pointed out the high levels of inter-religious tolerance and acceptance in Singapore, based on a 2022 survey.
For example, many major world religions have a significant presence in Singapore. Pew pointed out, in 2014, we are the most religiously diverse country in the world.
The 2022 Pew survey found, in most other South and Southeast Asian countries, people say that belonging to their country’s majority religion is very important for national identity. For example, being Buddhist, in Thailand or Cambodia or being Muslim, in Indonesia or Malaysia.
But in Singapore, about 9 in 10, 90% said that various religions - Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Chinese traditional religions - were all compatible with Singapore culture and values.
And a majority of Singaporean adults who said that they are religious, are very tolerant of other perspectives. For example, most say that many religions can be true, and 60% said they have a personal connection to religions other than their own. It is not something you see in many other countries.
And most Singaporeans say that Singapore’s religious, ethnic, cultural diversity is a good thing for the country, and makes Singapore better. This is really quite remarkable.
Our religious leaders, our people are very different, compared with many other countries.
It is due to a combination of factors: the legal framework we have, Government policies, our religious and community leaders understanding what is important for Singapore, working together.
What we have built over the years and what we now have, is precious, and extremely remarkable. And we must do our best to protect it.
Question: How do you think Israel should respond?
Minister: You also asked me how I thought Israel should respond. You know, we do not control Israel’s response. But I think it is fair to say that any response has to be consistent with international law, and with international rules of war; and you can see that several countries have made that point.