If you have not been paying attention to Singapore’s Law Minister in recent months, you should.
K Shanmugam, who also holds the Home Affairs portfolio, has been like a town crier, sounding the alarm of the threat of terrorism in Singapore and the region.
If you have also not noticed, the Singapore government’s message has changed – from one which says “don’t be complacent, a terrorist attack can happen”, to “it’s not if, but when, a terrorist attack happens”. It is a subtle change, but a significant one, and it is also a necessary one, given how the threat itself has evolved, as Mr Shanmugam has been busy pointing out.
From the politics of how race and religion is being played out in Malaysia, to the emergence of terror groups in Indonesia which pledge allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), from Thailand and Myanmar where inter-religious strife could contribute to a more volatile environment, to the southern Philippines where ISIS fighters from the Middle East are returning to, Southeast Asia has become a theatre of potential terrorist violence.
And Singapore too has seen its fare share of would-be militants who are sympathetic to the ISIS cause, even among our foreign worker population.
The threat is thus real, and Singaporeans should take notice.
“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,” Mr Shanmugam said in January, at a symposium by RSIS’ Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme.
“They consider us infidels, kaffirs who ought to be exterminated,” the Law Minister said. “Singapore, in their scheme, has to become part of a caliphate.”
Singapore, he says, faces four threats which have become “more urgent.”
“First, 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 among our non-Muslim communities.”
The government has in recent months strengthened and introduced new measures to deal with each of these, including security measures for public events and setting up a new cyber command within the Ministry of Defence to deal with cyber threats.
To be sure, Mr Shanmugam noted that no city is immune to such threats or attacks, especially given that “the nature of the threat has morphed substantially” and has become a “serious monster”.
Mr Shanmugam, speaking in March, said however that “it is not going to be possible to counter every possible attack”, unless the entire city is turned into a prison.
“We have to significantly rely on intelligence to deter; and in the case of Singapore, we have the ability to intervene early because we have the Internal Security Act,” he said.
But the domestic situation in Singapore is just one part of the equation. The other, perhaps more important one, is the regional landscape.
Just next door in Malaysia, the government there has arrested more than a hundred militants in the last one year alone. In Indonesia, several hundred people have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria and these hardened militants would pose a significant threat if or when they should return to their country. The country also saw its first ISIS-linked attack last year.
In Myanmar, the Muslim Rohingyas, who are being persecuted by the government, may become a lightning rod for Islamists looking to exploit their plight. In Thailand’s troubled southern region, a Muslim separatist uprising has been going on for decades and continues.
But what has emerged as one of the main concerns is the situation in southern Philippines, which is a mere four-hour flight away from Singapore. Experts have warned that the area, which is notoriously hard to govern, is becoming a sanctuary for returning fighters from the Middle East, and where terrorist camps have been set up.
Islamist militants in the Philippines have boasted of hosting jihadi training camps, and four Islamist militant groups, including the notorious Abu Sayyaf, have declared a “wilayat”, or an ISIS province, in the southern Philippines.
“The potential locus of the threat could move to Southern Philippines, which is becoming an area that is difficult to control, despite the best efforts of the government,” Mr Shanmugam said earlier this month at an international exhibition on homeland security held at Marina Bay Sands. “It can be a place where would-be terrorists, and those who are radicalised from this region, can go to get trained.”
He added: “Arms seem to move fairly easily into that region, and from there as a base, they can spread out again to attack this region. So, newly radicalised, would-be fighters, battle-hardened, veterans from the Middle East, and people who are released from prisons, who have not yet been rehabilitated, can all gravitate there. At the right time and opportunity, they may well attack.”
And this is why Singapore and Singaporeans need to be sensitised to the threat, and be ready to deal with the aftermath of such an eventuality.
The recent actions by the authorities over an unattended luggage in Hougang MRT station, and the discovery of some white powder in Woodleigh station, are perhaps borne out of this realisation that an attack will not only take any form, but that it is also inevitable, and thus every threat must be fully checked out and dealt with.
The government is spot on in making sure Singaporeans understand this, so that we are all ready to step up when our social fabric is strained after such an attack, as it most probably will, and do our part so that these terrorists do not prevail over our way of life.
Mr Shanmugam said as much, stressing that the large majority of rational and peace-loving people do not subscribe to the chaos and fear-based ideology of the terror groups.
“Because I think the nature of human beings is that we look for progress, and I do not believe that any culture, or system, or people or civilisation can be held back … progress is inevitable, a better life is inevitable,” the Law Minister said.