Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, has called on the United States (and the world) to pay attention to the rise of “political Islam” and radicalism in Southeast Asia. Mr Shanmugam, who was delivering a keynote speech in Washington DC on Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said the international community must come together and go beyond focusing on “downstream consequences” of the issue and address “the underlying philosophy and the underlying causes.”
Mr Shanmugam has been sounding the alarm on the problem in Southeast Asia especially in recent years, pointing out terrorists’ activities in Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines for particular concern.
Below is his speech in full:
The Conflict in Syria and Radicalisation in Southeast Asia
The underlying point I want to make is this. To deal with Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq, assuming there is a kinetic solution, it will be a continuum and there is going to be much more because the ideology is not dead, and it is going to get on to other places.
It has seeped into the rest of the world, and they are just going to look for more opportunities to convert other areas, going there and look for new converts, new areas to radicalise.
Why do I say that? Because I come from a region, South-east Asia, (that) has arguably the largest Muslim concentration in the world, and it has been an area of particular focus for IS. Al-Qaeda probably is also building up its strength. They are not making many aggressive steps, but the sense is they are building up. But certainly IS has targeted, and has said that it is targeting, South-east Asia.
What is IS’ strategy? You know they want to establish caliphates in many places, although they are a little bit under pressure right now. They have to go to the second ring of conflict, and this second ring of conflict will be South-east Asia.
They have said publicly the places they want to establish a caliphate, which is Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of southern Philippines. There are about a thousand fighters from the region who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight, forming their own combat unit.
I think IS has become much more effective in reaching out to this region.
One of the things I want to say to the American audience is, what has all this got to do with America?
If the Middle East is giving you a lot of problems already, and you take South-east Asia, what you are seeing is a replay of what is happening in other parts of the world.
At first it is not urgent, it is not immediate, there is no kinetic activity.
You had Afghanistan and during Soviet times, fighters and people who were trained, they go there, they fight and then they go back, and you have radicalisation coming up.
You see what has happened as a result of that in Pakistan and other places. Today in Syria and Iraq, history is repeating itself.
People are going there, they are learning, they are trained in the latest techniques, and then they are going to go back to various parts of the world, including South-east Asia.
Meanwhile, the way in which political Islam is rising in South-east Asia makes the ground much more fertile for radicalisation.
Political Islam rises for a variety of reasons — such as the availability of online material; money from the Middle East that goes to fund kindergartens, schools and so on; preachers who are schooled in a very different school of thought, contrary to the very moderate way in which Islam is practised, or has been practised, in South-east Asia.
That is really a mirror of what has happened in other parts of the world. So you can see and predict what is likely to happen.
And when that happens, what the implications would be, not just for countries in the region but for American assets in the region, and America itself.
There are over 60 organisations which have declared their allegiance to IS, which is a huge number. In the past year or so, the number of terrorist attacks that have taken place has not received the level of attention that I think it should in the rest of the world, but it is quite important.
IS’ strategy in South-east Asia is very simple. They now have very slick videos in Malay appealing to most of the population. They have got newsletters in Malay, all targeted at the Malay-Muslim population. And since September 2014, when their chief spokesperson set out the strategy on what they should do — lone-wolf attacks; use low-tech like knives, stones, cars, vehicles and so on.
That was the call, and since then, you have had a whole series of attacks using vehicles, in Nice, Berlin, Westminster. We have had attempts in the region, also using low-tech “weapons”.
They are quite bold in the way they position themselves. This is what they said in Malaysia in response to arrests. Malaysia has arrested commandos, civil servants, people in the transport sector, airports, about 200 people have been arrested.
They said: “If you catch us, we will only increase in numbers. But if you let us be, we will be closer to our goal of bringing back the rule of the caliph. We will never bow down to the democratic system of governance and we will only follow Allah’s rules.”
Essentially, the constitutional system of government elections and so on are not acceptable (to IS) — they want to be ruled in accordance with what they consider (to be) the only rule that applies, to overthrow systems of government and establish the caliphate.
One area that is becoming a danger zone is the southern Philippines, because it is a very large territory, not fully under the control of the government or the military.
It is an area that seems to be attracting militants back from the Middle East, those who have not been killed as well as those who have been radicalised within the region, to travel to southern Philippines, get trained and then come back to attack other places.
And within the Philippines, recently an attack was foiled where the terrorists had moved from the southern Philippines all the way to Bohol. So their ability to move around, their logistics ability and their planning seem to be increasing.
This year or next year, there will be 200 people being released from prisons in Indonesia. In Indonesia, they do not have the laws that allow them to detain people who are serious threats, and even if they have not been fully radicalised when they are in prisons, they are going to be a risk.
And that is going to happen in significant ways in the next 18 months. It has started happening.
And (with) these guys, a lot of the radicalisation takes place in Indonesian prisons, and even attacks outside have been planned from within the Indonesian prisons.
So you have that, apart from the returning fighters, and prison releasees, that are serious threats.
I talked about this briefly just now, about how values are changing. Based on some respectable surveys, in Indonesia, a good majority of the population think — this was a survey of high school students, but I think it is reflective of broader attitudes as well — that Syariah law should be imposed.
About 10 to 11 per cent think that Indonesia should adopt the caliphate system. So if you just project that across a population of more than 200 million, that is a lot of people. Some of them are prepared to go further and take kinetic activity.
In Malaysia, about 70 per cent of its Malay population are now saying that they should have Syariah law. Under the current Malaysian system, which is a constitutional system, it is not clear how Syariah law will work.
Maybe they might be able to make it work. But the point I make to many people is that people do not overnight decide to take this up. There is going to be a period when the socio-economic and political environment makes it more likely that people want to take up this course.
If the population becomes more and more “extremist thinking”, or adopts a version of religion that encourages or creates a climate where a number of people within the population might then be prepared to take further action, that is the main risk that I see happening.
And the whole climate then changes, and it looks like it is changing. When the changes reach a certain point, after that it is not going to be possible to reverse it.
On the influence of foreign preachers, Zakir Naik is wanted or banned in some countries but travels freely in the neighbouring countries in South-east Asia.
He was recently in Indonesia, just before the Jakarta Governor elections. He talked about the nature of Muslims, which was not to vote for someone who was not a Muslim, even if that person was a good person.
That is the sort of preaching and philosophy that was put forward. And there are political leaders who say he is the model of religious authority. The way he speaks is quite radical.
Mufti Menk is another such preacher who has been banned from preaching in Singapore. He said: “If a Muslim came and greeted you Merry Christmas, it is the biggest sin and crime, the heavens will open up.”
If you get this preaching day in day out, what do you think will be the tone of the population? When you get preaching like this, people start saying, “Oh, maybe this is true…” And it has real-world consequences.
Last year, a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow put out a Facebook posting wishing his customers a Happy Easter. The next day a fellow Muslim stabbed him to death. And this is in the United Kingdom, a stable country. This kind of preaching has real-world consequences.
A lot of countries have focused on downstream consequences. They are very good at taking out terrorist leaders, they dismantle organisations, they deal with their finances.
But if we do not deal with the underlying philosophy and the underlying causes, in the end, as long as you do not deal with that, as long as you do not deal with people’s views which lead them to be radicalised in the first place, all you will be doing is cutting off their heads and new heads will come up.
So there has to be a more concerted international strategy to deal with the underlying causes and reasons why these things happen. Why people get into these, how populations are becoming more radicalised.
I have mentioned people who are returning from the Middle East, and the Afghanistan and Pakistan scenarios replaying in South-east Asia.
I have mentioned people who were released from prisons, radical preachers, the population as a whole becoming more radicalised.
The spread of radical ideology is also financed a fair bit by money that comes from the Middle East, goes into kindergarten schools, into schools and mosques, and tied to an exclusivist form of Islam which is alien to the kind of moderate Islam that we have in South-east Asia.
What we intend to do in South-east Asia (is) we are trying to get together a group of like-minded countries to come together, such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to try to deal with these issues.
We may not be able to deal with all of them but at least we have a platform, to start trying and talk about these issues and possible solutions. But America has to get involved, other countries have to get involved.
At this stage, there is relatively low cost, but it will be a much higher cost later on. At the same time, I want to add a note of caution that as we focus on this, the more you talk about it, the greater the risk of Islamophobia as well. And that, you have got to try and avoid.
If you get into Islamophobia, it will make your populations feel anti-Muslim, anti-Islam, (and) that just feeds the terrorists. It is a big risk. We need to guard against that, and fight it.
The vast majority of Muslim populations in most places is moderate and peaceful. So what I wanted to share with you is, there is an area of the world where things are happening but people are not paying enough attention.
By the time it demands attention, it will be too late. So it is best to try and deal with the problem before it gets to that stage.