“Our internal surveys show that opinion is hardening against Muslims,” Law & Home Affairs minister, K Shanmugam, said on his Facebook page on Sunday. “This is not good.”
The minister was referring to the situation in Singapore, as he gave his reaction to the latest terror attack which occurred at the London Bridge.
Mr Shanmugam’s bluntness is welcome, as Singaporeans need to be aware of what is happening on the ground, which will have grave consequences if not checked.
The minister said the authorities will be releasing more information in the coming weeks on arrests they have made.
Mr Shanmugam has, if you have not been following the news and his Facebook page, been urging everyone to be on the alert against attacks here in Singapore.
Developments around the world and in the region give us cause for concern, as Mr Shanmugam has taken pains to explain, both here and in his overseas trips.
Last December, speaking to journalists during the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore luncheon in Singapore, he said the threat of a terror attack in the region during the year-end festive season was “stronger than that last year, because the extremist beliefs of terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have spread and taken root in South-east Asia”, the Straits Times reported.
In his visit to the United States earlier this year, he 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 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.”
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.
In a report on the situation in Singapore, a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) report last week said the “greatest concern” was the threat from radicalised individuals within Singapore.
These are individuals who “have been galvanised by Isis’ relentless exhortation to its supporters to take things into their own hands”, the report said.
Mr Shanmugam, in his latest remarks on the issue, urged families and friends of those who may be radicalised to step forward and inform the authorities.
This, he said, was a “serious responsibility”.
“Police can’t do this alone,” he said in his online post. “In past cases, we have had family alerting the police, and we have also had situations where family and friends kept quiet. In the next few weeks, we will release info on further arrests, and the family’s knowledge.”
The minister also cautioned religious preachers who, he said, “have a special responsibility”, not to preach a ‘us versus them’ philosophy.
“Not to divide,” Mr Shanmugam said. “Preachers have to promote multi-racial, multi-religious identity, and encourage integration, while people keep true to their religion. That has been the case for many years, until recently. More recently, foreign preachers have tried to take a more divisive approach. We must reject that. Our people must come forward to greet each other, and accept each other’s festivals. Government will take further steps against approaches which seek to divide.”
Singapore has always prided itself on being a multi-racial, multi-religious, tolerant society where the different races live in harmony and where government policies ensure that the races mix in daily life.
But this has always only been, in the minds of some, a superficial arrangement, since our society has not been truly tested since the racial riots of the 60s.
With terror attacks a matter of when, not if, will we hold together even as those who seek to divide us drive a knife into our fabric of harmony? It is tempting to think that we will, that our 50 years of nation-building will withstand the worst attempts to divide us into fighting factions based on race and religion.
This is a question we must seriously ponder because when the time comes, it will decide the kind of society we are, and will become.
Mr Shanmugam is right in saying that the authorities can only do so much. It is the individuals – that is, us – that need to step up and reach out to each other, to further strengthen the bond between us as Singaporeans, that will be our only safeguard against fear and hatred.
We must realise that our way of life – which is peace for half a century – did not come about by chance, or by closing our eyes to the danger running silent underneath.
Ours has been the honest recognition of the faults which run below the surface and being realistic in managing them.
Political Islam, as Mr Shanmugam described it, and radicalism are the new challenges we face, and we can only succeed in overcoming these if we hold together as a people.