What is it that the terrorists want? After the Malaysian security forces arrested some people, owing allegiance to the Islamic State, this is what they said:

‘If you catch us, we will only increase in number. But if you let us be, we will be closer to our goal of bringing back the rule of the Khilafat (Caliphate). We will never bow down to the democratic system of governance as we will follow only Allah’s rules.’

What terrorists want is to sweep away the Constitution, the democratic system of Government. They want to replace it with what they firmly believe is the right way to do, a right way of governance which is replacing the existing systems of the Government, not just in Afghanistan or any other place, but throughout the world. That is the danger that we are facing.

Today, when we talk about terrorism, we focus on topics which deal with Islamic terrorism. Terrorism, however, is not linked or restricted to any particular religion. For example, in India, the state also faces threats from Maoists, Naxalites and others. However, the single most dangerous situation that is facing the world today is perhaps terror based on a perversion of Islam. And inevitably, that’s what we start focusing on. The epicentre of that war is in Iraq and Syria, and it is sweeping out through Central Asia to South Asia and to South East Asia. And in due course, it will sweep out to other parts of the world as well. We must remember, that before the rise of Europe, the centre of the world was Central Asia — a part of the silk route. What happens here influences the rest of the world. And it will rely on the Internet to seek to brainwash people, radicalise the populace, overthrow government, cause mayhem and disrupt civil society.

The war in the Middle East may end, but terror is not going to disappear. The following description of terrorism appears apt.

‘You take a big blob of Mercury, you bang it hard, what happens? You get hundreds of little globules.’

That is what happens in the war against terror. Those who haven’t been killed will disperse. Those from this region will come back to this region and those from South East Asia will go back to South East Asia. And we can already see what is happening in South East Asia. The ISIS has focused on the Muslim population using emotive videos, newspapers in Malay and encouraging people to take up arms. They have issued edicts stating: ‘If you can’t get weapons use anything. Use a knife. If you have a vehicle, use a vehicle to drive and kill people and throw them over the parapet’. Entire societies cannot be turned into garrisons, especially free societies. That is the challenge which has to be overcome.

There is some evidence that the southern Philippines has become an area of focus by ISIS, with a stated intention of setting up a Caliphate. Returnees are gathering there. Radicals within the region may also go there, get trained and then come back. The fact that we are all so interconnected makes these things possible. In February 2017, a German hostage was beheaded in the southern Philippines. In mid March, front page news in Singapore’s national newspaper, gave the news that Malaysia had announced the arrest of several people, at least one of whom was an immigration officer — a lady. She had let militants get into Saba which is in eastern Malaysia, without travel documents, so that they could travel to the southern Philippines, link up with others, train and obviously come back. East Malaysia shares a very long porous border with Indonesia. Malaysia also announced the arrest of commandos, police officers, civil servants, technicians who are servicing VIP aircraft, all sorts of people. We have had that experience. Indonesia has been active in arresting people. It is something that is growing. It is a threat to all of us because militancy knows no borders.

So what do we do about this threat, besides talking about it? There has got be some practical concrete outcomes that we should aim for. Here, I would like to share what Singapore is doing to combat the threat. Three aspects merit consideration. The first is a direct kinetic response to the threats. The second is the strategic dimension, wherein we psychologically strengthen our population, which is something I think all of us have got to do. The third is international cooperation.

For the people of Singapore, November 2015 marked a sort of inflection point. The killings that took place in Paris made it clear that the terrorists were no longer interested in taking hostages. They simply wanted to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible and then keep a few so that there is a maximum international audience. In the coordinated attacks that took place on 13th of November, 130 people were killed. The killings were done simply to get maximum exposure. To guard against such incidents, we in Singapore developed what we call Emergency Response Teams and Quick Response Teams; the difference being that quick response teams are given motorbikes so that they can travel to their destination quickly in addition to existing special forces. We put them on the ground all across the island. Their task is to understand buildings within their area of specificity. The security forces are expected to know the buildings in detail and arrive at a location wherever the attack takes place, within minutes. That is the kind of response we want — ready to respond, ready to take down the attackers. While there will be casualties, the attack has to be defeated quickly and it must be over in a few minutes.

The second part is the psychological response of the people. When an attack occurs, what happens? What do people do? How do they react? And post attack, how do we rebound? Do we point fingers at the Muslim population or do we recognise it is the work of a small group of extremists? How do we ensure that Islamophobia is controlled? For us, we decided for an empowered citizenry, where people know how to react when an attack happens. And for the psychological defence of the public, we started a major program in 2016, called SG Secure.

The SG Secure national movement is Singapore’s community response to the threat of terror. It aims to sensitise, train, and mobilise the community to prevent and deal with a terror attack.The intention is that, over the next four years, every single household in Singapore would have been visited and covered under SG Secure. There would be someone in every household, who would be trained in defending, because anyone can be caught in an attack. Now, obviously, if a terrorist has a sub machine gun, we do not expect an unarmed person to go and tackle the terrorist. But we teach people how to protect themselves, and then to assist those who need help. They are also taught to notify the authorities. All of this is very challenging, so to overcome this challenge, an app was launched in Singapore, which captures at one place, everything that a person needs to know and all the agencies that need to be contacted. All this can be done with a single tap. The government is now working with and encouraging the telecom agencies to install this app in every mobile phone that is bought in Singapore.

People who have visited Singapore are aware of the fact that first aid equipment is available to the public in all housing societies, in all blocks, and in all public places. Across the country, people have been trained at three levels to deal with any situation. The first level is for the people to help themselves and learn how to use first aid equipment. The second level is for people to help others and the third level is to mobilise the community. We are also putting in people with psychological training and counselling training into different parts of the population. Simultaneously, we are also trying to train various members in the population themselves to understand psychologically what might happen and how they can react to bring the population together. If we can come together as one people, the day after an attack, the terrorists will lose and we will win. Therefore, the psychological resilience in the population is extremely important. We condemn attacks and we divide the population in different segments, households, businesses, unions, schools and we take the message that we are here for peace and brotherhood everywhere. We try to inoculate the entire population, first to understand there is a threat, second to know how to react to it, third to be psychologically prepared and fourth to look upon our 15 percent Muslim population as brothers in arms in this fight against terrorism, which of course they are.

The third aspect is international co-operation. No country can deal with this by itself. It can deal internally to a possible extent but we need to develop common platforms to engage in our region. We need the regions to talk to each other from Delhi to Singapore. We need to institutionalise. We need to develop best practices and we need to end up with some concrete outcomes. We need to go beyond speeches because it is too serious and too important a topic. The determination to deal with this at the international level is crucial.

To deal with terrorism today, we need the right legislation in place. Singapore is lucky to have what we call the Internal Security Act, which allows the Home Minister to order detention without trial. It is an exception to the rule of law, but there is broad public support for it as it allows us to take a zero-tolerance approach. As an example, if a person was looking at extremist websites and thinking about going to Iraq and Syria, then Singapore’s intelligence agencies can approach such a person, counsel the individual and if that person chooses to continue on that path, then the Intelligence agencies have the power to detain such persons. Alternatively, they have the power to impose conditions on the movement of such individuals, while they remain as free citizens.

In 2016, 14 Singaporeans were arrested under this act. Of these, eight were arrested and six were given restriction orders. As an example of how we differ, Let us examine the case of the Christmas attack in Berlin. It was done by a Tunisian, Anis Amr, a truck driver, who drove his truck into a crowded Berlin Christmas market in December. This individual had served a 4-year prison sentence in Sicily for several crimes including arson in 2011 and 2014. He arrived in Germany in July 2015 where he visited radical mosques, mingled with extremist preachers and was linked with extremist networks. German authorities had him on their radar, security services were closely observing him but their legal framework did not allow them to arrest or produce him in court. Since they could not find the evidence that was required under their system, they stopped monitoring him in September 2016. The attack took place 3 months later. State police said they had exhausted all legal powers to the limit to ward off potential danger. Had Anis Amr been in Singapore, he would have been arrested much earlier.

The second example that I will give here is that of the UK. It is necessary to study such cases, because every country must start looking at these issues and develop the modalities to deal with them. Eventually, a balance has to be struck between the amount of tolerance for such events, the amount of risk a country is prepared to take and the amount of power the citizens are prepared to give the government. This case pertains to Jamal, a British citizen. He was picked up by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and was detained in Guantanamo. In 2004, he was released without charge and deported to the UK. He launched a claim in the UK and apparently was awarded a million pounds. In 2014, he left the UK to join ISIS in Syria and in February 2017, he reportedly carried out a suicide bomb attack in Mosul. There is much debate and soul searching now within the UK. It is probable that the compensation given by the UK government was used to fund the Islamic State.

While each country will take its own route to address their respective concerns, I would offer here some examples which are useful for consideration. Some people might consider it to be quite a perversion, that a person can launch a claim, get paid, and then use the money to kill more people. We also have to seriously consider the extent to which terrorism is filled by ideology and money from outside the country. This is a serious issue because the sources of those funds and of that ideology have neither a stake in the well-being of the country nor any interest even in the integrity of the country. What they want is their brand of Islam to be the one that is flourishing. That is extremely dangerous particularly in countries like India, Singapore and others which cherish multi-cultures and promote religious pluralism and different racial identities.

Here, I would like to refer to an incident which took place in Singapore. Most countries would not consider such an incident to be serious, but in Singapore we have a different approach. We had an Imam whose conduct in a mosque in Singapore was recorded. Nowadays, every phone has a camera and what was recorded inside the mosque was widely circulated. The incident occurred in February 2017 and the Imam is currently under investigation. What happened was that after the Imam finished his sermon, he ended with a supplication from the Quran. And then he spoke in Arabic, which translated as under:

‘God grant us victory over the disbelievers. God grant us victory over Christians and Jews.’

The above supplication was then repeated by the Imam. We in Singapore take pride in being religiously the most diverse country in the world — a fact that is officially recognised. We can have a situation where a mosque, a temple, a synagogue and a church can exist within 10 meters from each other. However, if people going into a mosque or a place of worship are told by the Imam that one of the aspects of your religion is to have victory over people who have other faiths, after a while, it has an impact on society. It is not just Islam which has these phrases. The Old Testament in the Bible has several such blood curdling phrases too. In the context of the Imam seeking victory over Christians and Jews, the origin of that particular supplication of grand victory over Jews and Christians comes from the Ottoman Empire. When put in context, it refers to conflict in the Levant, at the time when the Ottomans were fighting the Christians on one side and the Jews on the other. But that context does not exist now and certainly not in South Asia. The Imam is from South India and does his preaching in Tamil. What would people say if a Roman Catholic Arch Bishop stood up in Church and repeated what Pope Gregory said in the 13th Century, about all Muslims in Jerusalem to be exterminated! The defence put up for the Imam was that he was simply following tradition, but such a defence is untenable. The critical point that this incident highlights is that inevitably, an area exists, where governance and government authority now is coming in contact with what preachers can and cannot say There is a requirement to ensure that preaching is done within a set framework, else it then encourages intolerance, conflict and violence. This is applicable to all religions and not to just any particular religion, as all religions are capable of mindless violence.

In Singapore, such a situation was anticipated over two decades ago and to deal with it we had the ‘Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act’. As we are facing such issues, we have been through this legal framework and it is being used to ensure that action is taken against such preaching. Generally, we simply sensitise the preachers, and educate them on what is acceptable and what is not. But the population as a whole has to be educated on this, and religious scholars have to be educated and told that their ultimate loyalty has to be to maintain peace and harmony in the entire society and that within that framework, they can say as much as they please about the goodness of their religion, but they do not have the right to run somebody else down. Terrorists don’t become terrorists overnight. Someone doesn’t wake up one morning, takes up a weapon and starts shooting. It happens over a period of time, when the ground is made fertile. We have got to see what makes the society readier and more fertile for extremism and we have to deal with that upfront.

In an interconnected world, what happens in Asia can happen in other parts of the world too. No part of the world can remain immune from what happens in any other part of the world. Each of us, therefore, will face and will have to deal with such situations. The sooner the world develops a common way of dealing with such challenges, the better it will be. As an aside, it is well to take note of an unfortunate incident which took place on Easter in 2016. A Muslim shopkeeper posted on his Facebook wall, ‘Happy Easter to all my Christian friends’. The next day someone went and stabbed him to death in Glasgow, UK. If it can happen in such stable areas, it can happen anywhere. That is why, we in Singapore, focus on all these issues. While taking action against Islamic terrorists, we try to keep Islamophobia in check, because that is exactly what the terrorists want. Our focus remains on integrating all the communities and ensuring the well-being of all. We believe in spreading the message of peace while dealing with the small minority that plan to do us harm.

This article is an extract of the talk given by Mr K. Shanmugam, Home Minister of Singapore, at the Counter Terrorism Conference organised by India Foundation in 2017 in New Delhi.

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