Staying United Against the Terrorism Threat – Speech by Pritam Singh

(Delivered in Parliament on 3 October 2017)


Mr Speaker, the Workers’ Party supports the motion.

The spectre of terrorism has been with us for slightly over 15 years since the bombing of the twin towers on 11 Sep 2011. Many of us remember the shocking revelations of Al-Qaeda inspired plans to attack foreign embassies and commercial establishments in Singapore with truck bombs, and the arrest of some members of the Jemaah lslamiyah terrorist organisation in Singapore shortly thereafter.

More than 15 years later, Singaporeans may be surprised to know even up till today that there is no internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism. One reason for this is the objection of groups and communities fighting for nationalist or separatist causes as a result of being disenfranchised or excluded by the state. In other cases, some communities have to face up to a state that uses overwhelming force to punish an entire people or ethnic group because of the acts of a disproportionately small number. We are already seeing this scenario allegedly play out in Myanmar where more than half a million Rohingya Muslims  are being forced to abandon their villages fearing more violence against them by the state. Such atrocities are fertile ground for terrorism and some acts of terror undertaken by oppressed peoples do not lend themselves to simple understanding or even condemnation.

At times, the reality of any multiracial country hosting different communities, races and religions including Singapore is that atrocities in lands far away from ours will affect our people and pull at our heartstrings and our identities too. This prospect has taken on a whole new dimension with the advent of social media. Even though we are one people as Singaporean citizens, many of us host other identities and even biases alongside our status as Singaporeans, regardless if we are a minority community  or in the majority.

In the 1980s, the ISO stepped in to prevent the Singapore Sikh community from taking their support through Sikh religious institutions for an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab too far. More historically, in the war years, many Chinese in Malaya contributed and supported the resistance against the Japanese Imperial forces throughout China and in Southeast Asia. Muslims are deeply affected when innocent Palestinians die in reprisal killings carried out by the Israeli state. While all these examples are not directly comparable, the point is that no matter what our race or religion, many of us do feel a deep sense of outrage when our kinsmen and women are bullied or wantonly killed in anywhere in the world. The reaction only human. But add religion into the mix and feelings can cut to the bone.

As a multiracial nation, we are susceptible to this reality of contested identities and even more now so as our population grows in size and newer Singaporeans join our ranks. However, whether we are Singaporeans by birth or by choice, we are all invested in the well-being of this country in all aspects. We have to acknowledge that we pay allegiance to the President, our flag and to the constitution of Republic of Singapore – a constitution makes it a duty of any Government to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities Singapore. And so long as we do, our first loyalty is to Singapore and our way of life – which includes the well-being of our family and friends, regardless of race, language or religion. This must be so and we must never relegate this first loyalty under any circumstance.

To that end, I have observed ordinary Singaporeans, local NGOs and institutions and even the Prime Minister in some cases being openly supportive of humanitarian initiatives in some of the most politically tense and fraught regions in world. The tragedy in the Rakhine state in Myanmar is not without controversy but as a Singaporean, I was deeply moved to read of the Singapore Buddhist Federation and all Buddhist institutions strongly supporting the call by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore or MUIS to raise funds to provide relief to the victims of the tragedy. As a Singaporean, I identified with the call of the Buddhist community and it made me feel proud to be Singaporean.

Mr Speaker, a common sense of humanity is a very powerful adhesive to fortify our social cohesion and multiracialism against the reality of terrorism.

And it is this common humanity that we will have to call upon to deal with the type of terrorism we see today. The advent of ISIS has inspired a new generation of extremists who find no compulsion against using armed violence in any form against anyone. Catalysed by developments in the Middle East and the rapid advancement of mobile technology in particular, the prospects of self-radicalised and outwardly unsuspicious Singaporeans joining the ISIS cause has infused a dangerous new dimension to terrorism. Well-equipped and well-endowed security agencies have nothing substantive in their arsenal to prevent a determined lone-wolf attacker from going on a knifing rampage or hijacking a truck and mowing innocent people waiting for a bus for example. This could well happen in Singapore.

For example, a successful ISIS terrorist strike in Singapore falsely carried out in the name of Islam will test our social cohesion and resilience as one people. The Muslim community will come under the spotlight. Some extremist Muslims particularly those overseas may  even  celebrate  such  an attack, seeding   even  more  doubt   against  the  entire   Malay -Muslim community in Singapore. The ubiquitous nature of the social media will see some vile commentary which may prove hard to ignore, affecting the morale of the country and precipitating senseless reprisals not all of which may be physical acts of violence. Avoiding the Malay-Muslim community and a desire not have anything to do with them are equally, if not, more damaging because turning on the Malay-Muslim community is the magic pill ISIS seeks to legitimise their narrative – one of oppression against Muslims. In the event of an ISIS atrocity, all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion must stand up to defend and protect the Malay community from vilification. To reiterate, to turn on any community, let alone the Malay community, would be to blindly walk into the playbook of the terrorists who seek to divide Singaporeans and justify their cause.

A few days ago as the Workers’ Party MPs were discussing this motion, Mr Low Thia Khiang recalled conversations with his constituents and friends of some Chinese Singaporeans being shielded from violence by their Malay friends and neighbours who invited them to stay in their homes with family members during the racial riots in Singapore in the 1960s. We will have to harness such examples of our common humanity to get on with our lives in the event of a terrorist act in Singapore.

Such stories serve an important unifying purpose as is the pursuit of knowledge on matters pertaining to faith in the context of a multiracial society. I do appreciate that not all stories are comfortable to discuss but they do need to be shared because a sense of perspective, even if it is the Government’s perspective can be critical.

Some years ago, but less so now, in the course of house visits,   I heard allegations about the Government discriminating against the Malay community in banning the call to prayer or azan over loudhailers, a policy introduced many years ago. But when I share with them that some of our Chinese friends occasionally raises concerns about the Government reserving land for Chinese temples within industrial estates unlike mosques which tend to be centrally-located within our communities and  with good transport links, the conversation suddenly takes on a very different complexion. Views that originally started out as outright discrimination by the Government start to moderate. When one hears the azan walking around in Jalan Sultan today, one realises there can be nuance to policy decisions. This is one reality of living in a multiracial country and the inevitably uneven nature of ‘give and take’ in matters of race and religion, a matter I will come back to shortly.

Members of this House would agree that HOB living and urban living in general, with the races co-existing cheek by jowl does increase the prospects of inter-racial misunderstandings to take place. They are usually innocuous such as a shift worker trying to get some sleep or a student studying for exams just as your Malay neighbours are hosting a marriage or your Chinese neighbours are carrying out funeral rites at the void deck or your Indian neighbour is pounding  spices.

But just as often as we hear of complaints in our HOB estates of open-burning of joss paper and the illegal parking of vehicles by congregants of various faiths, at temples, mosques or churches, we also hear of neighbours who are comfortable amongst one other and can rely on each other in times of need – exemplified in not just the food or the greetings they share but the willingness to be race-neutral, open-minded and communicative, traits which are vital to living in a multiracial society. All members of this House would have experienced this in the course of their grassroots work.

I do appreciate that things can get more complicated in the workplace – but race or religion should never be reasons not to hire or discriminate against someone. Chauvinistic behaviour, an attitude of superiority and intolerance exhibited by superiors or co-workers at the workplace where we all spend a large part of our day will permeate not just into our daily lives and attitudes, but into the values we pass on to our loved  ones.

This damages this quality of our multiracialism and we must be mindful of passing on our prejudices and biases. In the same breath, workers of any race must recognise that we all must strive to do our best, not just in words but in deeds. A can-do spirit, positive work ethic and a common sense of mission aligned with the needs your company or organisation can actually play a pivotal role in teaching racists about the futility and irrelevance of holding on to racist attitudes. Some Singaporeans might have to leave a job because of latent or even perceived discrimination, but whatever the bad experience, leave the prejudice or racism you experienced behind too for not all five fingers are the same.

Mr Speaker, it is clear a certain degree of tolerance is critical to living in a multiracial society like Singapore. And it is a testimony to Singaporeans and the sort of the people we have moulded ourselves to become over the last 50 years that we have come to live in peace with one another, in spite of the occasional hiccup which is not unusual for any multiracial society. To that end, I prefer to conceive of our multiracialism not just as a constant work in progress but a glass that is half-full as opposed half-empty.

To live in peace and harmony, it is imperative everyone practices some “give and take” and accept that for multiracialism to succeed and thrive, we must move forward with a “live and let live”    attitude    with    respect    to    our    racial    and  religious differences. On this note, I would like to acknowledge the real and optical comfort the presence of members of the Inter­ Religious Organisation have communicated to many Singaporeans when they appear at various  events.

The Government should look at how the good work of the IRO can be further enhanced and communicated in newer ways to better reach out to the next generation of Singaporeans and represent the common ground Singaporeans must cherish and protect.

To conclude Mr Speaker, for tolerance to flourish we must take the initiative as Singaporeans to learn more about and increase our knowledge and understanding of each other’s faiths and practices. This process must come from bottom-up within each Singaporean and it is just as important as any movement to prepare Singapore for a terrorist attack. In doing so, we will unwittingly but crucially facilitate a deeper and more respectful understanding of one another and by extension, strengthen our social bonds and the quality of our multiracialism. Such an outcome will not only serve to inoculate Singapore against the negative fallout from a terrorist attack, it will represent the sort of society we strive to be and determine the Singapore we wish to leave behind for our children and children’s  children.