Singapore faces growing risks from terrorism, threatening the micro-nation’s reputation as a veritable island of regional stability. Singapore’s ties with Western military campaigns and economic networks makes the country a prime target for Islamists seeking to destabilize the multicultural nation. The country faces both internal threats from radialized individuals as well as external spillover from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. Consequently, Singapore has not been spared the rising global trend of extremist incidents and radicalization, with more Singaporeans detained on said charges since 2015 (15 individuals) than in the last seven years (11 individuals).
The risk from abroad
With the pending release of some 200 terrorist prisoners across the region in the next two years, Singapore faces a time of heightened danger from both known extremists and self-radicalized “lone wolf” attackers. The city-state’s cosmopolitan nature puts it at risk from foreign radicals, as witnessed in a string of incidents in recent years. In late 2015, some 27 Bangladeshi construction workers were arrested, as the group had formed a religious study circle that expressed support for extremist activities and international jihad. Moreover, eight Indonesian domestic helpers have been deported since 2015 after becoming radialized in Singapore.
August 2016 saw Singapore foil a plot by a Batam, Indonesia-based group – Katibah Gonggong Rebus – to launch a rocket attack from nearby Indonesian territory at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. The following month an Arabic jihadist document identified two locations in the country, including the Singapore Stock Exchange, as prime targets for terrorist attacks.
Singapore’s status as a key global trade and financial hub makes it a tempting target, especially given growing ISIS inroads in Southeast Asia, notably the recent crisis in Marawi in the Philippines, as well as the two suicide bombings in Jakarta in May. Consequently, Singapore is not only concerned about attacks being perpetrated domestically, but also the risk of the micro-nation becoming a transit hub for jihadists traveling to regional conflict zones such as Marawi.
Furthermore, Singapore’s previous six-year deployment in Afghanistan as part of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force only adds to Singapore’s list of transgressions in the eyes of Islamists. Moreover, Singapore was the first Southeast Asian nation to join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. With plans to send a medical team to Iraq in 2017, Singapore continues to pursue foreign policy objectives that place it in the cross-hairs of jihadists. This is witnessed by Singapore’s inclusion in ISIS’s list of territories belonging to the organization’s East Asian wilayah or state.
Singapore is concerned that this pronouncement will embolden home-grown radicals to commit attacks, as well as funnel regional extremists (willing but unable to carry out attacks in the Middle East) from Singapore’s near-abroad into the country.
The risk at home
Alongside the threats from foreign actors, the main security challenge facing Singapore is the threat of home-grown terrorism. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for calm and has pledged cooperation with the country’s significant Muslim minority. Joining Muslim community leaders for iftar, Lee addressed Singaporean Muslims by stating “the answer is simple: stand shoulder to shoulder with the government. The government does not want the Muslim community to be viewed with distrust. We know the Muslim community in Singapore condemns terrorist ideology.”
The arrest of 15 radicalized Singaporeans since 2015, one of whom planned to kill the president and prime minister, highlights the mounting risks posed by such ideologies. Recent revelations only further underline this issue, notably the recent arrest of a Singaporean woman planning to travel to the Middle East to become a “martyr’s bride.” Of greater concern is the arrest of two Singaporean police officers on June 20. The main focus is on Muhammad Khairul bin Mohamed, who had become radicalized. He was spouting anti-Shi’a rhetoric and was allegedly planning to travel to Syria to fight. His friend was arrested for allegedly having concealed Mohamed’s growing radicalization and jihadist intentions since 2015.
The fact that two security officers could succumb to such propaganda highlights the even greater risk faced by ordinary citizens. Moreover, the incident calls into question Singapore’s security arrangements, as both men were employed as auxiliary police officers by a private corporation, AETOS. This incident threatens to undermine public confidence in government officials and the country’s use of private security contractors.
Another recent development has been the controversy surrounding radical Singaporean preacher Rasul Dahri. Having been banned (along with his books) from teaching Islam in Singapore, Dahri has become a poster child for the threat posed by local radical agitators. Indeed, Dahri is believed to have taught the future leader of Jemaah Islamiyah’s Singapore cell in the 1980s. Seven of Dahri’s books have also been banned in Malaysia.
2016 was a wake-up call, one that Singapore answered
The heightened threat profile that faced Singapore in 2016 led to the implementation of a host of counter-terrorism and anti-radicalization efforts. In September 2016, the government launched the SGSecure initiative to sensitize Singaporeans to the threat of terrorism as well as train and mobilize the populace in preventing and coping with the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The following month saw Singapore’s largest ever anti-terror drill, with 3,200 officers engaging a multi-day, multi-scenario operation, including increased patrols at 360 locations across the country. This year has seen continued efforts, including the publication of the inaugural Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment.
As of 2017, all teachers offering religious education must be officially accredited with the Asatizah Recognition Scheme. Said scheme is part of wider efforts to combat self-radicalization and provides resources to concerned family and friends who suspect an individual of becoming radicalized. A key component of this assistance network has been the establishment of the Religious Rehabilitation Hotline. Furthermore, the Religious Council of Singapore has led a public awareness campaign about the dangers of fake news and social media misuse, warning believers that social media is not an appropriate platform for receiving religious guidance.
This coincides with ongoing government efforts to crack down on fake news, to which Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam stated Singapore is “particularly vulnerable” to. A May 2017 survey found that 91% of Singaporeans were in favor of stronger laws to curb fake news, with anti-fake news legislation proposed for 2018.
To most observers, Singapore may appear to be an unlikely target of terrorist aggression, yet changing times are forcing the country to face tough decisions and tougher scenarios: Singapore’s societal and political experiment is at stake.