"The rising threat of Islamic-oriented global and regional terrorism has posed the greatest challenge to Singapore's foreign policy since the end of the Cold War" Do you agree? It is exhaustive to reiterate the vulnerable religious circumstances of Singapore's immediate external environment. Singapore has been called a 'red dot', a 'Third China', with the addition of many other innuendos. The end of the Cold War heralded the elimination of the threat of communism globally, giving rise to other threats once perceived as meagre. Radical interpretations of Islam resulting in religious-oriented terrorism poses a gargantuan challenge to Singapore's conduct of foreign policy. In this paper I will examine how terrorism poses a threat to Singapore's foreign policy in addition to two other threats; disease and religious fundamentalism.
Radical interpretations of Islam are not a new development. In the 1870s, religious Muslims who returned from the haj inspired by the austere Wahabbi fundamentalism they encountered in Mecca embarked on the Padri wars in West Sumatra. At the beginning of the 20th century, pamphleteers and editors in Singapore, then the hub of the regional Malay-language media, spread competing Islamic doctrines around the region. They set the stage for a political contest between the Kaum Muda (the reformists) and the Kaum Tua (the traditional establishment).
In the 1950s, the new Indonesian republic faced a major challenge from the Darul Islam revolt, which was supported by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir, the leaders of today's Jemaiah Islamiyah (JI). Colonial regimes in the region, as well as post-colonial leaderships, agonised over the role of Islam and recognised the challenge posed by Islamic radicals bent on overturning the existing state order. Today, the JI redefined jihad to justify revolutionary violence against internal and external enemies of Islam. Like Osama bin Laden, its leaders justified violence against Muslim rulers on the grounds that they suppressed Islamic law and were therefore apostates to be punished with death.1
Al-Qaeda's greatest advantage is the logistical and operational flexibility it enjoys. Having no state to defend, it can maintain a flat, transnational, and clandestine organisational scheme with minimal dedicated physical infrastructure. Al-Qaeda is present in up to 60 countries, and intelligence agencies estimate that at least 20,000 jihadists were trained in its Afghan camps since 1996.2
Al-Qaeda, which absorbed Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1998, can function on its own or through associated terrorist groups such as the Jemaiah Islamiyah. The group's cells operate semi-autonomously, maintaining links through field commanders to bin Laden and his shura (council), who can activate networks and give operational orders. Al-Qaeda members seem well versed in operational security measures, and have limited their use of electronically traceable telecommunications equipment – such as mobile phones, satellite phones and the internet – to hinder detection by technical means.
Post-11 September investigations have demonstrated a high aptitude for improvisation and for eluding official scrutiny. An example is Moutel El-Moutassedeq, an Al-Qaeda member in Germany, who was specifically tasked with assisting – though not directly participating in – the 11 September attacks. El-Moutassedeq signed legal documents in the names of active terrorists in the Hamburg cell run by suspected 11 September ringleader Mohamed Atta. Consequently, these terrorists appeared to be in Germany, when in fact they were in the US.
US-led military action in Afghanistan and the continuing allied military presence in that country – both in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks – have released the Taliban's grip on power. They have also deprived al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his inner circle and hundreds of rank-and-file Al-Qaeda members of a friendly host, a recruiting 'magnet' and a relatively comfortable physical base of operations. The military campaign killed some leaders, such as military planners and key members, forced others further underground and hobbled Al-Qaeda operationally. The global intelligence and law-enforcement mobilisation, meanwhile, has made communications, travel and financing more difficult for terrorists.
Malaysia and Singapore are two of the most stable countries in the region. However, their neighbors, Indonesia and the Philippines, have been plagued by ethnic and religious violence. Islamic groups in the Philippines have long been thought to receive training and financing from Al-Qaeda. The US military presence in Saudi Arabia and American support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are cited, in post-11 September Al-Qaeda videotapes aired on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news network, as justifications for Al-Qaeda terrorist operations.
Also referred to is the alleged historical humiliation of Islam at the hands of the Judeo-Christian West. Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith has said that there can be no truce until the group has killed 4 million Americans, whereupon others could convert to Islam.4 Thus, the US remains al-Qaeda's prime target, and measures to draw down American military deployments in the Middle East/Gulf region and constructive US intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not defuse Al-Qaeda's overriding intention to weaken the US as a superpower.
Unlike 'old' ethno-nationalist or ideological terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda cannot be tamed or controlled through political compromise or conflict resolution. Operational counter-terrorist measures are required – primarily in intelligence and law-enforcement, and occasionally in the military sphere. There is a premium on inter-governmental cooperation insofar as Al-Qaeda operates in multiple 'fields of jihad'. In South-east Asia, the Philippines hosts Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorist group with demonstrated Al-Qaeda connections while Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, is subject to intensifying radical Islamic influences. Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean Muslims were involved in an Al-Qaeda plot, thwarted in January 2002, to attack US, UK, Israeli and Australian assets in Singapore.
American companies are one of the Southeast Asian city-state's largest employers. At the same time, Singapore has close strategic ties to Washington, and recently opened a deep-water navy base that was built specifically to accommodate giant U.S. aircraft carriers. Security around embassies and other sensitive areas in Singapore has been beefed up. Soon after the arrests, police set up a roadblock outside the Israeli Embassy. American interests, including Singapore's American Club were being guarded by armed Gurkhas, the elite Nepalese fighters who help maintain security across the region.
According to Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong5, there are several levels of security concerns pertaining to regional terrorism with respect to Indonesia. The first level involves direct co-operation on the people who are wanted by the Singaporean authorities, like Mas Selamat Kastari, who has since been captured. The second level involves the people who were directly involved in the Bali bombings and the JW Marriott Hotel, who like the former, has also been captured and tried.
The third and most sticky issue revolves around the planners and the infrastructure, the people who are not directly involved: the 'queen bees' of the terrorist organisations. He personally terms them as the 'nurseries' from which the potential terrorists emerge. With democracy, checks and balances appear in the system that Indonesia has sought to implement; as signified by the ejection of the Indonesian equivalence of Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA). The current year 2004, being an election year, coupled with a population comprising of 95% Muslims, only serves to complicate the identification and the execution of anti-terrorist measures in Indonesia.