Singapore: Terrorist Cells? How Could This Happen in Singapore?


Dr Michael D. Barr

On 16 September the Internal Security Department (ISD) announced that during August it had detained 21 Muslim Singaporeans for terrorist-related activities that were directed in the short-term at destabilising Singapore-Malaysian relations and overthrowing the Malaysian government. This brings to 36 the total number arrested since December last year. All face indefinite detention without trial under the Internal Security Act except for five who were arrested then released almost immediately with warnings and restrictions: an admission that they were not terrorists, but just keeping bad company.

Thirty-two of the detainees were members of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which has direct links to Al-Qaeda. The remainder – the five who have been released – were alleged to have been ‘linked to’, or ‘supporters of’, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. Some of those arrested had undertaken terrorist training in Afghanistan, Malaysia or Mindanao.

Many people have asked how this could happen in tightly controlled Singapore. How did these cells even get started, and how did the ISD completely miss the existence of the first batch of terrorists until the Americans passed on intelligence collected in Afghanistan?

Some have suggested that despite its fearsome reputation, the ISD is actually unsophisticated and relatively ineffective because it cannot attract the best academic talent, nor people suited to intelligence work. However, this cannot be the whole explanation. The key to understanding the weakness of the Singapore security and control system is to realise that the ISD is not really Singapore's peak body for social and political control and security; rather it is the last failsafe mechanism. Its successful operation presumes that Singapore's social, civic and religious organisations are routinely monitoring the population.

The ‘Singapore system’ herds people into networks of organisations connected in a variety of ways with the Singapore ‘establishment’. A voluntary or social organisation might come under the purview of a government ministry, the ruling People’s Action Party, or the National Trades Union Congress just to name three possible linkages.

The mechanisms for monitoring and controlling Islam are no different. The whole Muslim and Malay-Muslim network in Singapore, including mosques, teachers and associations, are linked to and monitored by the government through the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. Many Muslim groups also have government links through channels related to ethnicity or education.

The problem is that the members of the terrorist cells have shunned these networks completely, leaving the ISD and the whole paraphernalia of social control blind to actual developments. At the time of writing, the government had released minimal information about the second batch of detainees, but we already know that none of the first batch even attended mosque! They were just anonymous men living private lives and ‘engaged in terrorist-related activities’. The Singapore security system was not geared for this, but according to Jane’s Defence Weekly (v. 38, no. 10), the government has identified these shortcomings and has already moved to correct them. The events of August tend to confirm this.

WATCHPOINT: The Singapore government’s obstinacy with respect to its ban on girls wearing the Muslim tudung (scarf/head-dress) to school is a sensitive issue that has been festering since the beginning of the year. The government's handling of this issue suggests that reforms of its social control mechanisms to deal with Islamic 'extremism' are not likely to be particularly profound or culturally sensitive.


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