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Commentary: Tackling exclusivism crucial in fight against terror threat

19 Jun Commentary: Tackling exclusivism crucial in fight against terror threat

The spectre of a terror attack in Singapore has loomed large in recent months.

Political leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have warned repeatedly that it is not a question of if, but when, such an attack will strike our shores.

At the same time, the frequency of terror attacks around the world, and more worryingly, closer to home in the South-east Asian region, has led Singapore authorities to raise terror threat levels to “the highest in recent years”.

The news out last week that a Singaporean woman has become the country’s first female detainee under the Internal Security Act for radicalism, serves as a stark reminder of the looming threat for the country.

The Ministry of Home Affairs also released its first-ever national terrorism threat assessment report some two weeks ago. It aimed to give the public “a better understanding” and appreciation of the terrorism threat, and to encourage Singaporeans to be alert and prepared.

This is timely, given how Singapore continues to be a prized target for terror groups, and had been specifically targeted in the past year.

The refrain of the possible inevitability of a terror attack here has become almost as ubiquitous as the description of Singapore as a multiracial and multicultural society, where inclusivity and tolerance are key watchwords for social stability and harmony.

While this concept dates back to almost the very inception of the state and is nothing new, it may hold the key to addressing the current threat of radicalisation and terrorism.

Inclusivity can act as a necessary ballast against divisive ideologies that prey on a particular group or individual’s sense of alienation, marginalisation and oppression.

Such ideologies aim to lend credence to the idea that they have to be different from others in all aspects of life and that there cannot be common ground with other faiths.

Countries around the world are grappling with how to face down the rising wave of terror attacks sweeping the globe under the auspices of terror groups like the self-styled the Islamic State, the potentially resurgent Al Qaeda, and other regional gangs of thugs and extremists.

The measures to address these and other threats, such as cyber attacks and the vulnerability of the youth especially to digital propaganda and online recruitment by terror groups, have ranged from hard physical measures such as strengthening protective infrastructure and response forces, to online countermeasures and psychological operations.

These are no doubt important efforts and should continue. But there also needs to be work done to address the root philosophical and psychological causes of the terror phenomena, besides dealing with the physical manifestations and symptoms.

Much of the rationale and motivation for recent terror attacks stem from interpretations of religious texts and teachings that emphasise exclusivism.

Exclusivism is the practice of being exclusive by disregarding opinions and ideas other than one’s own, or by organising entities into groups by excluding those that possess certain traits.

Religious exclusivism asserts that one religion is true and all others are in error. Such values are often, if not always, antagonistic and they denigrate the beliefs held by other faiths while asserting absolute superiority of their worldview.

Exclusivism based on belief systems is not a new phenomenon, with examples dating back to Ancient Greece. Modern-day examples have taken on a more violent streak, with death to non-believers, even those from within the same religion but whose practices are different, becoming a goal or requirement for true believers.

It should be pointed out that religious leaders across virtually all faiths have highlighted that such violently exclusivist beliefs are not actually part of the teachings of any true religion.

But thanks to the rise of social media and technology, growing sophistication among extremist groups, and disenchanted and disaffected youth around the world offering fertile recruitment grounds for perpetrators of terror, exclusivist tendencies have been spreading around the world.

With so-called “lone wolf” attackers being encouraged on social media or in the dark spaces of the Internet to commit atrocities, the potential for more future attacks anywhere in the world, with little or no warning, is immense.

Tackling exclusivist sentiments would seem like the logical starting point for dealing with the issue. But for a country like Singapore, it is an imperative.

Singapore is widely recognised as being among the most religiously diverse nations in the world. Our history and societal make-up have seen the embracing of a tolerant and respectful attitude towards religious and cultural diversity, with the government playing a key role in promulgating and encouraging such an approach at all levels of society.

A cornerstone of this approach has not been to encourage uniformity, but to foster appreciation of the inherently diverse nature of our country, and recognising the benefits therein.

We should continue to uphold progressive religious values that encourage awareness and respect for cultural diversity and equality, while establishing common ground to forge harmonious relationships.

It is not hard to see why a country whose citizens understand, respect and appreciate each others different beliefs and attitudes, will enjoy peace and hence stability.

But in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, this stability may become essential to ensuring the survivability and success of any nation in the future. Inclusive values will also ensure solidarity, cohesiveness and resilience for the “day after” scenario, given the inevitability of an attack.

Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Ms Grace Fu, said in the wake of the latest announcement of the country’s first female detainee for radicalism, that all Singaporeans should stand united and not allow our society to fracture, as this would mean a victory for terrorists.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore also said it would work with its partners to safeguard against exclusivist and extremist ideas from taking root in the community.

The concepts of understanding and tolerance should not be required of any single religious group, but should be embraced by all religions and communities throughout society.

Only then can we truly begin to tackle the terror threat in a comprehensive and systematic fashion which will hopefully produce long-term success.


Nicholas Fang is the executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and oversees the institute’s Global Citizens Singapore programme, which aims to broaden awareness of key international issues amongst young professionals and the public. This commentary was published in TODAY on 19 June 2017.