Fighting to maintain peace


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 26 Jan 2003

MUSLIMS who decline to shake hands with the opposite sex may be observing Islam but this behaviour sometimes raises “anxiety” among other communities. 

A Member of Parliament raised this matter in the House to explain how easy religious suspicion spreads in this city now under threat of terrorist attack. 

In response, another Chinese MP said other races should not be “suspicious but respectful” of such Muslim practices. 

“We should not see it as wrong if a Muslim woman does not want to shake hands with her male colleague. She is behaving in a proper manner as prescribed by her faith,” she said. 

At the same time, four Chinese businessmen donated S$20,000 to help the families of detained Jemaah Islamiah members. 

Singapore has put in place some of the toughest security measures since the communist emergency, but just as actively fought is the other “war.” 

This Parliament debate in the past few days is just one example of how it is being waged. The objective is to maintain religious harmony, which is under threat following the detention of 31 radical Muslims for plotting to bomb targets in Singapore. 

The battle is waged in places of worship, community halls, in schools, in the homes and, of course, in Parliament. 

There’s a lot of explaining, assuring, debating, bringing Muslim and non-Muslim suspicions out into the open and, where possible, destroying them. 

Hardly a week passes without such public events or forums being held and widely reported. Winning this battle is just as important as stopping the militants. 

Groups organise tours to temples and mosques to get an understanding of others’ religion. Thaipusam and Hari Raya are now celebrated with mixed parties or feasts in each other’s homes. 

During these anxious days, such functions may appear to raise scepticism about their effectiveness, but they provide a strong, reassuring message to all. 

What gave the government a good opportunity was the release earlier this month of a White Paper on terrorism and the JI threat. Political leaders repeatedly explained that its focus was on JI, not Muslims in Singapore. 

One battlefront is urging employers to make “special efforts” not to be over-cautious about employing Muslims in the wake of the JI arrests. 

Many of the bomb plotters came from ordinary homes and work places, a fact that frightened some employers away from hiring Muslims. A code of responsible employment practices has been introduced. 

The second front is among the Muslim community to shut out extremist religious leaders spouting violence or hatred in mosques and madrasah. A move is afoot to register these imams. 

This week, Parliament debated a question “What makes a good Muslim?” in which leaders called for a separation between religion and the state. 

“Singaporeans can be both pious Buddhists, Muslims, Christians or Hindus and good citizens at the same time,” said Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng. 

“Being a better Muslim doesn’t mean being an extremist and an extremist is not necessarily trying to be a better Muslim.” said MP Dr Wang Kai Yuen. 

Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman (Sembawang GRC) called on fellow Muslims not to veer towards extreme religious paths. He asked: “Is (a good Muslim) a wife-beater who piously prays five times a day, works irregularly and fails to financially support his family? Or a single mother who does not wear tudung (headscarf) but works hard to put food on the table?” 

Singaporeans were surprised to learn that preachers from the hard-line Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) had been regularly invited to preach at mosques in Singapore. Mosques here, however, said strict guidelines had been imposed for preachers to stick to religion and avoid venturing into politics. 

Some of the foreign preachers are so popular that they can attract thousands to stadium rallies. At least three PAS leaders are regular speakers in mosques and religious groups. The party is advocating an Islamic state in Malaysia. 

“We give them do's and don’ts and they abide by the rules,” said Yahya Hashim, manager of the Al-Falah mosque. 

MP Tan Cheng Bock said he was “shocked” about this revelation. He said it was unacceptable because PAS advocates the setting up of an Islamic state with hudud laws that, among other things, call for punishment of death by stoning and cutting off hands and feet for certain crimes. 

“The mosque leaders are naive to believe that giving the speakers a list of do's and don'ts would stop them from preaching their brand of Islam,” he added. 

Meanwhile, the security cordon has been tightened in recent months. 

The authorities have stepped up airport and port security, ordered military escorts for regional shipping and reinforced surveillance of key civil infrastructure sites. 

Parking has also been banned in the area of restaurants and clubs frequented by foreigners to reduce the risk of car-bomb attacks. 

Air marshals are now stationed aboard national carriers Singapore Airlines and SilkAir. 

Three of the most recent measures were: 

·Scanning containers at the port. These high-tech scanners will screen containers passing through its busy port starting next month as part of measures against possible terrorist threats. 

·Escorting high value merchant vessels including oil and gas tankers, large container vessels and crew ships through the Singapore Straits by the Singapore Navy. 

·Forming a trained military team to deal with terrorist attacks using biological weapons. This chemical, biological, radiological and explosive group will be on call 24 hours a day and can move into action within 15 minutes. 

Members of the chemical and biological Unit, an explosive ordnance disposal unit and a medical response force, are equipped with special protective suits and employ robots to deal with chemical devices. 

These perilous times are forcing Singapore to raise its defence budget in the next financial year from the current S$8.2bil, despite a sagging economy. 

It will be a long, long state of readiness. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew expects the terrorist threat in South-East Asia to continue for 10 years. 

 

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com (e-mail: cnseah2000@little speck.com)  

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