SINGAPORE: Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore stated on Tuesday (24 Oct) that countries must safeguard themselves against a variety of threats, and It would be “would be gullible to think that everyone wishes Singapore well”.
Speaking at the 75th anniversary of the Internal Security Department (ISD), PM Lee pointed out that Singapore confronts risks on two fronts; Externally, the nation is susceptible to foreign influence operations and covert activities, while domestically, it must address vulnerabilities and potential sources of conflict.
Noting that visionary leadership is vital for motivating citizens to work diligently and unite for a common cause, PM Lee said that it alone is insufficient to ensure progress and prosperity.
“It is therefore critical for the government to stay well informed about such threats, and be equipped to deal with them.”
Addressing a gathering of past and present ISD officers, he added, “While we must not be paranoid and see shadows behind every corner, neither should we be naive about the real threats to an open and stable society.”
“You are our eyes and ears on the ground, keeping in touch with all these various groups. You watch the trends vigilantly, and when problems threaten to grow serious, nip them in the bud before they can get out of hand.”
“In essence, you protect the public space for the proper and successful functioning of Singapore’s democratic process.”
PM Lee stresses ongoing societal faultlines despite Singapore’s progress in community integration
While Singapore has made significant strides in fostering trust among its diverse communities since its independence, the city-state cannot ignore the fact that differences in perspectives still persist, cautioned PM Lee.
Pointing to the tensions between the United States and China, as well as the turmoil in the Middle East, PM Lee cited these as instances that have sparked strong reactions among Singaporeans of various age groups and religious affiliations.
“On the US-China tensions, Chinese Singaporeans, especially the older ones, tend to have different views compared with other Singaporeans. Every time conflict and violence flare up in the Middle East, passions get roused… in South-east Asia, and to some extent in Singapore too,” PM Lee said.
“The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict is an especially emotive issue for Muslim Singaporeans, who empathise strongly with the plight of the Palestinian population, just like Muslim communities worldwide. And on the other side, certain segments of our Jewish and Christian communities get worked up too.”
He added: “All these differences are a reality that we must recognise and accept.”
Highlighting the threat of terrorism as a derivative of the broader security landscape in the region, PM Lee emphasized that terrorism remains a pertinent concern for Singapore.
Despite the passage of 22 years since the 9/11 attacks, the persistence of transnational Islamist groups in neighboring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines poses an enduring challenge.
The increasing frequency of lone-wolf and small group attacks, enabled by easy weapon accessibility and operated by individuals with no formal indoctrination, poses a significant societal threat, while Singapore’s encounter with its first case of far-right radicalization in 2020 highlights the emerging concern of extremist ideologies, particularly far-right extremism.
PM Lee said: “We take this danger seriously, because a single act of terror could tear apart the racial and religious harmony and trust that we have painstakingly built over the decades… This is where ISD comes in – to make sure our people do not get captured by some extreme ideology, or caught up in quarrels which are not ours, to sow chaos within our own community.”
PM Lee underlines ISD’s key role in safeguarding Singapore against covert threats from foreign entities
PM Lee highlighted that Singapore faces not only terrorism and domestic vulnerabilities but also threats from foreign actors aiming to subvert society, manipulate public opinion, and compromise national security through espionage, emphasizing the ISD’s critical role as the primary defense against such covert activities.
PM Lee cited a notable incident from 2017 in which a professor from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Huang Jing, was expelled from Singapore for attempting to influence high-ranking decision-makers. This incident highlighted the presence of foreign intelligence involvement.
He stressed the pivotal role of the ISD as the first line of defense against such influences and espionage, emphasizing the need for the department to match the capabilities and sophistication of its adversaries in effectively managing these threats.
PM Lee said ISD is the first line of defence when it comes to such influences and espionage operations, and must be as capable and shrewd as its adversaries when deciding how best to deal with these threats.
PM Lee recognized the ISD’s historical evolution, initially established as the Singapore Special Branch by the British colonial government in 1948, and its ongoing transformation to remain effective in a continually changing environment.
This includes providing state-of-the-art facilities and offices to support ISD officers in their work and training, as well as offering attractive career prospects for officer development and sustained commitment and motivation.
PM Lee attributed Singapore’s success in mitigating and neutralizing security threats to the steadfast presence of the ISD at the front lines.
“ISD has been the steady force at our front lines. It has been neither shaken, nor stirred. Often staying away from the limelight, but ever present and ready to respond,” he said.
Critique surrounding the ISD enforcement of Singapore’s ISA
However, the role of the ISD, an agency overseen directly by the Prime Minister and primarily responsible for administering Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA), is not without controversy.
Following the 1989 Hat Yai agreement’s influence and a change in geopolitical threats, the ISD redirected its attention from communist threats to combating Islamic extremism and potential acts of terrorism, a shift underlined by events such as the Jakarta Stock Exchange bombing and the 9/11 attacks.
In alignment with this trend, the Singapore government has rebranded the ISA as a crucial tool in combating religious extremism and terrorism, as portrayed by Murray Hunter in his article in July 2021.
In fact, under the Internal Security Act, the Singapore government holds extensive authority for arbitrary arrest and detention, executed through executive orders.
According to Section 8 of the ISA, individuals deemed a significant risk to Singapore’s national security can be detained for up to two years without trial, with the possibility of indefinite renewals.
The ISA primarily serves as a tool for preventive detention, enabling the confinement of suspected threats without punitive measures. Initial detention for up to 30 days can be initiated solely based on the authorization of a police superintendent, without the requirement of a warrant or court order.
According to Hunter, the ISA is portrayed as safeguarding a peaceful society, with recent detentions of alleged ‘Islamists’ reaching the highest recorded numbers since the 1960s.
Media reports suggest that those detained are often individuals on the path to radicalization, engaging in activities such as fundraising, donating, or providing assistance.
For instance, the case of Mohamed Fairuz Junaidi, 39, who was apprehended for considering travel to Syria to join ISIS, and Rasidah Mazaln, 62, reportedly communicating with individuals suspected of extremist ties.
However, Hunter highlights the lack of an official definition for radicalization within the ISA process, rendering its criteria for detention highly subjective, particularly considering the diverse range of ideas and beliefs within Islam.
Hunter’s article also mentioned that a past detainee revealed that “If you reject the authorities accusations, they will keep detaining you.”
According to the detainee’s testimony, the ISD aims to eliminate threats to the government’s morality, ideology, and ideas.
“By admitting you are a communist or terrorist, the ISD and government can claim the arrests and detention under ISA was justified, and more importantly, discredit any arguments and activism that the accused was involved in.”
“Refusal to confess means they can’t justify the arrest and can’t afford to allow the ex-detainee to talk about the injustice, after release, ” the detainee told Asia Sentinel.
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