1. At independence, Malaysia (or, as it was then known, Malaya) did not have a Muslim majority. There has been a steady rise in the percentage of Muslims, compared to the indigenous tribes, the Hindus, and the Chinese. What explains this demographic shift?
2. Singapore broke off from Malaysia and established a separate state. What were the main reasons the Chinese of Singapore so desperately sought to be independent of Malaysia?
3. The Bumiputra system was established to favor in education and in the economy, supposedly, the “sons of the soil” or the indigenes. The “sons of the soil” tribes, however, are mostly Christian. Yet the Bumipura system, as every Chinese and Hindu in Malaysia knows, favors only one group: Muslims. Why is that? And do you now believe it is time to assure all citizens of Malaysia equality before the law by ending the Bumiputra preferments for Muslims in Malaysia?
4. Your predecessor, Mahathir Mohamed, famously gave an address to the Organization of Islamic Conference in which he told a crowd of enthusiastic delegates that Muslims must learn to rival the West in their scientific attainments, but the only attainments to which he made reference were those of military technology. There was no mention of any encouragement of Muslim study of the nature of the atom, or of the structure of DNA, or of fractals, or how the brain works, or anything at all that might be described as science for its own sake. There was only mention of military technology, of weaponry. Why do you think that was?
5. Chok Tok On, Prime Minister of Singapore, in a speech he gave in Washington a few years ago, said this:
Terrorism is a generic term. Terrorist organisations such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or ETA in Spain are only of local concern. The virulent strain of Islamic terrorism is another matter altogether. It is driven by religion. Its ideological vision is global. It is most dangerous. The communists fought to live, whereas the jihadi terrorists fight to die and live in the next world.
My perspective is formed by our own experiences in Southeast Asia, which post 9/11 has emerged as a major theatre for terrorist operations. In December 2001, Singapore arrested 15 people belonging to a radical Islamic group called the Jemaah Islamiyah [JI]. They were plotting even before 9/11 to attack American and other Western interests in Singapore. In August 2002, we arrested another 21 members of this group. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand have also made many arrests of terrorists.
The JI regional leadership spanned Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. Its tentacles even probed into Australia. JI”s objective was to create a Daulah Islamiyah, an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. This was to be centred in Indonesia but would include Malaysia, southern Thailand, Southern Philippines, and, inevitably, Singapore and Brunei.
But the most crucial conclusion our investigations revealed was this: the existence of a transregional terrorist brotherhood of disparate Southeast Asian groups linked by a militant Islamic ideology to each other and to al Qaeda. Whatever their specific goals, these groups were committed to mutual help in the pursuit of their common ideology: they helped each other with funds and support services, in training, and in joint operations.
In 1999, JI formed a secret caucus called the Rabitatul Mujahadeen, meaning Mujahadeen Coalition, to bring together various militant Southeast Asian Islamic groups. Between 1999 and 2000, Rabitatul Mujahadeen met three times in Kuala Lumpur. It was responsible for the bombing attack against the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia in Jakarta in August 2000. The brain behind the attack was Hambali, the link man between Southeast Asian terrorism and al Qaeda. Fortunately, he is now under arrest.
But the threat remains. It stems from a religious ideology that is infused with an implacable hostility to all secular governments, especially the West, and in particular the U.S. Their followers want to recreate the Islam of seventh century Arabia, which they regard as the golden age. Their ultimate goal is to bring about a caliphate linking all Muslim communities. Their means is jihad, which they narrowly define as a holy war against all non Muslims, whom they call “infidels.”
The Arabs call this religious ideology salafi. Our experience in Southeast Asia is not without wider relevance because of what the salafis themselves believe. This is what one of them, an Algerian named Abu Ibrahim Mustafa, has said:
“The war in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Algeria, in Chechnya, and in the Philippines is one war. This is a war between the camp of Islam and the camp of the Cross, to which the Americans, the Zionists, Jews, their apostate allies, and others belong. The goal of this war, which they falsely called a war on terror, is to prevent the Muslims from establishing an Islamic state…”
Likewise, JI”s ultimate goal is a caliphate, by definition not confined to Southeast Asia. The dream of a caliphate may seem absurd to the secular mind. But it will be a serious mistake to dismiss its appeal to many in the Islamic world, though the majority do not believe in killing and dying for it.
But there are radicals and militants who do. The terrorist brotherhood in Southeast Asia and its links to al Qaeda were first forged through the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Ibrahim Maidin, the leader of the Singapore JI cell, underwent military training in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. His encounters with the mujahadeen deeply impressed him. Maidin wrote several letters to the Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and to Osama bin Laden. He asked whether Mullah Omar was to be regarded as the caliph of the Islamic World. After returning to Singapore, Maidin arranged for JI members to visit Afghanistan and to undergo training there.
When one of those convicted of the October 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced to death, he thanked the prosecutors and said that this would bring him closer to God and “the death penalty would mean nothing except strengthening my faith.”
Islamic militancy is not new to Southeast Asia. But what is new is this type of fanatical global ideology (including the phenomenon of suicide bombers) that has been able to unite different groups and lead Southeast Asian groups to subordinate local interests to the broader struggle.
Ibrahim Maidin has confessed to a senior Singapore intelligence officer that, in retrospect, he had made the mistake of moving too quickly and should have waited for Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern Philippines, and Singapore to become an Islamic state before acting against U.S. interests. But he still believes that his side would ultimately win. He also said that as long as the U.S. was “doing things against the Muslims”, the JI would continue to attack the U.S.
From our experience in Southeast Asia, I draw three principal conclusions that I believe have a wider relevance.
First, the goals of these terrorists make the struggle a zero sum game for them. There is no room for compromise except as a tactical expedient. America may be the main enemy, but it is not the only one. What Osama bin Laden offered Europe was only a “truce,” not a lasting peace. The war against terrorism today is a war against a specific strain of militant Islamic terrorism that wants, in effect, a “clash of civilizations” or, in the words of the Algerian I earlier quoted, “a war between the camp of the Islam and the camp of the Cross.”
The JI has tried to create the conditions for Christians and Muslims in Southeast Asia to set against one another. In December 2000, it attacked churches in Indonesia, including one church in an Indonesian island off Singapore. It has sent its members to fight and stir up trouble in Ambon against Christians. At the trial of those responsible for the Bali bombing of October 2002, one of the defendants, Amrozi, dubbed by the media as the “smiling terrorist,” said that he was not sorry for the Westerners killed in the Bali attacks. He said, “How can I feel sorry? I am very happy, because they attack Muslims and are inhuman.” In fact, he wished “there were more American casualties.” What was most chilling is that this hatred is impersonal.
One of those we detained in Singapore was a service engineer with an American company. He confessed that he actually liked his American friends and bosses. He was nevertheless involved in targeting American interests. We have a sense that he had struggled with this. He eventually decided to testify against the spiritual leader of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir, but only because he felt betrayed by Bashir’s denial of the very existence of the JI organization which Bashir headed and to whom he and other members had sworn allegiance.
And just as Osama bin Laden is trying to drive a wedge between Europe and America, in Southeast Asia, JI was plotting to do the same thing by blowing up the pipelines that supply water from Malaysia to Singapore. The JI knew that water from Malaysia is a matter of life and death for Singapore. They knew that race and religion have historically been the major fault lines within and between both countries. The JI”s intention was to provoke a conflict between Singapore and Malaysia and portray a “Chinese Singapore” as threatening a “Muslim Malaysia,” and use the ensuing confusion to try and overthrow the Malaysian government and establish an Islamic state in Malaysia.
That particular plot failed. The governments of Singapore and Malaysia could not have allowed it to succeed. We know only too well what is at stake.
The favorite tactic of terrorists of all stripes has always been to try to provoke a backlash to serve their cause. When news of the JI arrests broke, my immediate concern was to maintain social cohesion in Singapore. Singapore is a multi-racial society with a 15 percent Muslim population. They are well integrated in our schools, housing estates and the workplace. Nevertheless, misunderstandings could easily arise. We met with Muslim leaders in a number of closed door sessions to share details of the investigations and to explain that the arrests were not targeted against the Singapore Muslim community or Islam.
Would you agree with the assessment of Prime Minister Chok Tong On?
6. Singapore has a very rigorous legal regime covering Da”wa, with strict requirements that all new converts to Islam be immediately reported to the government. Why do you suppose that is? Do you understand what concerns prompted the democratic government of Singapore to enact such legislation?
7. Your name is “Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.” Would you find strange if the Prime Minister of the Congo were named Anthony Ashley Cooper, or possibly Lord Palmerston? Do you find anything of note, as a Malay, that you bear an Arab name? Or do you find nothing strange in the linguistic and cultural pressures for arabization that accompany, and have always accompanied, islamization?