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A collective regional approach to fight terrorism threat

Singapore has proposed the 'resilience, response, and recovery' framework for counter-terrorism.

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An SGSecure exercise. Singapore launched the SGSecure movement in 2016 to equip Singaporeans from all walks of life with the know-how to respond to terror attacks.

THE global terrorism threat remains high, and continues to evolve. In our region, the most serious threat emanates from ISIS, which has shaped the regional security landscape in recent years.

Hundreds of South-east Asian fighters have joined ISIS' ranks in Iraq and Syria, while others have mounted attacks in the region in support of ISIS and its goal of establishing a caliphate in our region. As ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria, we need to be prepared for an increased flow of returning fighters back into our region.

These returning fighters are more skilled in attack tactics, more ideologically motivated, and can gain access to wider terror networks and links formed in Iraq and Syria. The Marawi experience shows that the same radical ideology and state-like military capabilities can be used to devastating effect.

There is also a social dimension to the threat of terrorism. Globally, we see how differences, be they socio-economic, political or even religious, have divided communities and polarised societies. This in turn can result in religious exclusivism in societies and intolerance towards others, affecting the precious social compacts which have safeguarded racial and religious harmony in many of our societies.

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Terrorists are exploiting these divisions by using technology and social media to spread their narratives and gain followers. This makes the terrorist threat difficult to detect and respond to.

For example, the multiple coordinated bombings in Surabaya in May 2018 involved whole families, including women and children. This is something which we have never heard of before; a new phase of terror attacks.

In Singapore, we recognise that only a collective regional approach can effectively counter the threat of terrorism.

By bringing together policy makers, counter-terrorism practitioners from both government and private sectors as well as academia, we hope to provide a platform for all of us to exchange experiences and best practices.

This is our small contribution, as part of our ASEAN Chairmanship, towards a more resilient ASEAN.

It is important that we find ways at this symposium to build on ASEAN's existing efforts.

The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime is implementing the recently updated ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism, and has created a new platform - the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism - to focus on these two issues.

For our chairmanship of the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting this year, we have also made building regional counter-terrorism capacity a priority.

Singapore has proposed the "Resilience, Response, and Recovery" Framework for counter-terrorism, which will provide a comprehensive overview of counter-terrorism measures that ASEAN Member States can undertake. It is important for ASEAN Member States to continue to step up practical cooperation through joint exercises and training, information sharing, and increased dialogue and sharing of best practices, to strengthen our region's collective resilience and readiness.

WORKING TOGETHER

Regional initiatives such as the "Our Eyes" Initiative and Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement are good examples of how we can further strengthen regional cooperation in counter-terrorism.

As a maritime hub, Singapore has also recognised the importance of close regional cooperation in securing our sea lines of communication.

This extends to combating maritime terrorism, which is closely intertwined with other maritime crimes such as piracy and sea robbery.

For example, the proceeds of illicit maritime activities in the Sulu and Celebes Seas are known to fund terrorism. Singapore is thus committed to enhancing regional cooperation to tackle maritime terrorism, through platforms such as the Malacca Straits Patrol and the Republic of Singapore Navy's Information Fusion Centre.

Upstream efforts are also critical to counter terrorism. Terrorist groups are not discriminate in terms of who they target to radicalise. A recent video by the founder of the Institute for International Peace Building, Noor Huda Ismail, titled "Pengantin" (Malay for "bride"), sheds light on the story of domestic helpers who fell for extremist ideology under the guise of online companionship. It is crucial for us to take steps in the social media and cyber space to safeguard our communities. We have seen, not just in Singapore but in many other places, individuals radicalised by propaganda from terrorist groups and radical elements in cyberspace, including ISIS.

We must increase the awareness of our people, in particular our young, on the possible influences from what they read or who they meet online.

In 2017, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, MUIS, set up the Asatizah Youth Network (AYN) to offer support and guidance to our youths on social media. The AYN aims to be the first touch point for those in doubt. MUIS will help build up the AYN and train asatizah, or religious teachers, in digital media engagement and counselling techniques to counter youth radicalisation.

Singapore's Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) also does important work in this area. It has reached out to the broader public through talks and the Internet to sensitise religious followers to the erroneous teachings of extremist ideologues.

Significantly, in the last few years, RRG launched a helpline and mobile application to provide easy access to its religious counsellors.

These are important initiatives which provide members of the public the opportunity to come forward to clarify concerns or discuss issues with a credible religious source.

SOCIAL COHESION

We should also take steps to strengthen social cohesion and resilience by building bridges between communities.

In Singapore, we have established Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs), which promote racial and religious harmony. The IRCCs are made up of leaders from many religious, ethnic and community organisations, who have come together to build friendships and trust in the community.

We recognise that members of the community must do their part to "speak up" for cohesion, and "speak out" against divisive messages stoking fear and hate.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Facebook held a Workshop on Building Community Resilience to Online Extremism for about 100 community and religious leaders last year. The workshop saw the launch of the #SpeakUpSpeakOut initiative to encourage community groups to carry the hashtag and speak out in one voice against divisive and sinister ideologies online.

Last but not least, a prepared and alert citizenry can contribute in tangible ways to prevent, deal with and respond to security threats. Singapore launched the SGSecure movement in 2016 to equip Singaporeans from all walks of life with the know-how to respond to terror attacks.

Counter-terrorism seminars have also been conducted to brief our religious and community leaders on the security situation and to help them prepare their crisis response plans.

Members of the public are also encouraged to report suspicious persons and activities to the authorities in a timely manner. This includes early reporting of signs of radicalisation in family members and friends. In fact, many of the cases of self-radicalised individuals that we have detected were the result of family and friends alerting the authorities.

By better preparing our communities as well as strengthening social cohesion and resilience, we stand a better chance of combating the threat of terrorism.

  • Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman is Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs. This is an edited transcript of a speech he delivered at the 2018 Southeast Asia Counter-Terrorism Symposium in Singapore on Oct 4, 2018.