Singapore Government Press Release
Media Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
Tel: 6837-9666 




Had this conference been held a year ago, US-China relations would have dominated our discussions. They are still central to the East Asia strategic balance. As a rising power, China cannot be expected to acquiesce in the status quo if it is against its interests. As the pre-eminent global power, US interest is in the preservation of the status quo. This fundamental difference of interests cannot be wished away.

To be sure, China is no longer revolutionary and the US has never been reactionary. Conflict is not inevitable. The Bush administration came to office with a more hardheaded and sceptical approach towards China than its predecessors. So on 1 April 2001 when a Chinese fighter collided with an American surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea, we in the region braced ourselves. When the situation was resolved, we heaved a sigh of relief.

All this now seems distant. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 have re-ordered priorities and muted great power frictions.

The anti-terrorism campaign focussed greater attention on Afghanistan, South and Central Asia and the Middle East. The US needed China�s acquiescence, if not active support, in its global anti-terrorism war. The differences within the Bush administration on how to deal with China have been deferred. A more restrained approach towards China has accentuated the positive in the relationship.

On its part, China has been acutely aware of its own shortcomings. Its priorities are the succession in the leadership next year and the social, economic and political challenges facing this new generation of leaders arising from its WTO membership. The Chinese are clearly uncomfortable with US unilateralism. It is wary of the US entrenching itself in Central Asia, and is deeply suspicious of Japan�s broader interpretation of US-Japan Defence Guidelines in support of US military operations. But China has chosen to be silent.

The crucial issue between US-China is Taiwan. To "lose" Taiwan by its going independent will be unbearable for China. While the Bush administration is sympathetic to Taiwan, it does not support Taiwanese independence. President Bush himself has not subscribed to some of the hardline views articulated in his administration. He wants stable relations with China so that US business can participate in China�s growth. For the present, China is drawing confidence from its fast growing economy that is shifting long-term trends in its favour. Taiwan�s massive investments in China will continue for many years. Several hundred thousand Taiwanese, including their families, are now permanent residents in Shanghai, Kunshan, Xiamen and other coastal cities. If China can continue this growth, its ever larger economy will be a powerful factor in cross-strait relations. China needs peace to grow and to prepare for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It will be a major coming out party for the China of the 21st Century.

The competition for economic and diplomatic influence has started. Last year China proposed an FTA with ASEAN within ten years with early harvesting so that benefits can be reaped early. Japan has called for a Closer Economic Partnership with ASEAN. This is healthy competition. For now, the US-China-Japan strategic balance that underpins East Asian growth is stable.

Terrorism: Immediate Security Threat

However the immediate threats to security in the region are not state-related tensions or dangers of conflicts. These threats come from non-state terrorist Islamic groups. We discovered from interrogation of detained terrorists after 9/11 that these groups have been building up since the early 1990s. Hundreds of Muslims from the region have returned home after fighting with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The leaders among them have started their indigenous Al-Qaeda-like groups in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and, hard to believe, also in Singapore to overthrow these governments and set up an Islamic state.

When Indonesia ran into an Asian financial crisis, the Clinton administration sought �discontinuity� in Suharto�s regime to promote reform. When it became evident that the consequences of �discontinuity� were too complex to handle, it declared a victory for �democracy� and human rights after the Indonesian elections in 1999. Since then Indonesians have endured more than three years of political, economic and social turmoil. The end is not in sight.

There are more than 230 million Muslims in Southeast Asia. Nearly all were tolerant and easy to live with. The majority of the 200 million Indonesian Muslims were abangans, Muslims who have fused Islam with Buddhism, Hinduism and other beliefs. They were not the intense and strict Muslims of the Arabs in the Middle East.

We were aware that the nature of Islam in Southeast Asia has been changing over the last 30 years. First and foremost, after the price of oil quadrupled in 1973, Saudi Arabia has generously financed the Dakwa (missionary) movement by building mosques and religious schools (madrasahs) and paying for preachers (ulamas) throughout the world, spreading the teachings and practices of its austere version of Wahabist Islam. Next, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979 in a revolution led by Islamic clerics, has had a profound impact on Muslim beliefs in Islam�s power. Finally the participation of large numbers of Southeast Asian Muslims in the jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the 1990s, has radicalised significant numbers of the Southeast Asian Muslims.

Over the last three decades, as part of a world-wide trend, Muslims in the region, including Singapore, are becoming stricter in their dress, diet, religious observances, and even social interaction, especially with non-Muslims. Increasingly Muslim women will not shake hands with males. The generation of convivial and easy-to-get-along-with Muslim leaders in the region has given way to successors who observe a stricter Islamic code of conduct. My original concern was over the growing separateness of our Muslim community, as Singaporean Muslims tended to centre their social and extra-mural activities in their mosques, instead of in multi-racial community clubs. What came as a shock was that this heightened religiosity facilitated Muslim terror groups linked to Al-Qaeda to recruit Singapore Muslims into their network.

When Al-Qaeda became big news after September 11, a Singaporean Muslim informed Singapore�s Internal Security Department (ISD) that Muhammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan, a Singaporean of Pakistani descent, had links with Al-Qaeda. The ISD immediately put him and his associates under surveillance. On October 4, Aslam left suddenly for Afghanistan. The police did not stop him because they were hot on the trail of his associates. On November 29, a foreign intelligence agency told the ISD that a Singaporean named Aslam had been detained by the Northern Alliance. Before the story leaked widely and Aslam�s associates could abscond, ISD arrested 15 of them. Interrogation and examination of their computer hard disks and video compact discs revealed they were targeting US assets in Singapore. Thirteen of those arrested are members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a terrorist network based in Indonesia that also spans Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Some 20 members escaped and have fled, first to Malaysia and now probably in Indonesia.

After the arrests a friendly intelligence agency gave the ISD a videotape found in the Afghanistan home of Muhammad Atef, Osama bin Laden�s second-in-command, who was reportedly killed in air strikes outside of Kabul. This videotape is of Singapore�s Yishun subway station and the shuttle buses that ferry US military personnel to it with a commentary in English by one of the plotters on how it can be bombed. Other video tapes recovered from their homes in Singapore cased the US embassy, the UK and Australian high commissions next to it, the Israeli embassy and other American targets.

ISD information enabled Philippine intelligence in Manila to arrest Fathur Rohman Al Ghozi, an Indonesian and key Al-Qaeda member operating from the Philippines. He was one of two foreign handlers of the Singapore JI cells. A bombmaker, he had in his possession more than a ton of TNT, hundreds of detonators and more than a mile of detonating cord. The other foreign handler was a Canadian national of Kuwaiti descent whom we have identified.

Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian and another important Al-Qaeda-linked operative, had already obtained and stored 4 tons of ammonium nitrate in a Malaysian town 100 miles north of Singapore. Sufaat had housed two of the September 11 bombers in Kuala Lumpur when they were en route to America for the attacks. The two handlers asked the Singaporeans to purchase another 17 tons of nitrate, to bring the total to 21 tons, for seven bombs � each bigger than the size of the Oklahoma City bomb. When all was ready, the two handlers were to assemble seven truck bombs and direct where they were to be placed and detonated simultaneously. (They knew that after one explosion, security would be tightened.) Had they succeeded, they would have caused many American and Singaporean casualties and horrendous damage.

Interrogation disclosed that Abu Bakar Baasyir, the leader of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council in Indonesia, was the overall leader of the JI organisation which covered both Malaysia and Singapore. He was a member of Darul Islam which aimed at the violent establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia since the late 1940s. He was in Malaysia for 14 years to avoid detention by the Suharto government and returned in 1999 after Suharto fell from power.

Baasyir�s right-hand man, Hambali, an Indonesian, wanted by Malaysia and Singapore governments for personally directing terror groups in both countries is now missing.

Osama bin Laden has successfully twined together a broad range of local groups, each with its own history of struggle for its own objectives, into a common universal jihad against the enemies of Islam. In the region, the groups include the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayaff (ASY), Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM) and Jemaah Islamiah (JI). Al-Qaeda has co-opted them into a larger common jihad. For example, JI�s original agenda was an Islamic Indonesia. When the leaders like Hambali returned from the Afghan battleground after training with Al-Qaeda, their ambition expanded to an Islamic archipelago, Dauliah Islam Nusantara, to include Malaysia, Southern Philippines and Singapore into a larger Islamic Indonesia.

What drove these Singaporean Muslims to support such goals? None complained about racial or religious discrimination. All were educated in our English language schools, held steady jobs and owned their homes. All said they had nothing against Singapore. Their target was the US and their aim to Islamise the region. If in the process innocent Singaporeans, including Muslims, had to die, it could not be helped. What motivated them was a shared ideology of universal jihad. The leader, a charismatic preacher, Ibrahim Maidin, a security manager of a condominium, is unrepentant and defiant under detention, very much like the Al-Qaeda captives the Americans are interrogating in Cuba. He told the judge who reviewed his case that he failed only because: "Allah did not will the attack to happen and pre-destination cannot be over-ridden." These are religious fanatics.

We have disrupted their network in Singapore. But the key leaders are at large in the region. They were initially inspired by the war in Afghanistan. Now without Afghanistan, they use Ambon in the Malukus as the new battleground. One Singaporean JI member was taken to Ambon for his baptism of fire by standing guard while Laskar Jihad militia fought and killed Christians. Two Singapore JI members, who were of lighter skin colour, were used to pass off as Christians and bombed two churches in Batam, Indonesia, 20 miles south of Singapore. Others were given sniper, other weapons and unarmed combat training in Malaysia. Their ability to train and procure arms across the region showed that they have become operationally independent of Al-Qaeda. What they have done in Singapore can be repeated elsewhere. To counter terrorists who operate freely across borders, there has to be close co-operation between states.

A Muslim terrorist is more potent operating transnationally than a communist terrorist. Malayan communists (which included Singaporeans) would not put their lives in the hands of Indonesian or Vietnamese communists. An obstacle to co-operation between communists, was ethnicity and nationalism. But Al-Qaeda and similar Muslim terrorists share a deeply-felt sense of Islamic brotherhood that transcends ethnicity and national boundaries.

Militant Islam feeds upon the insecurities and alienation that globalisation generates among the less successful. And because globalisation is largely US-led and driven, militant Islam identifies America and Americans as the threat to Islam. That America steadfastly supports Israel aggravates their sense of threat. But terrorism would continue even were the Middle East problem to be solved. Osama bin Laden�s and Al-Qaeda�s principal objective is to get American forces out of Saudi Arabia. This Islamic terrorism has been brewing since the 1970s and cannot be taken off the boil easily or soon. The war against terrorism will be long and arduous. Terrorists, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be threats for many years.

It is necessary to emphasise that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. The majority of Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism or extremism. However, militant terrorists groups have hijacked Islam as their driving force and have given it a virulent twist. Throughout the Muslim world, the militants are out to impose their version of Islam. The majority of Muslims who are moderates are caught in between (1) their sympathy for and identification with the Palestinians and anger against the Israelis, and (2) their desire for a peaceful life of growth and progress. To resolve the problem of terrorism, the US and others must support the tolerant non-militant Muslims so that they will prevail.

In this respect Indonesia faces the most difficult challenge. When Suharto was removed, the centralised system of government he presided over unravelled. Fundamental issues are being contested in a democratic process less than three years old.

Whatever their personal beliefs, Indonesian Muslim leaders now vie for the support of militant Islamic groups to garner votes in the 2004 Presidential elections. At stake is the future of the new Indonesia.

One key institution to hold Indonesia together is the TNI. Its mission since the founding of the state is to keep Indonesia secular, a pancasila state that stays united. The police is not equipped for this task. Despite all its shortcomings, the Indonesian military is still led by a nationalist, not an Islamic, officer corps. It is one of the few national institutions capable of holding together a sprawling country facing centrifugal pressures. But after the 1999 East Timor debacle, the Indonesian military has been denigrated and is only slowly recovering its morale. If the US does not re-engage the TNI and help it reform itself, a young newly elected government will not have an effective institution to support its policies. The stability of Indonesia is crucial to the future of the region and the strategic balance in East Asia.