SINGAPORE: Security measures at some places of worship in Singapore may need to be stepped up depending on the level of threat they face, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Wednesday (Mar 10).
This comes after a 20-year-old man was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for planning to attack Jews at a synagogue on Waterloo Street.
Amirull Ali planned to use a knife to kill three Jewish men at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue after their Saturday congregational prayers.
It is the second case this year involving a self-radicalised youth targeting a place of worship. The Internal Security Department (ISD) announced in late January that a 16-year-old secondary school student had been detained for planning to attack Muslims at two mosques in Woodlands.
Mr Shanmugam was speaking at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Wednesday, where Jewish and Muslim leaders met to reaffirm their solidarity and stand against violence.
“I think the security measures (at places of worship) may have to be stepped up a bit to balance off the risks that are increasing,” Mr Shanmugam said.
“I can't give you a definite answer for the future. It has to depend on how the threats evolve. But, my own sense is that not all religious sites will have to be protected to the same level. Some face a higher threat level, and they may have to take some additional measures,” he added.
When asked which religious sites may require higher security, Mr Shanmugam declined to elaborate.
“I don't want to go into specifics though we have some clear ideas, because that would then be laying out tactically which places will be better protected and less protected,” he said.
“But the broad approach has got to be different religious sites carry different threat levels. And according to that, there may have to be differences in the way they are protected.”
Mr Shanmugam said the authorities will work with different places of worship to “alert them”.
“There may have to be more hardware, there may also have to be some guards, but perhaps in a more discreet way,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam reiterated his stand on being cautious about stepping up security measures at places of worship, having said after the planned Woodlands mosque attacks that such places should not be fortresses.
“How would you feel if the place looks like a fortress, a cantonment, with armed guards patrolling it?” he asked.
“Is that how we want to turn our places of worship into? I think there needs to be some level of security, depending on the perception of threat.
“There may have to be some guards inside, but I think we need to be very, very careful how we do it. Otherwise, places of worship won't look or feel like places of worship.”
SYNAGOGUE BEEFING UP SECURITY
Singapore’s Chief Rabbi Mordechai Abergel said the Maghain Aboth Synagogue is the most heavily attended synagogue in Singapore, with up to 120 people attending the Saturday prayers.
“I dare not imagine what would have happened if this (attack) would have actually transpired,” he said.
Rabbi Abergel said the synagogue has invested a “considerable amount of effort and resources” in security measures and personnel.
“We are actually now in the midst of upgrading our security facilities – the guardhouse at the entrance of the synagogue – also to invest in apparatus, surveillance equipment, and so on,” he said.
“We should have this in place very soon. We're being very proactive and working very hard at this.”
At the same time, said Rabbi Abergel, it was important for there to be “a message of calm to our community so that there is no backlash or immediate negative reaction from the part of our members”.
He said this incident would not affect the strong ties between the Jewish and Muslim community, pointing out that leaders from both faith groups have regular meetings, break bread together and meet for social events.
“I think it's important again that this friendship should trickle down and be nurtured on the grassroots level,” he added.
READ: Singaporean who took part in Yemen civil war and became foreign agent released from ISA detention
MORE CAN BE DONE TO PROTECT AGAINST RADICALISM
Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) chief executive Esa Masood said he has met with Jewish leaders to reaffirm their friendship and reiterated the Muslim community’s stand for peace and rejection of radicalism and violence.
Amirull was self-radicalised after watching videos on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He had also planned to travel to Gaza, Palestine to take part in armed conflict there.
“We can do more to protect our community and our young from such radical and extremist ideologies,” he said.
“Certainly as human beings, we are affected by injustices and conflicts that arise in various parts of the world.
“And as we seek to do our part, and sympathise and empathise with these situations, we need to look at long-term and peaceful (solutions), not fall for the deceit of radical groups with their own political agendas.”
Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir said radicalisation "dishonours and desecrates the very faith" these individuals claim to defend.
"This goes against the very heart of our faith and the grain of our Quran - which speaks in no uncertain terms of the sanctity of places of worship such as the synagogue and the mosque," he said.
"We will continue to do everything we can to protect our community and our young from such radical and extremist ideas.”
Mr Esa said MUIS has been stepping up efforts to reach out to youths online, “to put out positive and correct teachings about Islam”.
“The other important effort is really to engage friends and parents, because of course youths have their social support networks, and we do hope that parents and communities can work together to guide our youths ... in terms of issues that are affecting them,” he said.
Culture, Community and Youth Minister Edwin Tong said this "grim incident" is another "sobering" reminder of how important it is to remain vigilant and not to take Singapore's social cohesion for granted.
"I urge everyone to be discerning when seeking out materials online, accept religious guidance only from credible sources, and firmly reject content laced with hate which causes enmity with others," he wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
"We all have a part to play to ensure hate speech and deep distrust do not take root in Singapore. Violence in any form will not be tolerated here."
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the case illustrates the "chilling reality" that terrorism and the risk of self-radicalisation continue to exist in pockets across Singapore, regardless of race and religion.
"The security agencies must get it right all the time but a radicalised individual needs to get past our vigilance only once to inflict damage to our society," he wrote in a Facebook post.
"We must continue to stay vigilant, united and committed to keep our loved ones, our communities and Singapore safe and secure."
QUICK PERIODS OF RADICALISATION A CHALLENGE
Mr Shanmugam said that this is the first time ISD has picked up a self-radicalised Singaporean who was primarily driven by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Let’s be clear: He is not being detained because he sympathised with the Palestinian cause,” he said.
“He is being detained because he wanted to kill innocent people in Singapore to show his support for the Palestinians. It's perfectly okay to support the Palestinian cause, but it's not okay to go around killing people.”
Mr Shanmugam said authorities pick up many cases of self-radicalisation because family members and friends alert them, and also because ISD has built up the capacity to pick up on these signs.
However, he said, there is a small minority like Amirull who keep these tendencies to themselves, or others who get radicalised within a matter of weeks without enough time for authorities to identify their movements.
“They see something in week one, by week three they feel angry and they want to go and do something,” he said, noting the potential for knives and cars to be used as weapons.
“So that's the other challenge: The very quick period for radicalisation that we are seeing.”
Mr Shanmugam said it is a concern that more youths are getting self-radicalised, highlighting that younger people might not be able to see issues from a larger perspective.
“Your family is your main guideline, your friends (also),” he said.
“But if you don't talk about it to your family or friends, and you're living in your own world, then you have less of life lessons to guide you.”
However, the minister cautioned against thinking that only younger people get self-radicalised.
“We have picked up people in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” he added.