Straits Times: Singapore must stand united against terror threat: MPs

Parliament yesterday roundly vowed to keep Singapore united against the threat of terrorism, at a time when attacks have sowed discord in societies around the world.

During a 4 1/2-hour debate, 17 MPs from both sides of the House noted the Muslim community had stepped up to counter extremism, and stressed the importance of all communities standing together.

This has become more crucial as the country faces its highest terror threat in years, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) noted. "That multiracialism can be discussed so openly by members of many different races here in Singapore's Parliament is itself a strength not many Parliaments around the world possess," he said.

Mr de Souza was part of a multiracial slate of four People's Action Party (PAP) MPs who filed a motion on staying united against terror by reaffirming multiracialism and social cohesion.

MPs who spoke - four from the Workers' Party - agreed not to point fingers at any race or religion but to condemn terror attacks in a single voice, he noted. "That agreement is not something to be belittled, especially when we see how so many countries around the world choose the fractious route of finger-pointing and ostracising," he said. "So this bipartisan support for this motion is good for Singapore and good for a united stand against terrorism."

MPs had come armed with suggestions on what more Singaporeans could do to prepare for an attack and nurture trust among the different communities, along with anecdotes illustrating how multiracialism has featured in their own lives.

Some pointed out the rich possibilities on social media, where Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) hoped to see more Islamic teachers combat radical ideology and Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) called for influencers to be trained as "first responders" to dispel falsehoods in times of crisis.

Workplaces should also get in on the action, said Nominated MP K. Thanaletchimi, who suggested having schemes for counsellors and psychologists to prevent vulnerable individuals from being radicalised.

Workplaces, like schools, are key places where multiracialism must be strengthened, said Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera.

A level playing field for all groups will help ensure harmony, said Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC). "None will and should feel singled out," he added, recalling the casual racism he faced as an undergraduate in Britain, the first time he felt what it meant to be a minority.

"And today back here as a majority, I wonder too: How do our brother and sister Singaporeans from different races cope?" he said, urging the various communities to reach out and forge stronger bonds.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim highlighted several steps the Muslim community had taken to counter extremism, including developing an Islamic College here, and starting a network of religious teachers to engage youth on social media. It has been a challenging journey for the community, he noted. "But we persevered. When other faith communities stepped forward to lend support to our struggle, it gave us comfort that we are not in this alone," he said.

This spirit of multiracialism is a key defence against the terror threat, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

Responding to MPs, he urged Singaporeans to stay united, noting that attacks elsewhere have heightened suspicions among communities. "If you try to strengthen trust after an attack, it is too late. We need to strengthen our cohesiveness and our unity now," he said.

To this end, Singaporeans need to create more common spaces and guard against exclusivist tendencies as well as divisive preachers. Mr Shanmugam said the authorities have barred such preachers from coming to Singapore, and are studying how to deal with hate speech. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act is also being reviewed.

Terrorism, he added, poses a threat to Singapore's very existence as one of the world's most religiously diverse and harmonious societies. "We must resolve never to allow that and maintain the precious harmony that we have here," he said, as he ended his speech to chair thumps from MPs.