Extremism not tied to any one religion, every faith has those who will abuse it: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE – It is a mistake to tie extremism to any one faith as every religion has believers who will misuse or abuse it for their own reasons, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Calling for a departure from this way of thinking, the minister on Wednesday (Oct 27) highlighted how there have been cases in the region where extremists come from a variety of religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Mr Shanmugam was responding to a query on Singapore’s response to extremism during a question-and-answer segment that took place before a virtual lecture organised by the Middle East Institute in the National University of Singapore.

“We need to recognise that in every religion, there are people who will misuse it, abuse it and use it to attack people of other faiths – sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for other reasons. But it’s usually got a nexus which has got very little to do with faith and religion,” he said.

Noting Singapore had its first case of far-right extremism recently, Mr Shanmugam noted that authorities took a similar approach based on their experiences with Islamic extremism by involving local clerics in the case, given how they have more credibility.

Before the lecture on Wednesday, which was given by the Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mr Omar Saif Ghobash, and held over video conferencing platform Zoom, Mr Shanmugam gave opening remarks where he touched on the subject of extremism as well.

Local extremists in South-east Asia have been inspired by conflicts in the Middle East and have made the journey to join extremist groups there, where they receive training and are further radicalised.

When they return, they pose a threat to South-east Asia, said Mr Shanmugam, who made the point to highlight how close the two regions are and how powerful an effect any kind of events in the Middle East can have here.

South-east Asia and the Middle East also have deep economic ties. The minister said that for Singapore, bilateral trade with countries in the Middle East was nearly $60 billion in 2019. This amount is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 4.2 per cent over the last five years.

The two are linked on the back of common religious identities as well, and Mr Shanmugam said that South-east Asia is home to close to 300 million practising Muslims. Islam is the dominant faith in the Middle East.

“Many Muslims across the world see the Middle East as the seat of Islam, and a point of reference on religious matters. The cultural and religious interactions between the Middle East and South-east Asia are extensive, and goes back centuries,” said Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Omar, who is also a well-known author of the book Letters To A Young Muslim published in 2017, said Singapore has always been a model for the UAE.

“We’ve learnt, and we’ve studied and we’ve visited a lot of times. And have tried to emulate Singapore in many ways, so thank you, Singapore,” said Mr Omar.

Mr Omar also discussed questions from the more than 150 people tuning in, including one on how the UAE plans to build on its projection of soft power.

The assistant minister said that soft power is not something that can be controlled or directed in any particular direction, but rather is something that is a function of how a country operates.

He brought up UAE’s Emirates Airlines, and how its development from having just one plane to a big operation that connects hundreds of cities to Dubai has given rise to some soft power.

“I don’t think anybody thought that that was going to happen in the first place, but in promoting Dubai as a place to kind of transit through or come and visit, the airline has been a massive source of soft power,” Mr Omar said.

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