ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 18 JUNE 2007
Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader is not the first person alleged to have "militant jihad plans". What differentiates his case is his stirling resume.
He had the best of the Singapore brand of education. He secured a prized place at university to study law. He produced a research paper on international human rights law. Then, he worked for a while in a top law firm before taking on the role of inspiring impressionable and idealistic youthful minds by teaching in a tertiary institution.
Yet the 28-year-old apparently abandoned a bright future to pursue fanatical aspects of his religion.
Political and community leaders have pointed the finger at the new media, warning people not to get information about Islam from non-credible sources. Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said: "We have to continue to be wary of dangerous political agendas coming under the guise of religion through attractive media."
If such is the threat, then it raises a question about the education system — because it would seem that, at the end of the day, all the best education given to the most deserving may still be sacrificed at the altar of propaganda.
Perhaps there is some truth in the argument a foreign friend, a public administration specialist attached to the United Nations, shared with me in Bangkok recently. She said: "You have taught your people to gather knowledge. You have taught your people to excel in school. You have given them secure, lucrative careers. But at the end of the day, your people cannot question. They develop an affinity for propaganda and miss out on the real opportunities the world has to offer."
Looking beyond the influence of the Internet, one might wonder if there are other factors within Singapore society that have led to this new trend of so-called "self-radicalised" extremists, people like Abdul Basheer.
Some time ago, British society underwent a similar shock when it was disclosed that the terror threat was rooted much closer to home than expected. Well-educated British citizens had planned to commit atrocities in the name of religion. To date, much reflection continues in British society about what caused this trend of homegrown extremism.
British-Pakistani artiste, Irfan Ajeeb, who will star in an upcoming Bollywood film Suicide Bomber, told the Yorkshire Post: "I firmly believe that when you look at these guys, we are more or less all the same. We live in households that are similar ... That's why it's so confusing for me, to ask why a guy could do this.
"He wasn't born like that. It's due to events in his life. I also watch the television images of America bombing Afghanistan and Iraq. The solution isn't to strap on a bomb and bomb innocent people in London."
Discussing the lessons from the London bombings, academic Asim Siddiqui said at an anti-terrorism conference last year: "Muslims must accept the damage Islamist terrorism has done and work constructively with other actors in preventing recruitment. The government needed to spend more time and effort improving the living standards of the Muslim community in Britain. Civil society and media also have a role to play in providing fora for communities to talk to each other — not talk about each other from afar."
Similarly, it is important for Singapore society to reflect more on the latest disclosures of bright young talent suborned by extremist ideals, and what this signifies.
Terrorism, as Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng pointed out, is an issue all Singaporeans must address together. Even as Muslim leaders intensify their outreach to "vulnerable segments of the community" in countering radical ideology, "we should also be alert to what our children are learning from the Internet or from unregistered and dubious religious teachers. We should guide them to the right sources of religious knowledge", said Mr Wong.
In addition, more effort can be put into addressing the issues that make radical ideology attractive even to a person who is well-heeled. Is discrimination at the workplace the source of disillusionment?
Is there frustration with the lack of opportunities to make one's mark on society? Is he or she dissatisfied with a poor quality of life?
We do not know if these factors played a role in Abdul Basheer's life. We have heard only the Government's perspective. As former Justices' law clerk Andy Soh commented in a local newspaper: "It is all too easy for us to vilify and portray them as Osama bin Ladens in the making without the benefit of the full picture."
But based on the British experience, these are factors to look out for. The latest revelations are an opportunity for Singapore to reflect and to question. We cannot afford to let slip this opportunity to build a stronger, more civil society.
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