Madam Chair, amidst the global trend of drawing boundaries and rejecting outsiders, Singapore stands out with our own brand of multi-ethnicity and multi-religiosity. Our principle of embracing different cultures and faiths while building a shared Singapore identity has been the foundation of our success, and will continue to be so in the years to come. But it must never be taken for granted, as evidenced by our own early history of religious tensions and race riots.
As a small country, we remain vulnerable to pressures from around the world and at home. The pressures will only increase in the face of hybrid warfare. Mr Amrin Amin and Ms Low Yen Ling asked about the threat that hybrid warfare poses to Singapore. The threat is real. It is pervasive. Attackers will continue to devise ways to exploit our growing reliance on technology across all sectors of society, targeting all pillars of our Total Defence. Minister Ng had earlier spoken about the ongoing threat of cyberattacks.
Information attacks are less obvious. But as history has shown, they are clearly effective in targeting all sectors of society. The devastating Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 arose out of newspaper reports that gave competing versions of the facts about legal proceedings and Maria’s stay in the convent. These were distortions of facts by the media that was used as a tool of Muslim activism against colonialists. The activists exploited the incident to incite hostility between the Muslim and predominantly European and Eurasian Catholic populations in Singapore then. This resulted in 18 dead, 173 injured, and significant property damage. And this took place in an age when news was spread in print, or simply by word of mouth.
Information attacks today are far more effective and dangerous, when technology permeates every aspect of our lives. The spread of fake news and misinformation is much accelerated with WhatsApp and Facebook, and its impact is amplified. For example, the owners of the now-defunct site The Real Singapore made a false claim that a Filipino family’s complaints had caused a scuffle between the police and participants at the 2015 Thaipusam procession. It was a distortion of facts, again aimed at inciting hostility between different groups in Singapore. It went viral and could have led to a breakdown in our society, similar to the Maria Hertogh riots but with far greater impact, if not for discerning netizens who reported the “insensitive article”. It clearly showed that we must act to protect the bonds that hold us together.
Ms Low Yeng Ling, Dr Fatimah Lateef and Mr Amrin Amin asked how we can respond to new hybrid threats. Now in its 33rd year, Total Defence remains our best defence and response. The avenue of threats is new – social media, the internet and electronic devices, but the threats are the same – distortions and falsehoods. And they target the same vulnerabilities – our differences in race, religion and background. This is why the five pillars and core message of every Singaporean standing together, playing our part to protect Singapore and our shared way of life continue to be relevant. I am glad that more than 80% of Singaporeans surveyed by MINDEF in 2016 are aware of Total Defence, and more than 90% of them agree that it remains important for Singapore.
However, to deal with our new challenges, the way we practice Total Defence has to evolve. The government will therefore make a shift from “concept to action”, and help Singaporeans understand how they can put Total Defence into action in their everyday lives. And we may find that the social and psychological pillars of Total Defence are gaining more prominence.
In the cyber domain, each individual is the first line of defence by guarding against phishing and hacking attempts through simple actions, such as using strong passwords for our personal devices and online accounts. Businesses also play an important role by putting in place necessary cyber security measures and training their staff to respond to potential risks. The latest threat hijacks Internet of Things devices, like security cameras and media players that you might have in your own home. Securing these devices, as well as your phones and laptops, is therefore the first step in cyber defence.
In the area of fake news, again each individual is the first line of defence – we need to be discerning and responsible with what we read and decide to share online. When you see a shocking article for example, a good first step is to Google it and see if it is being reported on reputable news sites such as BBC, Reuters or Channel NewsAsia. If you find fake news, it could be as simple as reporting a post to Facebook or commenting to expose the falsehood. There is a movement in Eastern Europe called the Baltic Elves that does just that – fighting falsehoods and disinformation. I am glad that Singaporeans are also stepping up. For example, when a Whatsapp message was circulating in December last year, warning of potential terrorist attacks in popular shopping areas, many citizens countered by warning that the message was unsubstantiated, and should not be circulated. Madam Speaker – may I continue in Malay please?
Rakyat Singapura perlu yakin dengan masyarakat and institusi-institusi kita sendiri supaya tidak mudah terpengaruh. Kita harus sering menyoal, merisik dan menolak berita-berita yang tidak benar daripada hanya menyebarnya. Ini semakin ketara apabila berita tersebut mengancam keselamatan Negara. Lebih runcing lagi apabila kita menghadapi cabaran keselamatan yang merupakan pertempuran ideologi dengan kumpulan pengganas seperti ISIS di ruang media social yang semakin berleluasa. ISIS ingin menubuhkan sebuah wilayah di Asia Tenggara. Ia telah menubuhkan sebuah kumpulan militan bernama Katibah Nusantara yang terdiri daripada lebih kurang 1,000 sukarelawan dari Asia Tenggara. Ia juga telah mengeluarkan beberapa rakaman video dan penerbitan majalah dalam Bahasa Melayu sebagai propaganda yang disasarkan kepada umat Islam di rantau ini. ISIS bertujuan untuk mencetuskan permusuhan dan keganasan terhadap golongan dalam masyarakat dan Negara kita yang tidak mengikuti cara pengajaran, amalan dan definasi “Islam” mereka. Belia kita yang aktif di halaman media sosial amat mudah terdedah; adalah tidak sukar untuk menonton rakaman video pemancungan kepala manusia yang kemudian diletak sejajar dengan paparan sebuah masyarakat yang indah di bawah ISIS, ditambah dengan penjelasan dari seorang pejuang mengapa ia adalah kewajipan setiap Muslim untuk menyertai ISIS disusuli perayaan kematian syahid mereka. Sekitar rantau kita, jumlah kumpulan-kumpulan ekstrimis yang menyebarkan ajaran eksklusif dan literal dalam Islam semakin meningkat. Ini menimbulkan ancaman besar terhadap masyakat kita yang berbilang bangsa dan agama. 31 kumpulan extrimis di rantau ini telah diketahui mengikrar kesetiaan atau sokongan kepada ISIS. Mufti Singapura dan kumpulan-kumpulan agama Islam di Singapura seperti Kumpulan Pemulihan Keagamaan atau Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) telah menjelaskan bahawa kaedah ISIS bertentangan dengan ajaran Islam. Kumpulan-kumpulan ini (MUIS dan RRG) juga telah memainkan peranan untuk mendidik masyarakat melalui kaunseling, penerbitan dan ceramah-ceramah. Di peringkat individu, apabila kita berhadapan dengan bahan-bahan yang ekstrim, kita sepatutnya memastikan kesahihan bahan-bahan sedemikian kepada Mufti Singapura dan MUIS atau pihak berkuasa terdahulu sebelum menyebarkannya atau memberi komen untuk menentang idea-idea tersebut. Kita tidak boleh membiarkan pemikiran eksklusif menguasai minda masyarakat kita. Kita mesti mempunyai daya tahan psikologi untuk menentang dan menolak bahan-bahan yang disyaki tidak benar, ekstrim atau ekskusif dan yang mungkin memberi kesan negatif ke atas perpaduan social kita.
(Translation: Singaporeans must have the confidence in our community and institutions, and be discerning to question, check and push back, instead of simply forwarding fake news. Fake and distorted news has an impact on our security. This is even more so given the security challenges we face in the ideological battle with terrorist groups like ISIS in social media. ISIS wants to set up a wilayat in Southeast Asia. It has already formed a militant group called Katibah Nusantara comprising about 1,000 volunteers from Southeast Asia. It has also released several propaganda videos and magazines in Bahasa targeted at Muslims in the region. These are aimed at inciting hostility and violence against other groups in our society that do not fall within ISIS’ definition of being Muslim. Our youths who are active on social media are particularly vulnerable; it is not difficult to access videos of beheadings juxtaposed with those showing an idyllic society under ISIS, and a fighter explaining why it is every Muslim’s duty to join ISIS followed by a celebration of his martyrdom in death. Around our region, the growth of extremist groups who spread exclusivist and literalist leanings in Islam pose a significant threat to our multi-religious society. We know of 31 such groups who have pledged allegiance or support for ISIS. Our Mufti and Muslim groups such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) have made clear that ISIS’ methods go against Islam. They have been reaching out to educate the community through counselling, publications and speeches. At the individual level, when confronted with extremist material, instead of forwarding it, our first instinct should be to check with our Mufti and Islamic authority, and then commenting to counter such views. We should not allow exclusivist thinking to permeate the minds of our community. We must have the psychological resilience to resist and reject materials that we suspect are untrue, extremist or exclusivist, which may have a negative impact on our social cohesion.)
Dr Teo Ho Pin and Mr Lee Yi Shyan rightly noted that Total Defence requires a whole-of society effort, and asked about MINDEF’s Total Defence efforts, and how we reach out and engage Singaporeans. MINDEF will enhance our extensive partnerships across the public, private and people sectors. First, we will collaborate closely across government. Last month, we commemorated Total Defence Day with the Ministry of Communications and Information and the National Archives of Singapore, in conjunction with the opening of the revamped gallery on the Japanese Occupation at the former Ford Factory, where Singapore was surrendered to the Japanese on that day 75 years ago. This was an opportunity to remember our heritage and draw out messages of psychological and social defence, and remind Singaporeans why we cannot rely on others to defend our home.
We are working with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in SGSecure to encourage Singaporeans to put Total Defence into action in the fight against terrorism, by building community vigilance, cohesion and resilience. Within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), we are training our servicemen to be prepared citizens and active responders, such as by equipping them with basic first-aid and fire-fighting skills so that they can support the civil pillar of Total Defence in their personal capacity. One such example was Military Expert 1 (ME1) Gregory Poh from the Republic of Singapore Air Force 113 Squadron. In November 2016, ME1 Poh was on his way home from work when he noticed that a child at the playground was having seizures and was not breathing. He administered CPR immediately, continued to keep the child’s condition stable, and assisted the paramedics when they arrived.
Beyond the SAF, we will roll out a Total Defence strategy card game “Guardians of the City” to all Secondary School Uniformed Groups this year. Members can pick up a set and try out for yourselves from the library later on. This game, an example of a ground-up initiative, was designed by Mr Wan Junyan, an SGfuture participant who was inspired by discussions with students on how to convey Total Defence lessons in a more engaging manner, and developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and MHA. It educates youths on how society can come together to better prepare for terrorist threats based on real-life examples, respond to them, and recover from them. And we hope that through the game, our youths will grow to become Total Defence advocates amongst their peers.
Our younger generation will shape the future of Singapore. We want to ensure that they have the same commitment to Total Defence and the right instincts to face future threats and challenges. MINDEF is therefore working with MCCY’s Committee on Citizen Engagement, and partners like the National Youth Council to engage youths in conversations on what it takes to build up Singapore’s psychological defence, from their perspective. I hope there will be many more youths like Nurul Fatimah. She was a 14-year old student in a local Madrasah when she decided to attend CampTeen, which encourages cross-cultural friendships amongst students. She says, “For 9 years of my life, I lived thinking that it was best to just stay within my comfort zone, without thinking of the importance of mixing around in this multi-cultural land. Now, I know that common space is really significant to our generation today, but the bonds are not easily made.” Now 17, and inspired by her experience, she is an active youth advocate with OnePeople.sg, which runs CampTeen.
Second, we will engage economic and community leaders through Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD). Mr Zainal Sapari asked for an update on the implementation of the ACCORD proposals. As chairman of ACCORD, I am pleased to update that we have successfully implemented all 18 proposals involving the various stakeholders – the employers and businesses, families and communities, and educational institutions. For example, under the “We Support YOU in NS” initiative, the ACCORD Family and Community Council has been encouraging merchants and retailers to show their support for NSmen by offering discounts and benefits. Dr Cheng Eng Wah, iDental’s founder and Principal Dental Surgeon readily agreed to have promotions on metal braces for full-time NSmen when his team raised this initiative to him. Alluding to the Chinese saying 有国才有家, Dr Cheng explained, “There is no home without a nation. I believe we need a strong army to punch above our weight.” And he is not alone. In a recent survey, 96% of employers agreed that NS provides the security needed for Singapore to prosper.
ACCORD members have also helped us to reach out to new citizens and Permanent Residents who will become an integral part of our society. For example, Global Indian International School and the United World College of South East Asia, whose principals are ACCORD members, organised sharing sessions to provide more than 700 students and parents with information on NS enlistment processes. Alumni from these schools who have been through NS also returned to share their experiences, and communicate the importance of NS for Singapore’s defence.
Third, we will reach out to individuals directly, because they can be empowered to initiate their own Total Defence efforts. Ms Priya Shahane, Chief Human Resources officer of AXA Singapore, introduced a system to plan for coverage of duties in advance when an employee is called up for In-Camp Training (ICT). This allowed AXA employees such as Mr Pan Chee Keong, an Assistant Manager, to go for ICT without worrying about work piling up. Ms Shahane also introduced measures to grant time off work for NSmen employees to prepare for their Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) and reward Gold achievers with an additional half day of annual leave, which encourages them to do better in their IPPT. In recognition of her efforts, Ms Shahane was awarded the NS Advocate Award for Individuals in 2016.
Madam, personally, I am confident that my fellow Singaporeans will play their part and strengthen our Total Defence and national spirit. We saw this when a 40 metre tall and 6.5 metre wide Tembusu tree toppled at the Singapore Botanical Gardens last month. At least a hundred of those present rushed forward to push the branches and logs away to help those who were under the tree when it fell. This immediate civic-minded response gives me confidence that we will be able to respond appropriately to any challenge, support one another and recover after any crisis quickly.
Madam, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore this year, we are reminded of our vulnerability. We have responded with 50 years of NS and a strong SAF, and all Singaporeans coming together for Total Defence. The future may be uncertain, the threats more unpredictable. But our resolve is resolute – we will stand together with resilience and confidence, just as we have done before, ride out any crisis, and emerge stronger as one people.