Latest "terrorist" detentions: Some questions

On June 9, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) made a shock announcement that it had detained a young lawyer, Abdul Basheer s/o Abdul Karim, and 4 alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operatives under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in February. Information from the press release is scant, and raises many questions. DPYadav has asked his questions on his blog. Here are mine:

1. According to MHA, in Oct 2006, Abdul Basheer “left Singapore for a Middle-East country” where he had made plans to fly to Pakistan, contact the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), train for “militant jihad” and the cross over to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But before he could do that, he was arrested there and repatriated to Singapore.

Which Middle East country was Abdul Basheer arrested in? This has revealed a very close state of cooperation between Singapore and that country for the latter to be willing to arrest someone who had legally committed no crime, and “render” him to Singapore. Do we have an extradition agreement with this country? If not, did Singapore and the Middle East country act within international law in executing this rendition? (Recall the scandal that the US was embroiled in with its CIA renditions of terrorism suspects from Eastern Europe to Guantanamo Bay.)

2. There has been much emphasis by the Government that these latest arrests must not be allowed to harm race relations in Singapore. The implicit concern is that the Chinese majority may suspect their Malay neighbours (including the educated ones) of being extremists too. Several Malay community leaders and academics were quoted in the press condemning Abdul Basheer for his actions so as to ally any fears felt by the other communities. However, it was never mentioned that Abdul Basheer is not Malay. He is an Indian Muslim.

Even Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng seems to have missed this fact, when during a grassroots event on June 9, he was quoted as saying, “We must not over-react…Our Malay-Muslim community in general are moderate people.”

An article in TODAY on June 9 stated that “the arrest took the Malay community by surprise”. Unwittingly, an Asia Sentinel article wrongly referred to Abdul Basheer as a “Malay lecturer”.

Why was there no effort by the Government and the media to point out that he is not Malay? The numerous articles written about how this well-educated lawyer could turn out to be a radical is has probably reinforced in many people’s minds that even the Malay community’s best and brightest are not spared from problems of radicalisation. These are the kind of things stick in people’s minds, whether consciously or sub-consciously. It is therefore quite unfair to the Malay community that Abdul Basheer isn’t Malay but has been widely assumed to be so.

3. From a legal perspective, Abdul Basheer has not broken any law, a point that Brother Michael Broughton of the Singapore Inter-Religious Organisation raised. He was legally in that Middle Eastern country studying Arabic and he had bought an air ticket to Pakistan. Based on MHA’s statement, he had not contacted the militant LeT yet, and even if he had, that in itself would not be a criminal offence.

So why the rush to arrest him without any evidence of criminal wrongdoing? Was it just to save Internal Security Department (ISD) officers (and their external spy counterparts) the trouble of tracking him and gathering evidence on his alleged planned militant activities? Or was there a genuine reason to believe that was the last chance they had to apprehend him? Would they have arrested him so soon if the Government didn’t have the ISA, which gives the Home Affairs Minister almost absolute power to detain someone indefinitely, even without evidence that can stand up to scrutiny in an open court?

I don’t disagree with DPM Wong’s argument that someone who has gone on a jihad in Afghanistan poses a threat when he comes back home. Neither do I think it is ok “if a Singaporean kills or plans to kill others in terrorist acts abroad, so long as those who die are not Singaporeans”. But the intention to “make contact” with LeT does not automatically mean that he will become an Afghan jihadi. Would LeT have even accepted some unknown Singaporean with no jihadi credentials into their fold in the first place?

4. There is much speculation about how the Internet played a significant role in radicalising Abdul Basheer. Yes, there is a lot of extremist stuff out there which can be quite mesmerizing — scenes of “martyrs” blowing up US troops in Iraq with Arabic music playing in the background, compelling essays (in English) of how the “Zionists” (i.e., Israelis) are killing Palestinian women and children, online communities of radicals feeding off each others’ hate, etc. But is this really what can turn an intelligent, educated Singaporean into a terrorist? According to a New Paper article, a former classmate said she bumped into him sometime in 2005 and he had grown a beard and was clad in a religious outfit. He also had a bruise on his forehead which he said was caused by pressing his head hard to the ground while praying. That speaks of a deeply spiritual experience that he had gone through — something that does not simply happen by surfing the Net in your bedroom. There must have been someone or several people who were closely “discipling” him through his spiritual transition. Have these mentors been identified and are the authorities monitoring them to ensure they do not produce more disciples like Abdul Basheer?

5. The Straits Times article “” (June 16) pointed out that psychologists believe the transition of a Netizen from terrorist sympathiser to terrorist stems from the state of mind of the individual even before he enters Cyberspace. An expert said that it was likely that an episode in his life caused him to “lose faith in the innate rightness of the status quo”.

I recall a dorm-mate in my freshman year in university in the US who was an Iranian born Briton. He spoke with a crisp English accent, but had nothing but expletives to describe the Brits. He told us how in boarding school he was ragged and abused on the basis of his national origin. This experience was evidently the cause of his intense anger against the Brits, whom he said were “all f****** racist”. Could Abdul Basheer have gone through something like this growing up as a minority in Singapore, that personally hurt him and caused him to want to take up arms to fight against “infidels”?

I don’t expect that there would be ready answers to any of these questions. But I hope readers can share their views on this issue.


Related reading:

Lack of Critical Thinking Not Internet is the Problem by Bernard Leong

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

17 thoughts on “Latest "terrorist" detentions: Some questions”

  1. Gerald,

    I always felt, rightly or wrongly, that the MSM was using this incident as a chance to take a potshot at the blogosphere by focussing on the fact that the internet is a place of subersive content so on so forth. Therefore it is unsurprising that they have no bothered to give a full coverage on this issue. Perhaps you could do a TOC post on this?

  2. Hi Gerald,
    This is the first time I hear that Abdul Basheer is not Malay.
    The MSM somehow gave the impression that he is Malay-Muslim. At least they did not think it was important to correct this mis-information.
    My 2 cents is:
    1. For the authorities, it matters not that he is Indian ( and not Malay) as any Muslim, of whatever racial origin is just as susceptible to radicalisation. So Abdul Basheer could have been a Chinese or White Muslim and he would have been detained.
    2. It is convenient as a propaganda tool to let the Malay community and its communal leaders be on their toes. For to make the correction and to emphasize that he is not Malay, would cause the Malay community to have a collective sigh of relief and be “complacent”. Eg Virg Tech campus killing- when I found out that he was Korean and not Chinese, I felt that my son who is studying in the US would be less a target of discrimination. But this is silly as Americans can’t tell the difference between Korean, Chinese or Japanese! ( just a digression).

    3. But I think this wrong impression should be corrected by the MSM or even by someone of authority. If we do not, it gives the impression that we are not interested in accuracy and only in expediency.

    Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan

  3. It would be useful if someone had the news reports on the older JI/terrorist detainees then. I truly do find it odd that 1) a man of such education can be so easily swayed by extremist teachings online, and 2) that the report was so “fairytale” and complete in hindsight.

  4. It’s unfortunate that Abdul Basheer has been represented, expressly or otherwise, as someone other than an Indian Muslim (I didn’t notice it myself, although on second thought, the “s/o” prefix before his surname would be a clear hint of his ethnicity).

    In principle, such an error should be corrected. That said, I’m not sure if taking pains to point out his ethnicity would help — Malay-Muslims won’t feel very much reassured, and the Indian community may feel as if the finger is being pointed at them.

  5. I think the crux of the matter is that he should not even be arrested in the first place as he did not commit any crime at the point of arrest.

    If intention to contact is someone is viewed as rallying to the cause of that person, does it mean if I contact someone in PAP, I am rooting for them. and similarly, if I contact an opposition member, then I must be an opposition sympathiser?

    For all you know, Abdul Basheer may be contacting the Pakistani terrorist group for the sole purpose of telling them to get out of his “caring face”.

    This incident reminds me of a Tom Cruise’s movie, “The Minority Report”. In this movie, people are arrested for crimes that the authority thinks that they are going to commit and they are detained indefinitely without any defense nor trial whatsoever.

    So what is going to stop our government from making false accusations and making more arrests to suit their agenda? If you are thinking that we can trust them to be honourable, think twice. I certainly wouldn’t trust any of these SOB when they pay themselves millions while the majority of Singaporeans gets poorer.

    Time for PAP to step down whether they like it or not. Why? Because even the communists get more rights than us in our faux democracy.

  6. So a man reads the Internet and he becomes “radical” – I need to understand how they’ve come to the conclusion this man is a threat to Singapore or the global community through watching his Internet habits.

    Say a person reads a lot on left-wing ideology from the internet and truly believes in socialism or communism. He starts dressing in Mao uniforms and carries “the little red book” in his pocket. He intends to go to China or Vietnam or Cuba to join the Communist party. Does he become a threat to Singapore? should we arrest him while he’s on his way to China?

    A lot of people learn Arabic so that they can study the Quran in its purest form. Much like someone learns Hebrew, Aramic or Latin to study the Bible and the Torah in their purest form. so he studied the language just to communicate with Mujahidin fighters?

    Pakistani-Afghani tribes – do they speak Arabic or their local dialects/languages?

    “Mujahidin fighters” – when the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan, the CIA worked with these “Mujahidin” fighters. in Afghanistan, “Mujahidin” was used to describe all fighters that were working towards removing an occupier.

    Hmm – so he wants to join the Taleban and fight in Afghanistan. and that is a threat for the MHA in Singapore or for the US forces in Afghanistan?

    Is he a member of JI or any terrorist group? its not explained in the article. In fact, the article says he doesnt belong to anything. he just wanted to fight with the Taleban – against who? – American forces.

    Considering that the holding of “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo is deemed illegal by the US Supreme Court, while ISA is still legal in Singapore, i feel there’s more to this story that what’s being told to us.


  7. I think that the authorities have scant understanding on what the dynamics of Islamic resistance and the legitimate aspects of it. Firstly, we don’t have a Middle Eastern Studies department in any of our local universities to produce policymakers and analysts of enough critical mass to handle this new area of analysis, and by my deduction, not many of our PSC chappies are well-versed in Middle Eastern politics or specialise in Security Studies as well.

    Looking at this, I only see one issue here. The preservation of the American-led discourse on counter-terrorism values and ideology by suppressing proactively an individual who might take up arms against that framework.

    This is beyond the issue of what threatens Singapore, but brings into the discussion the possibility of abuse of power to clamp down on ideas that seem to threaten the status-quo.

    Till now, no one can answer this question of mine.

    “If a group of Singaporeans attempt to overthrow Mugabe of Zimbabwe because they feel he is an evil dictator, are they classified as “possible enemy combatants” upon return to Singapore?” So where does that leave the idea of global activism where your actions abroad are a curse upon you because of your passport?

    Can we blame more Singaporeans for feeling that being Singaporean is a curse if they are those that believe that their lives and their actions transcend the petty issues of this little island?

    If Abdul Basheer is guilty, charge him. We need to see the evidence. Using Gitmo is not an excuse, and we can see how arbitrary detention has destroyed a nation’s credibility in the non-traditional security arena.

  8. Thanks all, for your comments.

    Ned – In this case, I think it’s more a case of the MSM just taking what Govt says at face value, and proceeding to conduct its reporting and analysis based on that. You’ll be glad to note that there’s going to be a TOC post on this issue soon (but not by me).

    Dr H – Actually a handful of the 34 or so JI detainees are also Indian Muslim. You can tell from their names. Not that it really matters of course. A terrorist is a terrorist, whether he is Malay, Indian, Chinese or Martian.

    thor – As I said in my reply to Ned, our media has been well trained to just copy-and-paste when it comes to govt press releases.

    passerby – In an ideal world, we should just be colour blind and judge people by the content of their character. Perhaps the authorities (and their spokesmen in the press) didn’t want the Indian Muslim community, which is very small, to be singled out.

    Chew – you’re right. Our ISD has in effect become the “Pre-Crime Department” in Minority Report. And they apparently make no apologies about it, as can be seen in a ST Forum letter today.

    aygee – you might recall that a bunch of Catholic workers were ISA’ed back in the 80s for suspected Maoist involvement. Every era has its bogeymen that govts like to target.

    celluloidreality – There’s actually going to be a Middle East Institute that will start operation sometime this year. It’s a think tank on the M.E. region. I think our Govt is aware that knowledge of the region is sorely lacking.

  9. 1. Maybe that Middle-Eastern country specifically requested that their identity not be revealed so as not to risk the lives of deep undercover agents that had discovered Basheer?

    2. Would be good if you could show us where it says Basheer is Indian. I think the articles/speeches you mentioned were referring to the detentions as a whole (5 detained, 2 restriction orders). I really don’t think there was a concerted effort to hide his race. Actually, this point could have been milked to get everyone – Malay, Indian, Chinese to rally behind the fight by showing that terrorism could come from any race, not just Malays.

    3. As for the detention of people planning to participate in terrorist acts. Until another White Paper is released and more facts of the case are made known, its hard to argue what he had or had not done.

    4. I doubt our ever vigilant (if not overly cautious sometimes) authorities would hesitate to act if there was proof that a mentor might have steered Basheer towards extremism.

    5. Somehow I don’t buy that “childhood trauma” line of argument. It is pure conjecture. And a dangerous one at that.

  10. It’s just another Chia Thye Poh story.

    As long as you are not in their good books, you get hell!

  11. The story is line is still the same after all these years.
    Before it was “Communist”
    Now it’s “Terrorist”

  12. deepthroat,

    1. I’m guessing this Middle Eastern country is either Egypt or Saudi. If I wanted to learn Arabic, I would go to Egypt (which is also home to Al Azhar university). Both of them have ok relations with Singapore, and more importantly we have embassies in both countries which could have worked with the local authorities there to get him rendered back to S’pore. Obviously if this is something that broke int’l law, they wouldn’t want to make themselves public.

    2. Basheer being Indian. Firstly, from his name (“s/o” rather than “bin”). Secondly I have confirmed this with sources in one of the think tanks specialising in terrorism research and the media. But I agree that terrorists could come from any race. Australia’s David Hicks is a good example.

    3. White Paper – well I won’t hold my breath for much more details in the White Paper. It will probably be a rehash of the same story they told the press.

    4. The mentor – It’s possible the govt is using this “self-radicalised by Internet” theory to deflect any attention from their investigation of a mentor or mentors. I’ll probably be writing another piece on this self-radicalisation theory soon.

    5. Childhood trauma – Are you warning me not make “dangerous conjectures” like that which might harm our nation’s delicate racial harmony??

  13. A search on Google: Define Terrorism, came up with this.

    Web definitions for Terrorism is defined by the US Department of Defense as “the unlawful use of — or threatened use of — force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives.”

    So by the same definition, is our government a terrorist organisation as well? I can certainly think of more than a couple of incidents that fits the description aptly and I certainly live in terror under this government.

    Be afraid, be very afraid…. The MIW can come anytime to take you away, lock you up, and promptly throw away the key. After which they will celebrate your fate as a job well done and demand more pay for their self appraised efficiency…

  14. The Internet radicalises the readers or the Internet Users radicalise the Internet Contents, it is really baffling!

  15. Without information it is impossible to evaluate. Maybe YawningBread is correct about the importance of a Freedom of Information Act.

  16. Got this respond from another webpage:

    “Some other quetions that might be interestng to ask are: “why would a person learn Arabic to make contact with the Mujahidin in Afghanistan?” .. when the CIA fact book wrote this about the Afghan’s language:

    “The CIA factbook on languages spoken in Afghanistan is shown in the right image box. Persian (Dari dialects) 50% and Pashto 35%; both are Indo-European languages from the Iranian languages sub-family. Pashto and Persian are the official languages of the country. Hazaragi, spoken by the Hazara minority, is another dialect of Persian. Other languages spoken include Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 9%, as well as 30 minor languages 4% (primarily Balochi, Nuristani, Pashai, Brahui, Pamiri languages, Hindko, Hindi/Urdu, etc.). Bilingualism is common.

    According to the Encyclopædia Iranica,[54] the Persian language is the mother tongue of roughly one-third of Afghanistan’s population, while it is also the most widely used language of the country, spoken by around 80% of the population. It further states that Pashto is spoken by around 50% of the population…”

    Errrr.. do you see Arabic as one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan? Wouldnt someone as intelligent as Basheer be aware of what language to learn in order to “COMMUNICATE” with the Afghans? Of course, that then begets the questio- is the claim that he learned Arabic to contact them even right? Or maybe, like one blogger said: “maybe he studied Arabic cos he wants to learn the language of the Quran”. And of course, if he wanted to go to Pakistan and join them, shouldnt he be learning Urdu instead?? None of the above of course deny that he did the wrong thing by wanting to do all that Jihad stuffs… but just wondering whether these associations are valid … “

  17. Hie, I am Indian Muslim myself. for the basheer incident, they never mention he is Indian Muslim but mention he as Malay Islam.
    it does not worried me cause nowadays and Indian Muslim in Singapore, if they are success business man or lady or good in sport,education or anything.
    when TV interviews them for Malay programme about Malay/Muslim succeeds in business most of them are Indian Muslim from the name it easy to recognize

    but they are call malay/muslim why it never became any issue?

Comments are closed.