Transcript of Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen’s Media Interview During his Visit to the Philippines
MINDEF and SAF wanted to make this trip to Manila to meet our counterparts, Defence Secretary Lorenzana and the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Commanders, to show support for their strong efforts against terrorists in Marawi and Mindanao. Many countries are looking at how the situation evolves, because all of us know that if the situation is not contained, or if terrorist cells or terrorist elements entrench themselves in any part of ASEAN, they will launch attacks against other cities.
This is their stated goal. They want to establish a Southeast Asia wilayat, they call it Islamic caliphate, similar to what ISIS established in Iraq and Syria. So their intentions have been made plain. Their plans are violence, killing of innocent civilians, and forming networks around the world with terrorist elements. So because of the serious repercussions, many countries are watching the situation and offering assistance.
We have to look at this problem in a wider context of the terrorist threat. It goes back to 2001 with Al Qaeda and even before the twin towers in Manhattan collapsed. From that terrorist attack, there were already plans afoot in Singapore to bomb a number of targets. Our Ministry of Home Affairs disrupted the Jemaah Islamiyah cell and aborted that attack. A year after that, the Bali bomb blasts occurred. Now Al Qaeda cells have been disrupted and Singapore is involved in that fight. We contributed to efforts in Iraq, in Afghanistan. We sent our KC-135s, we sent our imagery analysts, and we sent our troops to Uruzgan. There was a clear reason why we were contributing to the international coalition. It was based on the understanding that with terrorists, if you wait in your home country, if you don’t combat terrorism together, terrorists will attack countries individually and no individual country’s residents can be safe. We have seen that happen in Jakarta, we have seen that happen in Kuala Lumpur, we have seen that in the Philippines, in this part of the world. We saw it in some degree in Thailand. As you know in Singapore, there was an Indonesian cell that was aiming at Marina Bay Sands.
So, Al Qaeda was disrupted and weakened. The next iteration of this terrorist threat was ISIS. We are contributing to the efforts, we are in Iraq even as we speak, there is a medical team there, and we are contributing in other ways, tangible ways, to disrupt them. The problem has now come into ASEAN with the situation in Marawi. But it is clear that even if the situation is contained, other provinces are at risk. ISIS-linked elements plus other extremist groups, have formed networks and intend to advance their plans to turn Southeast Asia into a situation similar to Iraq and Syria.
I think the repercussions cannot be overestimated. We have seen in some degree, what happened after the Bali bomb blasts. The economy took a hit, confidence was lost, and it was only recovered when our efforts against these terrorist cells � in that case Al Qaeda � made headway. The same can happen if the situation worsens, whether it is in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore. Therefore, I think we have to combat this threat together.
I was very much thankful to Secretary Lorenzana and the AFP Commanders for briefing us on the situation, and we discussed how we could assist them. I thank them for taking decisive action in Marawi. If they had not acted as they did, and approached the problem a year, two years later, I think the problem would have been much bigger and much more difficult to contain. But Secretary Lorenzana and the AFP expressed confidence that they were able to secure Marawi from these extremists in time. Also, we both recognise that this problem will go beyond Marawi, and that there are other problems as it is. We discussed ways in which the SAF can help the AFP concretely and I will mention 3 elements in which we offered assistance to the AFP in these counter-terrorism efforts.
First, we know that there are about a hundred thousand evacuees, residents of Marawi who were forced from their homes by terrorist elements, and they are now housed in temporary makeshift areas in surrounding villagers and counties. I offered humanitarian supplies to be flown here by our C-130; when an appropriate time and details can be discussed in terms of what can be provided, and what the evacuees need. Second, Secretary Lorenzana expressed the need for training in urban settings. It just so happens that we have been preparing for this; the SAF has an urban training village, and this is to train our soldiers � because we were involved in Afghanistan and Iraq � on how to do counter-insurgency in built-up areas. So this is very suitable for the operating environment that the AFP now finds itself in Marawi, and in future perhaps, even in other places in Mindanao. So, we have offered this training facility to the AFP, to be trained in counter-insurgency in urban built-up areas. Third, we recognise that the area of Marawi and the surrounding areas is very large, and there are many islands and that surveillance is an issue. So I have offered to Secretary Lorenzana one UAV unit to enhance the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of the AFP.
Secretary Lorenzana was very appreciative of our offer, and he was very thankful for the support from countries like Singapore in the message that we have to deal with the terrorist situation together. He thanked me and accepted the offer in principle. So I think this has been a very good trip. Not only for us to learn about the situation in southern Philippines, but to affirm our strong support for the efforts by the AFP, by the Ministry of Defence of the Philippines, and the Philippine people. I think peace-loving countries in ASEAN recognise that this is a common challenge. If we do not deal with these problems, in wherever and whichever country that affects ASEAN, all of us will suffer. So this is a reason why we are here. I am very happy that Secretary Lorenzana has accepted the proposal in principle. We have to work out some details, but he knows that he has the support of Singapore and the SAF.
Channel NewsAsia, Aya Lowe: Malaysian Defence Minister recently said that even if the situation in Marawi is resolved, ISIS is still looking to establish an Islamic caliphate somewhere. So there is a potential that they could move to Singapore, Sabah, Southern Thailand. What is your sense on this kind of threat, and what do you think (about) the other countries when you talked about that it is a regional effort in order to fight this kind of homegrown terrorism. What needs to be done by Singapore and by other ASEAN countries to try to prevent this?
Dr Ng: There is clear recognition and consensus among the Defence Ministers in ASEAN and beyond, of the threat of or possibility of scenarios in which you painted that terrorists are entrenching themselves in one or more countries within ASEAN. Which is why in the last ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), in our statement, we gave clear indication of this threat. We expressed it in our ASEAN Defence Ministers’ statement that terrorism was a clear and present threat, that we had to deal with this collectively, and that the threat exists. There is clear recognition of the threat and efforts towards it. And, we put in plans at the last ADMM-plus, the 10 plus 8 countries, (for) the counter-terrorism element exercise. We trained (for) counter-terrorism and maritime security, and (involved) three to four thousand troops, many assets with that kind of scenario. So we are training for that kind of scenario together to deal with (terrorism).
Beyond ASEAN, there is also clear recognition that this threat exists, therefore we are speaking with partners and friends, primarily (through the) sharing (of) intelligence. Because to combat terrorism, you need intelligence. Without intelligence, it is very difficult, because the threat is asymmetric, which means that sometimes you cannot differentiate who is a terrorist and who is not, and your efforts get dissipated. So we are sharing intelligence among various countries, as well as coordinating sometimes the fight against terrorists in ISIS, in Iraq and Syria. For example, we are deployed there now. I visited the Coalition Headquarters in Kuwait, and asked them about the situation there. There is a clear recognition that when the problem in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS elements become neutralised there, it may actually mean � proximately anyway � that the situation in ASEAN gets worse. Because we have about 1400 fighters that we know of, from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, and perhaps other countries in ASEAN fighting there, and when ISIS is neutralised, some of them will make their way home. Philippine extremist leaders have actually asked for people to come here. In summary, we are aware of the problem, there is consensus among security chiefs, there is commitment to training, to share intelligence, to work together to deal with this issue.
The Straits Times, Raul Dancel: Minister it has been reported here there were Singaporeans involved in fighting in Marawi, and overall the extremist activities
Dr Ng: We do not have any specific information. If there is specific info passed to us we will take action. But as of now we do not have any specific information. Either, I think there was a reported death that was thought to be a Singaporean, but there is no confirmation. We know of one individual who is here, and we have already shared information on both sides, but beyond that we do not have any specific information.
Lowe: And you mentioned that you have offered Secretary Lorenzana aid in three different forms � humanitarian, surveillance and training. He has accepted this in principle, so when can we see this sharing and aid take place?
Dr Ng: We know that with this problem, the sooner you deal with it, the better. But there are logistical issues. Certain things can be done faster. I suspect the humanitarian aid, once we know what they need; (we can arrange) for a C-130 to fly up, it is not a big logistical challenge. Urban training has to be done in phases, because you have a number of troops that you have to train, so that will be over a period of time. The UAV deployment there are some issues to be sorted out, but this is just details. But, we expect as soon as these issues are settled, then we can assist the AFP. Secretary Lorenzana has accepted in principle.
Lowe: It was recently reported that Singapore implemented facial recognition technology at entry points, are there foreign fighters on your watch list and how many do you have?
Dr Ng: This is under the home affairs, because this is border control, but I would say there is very strong intelligence cooperation, (and) we update each other on the suspects. So for instance you would have read that there were some individuals from Indonesia � sometimes they come from other countries � who transit through Singapore, with the intent of going to Syria or other parts of the Middle East. We turn them back and send them back to Indonesia and inform the Indonesian authorities. So I would say cooperation among the Home Teams in various countries is fairly good.
Lowe: At a recent trilateral meeting between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia to discuss the issue of terrorism, they spoke about the issue of social media being used as a recruitment method or to spread the message. Have we seen anything in Singapore, or is anything being done from the Singapore front to try to address this?
Dr Ng: Let me just say something about the Sulu Sea Patrols. We were very happy that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines started the Sulu Sea Patrols; in fact we were have been a strong advocate (for) this. We have spoken with the three Defence Ministers from these three countries at our ADMM, this is on the way, we have offered help with our Information Fusion Centre (IFC) for maritime security, and Singapore stands ready to assist. So that is a good development. That is an example you asked about, on what kind of response (we had), that is a discreet response to this problem that we identified a number of years ago that came out from our ADMM discussions.
When we say that we have to combat terrorism together, military and security response is necessary, but not adequate. To deal with this, you have to have communities with you. Because at the basic level, the level begins in the community. And sometimes the smallest unit of the community (is) a family. You have seen enough reports from all over the world of parents, spouses, and girlfriends saying that I should have picked up the signs of radicalisation, but I did not, and I beat myself up for it. Maybe if I had done this, or alerted the authorities, then so and so may not have gone overseas, and in some tragic cases, died for this. I think we have seen enough cases to know that this is an aberration, it is really the misuse of religion, and certain individuals are more susceptible, whether it is social media or sometimes social media definitely extends its reach, but sometimes it is also by face-to-face meetings or listening to radical preaches. There has to be some level of community policing, and I would liken this more (to), if you like, an infectious disease. Like dengue, if you get bitten, if you are not careful, some are susceptible, many people get bitten by mosquitos, but not everyone comes down with dengue, some get infected, and what do you do? You quarantine them, wait till the infection passes, so that the infection does not spread.
In the same way, what we have done in Singapore is to bring in the community and when they alert us, (our) de-radicalisation programme begins. And the de-radicalisation programme is done by religious scholars, family members, and there is some success there so those who are de-radicalised get sent back to the community and they are very powerful testaments that this works so if you catch somebody who you see signs of radicalisation early, something gets withdrawn, somebody behaves not (like) his usual self and gets very susceptible to these ideas that violence is justified and that to take his life or to take the lives of others. If alerted early, I think there can be intervention and because we had some success, more families are willing to say if I alert the authorities, it does not mean that I have lost my family member forever. And this is a big part that the community can play.
Dancel: Sir, can you just elaborate on the efforts that ASEAN can do to contain the spread of Muslim militancy. There was this trilateral meeting recently among foreign defence ministers here. Among the rest of the nations, they came up with this, withstanding the flow of terrorist financing and the movement of terrorists within the region. As next year’s ADMM Chair, is Singapore supporting such?
Dr Ng: Obviously so, this is quite clearly terrorism has been on our agenda even if we are not Chair, we have pushed it, so it stands the reason that when we are Chair, we will push it even harder. This is a multi-pronged attack. You have to counter it at various levels, constricting or restricting the flow or movement of goods, money, illegal arms, smuggling of people. As you know in the situation of Marawi, there were arms discovered, and so all this can lead up to situations in Marawi. So yes, the answer is that we have to recognise that you have to do various aspects to deal with it, firstly at the community level, security, militarily, supply-chain, financing, information. We do not underestimate this charge, you see what happened in Iraq and Syria, the city of Syria alone, the number of millions that were displaced. If you look at the Marawi situation, it is not a big force, but so far, a hundred thousand evacuees. So this can have a devastating effect on built-up cities, so we take this very seriously.
Dancel: Sir, you said that you foresee other problems coming up even after the Marawi situation is contained.
Dr Ng: I think we all recognise that Marawi may not be the last iteration of the terrorist threat. It could happen in other cities within Mindanao, it could happen in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. I do not think any security chief dares to stand up and say my country is immune and that we will not have that problem. If we did, I doubt many people will believe it. So I think we all recognise that we all are at risk.
Dancel: Sir, on another topic � the South China Sea. The ASEAN foreign ministers will be meeting here next month and they are confident that the framework on the Code of Conduct can be approved soon, maybe the next month, maybe by mid-September. How do you see the framework in terms of defence?
Dr Ng: That is very positive for the defence establishments to welcome that very much. Some certainty, some predictability, some protocols to reduce tension and some protocols to resolve differences. All very good from the defence point. So we fully support it.
Dancel: In terms of the stability in the South China Sea, with Singapore assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN and the ADMM, are there any specific issues that Singapore
Dr Ng: Well, a bit premature. I think when we are Chairman we will float them if there are any.
Lowe: You mentioned, we spoke about the risk of not just within the Philippines but within other countries, and within the Philippines it mostly lies within the Mindanao area. In Singapore are there any areas that you have specific concern about, whether it is a high risk or potential militants establishing a possible caliphate…
Dr Ng: Well let me approach that from a point of view, figures that tell us whether the threat has gone up or down, not only for Singapore but around the region. We monitor � all the intelligence agencies monitor, that is their job. And certainly, if you just look at the numbers of attacks, compare time periods, no one will be surprised to say that the number of attacks has gone up. We all read it and U.S. correspondents report on it. And numerically that has been confirmed � that the number of attacks have risen. And then you look at the number of so-called suspected terror cells. This has all gone up. You look at the background chatter for terrorist-type traffic, whether it is social media or using conventional transportation and media means, that has gone up. So when you look at all these, it is clear that the threat level has gone up and it so happened that Marawi was the incident that made it manifest, tangibly expressed if you like, but it could have happened in other cities, of course, because terrorism is transboundary. Flow of illegal money, arms, ideology, it is very hard to put up borders against this. So we are quite clear from the security agencies that the threat levels have gone up.
Source: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE (MINDEF)