PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Beyond Madrid: Winning Against Terrorism

Speaker: Goh Tong, prime minister, Republic of Singapore
Moderator: Richard N. Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations
May 6, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations


Washington, D.C.

(Note: The question-and-answer session has been transcribed from the meeting. Prime Minister Goh's remarks appear here as prepared for delivery.)

PRIME MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG: The terrorist attacks in Madrid in March this year could become a turning point in the war against terrorism. Unless we make the right moves, I fear the turn could be for the worst.

The choice of the target and the timing of the attack were strategic. The Spanish Socialist party had made the withdrawal of troops from Iraq part of its election platform. Attacking Madrid just before the election was obviously calculated to achieve a strategic effect; as indeed it did when the new government so quickly confirmed its intention to pull out of the U.S. led coalition in Iraq.

This will only encourage the terrorists to exploit political differences within countries and divisions between the U.S. and Europe. We must not let them succeed.

Any lingering doubts about the terrorists' strategic intentions should have been put to rest by a statement attributed to Osama bin Laden in April wherein he offered a "truce" to Europe if it stopped "attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs including [participating] in the American conspiracy." And, notwithstanding what some critics of the war in Iraq have alleged, this statement also demonstrates that Osama bin Laden himself sees the war in Iraq as part of the larger struggle against terrorism. He pointedly said "the killing of Europeans came after their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan."

The war against terrorism could shape the 21st century in the same way as the Cold War defined the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. To win, we must first clearly understand what we are up against. I am grateful to the Council on Foreign Relations for the opportunity to share my views on this important subject.

Terrorism is a generic term. Terrorist organisations such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or ETA in Spain are only of local concern. The virulent strain of Islamic terrorism is another matter altogether. It is driven by religion. Its ideological vision is global. It is most dangerous. The communists fought to live, whereas the jihadi terrorists fight to die and live in the next world.

My perspective is formed by our own experiences in Southeast Asia, which post 9/11 has emerged as a major theatre for terrorist operations. In December 2001, Singapore arrested 15 people belonging to a radical Islamic group called the Jemaah Islamiyah [JI]. They were plotting even before 9/11 to attack American and other Western interests in Singapore. In August 2002, we arrested another 21 members of this group. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand have also made many arrests of terrorists.

The JI regional leadership spanned Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. Its tentacles even probed into Australia. JI's objective was to create a Daulah Islamiyah, an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. This was to be centred in Indonesia but would include Malaysia, southern Thailand, Southern Philippines, and, inevitably, Singapore and Brunei.

But the most crucial conclusion our investigations revealed was this: the existence of a transregional terrorist brotherhood of disparate Southeast Asian groups linked by a militant Islamic ideology to each other and to al Qaeda. Whatever their specific goals, these groups were committed to mutual help in the pursuit of their common ideology: they helped each other with funds and support services, in training, and in joint operations.

In 1999, JI formed a secret caucus called the Rabitatul Mujahadeen, meaning Mujahadeen Coalition, to bring together various militant Southeast Asian Islamic groups. Between 1999 and 2000, Rabitatul Mujahadeen met three times in Kuala Lumpur. It was responsible for the bombing attack against the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia in Jakarta in August 2000. The brain behind the attack was Hambali, the link man between Southeast Asian terrorism and al Qaeda. Fortunately, he is now under arrest.

But the threat remains. It stems from a religious ideology that is infused with an implacable hostility to all secular governments, especially the West, and in particular the U.S. Their followers want to recreate the Islam of seventh century Arabia, which they regard as the golden age. Their ultimate goal is to bring about a caliphate linking all Muslim communities. Their means is jihad, which they narrowly define as a holy war against all non Muslims, whom they call "infidels."

The Arabs call this religious ideology salafi. Our experience in Southeast Asia is not without wider relevance because of what the salafis themselves believe. This is what one of them, an Algerian named Abu Ibrahim Mustafa, has said:

"The war in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Algeria, in Chechnya, and in the Philippines is one war. This is a war between the camp of Islam and the camp of the Cross, to which the Americans, the Zionists, Jews, their apostate allies, and others belong. The goal of this war, which they falsely called a war on terror, is to prevent the Muslims from establishing an Islamic state..."

Likewise, JI's ultimate goal is a caliphate, by definition not confined to Southeast Asia. The dream of a caliphate may seem absurd to the secular mind. But it will be a serious mistake to dismiss its appeal to many in the Islamic world, though the majority do not believe in killing and dying for it.

But there are radicals and militants who do. The terrorist brotherhood in Southeast Asia and its links to al Qaeda were first forged through the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Ibrahim Maidin, the leader of the Singapore JI cell, underwent military training in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. His encounters with the mujahadeen deeply impressed him. Maidin wrote several letters to the Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and to Osama bin Laden. He asked whether Mullah Omar was to be regarded as the caliph of the Islamic World. After returning to Singapore, Maidin arranged for JI members to visit Afghanistan and to undergo training there.

When one of those convicted of the October 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced to death, he thanked the prosecutors and said that this would bring him closer to God and "the death penalty would mean nothing except strengthening my faith."

Islamic militancy is not new to Southeast Asia. But what is new is this type of fanatical global ideology (including the phenomenon of suicide bombers) that has been able to unite different groups and lead Southeast Asian groups to subordinate local interests to the broader struggle.

Ibrahim Maidin has confessed to a senior Singapore intelligence officer that, in retrospect, he had made the mistake of moving too quickly and should have waited for Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern Philippines, and Singapore to become an Islamic state before acting against U.S. interests. But he still believes that his side would ultimately win. He also said that as long as the U.S. was "doing things against the Muslims", the JI would continue to attack the U.S.

From our experience in Southeast Asia, I draw three principal conclusions that I believe have a wider relevance.

First, the goals of these terrorists make the struggle a zero sum game for them. There is no room for compromise except as a tactical expedient. America may be the main enemy, but it is not the only one. What Osama bin Laden offered Europe was only a "truce," not a lasting peace. The war against terrorism today is a war against a specific strain of militant Islamic terrorism that wants, in effect, a "clash of civilizations" or, in the words of the Algerian I earlier quoted, "a war between the camp of the Islam and the camp of the Cross."

The JI has tried to create the conditions for Christians and Muslims in Southeast Asia to set against one another. In December 2000, it attacked churches in Indonesia, including one church in an Indonesian island off Singapore. It has sent its members to fight and stir up trouble in Ambon against Christians. At the trial of those responsible for the Bali bombing of October 2002, one of the defendants, Amrozi, dubbed by the media as the "smiling terrorist," said that he was not sorry for the Westerners killed in the Bali attacks. He said, "How can I feel sorry? I am very happy, because they attack Muslims and are inhuman." In fact, he wished "there were more American casualties." What was most chilling is that this hatred is impersonal.

One of those we detained in Singapore was a service engineer with an American company. He confessed that he actually liked his American friends and bosses. He was nevertheless involved in targeting American interests. We have a sense that he had struggled with this. He eventually decided to testify against the spiritual leader of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir, but only because he felt betrayed by Bashir's denial of the very existence of the JI organization which Bashir headed and to whom he and other members had sworn allegiance.

And just as Osama bin Laden is trying to drive a wedge between Europe and America, in Southeast Asia, JI was plotting to do the same thing by blowing up the pipelines that supply water from Malaysia to Singapore. The JI knew that water from Malaysia is a matter of life and death for Singapore. They knew that race and religion have historically been the major fault lines within and between both countries. The JI's intention was to provoke a conflict between Singapore and Malaysia and portray a "Chinese Singapore" as threatening a "Muslim Malaysia," and use the ensuing confusion to try and overthrow the Malaysian government and establish an Islamic state in Malaysia.

That particular plot failed. The governments of Singapore and Malaysia could not have allowed it to succeed. We know only too well what is at stake.

The favorite tactic of terrorists of all stripes has always been to try to provoke a backlash to serve their cause. When news of the JI arrests broke, my immediate concern was to maintain social cohesion in Singapore. Singapore is a multi-racial society with a 15 percent Muslim population. They are well integrated in our schools, housing estates and the workplace. Nevertheless, misunderstandings could easily arise. We met with Muslim leaders in a number of closed door sessions to share details of the investigations and to explain that the arrests were not targeted against the Singapore Muslim community or Islam.

I also held dialogues with several thousand grassroots leaders of all ethnic groups and religions to make clear that I viewed the Muslim community in Singapore as peace-loving and to stress that the JI arrests should not cause fault lines to develop in inter racial and inter religious relations. We formed inter racial confidence circles in schools and workplaces to promote better inter racial and inter religious understanding between the different communities.

But on a global plane, I sense that the beginnings of a backlash may already be upon us. Antagonism against Muslims has risen in Europe and the U.S. since 9/11. A number of senior European politicians have spoken against admitting Muslim Turkey into the EU. The municipal government of Rotterdam wants to change the city's racial profile and an all party report to the Dutch parliament recently concluded that 30 years of multicultural policy had failed; yet Holland is one of the most liberal and tolerant of European countries. In Britain, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality has dismissed multiculturalism as out of date and no longer useful. Muslims are feeling this unease with them. Perhaps as a response, many of the younger generation of Muslims everywhere are increasingly adopting the symbols of religiosity.

My second conclusion is that it is only through absolute and unsentimental clarity about the threat we face that we can define, differentiate, and therefore isolate militant Islamic terrorism from mainstream Islam. It is not sufficient to repeat, mantra like, that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and do not believe in violence. Unfortunately, we too often sacrifice clarity to be politically correct.

In April, the Muslim Council of Britain, a government-linked organization, provoked a storm of protests when it asked the authorities of some 1,000 mosques to preach peaceful Islamic doctrines, be vigilant against Islamists, and cooperate fully with the police. Baroness [Pola Manzila] Uddin, a Labour [party] peer of Bangladeshi origin, condemned it as "entirely unacceptable that 1,000 mosques were written to as if they were all harboring terrorists" and accused the council of supporting a witch-hunt. But who would be better than the Muslims themselves to make the necessary distinctions? If we pretend, in the name of political correctness, that distinctions ought not be made, it is inevitable that all Muslims be viewed with suspicion.

This brings me to my third and perhaps most important conclusion. Just as the Cold War was an ideological as well as a geopolitical struggle, the war against terrorism must be fought with ideas as well as with armies; with religious and community leaders as well as police forces and intelligence services. This ideological struggle is already upon us. The terrorist threat has moved beyond any individual or group. It has become a global menace. Unless we win the battle of ideas, there will be no dearth of willing foot soldiers ready to martyr themselves for their cause.

This ideological struggle is far more complex than the struggle against communism because it engages not just reason but religious faith. You and I as non Muslims have no locus standi to engage in this struggle for the soul of Islam. It is a matter for Muslims to settle among themselves.

In Singapore, JI members were taught that their loyalty was to Allah and not any secular authority. This loyalty was above the loyalty to their parents, families, and even fellow Muslims. That is why they were willing to accept the deaths of innocent Muslims to strike at their enemies.

They found it almost impossible to break away from this mindset. One of those we arrested admitted that he and others had been programmed and manipulated to have a "tunnel vision" of the concept of jihad. Another detainee told our security authorities that he hoped an ustaz, or religious teacher, could come to the detention centre to help him "purge" his wrong ideas about Islam and teach him "true Islam". In other words, although he recognized that his religious teachings were wrong, he would acknowledge only a religious authority to change his ideas.

We were fortunate that in Singapore, the Muslim community and Islamic leaders trusted the government sufficiently to be willing to offer their help. They understood that unless they acted, all Muslims could have been tarred by a few. A number of Islamic religious teachers have volunteered their services to our security authorities to undertake religious counselling and rehabilitation of our JI detainees.

We welcome their help. But as a secular government, we cannot and do not tell religious teachers what they must preach. As long as they do not espouse violence, we must be prepared to risk a certain amount of criticism. Religious leaders that are regarded as too pro-government may not be credible to their ground. Participation in the rehabilitation of JI detainees by Islamic scholars and counselors gave the Muslim community in Singapore a stake in combating extremist Islamic terrorism. It facilitated the evolution of self policing by the Muslim community and helped inoculate it against radical elements.

This may seem an obvious point. A RAND report released in March categorized Muslims into fundamentalists, traditionalists, modernists, and secularists. The report recommended that the West support the modernists first; support the traditionalists against the fundamentalists; confront and oppose the fundamentalists, and selectively support the secularists. Such an approach is a start. But I believe that it oversimplifies the problem by failing to recognize what all Muslims share in common. It overstates the differences within the global Muslim community.

It is a fact that there is a living, vibrant Islamic ummah, or global Islamic community, perhaps more so today than in any time in modern world history. The ummah is not monolithic. But the identification that all Muslims feel for events affecting other Muslims has become real and visibly stronger and more widespread since global communications have facilitated the dahwa, or missionary activities of the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia preaching and spreading Wahhabism with its oil wealth. Denying that there is such a globalized Muslim political and religious consciousness, or trying to argue that a universal ummah is a danger or somehow undesirable, only mobilizes all Muslims to dig in as they feel their religion is under siege.

What we are confronted with is a dynamic spectrum and not static categories within the ummah. When we ask why is it that moderates in such a spectrum do not raise their voices to challenge extremists, we must acknowledge that one reason is that, on many issues, they share much common ground, even when they disagree on particulars.

Do you seek to change the world by prayer and faith? Do you work with an imperfect reality and strive towards its perfection? Do you not reject all that is not Islamic and seek to destroy it by force so as to re-establish the perfect caliphate? These are all questions that vibrate and resonate around a single axis of faith.

We know that we should work with the moderates and isolate the extremists. But as we seek to separate the wheat from the chaff, we need to recognize that both come from the same plant. How we seek to engage and encourage the Muslim world to fight the ideological battle against the extremists must reflect this sensitivity and awareness.

This is complicated but not impossible. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi fought the Islamic party, PAS, on the issue of the kind of Islamic state that Malaysia should be. He won a resounding victory in the general elections. He checked PAS' advance towards an austere Muslim state with sharia laws with his vision of an Islamic state that is Islam Hadahri or Progressive Islam. He has joined issue not on whether Malaysia should be an Islamic state but on the nature of such a state; and the struggle to define Malaysia's Islamic state will continue for a long time. In Indonesia, Islamic based parties generally did not do as well as parties that do not campaign under the banner of Islam in the recent parliamentary elections. But the Islamic parties will remain a crucial swing factor in the presidential elections later this year.

I recently traveled to Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain and also met a number of other Middle Eastern leaders in Singapore. I found them determined to fight the ideology that feeds the Islamic terrorists through educational reform and other means. They understand the problem. I am encouraged by these signs and am trying to initiate a dialogue between Asia and the Middle East to share experiences and forge understanding. India and Southeast Asia together have more Muslims than in the Middle East. It is possible Asian Muslims can make a contribution to the ideological fight.

Let me conclude with a few words about the role of the U.S. Only the U.S. has the capacity to lead the geopolitical battle against the Islamic terrorists. Iraq has become the key battleground. Before he was killed in Saudi Arabia, Yousef Al Aiyyeri, author of the al Qaeda blueprint for fighting in Iraq, said, "If democracy succeeds in Iraq, that would be the death of Islam." That is why Osama bin Laden and others have put so much effort to try and break the coalition and America's resolve to stay the course to build a modern Iraq that Muslims will be proud of. Those who do not understand this, play into their hands. The key issue is no longer WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or even the role of the UN. The central issue is America's credibility and will to prevail. If that is destroyed, Islamic extremists everywhere will be emboldened. We will all be at greater risk.

But the U.S. cannot lead the ideological battle. The RAND report also fails to sufficiently acknowledge the deep distrust Muslims across the spectrum feel for the West and for the U.S. in particular. It overstates the ability of any external force to influence one Muslim group against another. Recently, a Malaysian Muslim academic told one of my officials that while moderate Muslims did not condone what the extremists were doing, they were reluctant to speak up because they felt that this was a Western agenda and did not want to play into the hands of the U.S. and its allies. They were distrustful that the U.S. would manipulate Muslim voices for its own agenda.

The sources of Muslim anger and distrust of the U.S. are complex. At one level, it is perhaps no different from the discomfort many, including U.S. friends and allies, feel about U.S. pre-eminent supremacy. At another level, it reflects the anguish of societies unable to cope with U.S. led globalization and its occasional unilateralism. But I can think of no Muslim society anywhere in the world where the Palestinian issue does not provoke a basic, common emotional response no matter how it may be expressed or intellectually articulated.

I am familiar with, and indeed fully agree with, the argument that even if the Palestinian Israeli conflict were to be resolved, terrorism would not end. This is only logical given the ideologically-driven motivations of Islamist terrorists of the al Qaeda strain. But while most Muslims do not approve of suicide bombings, they all do empathize with the plight of Palestinian Muslims. They are angered and disappointed by what they perceive as America's acquiescence in Israel's disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians and, most recently, its policy of "targeted assassinations." They are critical of what they regard as America's double standards, citing, for example, the U.S. determination in taking action against Iraq but not Israel for noncompliance of UN Security Council resolutions. These are views expressed consistently by leaders of Muslim nations whom I have met, including those most strongly supportive of America.

The end of the Palestinian conflict will not end terrorism. But moderating the perception that Muslims have of America's role in the Palestinian Israeli conflict would certainly go a long way to moderating their view of the U.S. And this is essential if the ideological battle is to be won. I am aware of the various measures that the U.S. has taken to try to win the Muslim mind, such as setting up radio and television stations to broadcast alternative views of U.S. policies to the Middle East. But the real issue is political policies, not public relations.

Like it or not, the Palestinian issue has become the lens through which Muslims around the world view the war against terror and actions against Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, among others. That is why when, for example, one of the convicted Bali bombers, Imam Samudra, justified his actions by claiming that "the war against America and its allies is a war against evil, against tyranny, and a war against terrorism, and this is jihad in the path of Allah," it strikes a disconcerting resonance in the Muslim community. And that is why, when the likes of Abu Bakar Bashir claim that the CIA engineered the Bali bombing "to discredit Islam," even rational, educated Muslims do not speak out to dismiss what they know to be preposterous.

I know that these are sensitive issues. I do not want to be misunderstood. Singapore is a friend of Israel. Israel helped Singapore build up its armed forces and to survive at a time when no other country in the world, not even the U.S. or Britain, was confident enough in us to take the risk of doing so. We will always be grateful. Singapore's relationship with Israel is one of the best in Asia.

But like most people in the world, we watch the escalating cycle of violence with deep anguish: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." We know there are no simple solutions. Still, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the cycle of violence fuel the global ideological struggle in which we are now all engaged. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict can no longer be seen only as a regional conflict or a matter of the self-defense of one country. The Palestinians know this. They know that Israel's reactions win sympathy for their cause from Muslims all around the world and help the Islamic terrorists.

We are unfortunately now in a situation where Muslim friends of the U.S. feel uncomfortable about speaking out in America's defense and where mainstream Muslims hesitate to condemn extremists lest they be regarded as supporting the West. Beyond the Palestinian issue, I found many Middle Eastern leaders uncomfortable with the pace at which the U.S. is urging reforms for the region. They are concerned that their interests and fears are not taken seriously enough by the U.S. Unless the U.S. gains the confidence of the mainstream Muslims, they will not engage the extremists vigorously. If they do not, I fear the ideological battle will be lost.

Education and opportunities for further studies abroad, especially for Muslim women, are crucial to winning the ideological fight. This is an area in which the West can play an important role. There is nothing wrong with the right type of religious education. But if mental horizons are shaped only by a religious education of even the most mainstream type, it means a limitation of opportunities for jobs and career development. And if opportunities are limited, sooner or later any religion will turn inwards on itself. This will make it easier for deviant ideologies to take root. In Singapore, we have insisted that the madrassas or religious schools include a secular curriculum that will enable its graduates to make a living.

Genuine post-9/11 security concerns should not lead the West to shut off or shun the Muslim world. To do so will be self defeating. But with grants, scholarships, fellowships, and investments, the West should seek to create maximum exposure, engagement, and opportunities. Once Muslims have been exposed to the modern world as in Malaysia or Indonesia, and have benefited from it without compromising their faith, it will be much more difficult for the Islamic ideological strain that only harks backwards to the seventh century to take root.

I found the Middle Eastern countries I recently visited, in particular Bahrain and Jordan, eager to build modern economies. We are close to concluding an FTA [free trade agreement] with Jordan and have agreed to start negotiations on an FTA with Bahrain. We are also pursuing similar initiatives with Egypt and Qatar. Viewed in the context of the broader ideological struggle, FTAs are strategic as well as economic choices by these governments. Other Arab countries should be encouraged to plug themselves into the 21st century economy. Education, development, opportunities for employment, and career development are not only what most Muslims themselves want. They are also less sensitive areas than democracy, human rights, or equality for women and can be pushed more vigorously with less prospect of resistance. Education, including education for women, and better employment opportunities which bring about a higher standard of living are areas in which mainstream Muslims and the West have clear common interests. With education will come greater access to news and information and knowledge beyond their own borders. Social and political changes will take time but progress will be unstoppable. A gradual approach is more likely to succeed and take root than a "big bang" strategy which could have unpredictable and unwelcome results.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been frank with you, because friends should be able to talk frankly with each other. There is too much at stake for all of us to hide behind diplomatic niceties or platitudes. I offer not criticism but well-intentioned observations based on our experience in Southeast Asia. If we are to win the war against terrorism, we must, as Sun Tze in "The Art of War" says, "Understand the enemy." And we must, all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans, Europeans, Arabs, and Asians, unite against it. But we must create the conditions that will make this essential unity possible.

Thank you.


RICHARD HAASS: The prime minister was being modest. He described his remarks as frank. They were that, but, consistent with what I said in the introduction, extraordinarily thoughtful, rigorous, and intellectually penetrating. And I again want to thank him for that. Normally I would ask some questions, but I expect that the prime minister's remarks stimulated many of you. So uncharacteristically, I will hold back, at least for now. And let me open up. Let me ask you to raise your hands— I'll try to get as many as I can— to identify yourselves, and to keep your questions short and to wait for a microphone so we may all hear you. Sir.

QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is Ernie Bower. I'm president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council. And I wanted to just, first of all, thank the Council on Foreign Relations for this forum, and thank the prime minister, because I think it takes a lot of courage to come to the United States and tell friends what he has told us today. So I'd like to thank him for that friendship. I wonder, prime minister, if you could address a question. I think there are roughly 250 million Muslims in Southeast Asia. Is the United States doing enough to engage those Muslims in Southeast Asia? And using some of the ideas that you had, what more could we do there? And do you think that engaging the Muslims of Southeast Asia would have an impact on the broader worldwide Muslim population? Thank you.

GOH: Well, until recently, the U.S. has been engaging with the countries of Southeast Asia. The U.S. was not making a distinction between Muslim countries and the non-Muslim countries, and that was— and I think it's still the right thing to do. We want to engage countries, not just a particular segment of the population in Southeast Asia. But now that we have a particular problem, it is important that the U.S. become sensitive as to the expectations of the Muslims, not just in Southeast Asia but in the world.

I would say that the Southeast Asian Muslims can play a very important part in the psychological fight. Southeast Asian Muslims have also in recent years been influenced by the austere Wahhabi religion coming out from Saudi Arabia. But this is reflected more in the religious character of the Muslim population. It has not made them more radical. But, unfortunately, a segment of the Muslim population, a tiny fragment, has been infected by this al Qaeda strain of Islam. So it's that tiny fraction which we have to now try and confine and later on eliminate. And the U.S. has been playing a part over here in helping the countries concerned through intelligence gathering, through technical means to gather the intelligence, and generally helping the governments to put down the terrorists in Southeast Asia.

But the more important fight, which was the theme of my speech, is to help the Muslims, or the countries in the region, succeed as modern economies. And if Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Muslim populations in southern Thailand and southern Philippines and in Singapore see a better life for themselves, they can have their faith which is not threatened by anybody, and they enjoy the lives they want to have for themselves and their children, then others may begin to look at the Muslim way of life in Southeast Asia, which can coexist with other people, with other religions. And if they can do that, then they can begin to set an example for Muslims elsewhere, to fight this ideological battle I talk about.

HAASS: I see a hand all the way in the back. I don't have my glasses on, so I can't recognize faces.

QUESTIONER: Can you hear me?

HAASS: Now we can.

QUESTIONER: Louisa Greve from the National Endowment for Democracy. I wanted to ask the prime minister about one anomaly in Singapore's status as a leader, as an advocate for democracy and human rights, and this war of ideas that you've referred to. For a country with such an impressive GDP per capita, as Ambassador Haass mentioned, Singapore ranks surprisingly low on worldwide surveys of press freedom on the Freedom House survey of freedom in the world. And my question is, would Singapore be a better leader, a more effective leader in this war of ideas were it to allow genuine political competition and put itself very clearly in the camp of liberal democracies by having an independent election commission, moving it out of the prime minister's office, where I believe it operates now, allowing more than nine days of campaigning, and on down the line? Thank you.

GOH: Frankly, I'm also surprised that Singapore is rated so lowly by whoever ranks it. [Laughs.] If you come to Singapore and read our newspaper, you will find a very lively newspaper. Our newspaper is very international. We print articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, IHT [International Herald Tribune], and any article which is worth reading. Those which are not so relevant to our readers and to our population, of course, they will not space in the Singapore press. So, I frankly do not worry how we are ranked by the people who argue that Singapore should have a freer press. If you know the history of Singapore, you know the makeup of Singapore. And if you know the makeup of our society and other societies in the region, you will find that it just can't allow a so-called free press. It is a multi-racial society. If you have a free press from the beginning, you find that each community has its own vernacular newspaper. We have a Malay newspaper, a Chinese— in fact, two Chinese newspapers, and more than two, four now— and some English newspapers. Each one will be preaching a rather chauvinistic, you know— that my community and my religion is superior to yours. So we have never allowed that. But beyond that, a contest of ideas— whether free market is better, or whether or not democracy is better for Singapore, you can have your say in the newspapers. We have no problem with that.

So, I am frankly not completely convinced by your argument that we just free up things the way other countries do. Our model is— [inaudible]--Singapore. That's how we have a GDP of 32,000 or 36,000 [dollars], depending on the currency of the U.S. dollar. So we are going to keep to that model.


QUESTIONER: Prime minister, Garrett Mitchell from The Mitchell Report. I was struck by your comments about the importance of ideas in the war on terrorism. And it occurred to me that the remark made many decades ago by the American author, Ambrose Bierce, which was that Americans learn their geography when they go to war— I wonder, in this case, if what Americans need to do is learn more about the culture outside their own borders. And I'm wondering what your perspective is on— as we think about the war on terrorism, our focus here seems to be on what we need to do to bring democracy to the Middle East. I'm wondering what your thoughts might be about the need to bring a broader international perspective to people who live inside this country.

GOH: Well that's, in essence, the theme of my speech— that the U.S. would have to understand better what other countries' own cultures and values are about. And while the U.S. has its vision of a better world, and even though that vision may be one which other countries want to embrace, you've got to be sensitive to the culture of other countries and not push that vision too quickly and too forcefully. So I made some comments about the need to understand the pace of pushing through what the U.S. believes to be right. And, frankly speaking, I would rather that the U.S. pushes education, development, investment opportunities in the Middle East rather than just the concept of democracy. I mean, democracy will come about if you are able to create the right conditions for that. But if you just have democracy, meaning elections, freedom of the press, you may not be able to create the kind of society which U.S. would like to have in the end.

HAASS: Just so I understand though, you are agreeing with the vision, or the optimism, that American notions or just, in general, notions of democracy can take root and thrive in the Middle East. Your point is simply the pace and the sequencing of how we go about it.

GOH: Provided you don't define democracy strictly in your own image, and if you allow variation of democratic principles, I think it can, over time, if you have the right conditions, succeed in putting democracy into the Middle East.

HAASS: I understand. Sir?

QUESTIONER: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much. Can you hear me?

GOH: Yes.

HAASS: Identify yourself, Mr. Ambassador.

QUESTIONER: Ron Palmer, George Washington University. I'm very struck by Jamaah Islamiya's perspective, its view of the future. The caliphate, if ever, is 20, 30 years away. And they're prepared to wait and develop their strategy, their weapons and so forth, many of which are ideological. It strikes me that the United States would be well advised to follow your advice, but also to develop a strategy that looks ahead a generation as to what we might wish to achieve, what can be achieved. But it does take, if not, on our part, an ideology, it takes a concept. It takes an idea of what we'd like to achieve. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia have turned out very well, often with very little input from the United States. And that's something to think about. And you're quite right on the question of elections being democracy. Elections are elections. There needs to be a civil society before you can get there. Thank you.

HAASS: Let me throw in a question at this moment. Mr. Prime Minister, one country you haven't really talked about in your part of the world is the Philippines. Could you say a little bit about the challenge and, in particular, your sense of how the government there is handling its Muslim minority and the consequences of that for your neighbor?

GOH: Yes. In the Philippines, in the south, you have two groups. They are posing security challenges to the Philippine government. One is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF], which has been fighting to have a separate Muslim state for themselves. The other is called Abu Sayyaf, which is more like a group of bandits. You know, they would kidnap people for ransom, and then they indulge in terrorism from time to time, but it's mainly a group of bandits. But recently, because of this global ideological movement, they have been in contact with al Qaeda elements or, rather, al Qaeda elements have gone to the Philippines and made contact with them. So now they are part of this larger group of terrorists. They support each other in terms of services, in terms of funding, in terms of training. So in the Philippines, the MILF do have, in accordance with our intelligence information, training facilities still; they are there today.

The Philippines government, of course, takes a very tough stand against these two groups. But unfortunately, the Philippines government lacks the necessary resources or capacity to go after them and put them out. So they do require some assistance from the U.S., you know, technical training in dealing with such people or technical means to collect intelligence. And the U.S. has been helping them in a small way. So, the fight is not over. They're determined to win the battle, but it's not easy because of a lack of resources.

HAASS: Thank you. I see some hands all the way in the back. Sir.

QUESTIONER: My name is Chee Soon Juan and I'm a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy program. Mr. Prime Minister, I think you know me very well, if only through the lawsuits that you have taken out against me. For those of you who are not familiar, I am also the secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. I apologize for being late. Had I known that the public could attend this talk, I would— [inaudible]. In your talk about the Muslim community, Mr. Goh, you had a run-in with the Association of Muslim Professionals a couple of years ago, and they indicated that they, the community, Malay community—

GOH: Will you allow me to interrupt you?

HAASS: Yes. Could I ask you to just get to your question, very quickly.

QUESTIONER: I will. I will, sir. But I just need to—

HAASS: No, you don't. Just the question, please.

QUESTIONER: The Malay community, Muslim, exclusively— predominantly or almost exclusively Muslim, wanted to have their own leaders elected into parliament. Now, if you're talking about an approach, a fight against terrorism, would you not think that an open society, one that is democratic, allowing the Muslim community to have a say in the political process, to bring them into mainstream politics, is much better than what you have right now in Singapore, where they're marginalized and they become fodder for terrorist networks in the region?

HAASS: That's all. We got it, the question.

QUESTIONER: Thanks very much.

GOH: Well, you know, when I was conferred an honorary degree by my old college, Williams College, that chap turned up to demonstrate against the award for me. He was trying to bring Singapore's domestic politics into Williams College. I just ignored him. And today, again he turns up to bring Singapore's domestic politics into the U.S. I'm going to ignore him. Next question, please.

HAASS: Over there.

QUESTIONER: Mr. Prime Minister, I'm Alton Frye from the Council on Foreign Relations. Your very lucid presentation included one particularly timely admonition for Americans, when you said that the central issue right now is American credibility and will to prevail in Iraq. We are heavily invested in that proposition already, heading toward $200 billion by next year, headed toward more than 5,000 casualties. And the proposition is one that many of us believe is important. But I have to ask you now, we are planning for an American military presence at a larger-than-originally-planned scale out for 18 months from now, hopefully through a successful political transition. You mentioned the Philippines a moment ago. And, of course, we were fighting for years after 1898 against [first president of the Philippines General Emilio] Aguinaldo and guerrillas. We face a far greater problem in Iraq. And my question is, if 18 months from now, the United States is still fighting against the kind of insurgent tactics and violence, would you consider that success or failure on the standards you've stated?

GOH: Well, it depends on who will be in charge of Iraq 18 months from now. If, in June, you can form a government in Iraq, and the United Nations is involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, and thereafter you're holding elections in Iraq, and you have an Iraqi government that's in charge under U.N. auspices, the U.S. is asked 18 months from now to play a part in quelling violence and insurgencies in Iraq, I would regard that as success, because the Iraqi government is in place and is one which is elected by the Iraqis. And the U.N. is involved. Not just U.S., but other troops are also involved to quell things in Iraq. But if there's no U.N. involvement, there's no Iraqi government, and the U.S. is still seen as an occupier 18 months from now, of course, that will be regarded as a failure by me.

But the important thing we should want to say is— the U.S. is now in. If the U.S., for some reason or other, has to depart unceremoniously from Iraq, that has a larger consequence than just the defeat of the U.S. in Iraq by the insurgents. All the terrorists in the world, all the rogue states, will know that the U.S. does not have stamina when it gets into a fight. And worse, your friends and allies will know that you lack staying power, and your friends will begin not to support you, because they are in this with you. Singapore is in Iraq with you. Because of the casualties, the American population is divided. It wants the government to pull the troops out. No friend of yours will stand behind you in the future. So, that's an important point which Americans have got to consider, that it's now no more a Republican battle, or Democratic battle. It is America's prestige which is at stake in the world. Right or wrong, you are in this already. You've got to make sure that the outcome is one which Muslims will support, one which the world will applaud, will be the outcome eventually from Iraq.

HAASS: What if the issue, Mr. Prime Minister, is not American will or staying power? What if the question is whether the United States and American forces are welcome? Is it your assessment that the government in Iraq, once it is sovereign, do you believe such a government would be prepared to have American forces in large numbers on its soil conducting military operations for years to come?

GOH: It depends on the position of the government. If that government is under threat, I think that government will want to have assistance for a while, until it builds up its own forces.

HAASS: We've got time for, probably, one more question. I see a gentleman in the back. And there's a microphone not making its way— oh, there it goes, belatedly making its way towards you.

QUESTIONER: I'm Nikolas Gvosdev from The National Interest. Mr. Prime Minister, you mentioned briefly your trip to the Middle East. I was wondering whether or not you found, in your conversations with Jordanians, Bahrainis, Egyptians, and others, much interest in Singapore's experience with controlled liberalization and opening of its society, and whether or not Singapore plans to play a more active role in assisting those societies in their transitions.

GOH: There was interest, but they were interested more in the economic aspect of Singapore. But, they wanted to send people to Singapore to study our system, which, of course, would include the way we run our politics and the way we run our society. Jordanians will be coming, and the Bahrainis will also be coming quite soon, to study Singapore. And you just can't come to Singpore to study an aspect; you've got to study in total. And Bahrain, as you know, is now experimenting with some elections. So our success, I think, would have some relevance for the Bahrainis. I do believe that they're interested to see how we can pass on our experience to them.

HAASS: Sir, I forgot my manners at the outset. In addition to welcoming your minister of trade, foreign affairs, and defense, I also neglected to welcome our ambassador to your country, and it's good to see Frank Lavin here. I want to thank you for again giving us your time, for giving us so thoughtful an address. I want to thank you all for coming here this afternoon. Again, I ask if people could sit tight for a few seconds so the prime minister and his party can get out quickly, so he can keep to his schedule. And again, thank you all for coming to the Council today. [Applause.]




More on This Topic