What is the profile of a terrorist? Would you picture a family with two sons, aged 17 and 15, and two daughters, aged 12 and 9? Would you imagine a 9-year-old girl involved in carrying out the deadliest Indonesian terrorist attack in years?
The recent Surabaya bombings were carried out by one such family, and serves as a harsh reminder that radicalisation can happen anywhere, and to anyone: even women and young children. Terror analysts said this was the first suicide bombing by a woman in Indonesia and the first time that children had been involved in attacks in the country.
The attacks, carried out across three churches – Santa Maria Church, GKI Diponegoro Church and Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church – claimed 13 lives (including the terrorists) and wounded at least 40 others.
Cases of bombings on religious buildings are unfortunately not new. Singapore, a melting pot and host to a variety of races, religions, cultures and beliefs, has to stay especially vigilant and wary to ensure such tragedy does not strike here. There have been close calls: Almost a year ago, a now 19-year-old self-radicalised teenager became the first female Singaporean to be charged with radicalisation. The recent news that a self-radicalised 29-year-old parking warden was detained by the ICA is another timely reminder that terror can strike anywhere, even in Singapore.
I am not an expert in analysing terrorism or spotting potential terrorists or radicalised individuals, but as an Indonesian Chinese who fled my country for safe Singapore, I know first-hand how terrorist attacks and xenophobia can tear a country and relationships apart. My sisters and I were still very young when riots engulfed Jakarta in May, 1998 and killed over 1,000 citizens. Our parents made the decision to flee the country, even though many of our relatives tried to dissuade them from doing so. We were separated from our family, home, roots and culture. However, we were able to grow up in a safe, stable country, and that is something I am grateful for and value immensely.
This incident has shaped my identity and the way I view the world. Even though we are now part of the ethnic majority in Singapore, my family and I will never forget what it was like to be treated like the resented minority in a country. Those who are Indonesian Chinese were beaten, raped, murdered and even set on fire. What happened in Indonesia then and now is something I hope will never, ever happen in Singapore.
We currently enjoy racial harmony and peace, but it is not something that we can take for granted. In Singapore, my friends and I grew up in an unprecedented era of racial harmony and understanding that many other countries do not enjoy. Befriending and interacting with people from different upbringings helped shape my understanding of their culture.
Fasting with my Muslim best friend during Ramadan taught me how hard just one day without food or water can be. I learned to understand what others go through, and now hold my Muslim friends who fast annually in extreme regard.
Having friends of different races and religions come to church with me when I was baptised reminded me that we can share our religious joys and triumphs with each other without compromising our faith.
Strolling along the Geylang Serai Bazaar with my group of girlfriends for halal mentaiko beef cubes taught me that everyone may have different tastes or dietary restrictions, but we can still share and enjoy a meal together. Going over to my Buddhist and Taoist friends’ house to bainian (give best wishes) during Chinese New Year reminded me that everyone, no matter their race, loves a good red packet! These are all ways we learnt about and bonded with each other over our differences.
Although I fear that radicalisation could happen to anyone, I wholeheartedly hope it will not happen to any of my close friends. We’ve learnt enough about each others’ religions to know that no matter what shape or form our God or gospel takes, religion is a guidance for good, not a tool for terror.
This safety, civil harmony and sense of belonging is what I value most as a Singaporean, and is the main reason I renounced my original citizenship to call Singapore my country. It is why I plan on one day settling down and having children in Singapore, even if the cost of living here is high. To me, there is no price I wouldn’t pay for safety. Singapore may be just a tiny red dot, but it’s proven that there’s more than enough space for various religions to coexist.
Friends and family of the radicalised teenager and park warden were the ones who reported them to the authorities, which led to their subsequent arrests and stopped their continuous descent down the radical path. They had to be cruel – at least from the point of view of the radicalised individuals – to be kind.
There may not be very much that one person can do on a large scale to fight terrorism. But as individuals, we can try to be more accepting and understanding towards those who are different from us in race and religion, and to embrace diversity by being more deliberate in cultivating friendships with people who come from backgrounds different from ours.
Yes, these attacks are carried out by individuals who are misled by hate that masquerades as religion. And also as individuals, we can fight hatred with kindness, and counter ignorance with understanding, creating an environment of solidarity and harmony that may make it that much harder for extremists to come into existence, let alone thrive.