Minister K. Shanmugam addresses the recent incident where a young person was detained for harbouring plans to attack a synagogue and kill Jews on 10 March, 2020. (Screengrab: K. Shanmugam Sc/ Facebook)

Minister K. Shanmugam addresses the recent incident where a young person was detained for harbouring plans to attack a synagogue and kill Jews on 10 March, 2020. (Screengrab: K. Shanmugam Sc/ Facebook)

Balanced Views Require Deeper Understanding of Middle Eastern Geopolitics


The recent detention of a 20-year Singaporean here under the Internal Security Act underscores the need for Muslims to differentiate the religious and geopolitical aspects of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict.

The recent detention of 20 year-old Singaporean Amirull Ali under the Internal Security Act (ISA) serves as a reminder of the continuous attempts by certain groups to destabilise existing harmonious religious relations in Singapore. The pursuit of their goals has, whether directly or indirectly, the potential to sow discord in multicultural, multireligious, and secular Singapore. 

Amirull, a Muslim, had planned to attack and murder members of the Jewish faith worshipping at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue – the oldest surviving synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia. The first attack was planned for 2019, and the second for Christmas Day last year. Neither was carried out. He was also planning to join the battle in Gaza as he believed death on the battlefield there would result in his martyrdom. His family members and close friends were unaware of his radical orientation, as he showed no sign of violent conduct. 

The Amurill case comes soon after the revelation in January this year that a 16 year-old Protestant Christian had planned to attack Muslim congregants at two mosques. Like Amirull, the boy – who could not be named due to his age – is believed to be self-radicalised. He was inspired by the 2019 mosque attacks in Christchurch. The two cases affirm the extent of influence social media has on the religious life of young Singaporeans. 

Frustration with the Palestinian issue was one of the reasons why Amirull targeted the Jewish community here. Certainly, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a long-standing concern among Muslims around the world, including the Singapore Malay/Muslim community. In 1986, the community was upset when the government welcomed Israeli President Chaim Herzog to Singapore.

The disquiet caused by the lack of progress on  the Palestine issue had also triggered the Islamic resurgence movement in the 1970s and 1980s. During that period, Muslim organisations on Southeast Asian campuses set up study groups to discuss materials that promoted Islamic alternatives to the West. In their minds, only by creating a viable Islamic alternative – such as an Islamic state – with Islamic institutions and laws could Western domination be countered. The impact of these movements can be felt to this day, as they subsequently evolved to become vehicles for student leaders to rise to prominent positions. Among them were Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia and Muhammad Imaduddin Abdul Rahim, an Indonesian engineering lecturer turned Islamic preacher. Recovering Palestinian land is also equated with restoring Muslim pride, since the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is considered to be the third holiest site in Islam after the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.  

Amirull’s arrest serves as an important opportunity to correct several misunderstandings regarding Muslim-Jewish relations in Singapore.

To be sure, the majority of  Muslims in the world, especially in Singapore, are able to differentiate the political and geo-political underpinnings of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the religious aspects. In an opinion piece published in 1984, Muslim intellectual Dr Chandra Muzaffar argued that “the creation of Israel, the eviction of the Palestinians from their homeland in 1948, and all the encounters between Israel and its Muslim neighbours” posed “direct challenges to the honour and integrity of the Muslim world,” although most Muslim nations considered the Palestinian issue to be the struggle against Zionism rather than a Muslim-Jewish squabble. However, there are some who could not make this distinction, and thus consider the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands to be a religious issue, or a Jewish one to be precise. 

Amirull’s arrest serves as an important opportunity to correct several misunderstandings regarding Muslim-Jewish relations in Singapore. It also serves as a timely reminder on the need to understand the Middle East situation beyond religion and theology. Thus, the Muslim community must be equipped with a good grasp of the history of the region, as well as geopolitics. This also means we need to encourage young Malays to go beyond the study of theology and to understand fresh perspectives about the conflict. For instance, the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab nations United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last year shows  that politics can sometimes transcend religious considerations. One of these states’ consideration was the rise of geopolitical rivals Iran and Turkey. Geopolitical considerations have also underpinned Jordan and Egypt relations with Israel – both Arab states have had diplomatic relations with Israel for many years, and many Singapore madrasah graduates have studied in Islamic universities of these two countries.

As in any other community, there is a diversity of views. The same applies to Israel, where there are debates among political elites. Not all agree with the actions of the current Israel government regarding the occupation of Palestine or how Palestinians are treated. The fluid nature of Israeli politics today, including having the need to have back-to back-elections in the last couple of years demonstrate this political fragmentation. This month, Israel is heading into its fourth election in two years.

Thus it is not right for Amirull to target the Jews, including those living in Singapore. The Jewish community in Singapore has lived peacefully with the rest of Singaporeans. As Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam has noted, a large part of the Jewish community here are Singaporean citizens and have served their national service in Singapore. Their religious elites have also been active in inter-civilizational dialogues and have been engaging other religious communities through platforms such as the Inter-Religious Organization, Singapore (IRO). 

The time is apt for the Muslim community to move beyond understanding conflicts just in religious terms and understand the intricacies of the politics beneath them.


Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.