Interview: Singaporean Ambassador Mark Hong Tat Soon

Threats to Regional Security in Southeast Asia

Cracking down on Jemaah Islamiyah
Guarding suspected Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Bashir in Solo, Indonesia (Photo: AFP).

Mark Hong has been a diplomat in Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1969, serving in Cambodia, Hong Kong, France, Russia, and Ukraine. He was Singapore’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations during the 1991 Gulf War, and is currently a visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, where he has written on, among other things, terrorism in Southeast Asia. Hong, who plans to retire from the foreign service in May 2004, recently shared his views on several current international issues—from the North Korean nuclear crisis to a potential war with Iraq to Cambodian trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders to radical Islam in Southeast Asia—with World Press Review associate editor Rachel S. Taylor.

WPR: You served as Singapore's Ambassador to Russia and Ukraine from 1995 to 2002. On Jan. 21, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov became the first foreign envoy to meet with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il since the recent crisis began. Do you have a sense of what Russia might contribute to ending the current impasse over North Korea's nuclear program? What has the reaction been in Singapore to the crisis on the Korean peninsula?

M.H.: Russia is trying to be helpful to both North Korea and the United States by trying to serve as diplomatic channel between both, just as Australian diplomats also tried. But North Korea only wants to talk to the United States directly. It will listen politely to Russia and Australia but it probably thinks these are just intermediaries. Russia cannot offer the massive food aid and energy supplies that North Korea needs. It can offer to build nuclear power plants but some other countries will have to pay for it. Even if Russia and China offer to guarantee North Korea security, North Korea would wonder if they are willing to fight the United States on behalf of North Korea. Russia wants to be a player in the Korean final settlement and it has often promoted the idea of 6-party talks [between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, the United States, and Russia].

The Singaporean reaction, as stated by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, is to have the Korean problem discussed at the ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] Regional Forum.

The ordinary Singaporean reaction is probably to sympathize with the ordinary North Koreans who are in pitiful conditions, suffering famine, and to wonder what kind of government cannot feed its people but has the resources to build nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea wants to be respected but respect has to be earned, not by force, but from others who willingly admire it for its economic and socio-cultural progress, just as fellow Asians admire South Korea.

You were also Singapore's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1988 to 1994. Beginning in 1990, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions condemning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and ultimately authorizing member states to take "all necessary means" to ensure the resolutions' implementation. Of course, the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm soon followed. What was Singapore's position at the U.N. before the Gulf War? How would you describe the mood at the U.N. during that time? How would you characterize Singapore's position vis-à-vis a potential war in Iraq today—both the governmental position and the mood on the street?

Singapore's position at the United Nations during the Gulf War was that it was against the Iraqi aggression against a small, sovereign state, Kuwait. As another small state, Singapore sympathized with Kuwait and spoke up against any violation of international law. The mood at the United Nations was in support of Kuwait and against Iraq, which was seen as a clear aggressor and bully. There was strong support for U.S. efforts to reverse Iraqi aggression.

The Singapore governmental position on the second Gulf War, in my personal view, which does not represent the governmental view, is quiet support for the U.S. efforts against Saddam Hussein. It has to be discreet because 15 percent of our citizens are Muslim and we are located geographically in the midst of Muslim nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

The ordinary Singaporean reaction might be to hope that the United States would fight a short and decisive war and ensure no messy aftermath and to hope that oil prices would not skyrocket, as Singapore imports all its oil. Muslim Singaporeans might feel uneasy about the United States attacking a Muslim nation. All Singaporeans worry about civilian and military casualties.

You also served Singapore's charge d'affaires in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from 1974 to 1975. Were you still in the country when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975? What was life like in Phnom Penh when you were there? As you know, for the past several years the United Nations has been negotiating with the Cambodian government over the creation of a joint tribunal to try the former Khmer Rouge leaders. Although the talks broke down last year, they look set to restart again. Having been in Cambodia around the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover, how do you think Cambodia and the international community should deal with this issue? Should the former Khmer Rouge leaders be put on trial? If so, do you have an opinion about whether they should be international trials or domestic ones? Do you have a sense of Singapore's official position on this issue?

I was in Phnom Penh until we were evacuated in March 1975, hence I did not go through the Khmer Rouge period. Life in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge capture of the capital was quite bad as the city was surrounded and the Khmer Rouge was shelling the city from the suburbs. It was tough for the refugees who crowded the city. Others were fatalistic or were busy trying to get out. Others were hoping that the Khmer Rouge would not mistreat the people after the fall of Phnom Penh.

As for the international tribunal, the problem for Cambodia is that the ruling group [led by Prime Minister Hun Sen] is a former faction of the Khmer Rouge, hence any trial might compromise them. This is why they want the trial to be under their control. It is a very delicate political issue. The best way out is for there to be a compromise between the international community and the rulers of Cambodia, to decide who should be tried and how to handle the political dynamite, if names are mentioned and allegations made during the trials. But some form of justice must be done for the huge number of victims and their horrendous suffering. Cambodia also needs the trials to have a sense of closure to a tragic chapter of their history, and to get on with their lives.

In view or the political sensitivity of these issues, I am not aware of any Singapore government statement. In any case, within ASEAN, members do not comment on domestic affairs.

On Feb. 3, a tip from the Singaporean police resulted in Mas Selamat Kastari’s arrest in Indonesia. He is suspected to be the head of a Singaporean branch of Jemaah Islamiyah. You recently wrote a report on the threat and history of JI in Singapore, in which you mentioned the December 2001 arrests of 15 JI cell members (two were later released). Can you tell us more about this group? How long had they been in Singapore? What were they doing there? Did they have ties to Al-Qaeda? How were they able to operate in a country as tightly controlled as Singapore? In your report you asked the question: Why should middle-class or wealthy Singaporean Muslims join the JI? What do you think the answer is?

The JI members arrested are Singaporeans, so they live in Singapore. They were busy trying to spread JI beliefs, recruiting more members, and busy plotting to blow up various targets. On the surface, they were living a normal life. They were in contact with some non-Singaporeans who were Al-Qaeda agents who visited Singapore under cover. They escaped detection by lying very low and behaving discreetly. This fact rather demolishes those who claim that Singapore is tightly controlled.

They joined JI because they needed solace and certainty and spiritual comfort; they were looking for answers, just as those who join cults are also looking for answers and for a master who can tell them how to think and how to behave. What strikes me is that these people seemed to have lost their ability to think for themselves, how gullible they were, how easily they swallowed a lot of rubbish like: “An easy path to heaven is to blow up and kill innocent people, both Muslims and non-Muslims.” They could not handle life in a fast-changing world; they could not handle the stress of modernization and globalization; they wanted a simple life, simple answers.

Your report also asserted that Singapore has been effective in lessening the threat posed by JI and noted that the country is easier to secure and protect than some of its neighbors because, for instance, it has a shorter coastline to guard against illegal immigrants. You also highlighted Singapore's Internal Security Act (ISA); you mentioned that in November 2002, 18 JI members had their detention cases reviewed by Singapore's ISA Advisory Board. Can you tell us about the act and the board? What do they say and do, respectively? When were they set up? What did the board determine in the case of the JI members mentioned?

The ISA was inherited from the British colonial government upon Singapore's independence in 1965. At that time, the Malayan Communist insurgency was going on, and the British found they could not find witnesses to testify against the captured terrorists, as the witnesses would be threatened with death. Hence the ISA allows suspects to be detained without trial, just like the United States detains Al-Qaeda at the Guantanamo base. The ISA is used to counter communists, those who would stir up racial hatred, and hardcore gangsters.

The obvious question is: “How to safeguard against mistakes, arbitrary arrests, and mistreatment?” That is why the advisory board was set up, to act as independent review agency, to have access to the detainees, to examine the evidence and documents and make their reports and recommendations to the ministers. It is meant to ensure that there is no abuse of the rule of law.

As a sensible and astute government, the ruling party understands very well that the surest way to lose the next election is to abuse the ISA. Malaysia also has the ISA, as both it and Singapore inherited it from the British colonial government. The review board agreed that the JI detainees were correctly arrested; that although some professed to repent, this was suspect.

You said that Singapore's JI members were subject mind control and peer pressure, and you compare this to the way some cult leaders control their followers. Can you expand on this?

The JI in Singapore cleverly used mind control and peer pressure to maintain their hold on members via spiritual and psychological hooks. These hooks are: a personal oath of allegiance to their leader, Bashir; positive reinforcement in the form of a promised easy path to heaven; negative sanctions in the form of threat of punishment against apostasy; a sense of belonging to an elite group; excitement to take part in a great conspiracy and adventure, which adds zing to otherwise dull lives; finally, the sense that they are serving God, or spiritual fulfillment. The JI also carefully selected those people who showed the most interest and enthusiasm during sermons and religious lessons. Those who attended such sessions were in a way already pre-selected.

In the past, you’ve also suggested that you believe Muslims today feel a sort of solidarity and that, as a result, the Singaporean government should display a greater sensitivity to international Islamic issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the situation in Iraq. Do you think the government is doing this?

The Singapore government has displayed sensitivity and discretion by its silence and low profile on such issues as the looming Iraq war, and it does not comment on the Israel-Palestine issues, despite being a former member of the U.N. Security Council from 2001-02.