The announcement by the government of Singapore that it has arrested 15 people suspected of planning terrorist attacks against U.S. targets in that Southeast Asian country has caught many observers by surprise. Islamic radicals have been active in the Philippines and Indonesia, but Singapore was never considered a haven for Islamic militants.
Singapore says it arrested 14 Singaporeans and one Malaysian after authorities searched their homes and offices and found detailed information on bomb construction as well as photos and videotapes showing their alleged planned targets.
Officials say the targets included the U.S. embassy, American corporations in Singapore and military installations.
Charles Hirschman is a specialist on demographics in Southeast Asia and a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"I'm very surprised. Singapore and Malaysia, where similar reports are coming from, are very modern societies, very high educational levels, lots of contact between the west and education and popular culture and the news media in these countries. So, the image that somehow these attacks are coming from people who have not really had close knowledge or observation of western societies, that they're being misled in some way by small groups of people, would not characterize these societies. So, yes, I am very surprised," he says.
Another Southeast Asia expert, Thomas Reckford, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also expressed surprise at the arrests in Singapore. He says the small country has been run with tight government control for decades and on the surface seems an unlikely place to find terrorists with suspected links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Moreover, Mr. Reckford says, while there are Muslims in Singapore, the country is about three-quarters ethnic Chinese and Islam is not a significant factor.
"But there are ethnic Malays, who are Muslim, in Singapore. And there are certainly enough of them to plan this sort of thing if they are interested. And of course, the Malays don't feel terribly well-represented in the Singapore government. And there's always a little resentment at how the majority ethnic Chinese population treats them," he says.
But Professor Hirschman says the ethnic tensions in Singapore are no different than what occurs in all pluralistic societies, and he discounts that as an explanation for the existence of a terrorist cell.
Mr. Reckford points to a new downturn in Singapore's economy, saying that may have influenced people who feel left behind by modern society.
"This is a country that of course has been an economic powerhouse for many years, and this is the first year when its economy has gone into recession. And Singapore has been hit hard by the recession in the United States and in Japan, and its manufacturing exports have gone down, and thus, there are more unemployed people than Singapore has ever had before," he says.
Singapore Defense Minister Tony Tan has said his country may have been a terrorist target because of its close ties with the United States and its support for the American military campaign in Afghanistan. Mr. Reckford says it's true that Singapore and the United States cooperate closely on military issues and many American companies have their Southeast Asian regional headquarters in Singapore.
But Mr. Hirschman has said many countries have close ties with the United States and also support the U.S. led war against terrorism. He said the discovery of suspected terrorists in Singapore may have nothing specifically to do with Singapore.
"I think it means it could happen anywhere. There are a lot of people who are angry at the United States, a lot of people who are angry at the modern world. They feel it's too secular, it has too much freedom, that the traditional society that they revered is endangered, and something has to be done to slow this process down. And groups of people who talk to each other a lot can reinforce rather crazy ideas, including killing other people and risking their own lives or killing themselves in the process. ... It's not necessarily any more likely that it could happen in this part of the world than in the United States... but there's nothing inherently part of these societies that breeds this type of reaction," he said.
Professor Hirschman points to the mosque in London and the school in Germany where some al-Qaida members were known to be affiliated, and he says the world is looking to places like that for clues about the terrorists. But he said, instead of looking at locations, people should look at what caused the terrorists to come to the misguided notion that they can use violence to achieve a better society.