Dressed in military fatigues, and vaulting onto a truck loaded with artillery rounds, Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad last weekend surfaced online as the first Singaporean to anchor one of the slickly produced propaganda videos of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In it, the 39-year-old praises East Asian fighters, calls for extremists to join the terror group’s efforts in East Asia or the Middle East, and challenges Britain’s Prince Harry – a former Apache pilot in the British army, who paid a visit to Singapore in June – to a fight.
“Why don’t you come here and fight us if you are man enough? So we can send you and your Apaches to hellfire,” says Shahdan, who is identified in the video as “Abu Uqayl from Singapore”.
The 3 1/2-minute clip may be high in machismo, but analysts and community leaders say although ISIS may have put a Singaporean face to its propaganda, it is unlikely to have much impact in getting people here to rally around the group – although it is also impossible to rule out lone individuals being attracted by the video.
They point out that only a small number of Singaporeans have been detained for supporting ISIS despite its steady onslaught of online propaganda, compared with the hundreds who have been flagged as ISIS supporters in Malaysia and Indonesia.
And just three Singaporeans are known to have made their way to Syria and Iraq to join the extremist group: Shahdan, who has been fighting on the front lines since he entered Syria three years ago, is one of them, as well as Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali and Maimunah Abdul Kadir, who left for Syria in 2014 and are believed to still be there with their families.
I doubt the video will have much traction in Singapore… If anything, Singaporeans in general and Singapore Muslims in particular will be greatly shocked at the video – that a Malay/Muslim can betray the nation and the Malay community in order to threaten Singapore.
MR JASMINDER SINGH, senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
“The level of support and empathy for ISIS in Singapore is very low,” said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) senior analyst Jasminder Singh.
And instead of tempting more people here down the path of radicalisation, the clip may well have the effect of drawing disapproval, he added. “I doubt the video will have much traction in Singapore.
“If anything, Singaporeans in general and Singapore Muslims in particular will be greatly shocked at the video – that a Malay/Muslim can betray the nation and the Malay community in order to threaten Singapore.”
Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, believes this is because Singaporeans are resilient enough to withstand ISIS’ propaganda offensive.
“Its message will not resonate among Singaporeans as Singaporeans value moderation, tolerance and coexistence,” he said.
These have been key messages put out by political and religious leaders here, and ties between the different racial and religious groups are constantly tended to.
This means extremist ideology does not find a foothold as easily in Singapore as it may in neighbouring countries, where fault lines have been stoked in the name of politics, or in the West, where Muslim minorities feel displaced and downtrodden.
Universiti Sains Malaysia professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid said Singapore has been consistent in combating religious extremism. This has applied not just to Islam, but to other religions as well, such as in the case of foreign Christian preachers recently denied entry to Singapore because of Islamophobic remarks they had made.
And the country has been successful in portraying itself as a staunchly secular state “without the political need to appease its religious communities, Muslim or otherwise, unlike the cases of Malaysia and Indonesia, where Muslim support for the government is a crucial factor in ensuring its electoral survival”, he said.
Dr Fauzi, a former visiting fellow at both RSIS and the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, added: “Shahdan being a Singaporean rather than a Malaysian or Indonesian would probably garner more attention… If a Singaporean could fall for ISIS, what more Malaysians and Indonesians?”
SYMBOLIC RATHER THAN MARKETING TOOL
In fact, analysts believe the video will serve more as a symbol and a signal of ISIS’ plans moving forward than a successful marketing tool to lure more Singaporeans into joining the group.
RSIS associate research fellow Remy Mahzam sees the English-language clip as a strategic shift in the group’s media campaign. “It is a stepped-up attempt to reach out to a younger and better-educated audience in a predominantly Malay/ Muslim region,” he said.
He added that Shahdan is portrayed as a skilled combatant who plays a significant role in the expansion of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, projecting him as an influencer, much like slain Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah – who headed ISIS’ South-east Asian unit, the Katibah Nusantara – and Malaysian militant Zainuri Kamaruddin, who appeared in an ISIS video last year threatening attacks in his homeland before being killed.
SENDING A MESSAGE
The video is, for ISIS, of great symbolic and propaganda value, especially vis-a-vis Singapore and what the Republic stands for.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BILVEER SINGH , of the National University of Singapore.
Meanwhile Mr Singh noted that Malaysian and Indonesian fighters have for years cropped up in the group’s propaganda videos because they constituted a sizeable source of ISIS foreign fighters, and come from the region’s two leading Muslim nations.
To feature a Singaporean – from a country which is only about 15 per cent Muslim – sends the signal that ISIS can reach out to a citizen from a successful and developed country that is also a friend of the West, he said, noting that Shahdan, unlike other South-east Asian fighters featured in previous videos, speaks fluent English.
This was echoed by Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.
In Shahdan, he said, ISIS must have found an ideal Singaporean to champion its propaganda: a Malay/ Muslim who speaks English and grew up in a country known for its multiracialism.
“The video is, for ISIS, of great symbolic and propaganda value, especially vis-a-vis Singapore and what the Republic stands for,” said Prof Singh.
The group’s strategists, he added, are trying to demonstrate that they can penetrate any country – poor or rich, Muslim-majority or Muslim-minority – and succeed in recruiting a fighter who is willing to threaten its enemies.
“The use of a Singaporean is for political and propagandistic purpose, telling the Singapore Government and Singaporeans that ‘we have got one of yours on my side’ – and this is symbolically a victory for ISIS,” said Prof Singh.
And, he added, at a time when the group is struggling to keep hold of its territory in Syria and Iraq, it is finding whatever means it can to openly threaten the countries it regards as enemies.
“Singapore has fit this bill for a long time. Hence, ISIS’ belief that it was opportune to use a Singaporean, and believing that it will come as a shock – as the message would be to the world at large through the English medium,” said Prof Singh.
It also serves to tell Singapore that it is on ISIS’ radar, he added, warning: “It may well be planning an attack on Singapore, hence the video with Shahdan as the star.”
If there is a silver lining to the video, it is perhaps that it is a wake-up call to Singaporeans and others in South-east Asia to be more vigilant of the threat to their country and the region.