In April 1991, Singapore Airlines flight 117, the last 45-minute shuttle of the day from Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, was hijacked by Pakistani terrorists. There were 123 passengers and crew onboard. The terrorists were demanding the release from prison in Pakistan of various people connected with their cause, and were also demanding that the Captain Stanley Lim divert the plane to Sydney. Lim explained that the fuel for flying the 45 minute KL-Singapore shuttle would not last over the nine hours it takes to fly to Australia, and persuaded the hijackers to let him land to get the plane refueled.
Once Captain Lim had made contact with ground control, the seamless machinery of counter-terrorism that Singapore had long had quietly in place, clicked smoothly into gear. Ground control gave permission for the plane to land at Changi Airport, explaining to the terrorists that it would have to land near the perimeter, on a pretext regarding the refueling truck. They went for it. Thus the plane was parked well away from other aircraft and terminal buildings in case the terrorists carried through their threat to blow it up. Singapore counter-terrorist negotiators kept the hijackers talking as plans were rolled into place. (The terrorists, incidentally, were demanding to speak to then prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto and when the Singapore government called her in Islamabad, her servant refused to wake her up.)
As the hijackers got drunker on their duty-free whiskey, they started pouring alcohol around the cabin, threatening to set it alight, announcing they intended to start killing people at five minute intervals. At that point the crack team of commandos, who had been mustered outside the rear of the plane for some time, were given the signal to go. I interviewed one of the hostages later and he told me that suddenly, there had been a horrifying loud sound, like an explosion. The plane’s four safety doors had crashed inward with split second precision and the commandos swung into the plane shouting, “Get down! We’re Singaporeans! Get down!” As the passengers dove to the floor, the commandos shot the four terrorists dead. From the time they breached the plane until the time the passengers were sliding down the safety chutes had taken four minutes. If you don’t count the dead terrorists, no one was hurt.
The point of this story is, Singapore had well-ordered, efficient counter-terrorism machinery in place 11 years before we did. Like Israel, this is a small country with a muscular attitude to security. Like the Israelis, their armed services, and their intelligence services, are second to none. And as allies, as we have found out, with less than five million population, they punch way above their weight.
We are aware that from Australia, we get robust and committed co-operation in this war, not only from their armed services, but also from their intelligence services. Australia is high profile. But there are others onboard in the region who are equally committed. The most efficient are Singapore and, it may surprise the reader to know, Malaysia, whose intelligence services work closely together. (They are divided only by the narrow Straits of Malacca and were formerly one country.) It was the Singapore Foreign Minister Prof J S Jayakumar, speaking at the United Nations on November 1, 2001, who said, “Singapore stands with the international community in this campaign against terrorism. This is not a fight against any religion …It is a fight against the forces of violence, intolerance and fanaticism. It is a fight for civilization and a fight that we must win.” He had earlier said: “The perpetrators of these horrendous crimes must not go unpunished. They must be brought to justice to deter others from contemplating similar horrific crimes.” In other words, no one in Singapore thinks Guantanamo Bay is a bad idea.
Malaysia’s pro-active stance will come as a surprise to those Americans who regard Prime Minister Mahathir as something of a flake, due to his propensity for making anti-Western statements that are partly for domestic consumption and partly in the cause of tweaking our noses. But the Malaysian prime minister is a pragmatist and although the country is an Islamic republic, 60 per cent of the electorate is Muslim, and 36% is not. The country is at peace and prosperous and Dr Mahathir doesn’t want religious fanatics rocking the boat. Despite the sometimes mischievous rhetoric, Dr Mahathir is a dependable ally in the war. Over the last two years alone, Malaysia has arrested more than 60 suspected members of a group linked to al Qaeda. They are being detained under the Internal Security Act. A group of tranzis is fighting this, and indeed, wants the ISA, which allows terrorist suspects to be detained for two years without trial, abolished, but given Dr Mahathir’s strength of will, this is not going to happen. Sounds like another vote for Guantanamo Bay. He doesn’t get coverage in the U.S. when he presents himself as the Islamic world's moderate voice, which is a shame, because he’s not afraid of stirring up controversy among fellow Muslims for his anti-terrorist stance. He caused outrage at a recent summit of Muslim countries by frankly referring to suicide bombers as terrorists.
Both Singapore and Malaysia have a long-established track record of fighting terrorism. When Malaya, as it then was (and it included Singapore as a state at that time), was granted independence in 1957, the whole country was overrun with communist guerillas. The new Malaysians fought the armed communists in the jungles and the swamps bravely and cleverly for years before prevailing. In other words, Malaysia fought and defeated on its own turf the same type of communist guerilla activity that defeated the French and the Americans in Vietnam.
Of the other players in SE Asia, in the Philippines, the spirit is willing but they have their own problems in the south with Muslim separatists, and they don’t have the wealth and the strength of armed services that Malaysia and Singapore have built up over the years. Nevertheless, they are firmly on our side and do what they can.
Indonesia makes all the right noises, but at 231m, it has the largest Muslim population in the world and unlike Malaysia, they are cowed by the militants. Don’t look for any strength of purpose from Megawati. She talks the talk, but as far as I can see, has absolutely no will to walk the walk.
Thailand seems to be living in a little world of its own. In fact, it issues petulant statements from time to time, fearing that aggressive anti-terrorist may stir up the small number of Muslims living in their 99% Buddhist country. They can’t be counted on. Little is said of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Certainly they do not have the wealth to pay for the quality of armed services and intelligence services that Singapore and Malaysia have and nor do they have the infrastructure.
For counter terrorist support our friends in the south, we should continue to look to our three staunch and committed allies: the regional superpower, Australia; Singapore, with its approximately 87% ethnic Chinese population and Confucian ethic, and Malaysia, with its freewheeling mix of Malay (native Malaysians), Chinese and Indian population. All three gather and share information to forward the fight. These friends in the south we can rely on.