Countering terrorism with democracy

While we have enjoyed relative peace in Southeast Asia, terror attacks in recent years, such as the attacks by IS-affiliated groups in central Jakarta and southern Philippines in 2016 and 2017, serve as a wake-up call for all of us that terrorism persists. It is a timely reminder of the fragility of our peace in the face of the constant threats of terrorism and violent extremism.

We need to be ready to face the evolving security threats, identifying the gaps and reviewing our approach in order to future-proof our security.

We must build resilience of our key national infrastructure, have good intelligence gathering to neutralise potential attacks, establish an early warning and intervention system to detect radicalisation and disenchantment among communities, as well as develop ways to rehabilitate former radicals and counter-messages to combat extremist ideologies.

Malaysia has been a shining beacon of democracy through the peaceful change of government for the first time in our history in May. We hope that Malaysia’s new experience with democracy will also help shape our future responses to our work in many fields including security and safety as well as efforts to combat terrorism.

We must live up to the promise of this new democratic era by practising transparency, accountability, integrity and openness in our engagement with all stakeholders.

Our responsibility does not stop at maintaining democracy at home. We need to also ensure that democracy is still the norm internationally so that there will be no cause célèbre for extremists to ride on.

The challenges facing our security today are multifaceted. Gone are the days when wars were mostly waged between states. Today, we face a wide range of non-traditional security threats from non-state actors – these are battles not only of guns and bullets, but of hearts and minds.

Technological advancements have not only improved the lives of humankind, but also the ways to destroy them. Our battlefields are no longer only in the forests and deserts, but in cyberspace, in social media and in public places across our cities.

Indeed, none of us stands alone in this battle. Combating terrorism and radicalisation requires collective efforts at all levels.

There needs to be a “whole of society” approach where government, businesses, civil society, police and military work together to develop comprehensive and holistic policies to provide the fastest first responses, but more importantly, to tackle the root of the problem.

We must never lose sight of the root cause. How to win the hearts and minds, or rather, how not to lose the hearts and minds of people and fuel the ground for radical fringe actors to thrive – this is an important question our societies must examine.

We can draw from the experience of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960 which was won not only through military means, but also through extraordinary efforts in winning the hearts and minds of the people.

For the contemporary world, democratic institutions that provide the space for the political participation of all citizens of various identities and ideologies in the most dignified manner would reduce the size of the fringe to the minimum.

A functioning democracy would also deliver well-being for all, closing the gaps between the haves and have-nots and minimising the disenchantment among the economically disadvantaged that often turn into a breeding ground for radicalisation. A healthy and inclusive democracy should be the ultimate check on radicalisation.

It is imperative that those who long for peace, stability and democracy continue to look out for each other through the sharing of intelligence and expertise and learn from each other.

Liew Chin Tong is deputy defence minister and DAP strategist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.