The Somad Affair and Singapore’s Battle Against Religious Extremism
Singapore’s racial and religious fault lines are sharp, reflecting its status as an ethnic Chinese majority state located in what is perceived as a Malay Southeast Asian world. In this context, the deportation this month of Abdul Somad Batubara, a radical Indonesian Muslim preacher, once again demonstrates the nation’s intolerance for any kind of extremism, regardless of its origin.
Who is Abdul Somad Batubara?
A North Sumatran from Asahan, and Batak by ethnicity, Somad, 45, is a well-known preacher who also teaches at the Sultan Syarif Kasim Islamic University in Riau. The internet and social media made him a celebrity, a leading digital preacher, through his literalist interpretations of how Islam should be practiced in Indonesia and abroad. Extremely charismatic with strong oratory skills, his ability to gain traction with his followers stem from his simplistic, yet extreme views on day-to-day aspects of Muslim lives, especially in the context of the rising Islamization of Indonesia. He is also very political, as seen in his endorsement of Prabowo as Indonesia’s president in the 2019 presidential elections. Somad’s Islamist credentials have been enhanced by his higher education in Egypt and Morocco as well as his fluency in Arabic, bolstering his standing against other preachers in the competitive market place of Islam in Indonesia.
Somad’s extreme views include demands that Muslims not patronize non-Muslim retail outlets such as Starbucks. He holds strong anti-LGBT views and has even sanctioned suicide bombings as a means of achieving certain political ends. Somad has also tried to dissuade Muslims from visiting hospitals that display crucifixes, implying a boycott of Christian hospitals and any building or outlet featuring non-Islamic signs and symbols.
Due to his radical views on Islam and other subjects, Somad has been banned from a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Timor-Leste. This is largely due to his ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, which are largely aligned with the outlook of Hizbut Tahrir (HT).
Somad’s HT-inspired Islamist worldview aims for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, for governance to be based on Sharia law, and for all Muslims to be united into a single ummah (community). Somad believes that Muslims are being persecuted worldwide, including in Muslim majority states, and is opposed Western democracy and governance, which he perceives as disadvantaging and undermining Muslims’ interests. While HT ideologues tend to oppose the use of violence, Somad supports violence as a means to an end, especially with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Singapore and the ‘Somad Affair’
On May 16, Somad and six others entered Singapore by ferry from Batam, an Indonesian island off the southern coast of Singapore, ostensibly for a holiday, including to celebrate Somad’s birthday which falls on May 18. On reaching Singapore, Somad and the others were questioned by the immigration authorities and deported to Batam for their past extremist views on Islam and the radical actions that Somad had called for, including in the Middle East.
Singapore has banned other radical preachers in the past, both Muslims and non-Muslims, for their radical views. Following his deportation, Somad and his followers criticized Singapore on a number of counts, including that the city-state was an illegal creation as it was founded by the Western colonial power on land that belonged to the Malays, that most of Singaporeans were migrants and not natives, and that the Malays would reconquer Singapore and reclaim what was theirs. He added that Singapore should be made to feel the pain that it has inflicted on others, especially the native Malay-Muslims, and that Singapore could be easily sunk by the 270 million Indonesian Muslims urinating on it. Somad’s supporters also talked of Singapore deserving a 9/11-style attack for its impudence and anti-Malay-Muslim policies.
In protest against Somad’s deportation, the preacher’s supporters took to the social media to condemn the Singaporean authorities, including writing to various government office holders, including President Halimah Yacob, herself a Muslim. Somad’s supporters also demonstrated outside Singapore’s consulate in Medan, Sumatra and outside the country’s embassy in Jakarta. Singapore was condemned for allegedly pursuing Islamophobia policies, including against preachers such as Somad.
What Was Behind Singapore’s Deportation of Somad?
While Singapore has in the past deported Christians and other Muslim preachers, the Somad affair stood out on a number of counts. First, it stemmed from Somad’s ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam, largely HT in orientation, which denies the legitimacy of the worldwide nation-state system, does not believe in the practice of democracy, which he has called on his supporters in Indonesia and abroad to boycott.
Second, Somad has championed the creation of an Islamic state, even if it was established through violence, and approved of suicide bombings as part of the political struggle, especially by the Palestinians against the Israelis.
Third, Somad has advanced the irredentist notion that the region’s Malay-Muslims were the genuine owners of Singapore and that non-Malays and non-Muslims should be expelled, including through the use of force. As Singapore was part of “Tanah-Air Melayu,” non-Malays and non-Muslims did not belong there other than being temporary guests. In short, Somad argued for the idea of a Malay-Muslim ethnocratic state in total opposition to Singapore’s successful multi-racial and multi-religious society.
Fourth, as a charismatic preacher with immense oratorical skills, Somad has been highly effective in winning followers to his radical causes, not just in Indonesia but also abroad. According to the Singapore authorities, a 17-year old Singaporean was detained in January 2020 for being radicalized by Somad’s lectures on the YouTube, clearly demonstrating the danger of Somad’s radical appeal among the uninitiated, especially the young, on social media. Somad is believed to have some 9.6 million followers on Instagram, 2.7 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, and more than 700,000 followers on Facebook.
The Implications of the ‘Somad Affair’
First, Somad’s deportation reaffirmed Singapore’s strong and principled stance that it will not tolerate extremism and radicalism, violent or non-violent, from any quarter, including from Singapore’s largest and most important neighbor.
Second, even though there was the expectation that there would be some degree of backlash from Indonesia and Indonesians, what eventually happened was extremely heartening. While Jakarta argued that it was Singapore’s right to deny anyone entry into the state, the level of support for Somad in Indonesia was almost non-existent, especially for someone believed to have a few million followers on social media; in the end, this did not translate into real-world clout.
Third, as a democracy, Indonesia’s hands may be tied in taking action against a radical preacher that openly advocates violence, all the more with the Indonesian authorities not wanting to be seen to be accused of persecuting Muslims or Islamic preachers. From this perspective, Singapore seems to have done Indonesia a favor by acting against Somad for his radical and extremist views, which are largely unacceptable in Singapore and probably by most states and peoples. The signals it sent were clear: while Somad’s activities may be tolerated in the fast-democratizing Indonesian setting, it does not mean that Somad and his beliefs would be allowed to germinate beyond the Indonesian borders.
Fourth, what Somad and some of his followers expressed were ideas and beliefs that are anathema to Singapore, namely, that Singapore as an ethnic Chinese majority state has no right to exist in the “Malay world” of maritime Southeast Asia. This has been something that Singapore has tried to debunk since its independence in 1965 and the Somad affair was another opportunity not just to signal to champions of irredentism in the region but also to remind the Singapore public of its precarious existence and the need for enhanced nation-building and national defense policies that can safeguard its existence over the long-term.
While the existence of small states such as Singapore has always been predicated on the need for total security, both internal and external, Singapore’s actions against Somad and the narratives spewed out by Somad and his followers are yet another reminder of the continued uncertainties created by both state and non-state actors in Southeast Asia.