August 2019 Feature
“Since you have studied Communist terrorism, why not use what you know to study radical Islamist terrorism?” It was late September 2001. On the 11th of that fateful month, 19 radicalized terrorists of the violent Islamist Al Qaeda terrorist network had flown hijacked passenger aircraft into iconic buildings in New York and Washington – killing almost 3000 people, the worst terrorist atrocity in history.
My then-boss had just posed the question above to me, a relatively fresh assistant professor trained in history. His question took on more urgency just a few months later: a joint terror plot by Al Qaeda and its Southeast Asian affiliate, the Jemaah Islamiyah network, against Western and Singaporean targets in Singapore at the end of December 2001, was narrowly averted.
Like for many other think tank and university researchers locally and worldwide, September 11 2001 was a defining moment for me career-wise.
God’s Surprising Intervention
To back up a little: when I completed my PhD in History at the University of London in July 1999, I was preparing myself for a career researching into the struggle of the Communist Party of Malaya to win power in Malaya and Singapore, known to posterity as the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). I thought at the time that this was a relatively obscure and somewhat esoteric topic of interest only to a small group of academic specialist historians and students. This was certainly my assumption when I joined Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in February 2000 as a researcher in the then-Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), the precursor to what is today known as the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Little did I realize that God would suddenly intervene, arranging circumstances for me to reach an even wider audience as an active Christian citizen-scholar – through public commentary, debate and education.
First, as mentioned above, the September 11 attacks prompted on my part a more than a decade-long research program that resulted in not just regular academic output, but also educating the public on the evolving radical Islamist terror threat through print, broadcast and online media. As an academic, I never expected that I would be engaging outside the university to the extent that I have been since then.
God’s Even More Surprising Intervention
After I had retooled myself to become more of a contemporary terrorism analyst, I assumed for years that my early research on Malayan Communism would not be useful any longer. Then the Lord intervened unexpectedly – again. From the early 2000s, a loose coalition of ideologically liberal local and foreign academic historians, social, artistic and political activists started advocating for what is at times technically referred to as “revisionist” interpretations of Singapore’s postwar history. This and of itself was nothing unusual, as the study of history in general tends to comprise a “dialectical” tussle between mainstream and newer interpretations of history.
However, I felt that these academics and activists seemed to be blurring the lines between purely academic pursuits and the distinctly political agenda of questioning the legitimacy of our political process whilst agitating for political objectives. Again, there is nothing wrong about agitating for political change – after all, Singapore is not a Communist State and we do have many institutional and political mechanisms for public feedback on various aspects of government policy.
One case seemed especially problematic: Operation Coldstore. By 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Coldstore, an internal security dragnet that mainstream accounts of the period indicate resulted in the decimation of the Communist United Front that was entrenched in Singapore at the time – some of these revisionist writers had intensified their activism, employing what seemed to me (at least) rather skewed, sloppy and politicized readings of the Coldstore episode to attack the legitimacy and public standing of the Singapore State today.
As a trained academic historian, I felt that this was out of sync with sound historiographical conventions, and expressed my views online and in more academic publications. This, sadly, resulted in vilification on social media and even by some supposedly objective, professional academics. To be honest, seeing myself pilloried online was not what I had expected from a “normal” academic career either! Being criticized for one’s academic ideas in journals is a professional expectation and there is a certain decorum involved. But being subjected to online abuse by snarkier netizens seemingly incapable of being objective was something else entirely.
The Obligations of the Christian Scholar
Nevertheless, as a Christian scholar, I feel I have an obligation to speak out. The Bible tells us in Romans 13 that the “authorities that exist have been established by God”; that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted”. Moreover, we are reminded in 1 Timothy 2:2 to pray and intercede “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”.
Now, nobody is suggesting here that our local authorities are free from imperfections. No government in the world is. It is indeed our duty and obligation as Christians to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14), and ensure that we do justice and love kindness while walking humbly before the Lord (Micah 6:8). Christians are supposed to be active citizens, encouraging where possible the relevant authorities to do good for society at large.
That said, it equally behooves us to be responsible and even-handed active citizens. In the current climate – online and even offline – it seems almost faddish to be leery and scornful of governmental figures and those who speak up for a more reasoned perspective to be adopted on not just the specific Coldstore episode, but a range of other more mundane but not unimportant everyday issues such as the cost of living.
Sad to say, such judgmental attitudes seem to exist even amongst some Christians, despite the clear Biblical injunction in Romans 13:7 to offer “honor” and “respect” to the authorities that God has sovereignly instituted for our protection. It seems that there is a spirit of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:7) at work in society today, encouraging disrespect for order and discipline, while fostering intemperate attitudes and behavior instead.
Two Lessons from My Journey Thus Far
The Bible tells us in Matthew 5:16 that we are to let our “light shine before others”, that they may see our “good deeds and glorify” our “Father in heaven”. In my own journey with the Lord as a Christian scholar, I interpret this in two ways. First, educating the wider public beyond university lecture theaters on issues that affect them – such as the rapidly evolving terrorism threat – is one way for my light to shine for the Lord before men.
Second – and frankly, the more challenging part – is having the boldness to swim against the tide, to have “nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph 5:11). I do believe that we as Christian scholars have an obligation to be a “fragrant aroma” (2 Cor 2:15) in society at large.
We should endeavor to shine God’s light widely and publicly, dissipating the worldly darkness within which lawlessness festers – thereby helping guide public opinion in directions glorying to the Lord. We should not lose heart. The Bible assures us: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 6;9).
Dr Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, where he is Head of Policy Studies and Head of the National Security Studies Program.