In Singapore, the talk around town is about swearing. But the topic at hand for the politicians, religious teachers and community leaders is not profanity but rather a profound threat.
At issue are two different kinds of oath-taking. The first was supposedly practised by members of terror group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) to bind them more closely into the clandestine group. The second is a would-be riposte from authorities: should citizens be asked to pledge themselves as true adherents to a secular state? Details of the terrorists' secret pact were contained in a 50-page paper issued by the government this month, and debated in parliament yesterday.
Jemaah Islamiah operatives, who were accused of plotting a potentially horrific bombing campaign at the behest of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, were inducted after an 18-month recruitment process. When deemed ready by their leader, a condominium manager named Ibrahim Maidin, they were asked to swear their fealty to the cause and the boss, the document said.
Psychologists who examined those now locked away concluded that the recruitment techniques used to promote acceptance of the group's ideology were both sophisticated and effective. 'Mystical manipulation was used to commit its members by having them [pledge] their allegiance to the JI leader. The pledge was a powerful compliance-generating mechanism,' the paper said.
In the heat of the moment, Maidin's militant foot soldiers were asked to declare what tasks they were willing to undertake, including dying for the group's aims. The paper's authors called it 'psychological contracting'.
Faced with such adversaries, authorities are fighting back on many fronts, one of which could be an oath of their own. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong raised the idea last year, saying Singapore's social and physical fabric were under threat.
While most Singaporeans are ethnic-Chinese, there are substantial minorities of Malays and Tamils. Policymakers say religious violence remains a real and frightening possibility.
Mr Goh issued a draft pledge which states 'religious harmony is the cornerstone of our peace, progress and prosperity', and raises the hope that faith will never give rise to conflict. It praises tolerance and the importance of 'common space'.
Singaporeans already have a pledge, which is recited by students in state schools each morning. It mentions race and religion, and covers a slew of other national priorities such as democracy, happiness and progress.
As suspected terrorists sit in preventive detention, the oath-taking debate goes on as groups are encouraged to have their say about what should be included in the ritual, and where it may fit into national life. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, it seems that words may well prove as powerful as weapons - if not more so.