14th Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) Retreat - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 13 March 2018

Parliamentary Secretary Mr Amrin Amin,


Co-Chairmen of the RRG

Ustaz Ali Haji Mohd and Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan,


Distinguished speaker

Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi,


RRG members,





1.     Good afternoon. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the setting up of RRG. I was told it is also the 14th Retreat. RRG was set up at a time when after 9/11, in late 2001 and early 2002, there was an urgent need to really provide proper religious guidance to the JI detainees at that time. Because of the extraordinary work that has been done by RRG over the years, 88% of those who were detained, essentially nine out of every 10, have been rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society. They live as free men. 


2.     Now, this is a unique experiment, and it could not have been done without the primary role that RRG played. Contrast this with the experience of many other countries. To me, the obvious example is the country which was the target of the 9/11 attack, where after that, they arrested a whole lot of people around the world and brought them to Guantanamo Bay, and said that civil liberties do not apply, that trials do not apply. For many years we have been lectured about why we cannot detain people without trial, but then they detained all these people without trial, locked them up in Guantanamo and threw away the keys, and said that the American Constitution and laws do not apply because Guantanamo is not part of the United States. So very simple – lock them up, what is the future for them? They are also people and human beings. How long are you going to keep them there? And then they went around offering money to countries to take them, and I know some of you have heard of rendition and so on.


3.     A far more humane, proper approach is really to recognise the problem, deal with it. The soul and body of the religion is pure. JI, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are corruptions, and people have to be brought back to the original purity of Islam. You find these corruptions in every religion. There are Hindu-Muslim conflicts in South Asia, there are Buddhist-Hindu conflicts in Southeast Asia, there are Christian-Muslim and Christian-Hindu conflicts. In every religion there are people who stray, who want violence, and unfortunately preachers who also push them along those lines. So with the help of RRG, here, we have been able to release nine out of 10 people who have been detained over the years. Without you, we couldn't have done it and many of them may still be locked up because when the Government goes and talks to them about religion, we have no credibility. We cannot talk to them about Islam – what being a good Muslim is, or will be. The remaining 10 percent, 12 percent, we do not give up. Some of you are continuing to work with them, trying to persuade them. We hope one day they will also understand that being religious doesn't mean going out and killing others. It is a testimony to your dedication and effort that all these long years, you continue to work with them and you are not giving up. We thank you for that. 


4.     Since 2007, the last 10 years, we have noticed another phenomenon, which is self-radicalisation. The problem is getting worse with the emergence of ISIS in 2014. The past four or five years, it has gotten much worse. Our success with self-radicalised persons is not as good as our success with the original JI detainees. For some reason, for the self-radicalised, the rehabilitation is still in progress. There are more complex psychological and social issues for this group and we are all still trying to develop the right tools to deal with them and help them understand where they have gone wrong. So we have only managed to release a quarter of them – three-quarters are still in detention. 25 percent released, 75 percent still in. But we will not give up, we will continue to work to find the right approach for the self-radicalised people. We will try to find best practices elsewhere because they are young men, young women, and they have a life. We hope they can be rehabilitated and get back into society and lead meaningful lives and fulfil their full potential.


5.     I last joined your retreat two years ago. If you look at what has happened since 2016, the number of Singaporeans who are being arrested under the ISA for self-radicalisation has increased. Not just Singaporeans, but also foreign workers. I am glad that RRG took the initiative and started working with them and giving briefings to them. The foreign workers come here, from Bangladesh and other places. They earn a thousand dollars, a little bit more or a little bit less.  They have borrowed, I do not know, how many months' salaries before they come. They work very hard here, they do overtime. What they earn here is maybe ten times what they will earn back home even if they get a job. But it is still hard work. They save the money. Their intention is after six months, they start earning some real money and send it back but then they get involved in this. Even if you look at this from a personal point of view, from the family point of view, it they get involved with ISIS and JI, we cannot keep them here. They get arrested, say after a year, they go back with debt. They are ruined. Their family is ruined. It is terrible. It is a terrible tragedy at a basic level. It is also a tragedy for their future and it is bad for whichever country they come from and it is bad for us. So we have to try and help them.


6.     I am glad that RRG has taken the initiative and also trained Imams who have been approved by MUIS, foreign worker Imams, so that they can go and talk to the foreign workers, explain to them what is Islam all about, what they should keep away from, and deliver their sermons in the dorms itself. You also work with the mosques, reach out to the foreign domestic workers on the danger of radicalism. We are arresting more women who work as foreign domestic workers.


7.     ou have more than 7,000 visitors since the launch in 2014 and has strong support for your Facebook page and online videos. All of this is extremely commendable.


8.     Now, let me touch on another topic. Somebody does not wake up one morning, one side of the bed, and say, "Today I am going to go and kill people." There is a process. It used to be longer, now sometimes it is shorter. Sometimes it is a matter of a month, a few weeks, sometimes even less than that. They radicalise themselves and then they go out and do it.


9.     But there are conditions which create this. What are those conditions? What they see online. Also, if they are pushed towards a more exclusivist approach, a more segregationist approach, a more divisive approach, that sets the stage, the framework and the foundation for them to become more and more radicalised later on.


10.     So I have looked at it as one of the key tasks for the Government - that we have to encourage greater integration. We must be good Muslims, good Hindus, good Christians, good Buddhists. We must be free to practise our religion. But we must also interact with each other, as citizens of our country, as human beings.


11.     Over the last few years, I have read a few more books on Islam and I read them and I am struck by the conceptual purity of the religion and the underlying humanity of the religion. It is something that anyone with a human spirit can understand and appreciate and naturally celebrate. That is the true spirit. What we see being taught sometimes, I think is contrary to that spirit.


12.     So we want to try and move away from the "Us-versus-Them" mentality common to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Given your role, RRG, in the Muslim community, your standing, I think you can promote the need for moderation, for respecting and celebrating the diversity in the world, not just in Singapore, but in the world. Fairness for all communities and strengthening the bonds of understanding between different races, different religions. 


13.     I talked about self-radicalisation and the number of people we have been picking up. Another trend that is worrying is that many of the people we are picking up are getting younger and younger.


14.     Let us put it in context. If you compare it to the UK or Europe, we do not have a problem. Maybe we have under detention, 30 to 40 people at most. So, in relative terms, we do not have a problem so let us put it in context. But I would like to move towards zero tolerance in the sense that hopefully we succeed so well that ISD does not have a job.


15.     But since 2015, the number of radicalised teenagers, we have picked up five, between the ages of 17 to 19. These are lives wasted, between 17 to 19. We have to rehabilitate them quickly and get them back, to give them the opportunities. 


16.     We find the common trend when we pick them up. A heavy reliance on the Internet, social media for information, including religious teachings. That is where the extremists, the terrorist groups operate and infect others with their propaganda. Generally, we find that these young people have weak religious foundations and they fall prey easily. They do not understand the religion so they see something and they get attracted to it. The task for us, for you, for me, for MUIS, for everybody is to try to get them to go to mosques, to get them to listen to our preachers, get them to understand what Islam is all about. 


17.     So I am very happy to see that RRG is launching this awareness programme for youth. It has a rehabilitation curriculum; it is designed to get young people to understand religion in a multi-religious context. Also, to inoculate them. Inoculation is the best preparation to prevent radicalisation. Inoculate them against radical ideology. 


18.     By going online, you have to go online. By going online, by keeping the content attractive, by keeping the content current, RRG will be able to sustain the interest of internet followers and get new people to come in so that those young people searching for religious knowledge online, will find this to be the legitimate source instead of being attracted to ISIS and other sites.


19.     I am also very happy to see newer faces in the group, newer people coming in, that is extremely important. To refresh, to bring in, as society changes, we have to refresh all of our organisations, including RRG. 


20.     So the fight against extremism is really the fight for the hearts and minds of our young people. It is a fight to preserve our way of life, the fabric of our multi-religious, multi-racial society, and make them good Muslims. RRG plays a crucial role in this battle, public outreach, online content, it is not something that the Government can do.


21.     And I want to acknowledge and welcome our special guest today, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, renowned scholar, he just gave me his book. In the few minutes that I had, I had the opportunity of looking through very quickly. I have to say it is extremely well-written and I can see that the topics seem directly relevant for today's challenges. 


22.     You have a chapter on barbarism and atrocities that directly addresses the issue that I think a lot of people who are going astray are grappling with. What is the meaning of barbarism and atrocities in religion? Does religion support it? Should people kill Christians, should people kill non-Muslims? Where is there a religious backing for it? And the learned scholar deals with that, sets out why none of that has got anything to do with Islam.


23.     Another chapter, which I think is very direct, it is the kind of thing that people need, instead of beating around the bush because it says "are ISIS followers Muslims?" and he refers to the Quran and explains why they are not, and why it is the duty of Muslims to fight ISIS followers. 


24.     And another chapter, chapter six, "fighting ISIS is a religious duty". And again I see a chapter and verse of the Holy Book being quoted to explain. So for those who need it, I think it is a very simple approach. It first tells you the problem statement, then it tells you what the position is, then it refers to authority. 


25.     I hope this book will get very broad circulation amongst our young people, I think it ought to be read, and likewise, our own teachings and sermons should go out together with this. It has, in our context, chapter eight "seeking assistance from non-Muslims". I read it as how do you coexist with non-Muslims, whether Muslims are a minority or majority, how do you coexist with others. And what does the Quran say about it, and legal rulings regarding Muslims in western countries, which I think in the context of Muslims being a minority, what are the legal rulings, how do they apply, and I think there are a lot of lessons for us in Singapore too. Having read a little bit about Islam and having had a greater understanding in the last couple of years, more understanding than I had previously, what I read here, is in sync with much of what I read.


26.     I went to Egypt last year and I spent some time looking at Islamic scholarship. I can see what we are really engaged in, in Singapore, in a small way, but others as well, scholars like Shaykh Muhammad, is going back to the point I made earlier. We are fighting for the soul of the religion, bringing it back to its original purity, identifying to people how pure the religion is, what are its basic tenets, and this is the battle that has to be won. Because if we lose it, there will be untold bloodshed and there will be untold violence and destruction of lives, because charismatic people, with their wrong ideology can abuse religion. And you see the bloodshed. More than 95% of people who are killed by the terrorists are fellow Muslims, not non-Muslims. It's a fact that the media does not publish too much, but more than 95% are fellow Muslims, who are killed. Half a million people who are displaced in Marawi, who are they? Women, children, Muslims. The people who are dying in Syria and Iraq, who are they? Young children. Do they deserve this in the name of religion. So we are fighting for the soul of the religion. You look at all the scenes, what the TV shows, young kids, being deprived of medication, limbs blown away, legs, arms, losing their parents, not having enough to eat. Muslim children, who would have had a bright future, but for this senseless violence, in the name of a religion which fundamentally promotes peace. So we have a major fight on our hands to win the battle of the minds and hearts, to bring to people what this religion is all about, just like the other religions, and there is a fight there too, because people are becoming more religious, across all religions, and there is a tendency in all religions to then move a couple of standard deviations to the extreme. So we have to fight this fight across all religions.


27.     So again, I acknowledge Shaykh Muhammad's presence as a prominent Islamic scholar and we thank you for coming and sharing your wisdom with us. We will benefit from it and we hope that you will be able to provide us with insights into the Syrian conflict and thoughts on how you feel the extremist threat will evolve over the years. I would like to end by thanking each one of you, for the sterling work that you have done for the people of Singapore.


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