15th Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) Retreat - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 19 March 2019

My Parliamentary colleague, Amrin,

Co-Chairmen of the RRG, Ustaz Ali Haji Mohd and Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan,

Mufti Dr Fatris Bakaram,

Previous Mufti, Syed Isa Semait,

Guest speaker from Malaysia, Dr Ahmad El-Muhammady,

Colleagues from MHA,

Chief Executive MUIS, Mr Esa Masood,

Ladies and gentlemen,
RRG members,

Good afternoon to all of you.


  1.  Let me start by giving my congratulations to the RRG Co-Chairmen - Ustaz Ali bin Haji Mohamed, as well as Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi bin Hassan, for receiving the Meritorious Service Medal last year for your services to the community and contributions to Singapore from the President.


  2. This is only an expression by the state, it cannot repay the tremendous contributions both of you and the RRG have given to Singapore, but I think it is good that the state recognises the contributions that you have made.


  3. Let me start by first saying can we observe a minute of silence for the victims of the Christchurch massacre.


  4. The attack on the two mosques in Christchurch at the Friday congregation prayers, targeting the Muslim community, 50 people killed, men, women, young children, another 50 wounded. The attack was extremely carefully planned. Before that, the attacker issued a 73-page manifesto, full of hate, it was released online before the attack. Far-right, hate speech, anti-Muslim beliefs, and he live-streamed the attack, and he aimed for maximum deaths and damage. The car had improvised explosive devices, more weapons were discovered on the scene of the attack. There has been worldwide condemnation, but at the same time, you also see the ugly head of far-right Islamophobia. I’ve spoken about the Australian senator, Fraser Anning. He attacked Islam, he blamed Muslim immigration to Australia and New Zealand, he said these attacks highlighted the growing fear of increased Muslim presence, he said New Zealand’s immigration programme allowed Muslim fanatics into the country. His speech, which I think, is among the very worst that you can think of. As I said, if it had been in Singapore, he would have been arrested. We don’t allow this. Many people criticised us for the last 50 years, for the way we approach hate speech, but I think the world can see that when you encourage hate speech, within hours of people dying, you get this sort of speech, by a person who is in Parliament.


  5. Thankfully, many people also criticised. Within six hours there was an online petition, calling for his removal from the Australian parliament, with 60,000 signatures. When more people speak like this, even people in positions of authority, and when the media carries stuff like this, when there is entertainment which contains hate speech - It does something to society, it normalises hate speech. It makes it acceptable that you say this. When you say it and someone else criticises it and you continue saying it, then more people say it, it becomes fair game. Everybody attacks somebody else’s religion. What happens in society?


  6. So, RRG was formed 16 years ago. At that time, it was to deal with radicalisation of Singaporeans, arising from Jemaah Islamiyah. But the threat has been evolving. By 2014, five years ago, the threat spiked from ISIS. As the threats have evolved, RRG’s methods of rehabilitation have also evolved. I thank RRG for the support that you’ve given, in helping to deal with these threats, and helping our Muslim community in Singapore, go on the true path of Islam.


  7. ISIS’ physical caliphate is now nearly gone, but global terrorism is unfortunately not gone. The threats are evolving and changing. As you saw in Christchurch, it is an anti-Muslim attack. Yesterday, there was an attack in Netherlands. Three didn’t survive. We don’t yet know the causes, the attacker is a Turkish man. Whether it is personal reasons, or whether it is in the name of religion we don’t know yet. But unfortunately the world that we see today, every day there is hate speech, every day there is attack on the different religious faiths. In Myanmar, the attacks are on Muslims. In Europe, Islamophobia is rising. In the Middle-East, most of the attacks and fatalities are Muslims, but committed by other Muslims. 95% of the attacks are caused by Muslims on Muslims. And we will have the cycle of violence around the world.


  8. In the West, every time an attack happens, people come together, they condemn and put flowers – it is all important. But if we don’t deal with the underlying reasons why there is violence, then the cycle will just continue. We have to break that cycle. How do you break that cycle? We have to deal with the underlying hate. We have to break the cycle by dealing with the hate speech, it’s not going to be possible in the West I think, but actually you need tough laws to prevent hate speech against Islam, and you need tough laws to prevent young Muslim men from thinking that going out and killing others is the way to do things. Both sides, you need tough laws. But I don’t think it’s doable in many parts of the world. Sometimes in the media blitz of reports on terrorism, what is forgotten is that about 70% of attacks are caused by far-right, non-Muslim, often white attackers. It doesn’t get enough media attention, and it doesn’t get enough coverage, and online tech companies and platforms don’t do enough to take down anti-Muslim messages.


  9. In Singapore, we take a very no nonsense approach even though we get criticised by it. Different faith groups, I was glad to see, after the Christchurch attacks, immediately issued statements condemning the attacks, and expressed solidarity with Muslims in Singapore. They reiterated the importance of protecting and strengthening inter-religious unity and harmony.


  10. These strong inter-community relations and communal harmony, is not by accident. It does not happen by itself and it cannot happen by itself. If you leave people on their own, inevitably they will emphasise on divisions and not the commonalities. The commonality is forgotten; the divisions are emphasised.


  11. So we have been and we have to continue to actively work on bringing people together. Without that, it will not work. Who is the we? It is all of you. Every community, every group, every religious leader and of course the Government. All working together to achieve this.


  12. We have come a long way. Today, if anybody puts up an anti-Christian or anti-Islam or anti-Buddhist or anti-Hindu message, ISD will go and talk to them. If they continue, they will be arrested. If anybody talks about burning the Quran, they will be arrested. No questions, immediately. But in other places, this is free speech.


  13. People’s attitudes are “I want to go and watch. If you don’t like it, you don’t go and watch. So why are you stopping me?” What they do not understand is that we live in a society. If you go to something like this, it has the impact of normalising such speech. If it is entertainment, why not the media, why not in other places? Then if you can say it about Christians, why not say it about Muslims too? If you do not like it then you do not have to go and watch it. What does it do to society?


  14. You can see the consequences in other places. The young man who did the killings, played a Serbian song which glorified the killing of Muslims. It is a song too. Songs can be powerful. They are not as powerful as a religious speech, they may not be as impactful as sometimes what politicians may say. They can have an impact. Not all songs. They are different things; we have to make a judgement. I intend to have a proper debate in Parliament where we will deal with this because every generation has to understand what works in Singapore and why we are ranked number one in social harmony and religious harmony in the world. Not by accident. What are the principles underlying it? Why is it that all of us are able to gather here without any fear, without any concern, and knowing with every confidence that no one out there can make an anti-Muslim statement? No one will. And if he did, he will be dealt with. You will have every confidence.


  15. Why is that possible? It is not possible in most places in the world. Most places where Muslims are minorities, it is not possible. But, as I emphasised, we are not done yet. I think we need to have a proper debate in Parliament to discuss these issues again. It has been repeated generation after generation. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his generation talked about it. Subsequently, Mr Goh and his generation talked about it. Singaporeans have been constantly talking about it. It is understandable. We have to talk about these things and we need to have a debate because we need to explain why we do certain things, the way we do it, and this will be done in Parliament soon.


  16. Have we achieved the ultimate state where race relations are perfect - far from it. The reality is that 2017, CNA did a survey, it was titled “Regardless of Religion”, and in September of last year IPS did a survey “Community Relations Amidst the Threat of Terror”, they found fairly significant levels of mistrust between the races. The CNA survey found if an extremist Islamic organisation based overseas is suspected of an attack here, 20 percent of Singaporeans will be angry with Muslims. Even though it is a foreign organisations and the attackers are foreign. They will be angry with Singaporean Muslims or Muslims in general.


  17. The IPS survey showed that Singaporeans will react negatively, with more suspicion, after an attack by overseas Muslims. If there is an overseas Muslim attack on Singapore, Singaporeans in general, will be more negative towards Muslims. But if an overseas Hindu attack in Singapore, or overseas Christian, or overseas Buddhist attack in Singapore, they won’t be as negative towards the Buddhists or Christians in Singapore.


  18. So the constant media attention because of the incidents or events about Muslims elsewhere in the world, has had an impact on our population. So when there is an attack, regardless of where it comes from, our people will be more suspicious of local Muslims.


  19. Which is why we are very strict about it, because the laws alone are not going to be enough. We have to work hard in the schools, we have to work hard in the community, we have to get the agencies working together, we have to constantly have leaders talking about this, and getting people to understand. And also, MHA has a programme – SGSecure, which all across Singapore, in every constituency, they get the grassroots leaders, and we get them to link up with the community. In the event of an attack, they will go out, they will talk to the community, they will try to stop the spread of rumours, they will assure the community and they will get the religious leaders to come forward and make statements which are supportive of the Muslim community. Get our people to understand that this is an extremist group, it’s not Muslims in general. And likewise, if the attack is by Christians or Hindus.


  20. So we make no apologies for the approach we take and we will continue to take a tough and strict approach, but a fair approach, across all communities. That is, I think, the only way to make sure that everybody can go about their businesses, do what you want, achieve their full potential, profess whichever faith you want, pray to whichever god you want. That’s your right, and we protect that right.


  21. So in the midst of all these happenings around the world, Singapore, so far, and I emphasise, so far, remains an oasis of calm and peace. Even compared to this region, we have made an oasis of calm and peace. It’s because organisations like RRG, you do very good work, work within yourself, and working with us, your credibility on the ground. If I go and talk about it, I don’t have credibility, but you have credibility and you speak against misguided and violent ideologies. Setting up of the RRG Resource and Counselling Centre (RCC), RRG helpline, and RRG Facebook page – all these are necessary, useful and good. It will help you connect better with the community. They provide easy access to the RRG and access to a legitimate source of religious knowledge. Together, it builds resilience among the community against radical ideas.


  22. The Awareness Programme for Youth (APY) has recently completed its second run and is a reflection of RRG’s tireless effort to reach out to young people, to help them understand Islam and how it has to be practiced in a multi-racial environment. As Mr Lee famously said, this is not a Chinese country, this is not a Malay country, this is not an Indian country. We come together. So how you practise your religion in a multi-religious context. Your efforts help to build bridges within the community, but also across communities, which is important. So I encourage everyone to uphold the spirit of learning, and learn from the best practices.


  23. I am very glad that we have our distinguished speaker from Malaysia. We have to constantly learn. He has got a lot of experience, he has worked with the Malaysian Police, amongst others and has a deep understanding of what causes people to go into this, how you rehabilitate them. I think the best way to learn is from practitioners. Their efforts to prevent young people from being influenced by militant groups and our own people. Our own people, your own members have gone on a research trip to Indonesia, how is Indonesia doing things. I hope that the trip was fruitful and I hope that you will gain much from Dr Ahmad’s experiences and insights into countering violent extremism.


  24. Thank you and I wish you a very successful retreat.


Managing Security Threats