Published: 17 September 2022
Mr Wong Kan Seng,
MOS A/P Muhammad Faishal,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It has been 20 years, since the idea was discussed, of the setting up of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and Inter-Agency Aftercare Group (ACG).
2. To mark the 20 years, we are especially honoured, privileged, and happy to have our former Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Wong, join us here today. He was the person behind these ideas, made them take shape, and converted the ideas into the institutions they are today. He and his team, and all of you, did the hard work for what we have, including the senior leaders from the community, together with Mr Wong and his team from MHA. And so, what we have is unique when compared with many other places.
Roles of RRG and ACG
3. When the JI network was discovered in 2001, we faced a significant challenge.
4. We had radicalised persons, and the challenge was what to do with them, and how to prevent others from being radicalised.
5. In many countries, the approach was either to leave them alone – in which case, in the last 20 years, you have seen what happened. The initially radicalised persons went on to be further radicalised, they took part in wars, they damaged societies, and they committed heinous acts, killed a lot of people. The second approach was that many of them were simply locked them up. But really, neither of these two approaches, we can see with hindsight, works.
6. In Singapore, a different way was found. The Government brought in the community, worked with the community, and the community took on the challenge of working with the detainees, through the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), conducted religious counselling for those who had been or were being radicalised. The ACG was mobilised to provide assistance and support to their families, and that is important.
7. RRG’s role, comprising senior Islamic scholars, was able to explain authoritatively and with credibility why the interpretations of Islam that the detainees had was not correct. The Government could not have done this. If we had talked about it to the detainees, there would be no credibility.
8. And for the past 20 years, the RRG has been working with the psychologists to help the detainees understand their religion better, tutoring and mentoring youths in detention, and continuing to meet the detainees after they are released to give them religious counselling and support.
9. Meanwhile, in parallel, the ACG has provided important support for detainees’ families: social, financial, skills and job assistance. This support is being given while detainees are in detention, and continues after they are released. This is important, because it allows the detainees to have peace of mind and better focus on their rehabilitation. At the same time, it gives the families social support so that they can move on.
10. So, with the support of every one of you here, 78 of our 92 detainees since 2002 – which is close to 85% – have been released. They have been de-radicalised and have been released. The other 14 are more recent detainees, and I expect that in due course, most of them would be released. The original detainees, almost all of them have been released, save for one or two very well-known examples.
11. This result – and if you contrast it with what’s happening in Guantanamo Bay – would not have been possible if the Government was doing it alone. Around the world, and even around the region, the rehabilitation rates are poor. The detainees, once they are released, go back and do bad things. It is different in Singapore, because of RRG and ACG.
12. With that, let me take a step back and say something about the bigger picture, about developments in the world, events which are likely to or may affect us, and which may then define further roles for RRG, ACG, as well as other institutions.
13. As I said earlier, it has been more than 20 years since the JI network was uncovered. During this time, you have ISIS, which rose in prominence, and then declined. JI and ISIS, however, still pose a threat because their ideologies haven’t gone away.
14. At the same time, we also face new challenges because of the developing global situations.
Radical and Extremist Ideologies
15. In the Middle East, there have been significant developments in the past few years, and what happens in the Middle East can and does have a global impact, including on Southeast Asia.
16. People often refer to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It often has been described as a Sunni-Shia divide, and that divide has been used by extremist organisations like Al-Qaeda to support their own radical narratives.
17. Saudi Arabia and other countries have taken serious efforts in recent years to try and deal with radicalism. One example is Saudi Arabia’s well-known online de-radicalisation campaign, called the “Sakinah”, which puts the Islamic scholars online to interact with people looking for religious knowledge. The aim is to try and steer people who want knowledge, in the right direction, and away from extremism. I think we ought to welcome these steps and the actions that are being taken.
18. What is the likely consequence of these steps? I think we have to see that against the backdrop in the Middle East. The reality is that instability continues to be a feature. Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not yet been solved; the Syrian Civil War is not over, it is simmering; many of the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, looking at it 11 years later, have failed. The young populations in that region are adrift, they don’t know what to do. The unemployment rates are high, they feel that the governments are not looking after them, and these large young populations are susceptible to extremist propaganda. So, you have all these factors continuing in the Middle East. Whether any particular initiative will succeed, depends on how these other factors work as well.
19. As some of these states continue to birth radical and exclusive ideologies, what happens is people in other parts of the world find them appealing – these extremist ideologies – including a section of people in Southeast Asia. Just to show you what is happening in Southeast Asia, let me show you some data, which gives you an understanding of how the region is evolving.
20. In Indonesia, based on a 2021 survey, 25% of students believe that suicide bombing in the name of religion is jihad. That is one out of every four students in Indonesia. Nearly 60% in Jakarta said they were not tolerant of any other religions (2018). This was a PPIM UIN Jakarta Survey of senior high school students. If you turn to Malaysia, as of two years ago, one-third or 34% of Malaysians said that religious texts should be the basis of and the source for all policy and all law (2020). I am not suggesting that all of this is due to radicalisation, neither am I passing a value judgment on what Malaysians believe. I am simply stating a fact, which will have consequences. What it does show, is that in Malaysia, there is a strong, exclusive mindset that has developed among one-third of the Muslims, and it is likely to grow., which then says that the others really have no place, unless they conform to this. What is more worrying is that 28% of Malaysians were receptive to using violence to achieve religious goals. That was as of 2018. So that is one in three, almost, who say it is okay to use violence. It is a Merdeka Centre survey. If you look at the Philippines, the number is almost double that of Malaysia. 52% of Muslims in the Philippines are okay to use violence in the name of religion (2018).
21. What are the implications of these developing viewpoints? My own view is that it will continue to grow and not reduce. Over time, radicalism and violence in the name of religion is likely to grow. And even if the Middle East goes in a less violent direction, and even if the changes in Saudi Arabia take root, one of the concerns is that the developments in this region will continue along the path that we are seeing and not affected anymore by the changes in the Middle East. For us, this has of course a direct impact in terms of security, given the hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who cross the border every day, and the many others from the region who, when travel resumes, would come. And of course, the second factor is that our own population could become influenced when the region is changing. Our own population, because of the Internet and because of physical contact, could become influenced. And how will that impact the multi racial, multi religious fabric of our society, which we are carefully looking after? These are big challenges which the Government alone cannot solve. I don’t know what the trajectory is going to be. I have given you two points, one on how the Middle East is changing, and second, how the region is changing. In the Middle East, at least some countries seem to be going on the side of more pluralism, more acceptance, more tolerance, but on this side, it is going the other way. How will they interact and what will be the impact on small little Singapore, where we have practised tolerance and everyone’s right to go about their lives and religions and practise their faiths?
Modernisation and Practice of Islam
22. If you look at the impact of the Middle East on our region. The religious influences that have most impacted from the Middle East to Southeast Asia are the Wahhabist and Salafist influences. Mainly from the Gulf, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
23. The Arab Spring of 2011 came as a shock to many of the Arab countries, and many of them looked at it, and they came to the conclusion that life cannot go on as before, and they have to change. As a result, the Gulf States are attempting to reform their economies and their societies, to try to put them on a more long-term, sustainable trajectory. They cannot depend on oil alone. The world is changing. And at the same time, society cannot go on as it had in the past. The society has to change as well. And they are looking for a new way of looking at their future. When I visited the Gulf, which I did in March, I came away deeply impacted by the changes that I saw. Again, without passing any judgement, in Dubai, for example, the language that is used has changed a lot. They say religion is a private matter, we are a cosmopolitan city, with Europeans, Asians of all religions, you keep the religion in the private sphere. We are open for business, and we are going to attract people from all over the world. Given what we have seen in the Middle East in the past, that is a very different way of thinking about things. Again, without saying that it is right or wrong, we were invited to a pavilion in the World Expo organised by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian video talked about Saudi Arabia as a country in the 21st, 22nd century, as a beacon for modernity. One thing I noticed was that they made it a point to put out a video that showed women driving, women doing various things, and almost all the women were without any hair cover. So, they are projecting it in a different way now, and they are the custodians of Mecca and Medina. So, what is the message that is being put out to the world? And of course, this is the Government. How deep is it in society, how much of society will accept it? Those are questions. And then I told you about the other larger picture in the Middle East.
24. As they transform, the question is whether they will be able to transform, how quickly that transformation will take place, and how that will affect our Muslim communities in Southeast Asia? A majority of Southeast Asian Arabs, or a significant number are from the Hadhramaut, in Yemen. Yemen now looks like being a failed state for some time with the war.
25. What would be the reference points for our Muslim population? In the West, and in much of Asia, modernisation tends to be associated with secularism, but this is not necessarily true in the Middle East.
26. For example, Saudi Arabia as the Custodian of the Holy Places, is trying to work out its own understanding and approach to Islam, and how that is in sync with modernity. But that doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia is moving towards secularism as the organising principle of society. It is applying Islam to day-to-day practical living in a different way. That is what we see. And there are opposing views as to whether these changes can have an impact in Southeast Asia.
27. Likewise, a big change, are the Abraham Accords signed two years ago between Israel and an Arab country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), normalisation of relations. Israel now has the embassy, and the Arab countries have an embassy. While they signed it with the UAE, there were close relationships with a number of places around there. But these changes have not significantly affected the views and attitudes of Muslims in these regions towards Israel. Nor has it affected the way in which the countries in the region, the leaders, speak about Israel, because politically, I think that is not something that they think is acceptable.
28. How Islam is understood and practised in Southeast Asia is increasingly subject to the viewpoints which are regional here. For example, if you look at Indonesia, and the efforts to promote Islam Nusantara.
29. And of course, there are attempts in this region to use religions – Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism – for political purposes. Major leaders in many countries use whichever religion is useful, as part of politics.
30. How will all of this impact us?
31. I think as people’s understandings of religion evolve, it will continue to shape different kinds of ideology, which many of you are actively involved in and in educating our community about. So, I think the responsibility is going to be even greater, because there are so many of these challenges coming through, to guide our community in the right way, to be tolerant and yet be good Muslims, and for the other religions, good Christians and good Hindus. It is going to become even more challenging.
32. You saw the trends that I mentioned earlier, the concerning trends. It may be too early for us to say how things will evolve, but the factors I talked about are likely to have an impact. We will not be shielded.
33. So, the role of each one of you here today will continue to be extremely important, and in fact, will continue to grow in importance. So, we have tremendous appreciation for what you are doing. It’s like swans – they look very graceful, and nothing seems to be happening on the surface, but they are swimming very fast below the water.
34. Thank you to every one of you, for your presence here, for your dedication, for your hard work, and for the support of your families, because without their support, you can’t do what you are doing.
35. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamed, for your dedication and commitment to the development of Khadijah Mosque, and your selfless service to the RRG and the community. It is wonderful to see you here, and we are very happy that you will continue to provide guidance to the RRG’s leadership.
36. And I wish Ustaz Dr Mohamed, who has stepped up as RRG’s co-chairman this month together with Ustaz Hasbi Hassan, all the very best and every success, as you lead the RRG into the next phase of its journey.
37. We are grateful for all that you have achieved and done, and we hope we can continue to work together in fighting terrorism and extremism, and in maintaining harmony in our multi-racial society.
38. Thank you very much.