Published: 16 September 2023
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. Every year, we hold this lunch to thank all of you: volunteers and partners from RRG and ACG, for your strong support and commitment in keeping Singapore and Singaporeans safe.
2. This year is the 17th year we are doing this.
3. More than 20 years ago, after the JI network was discovered in 2001, the RRG and ACG stepped forward, to counsel radicalised individuals, and provide support for them and their families.
4. That was a very different approach compared to other countries.
5. In some countries, radicalised individuals were picked up, and then they were just locked up. In other countries, they were left alone.
6. Our approach, we felt that we ought to find a way to rehabilitate and reintegrate them back into society.
7. And since the radicalisation was based on their religious beliefs, the rehabilitation, the essential component would have to be based on religious counselling. The social support would need to come from the community. The key part of it could not be done by the Government.
8. You all stepped up and helped.
9. Since 2002, out of the 95 Singaporeans who have been detained under the Internal Security Act for terrorism-related conduct, 82 of them – almost 90% have made good progress in their rehabilitation, they have been released and reintegrated into society.
10. Most of them are doing well. Good support from families, they have jobs, and some of them are going on to further their education.
11. I have said this before, there are at least 82 lives that have been saved so far. The obvious comparison is what happened to those who have been picked up and put in Guantanamo Bay. The American approach was to pick them up, lock them up - talk about human rights, talk about fair trials, Congress says no, we don’t want any of them coming to Washington, New York for trial. And therefore, the Americans say Guantanamo Bay is not part of the US, so they are not entitled to their rights. So, they are not given any trials - you don’t even know if they are terrorists, some countries said they are. But they are picked up, brought and locked up in a part of Cuba, and you have heard some of what has happened there - the abuse that has gone on. Our approach has been, it’s difficult to bring them to trial – we arrest them, the counsellors come in, talk to them about religion. They get a better understanding and eventually they are rehabilitated, and when they are in custody, doctors see them regularly, there is no physical abuse, and their mental and physical health is monitored all the time. As I said, 82 of them have come out, as opposed to locking them up and throwing the keys away. That is the difference between the Internal Security Act and the approaches others have taken. I am not talking about the countries where they disappear, even in countries where they don’t disappear, they just get locked up.
12. We could not have done this without the RRG and ACG stepping up. If the Government tried religious counselling, it would have no creditability. You have saved all these lives and their families. They are able to be good parents and children, reintegrate into society – all because of your hard work and effort.
13. What we have in Singapore is really quite special. I spoke about this in some detail at last year’s lunch.
14. I also spoke about geopolitical and social changes in the Middle East and in our region, and how that is going to affect us and affect how religious practices and religion itself, are understood in Singapore.
15. The trends towards exclusivism are still there.
16. There was a Pew survey, a respectable survey, published a few days ago, of this region, including Singapore. 86% of Muslims in Indonesia say it is “very important” to be a Muslim, in order to be truly Indonesian. In Malaysia, it is 79%.
17. So, in their view, if you are not Muslim, you cannot be Indonesian or you cannot be Malaysian.
18. In contrast, in Singapore, the survey found almost 90 per cent said that being Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or believing in Chinese religions and so on – are all possible while being Singaporean. It is a big difference. Here, a Muslim will say you can be Muslim, you can be a Christian, a Hindu, you can believe in Taoism, you can still be a Singaporean. In Malaysia, they will say you are not a Muslim, you cannot be Malaysian. In Indonesia, they will say you are not a Muslim, you cannot be Indonesian. It is a big difference, psychologically.
19. A large part of how we have been able to come to this place – is that, of course our legal framework which makes sure that we prohibit violence and hate speech against anyone, of course it protects the minorities more because the minorities are usually the targets of hate speech and offensive speech – that is not allowed in Singapore, but also because of the way religion has been practised and has been taught in Singapore. All the religions – so if you take the Muslim scholars, Mufti, the asatizahs, and leaders of other religions, they have always highlighted the importance of tolerance and acceptance. You can be a good Muslim, a good Christian, a good Hindu, a good Buddhist, and yet tolerate and accept that others have different beliefs.
20. So the region is going one way. We, thankfully, have managed to swim against the current. Again, I thank you for it, because you have played a big role in that. Muis, Mufti, asatizahs, all of you.
21. There is one other challenge, social media, where we have much work to do.
22. In the past, mainstream media was the gatekeeper of information which came into the public space.
23. But now, information can be shared and multiplied at a very fast, unprecedented scale.
24. Anyone can put out information that, in a few seconds, can reach thousands, in a few minutes, can reach millions.
25. Besides speed, the volume of information that anyone can access is also enormous.
26. The world is at everyone’s fingertips.
27. If someone goes down the radicalisation path, he can very quickly gain access to hundreds, thousands, of articles, posts and videos.
28. Once someone is caught in something, the social media algorithms are such that they keep feeding him more and more of the same. If he is interested in a certain type of negative approach, he will quickly link up with many others who think along the same lines, around the world, form connections – and their negative beliefs become self-reinforcing.
29. That is a very different situation from where many of you here – and I – we grew up in a very different environment.
30. Societies can be influenced by other societies, and people can be influenced by other people, from thousands of kilometres away today, very fast.
31. It can be good for the sharing of knowledge.
32. But communities can also quickly be torn apart, and people can be quickly led astray.
33. For example, when complex issues are over-simplified on social media, without proper background or context – people often come to the wrong conclusions.
34. Other times, there are people who intentionally, deliberately and maliciously mislead by giving wrong information, play to xenophobia, distrust, or lead people towards terrorism and radicalisation.
35. Online radicalisation, as ISD’s reports make clear, is a key factor in pushing the terror threat in Singapore today.
36. More young people are getting exposed to radical views through social media.
37. Terrorists and extremists are getting very good at using social media and they are targeting the young people.
38. Since 2015, 49 self-radicalised persons were dealt with under the Internal Security Act. Out of these, about 25% (11 persons) were below the age of 20. Five of them made plans to carry out attacks in Singapore.
Role of Community Volunteers
39. We have to do something about this.
40. On the Government’s side, we have laws and frameworks, platforms, to take down and deal with these kinds of content.
41. When we come across cases, we deal with them quickly.
42. But everyone, together, will have to help our young people to make better sense of what they see online; a better understanding of religion, so that they won’t be easily influenced by false propaganda.
43. We have to do this in the real world, in mosques, in families, but we also have to do this online.
44. RRG launched its TikTok account in June this year.
45. Within a short period, it has put up around 20 videos.
46. Some of these include videos like “Is it worth it to be a foreign fighter’s wife?” or public interviews on topics like, what do people think of when they hear the term “Jihad”.
47. I think these are welcome initiatives and we have to push along these lines. It is a very good effort – and we will have to continue to work at this.
48. In May this year, RRG also unveiled the Majulah Gallery, with a state-of-the-art exhibition and immersive videos.
49. It has already attracted about 1000 local and foreign visitors.
50. In the fight against extremism, radicalisation, we have seen some success so far, with all of your help.
51. Let me share one example.
52. This person by the name of Hamzah (not his real name) was detained in 2015. 18 years old.
53. He wanted to go to Syria to fight for ISIS, he had watched more than 500 videos online of extremist preachers, and brutal killings by terrorists and he thought this is what he should be doing too.
54. He became convinced that joining ISIS was an obligation under Islam.
55. When people tried to advise him, he resisted all the advice.
56. But, because of the continuing effort of his counsellors when he was in detention, he eventually accepted and understood that his beliefs were wrong.
57. He was released in 2017, just after two years. In any other country, this 18-year-old boy would have gone to Syria and almost certainly would have died there. When he was released, he was motivated to start again.
58. With financial assistance from the ACG, through Mendaki and the Muslim Trust Fund Association, Hamzah went on to become the first person in his family to graduate with a polytechnic diploma. In Singapore, he is now a polytechnic graduate. With financial help, religious counselling, community support. He has got a bright future, as opposed to fighting in Syria and dying.
59. Thank you very much to everyone here for your dedication and commitment.
60. I know that to volunteer is a real sacrifice – not just from you, but from your families.
61. As a result of your efforts, our homes are safer, because of the work that you do and we are grateful to you.
62. Thank you very much.