Published: 26 November 2020
1. Good evening Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Ambassador Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Ms Juliet Liu, Mr John Lim, Dr Noor Huda Ismail, Mr Sujadi Siswo, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
2. Thank you for inviting me to join you for this film premiere.
3. I would firstly like to congratulate Dr Noor Huda and his team for producing this film, and thank Humanity Matters for organising this film premiere. I am delighted to see so many friends and familiar faces in the audience here this evening.
4. Having read the synopsis of the film, I look forward to watching it together with you, so that we can gain further perspectives on the process of radicalisation. I think we can all say that most of us will not be very familiar with how it happens, so there is great appeal in terms of wanting to find out.
Threat of Terrorism and Radicalisation Remain
5. In peaceful Singapore, we can easily be lulled into thinking that radicalisation is a problem that only happens elsewhere, which we can read and watch about with some detachment. Through the busy-ness of our lives and other domestic concerns, news of such grotesque events may even have lost their ability to shock.
6. Last month, there were multiple terror attacks in France, most notably, the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty, and a knife attack in Nice, I believe in a church, which killed three people. Earlier this month, there was the shooting in Vienna that killed four people and injured at least 15 others, and an explosion in Jeddah targeting French interests, which resulted in at least three injuries. All made the international headlines. But if you listen, observe conversations, frankly they did not really become key topics of discussion at home.
7. In fact, the threats are closer than they appear. In Southeast Asia, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups continue to operate and remain active, and they continue to spread their ideologies online. In Indonesia, some ISIS supporters have incited violence against France and French nationals, over France’s response to the terror attacks.
8. We in Singapore must never assume we can ever be immune to the threat of radicalisation and terrorism. We believe so at our own peril. Just two days ago, we announced that the Internal Security Department investigated 37 individuals, 14 of them Singaporeans, in the wake of the recent terror attacks in France. They were inciting violence and stoking communal unrest, or made derogatory remarks against Muslims. 16 foreigners have had to be repatriated. Investigations into the remaining 21 individuals, including a radicalised Bangladeshi worker arrested under the Internal Security Act, are still ongoing. Just to be clear, a vast majority of work-pass holders in Singapore present no such problems or inclinations, but there were the few that did. Much like in the local community.
9. Since 2015, we have ourselves dealt with 29 radicalised Singaporeans under the Internal Security Act. Many of them were influenced by extremist online materials. Each one of them had the potential to do great harm, not just to themselves but to our communities.
10. To illustrate, in January this year, we detained a 17-year-old Singaporean for supporting ISIS.
11. He was first investigated in 2017, after he posted defaced images of President Halimah Yacob on social media, and called on ISIS to behead her for supporting Singapore, which he viewed as an infidel state. He was only 15 years old at that time.
12. He had been radicalised by a foreign online contact who introduced him to pro-ISIS social media groups. He eventually came to support ISIS and believed that it was a powerful group that was fighting for Islam and its use of violence against its opponents was justified.
13. Working with community partners and his family, we tried very hard to steer him away from this radical path by arranging religious counselling sessions for him and collaborating with his parents to guide him and monitor his activities. Still he persisted with viewing pro-ISIS online content, such was the attraction for him, and remained a staunch supporter of ISIS, even willing to undertake activities if called upon to do so. We therefore had no choice but to detain him.
14. It is absolutely important to stress, and I want to make sure this comes across clearly, that radicalisation is not limited to any religion or ethnic group. It is so important to stress this. Radicalisation is a poison that can seep wherever there are cracks in society of a communal nature.
15. Everyone will remember the Christchurch shootings last year. The shooter, Brenton Tarrant, was an extremist, right wing terrorist who made elaborate plans to attack the Muslim community. On 15 March, he opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 innocent people – one of whom was the husband and father of a Singaporean family.
16. What causes people to go down the path to radicalisation, and what can we, as a society, do to prevent this?
Factors that Influence the Risks of Radicalisation
17. Even as we learn more, two factors are clearly significant.
18. One, environmental influences. These include family and community networks, as well as the internet and social media.
19. Social media, in particular, has had an outsized role. It allows for the creation of large echo chambers, where similar views are reinforced and amplified, impervious to balancing views. So, you keep hearing people saying the same thing until they become truth because you hear no other views being expressed in these echo chambers. This has enabled pro-terrorist social media groups to spread and entrench their extremist ideologies farther and wider, where their supporters can amplify these messages in their various communities, including in Singapore.
20. This threat has also increased with Covid-19 as people spend more time online, and have less opportunity for face-to-face social interactions, where we see each other as part of the human race, that we are more alike than different. Those interactions are now at risk. Terrorist groups are using this opening to push out more online content to attract more followers.
21. The second factor has to do with the individuals themselves, their psychological and emotional state, which may be influenced by past traumatic experiences. Some of the radicalised Singaporean youths suffered from personal issues such as domestic violence and disputes, which increased their susceptibility to extremist causes. For example, one youth was faced with familial conflicts and difficulties in his studies. To cope, he fantasised about being a Mujahid or holy warrior to break out of his grim daily reality. Coping through fantasy is nothing unusual, all of us had experienced doing so, you take yourselves out of the present circumstance. But in his case, it had a really frightening dimension to it.
22. Both these factors, social, environmental and individual factors, they are closely related and reinforce each other.
23. There is no silver bullet to tackle the threat of radicalisation. The whole of society must come together, to counter the risks and avoid the most dire consequences. Let me put forward three suggestions how we can do so.
24. First, we must make every effort to deepen cross-religious and cross-cultural understanding and interactions. That is the one basic thing that is essential, we must get right.
25. By any measure, Singapore today enjoys a high level of racial and religious harmony. This is, however, not a state of nature. Developments elsewhere can spill over, such as the increase in violence committed in the name of religion. Domestic issues can also be exploited, to foment dissatisfaction and incite disharmony.
26. On its part, the Government will continue to strive for fairness in its dealings with the different races and religions, and to take firm enforcement action against hate speech. But the Government’s actions alone will not be enough. Our efforts as individuals and communities, to mix with each other, understand, appreciate and defend our multi-cultural way of life, are essential to integration. Where we believe change to be necessary, we also need the wisdom and patience to build consensus through engagement.
27. Second, a holistic approach is necessary to counter radicalisation and re-integrate those who may have been led astray.These include community-led efforts by the Religious Rehabilitation Group and the Inter-agency Aftercare Group, which cover psychological, social and religious rehabilitation. These efforts unravel the individual’s extremist beliefs, mitigate against further negative environmental influences, and creates a supportive network for a person’s re-integration into society.
28. Third, we should continue to be vigilant against signs of radicalisation. If we observe family members, friends or colleagues displaying signs such as idolising, showing support or sympathising with terrorists and their causes, displaying insignia or symbols associated with terrorist groups, or trying to influence others to support terrorist causes, we should report them to the authorities early. This is no doubt a very difficult decision because it involves those who are close to us. But it is by taking action early, that we can stem the radicalisation, and save the individuals from harming themselves or others.
29. To conclude, while there are those like the protagonist in the film we are about to watch who successfully escaped the dangers of radicalisation, there are many more who remain on the battlefields in Syria or under the stranglehold of their extremist beliefs. And it is literally a stranglehold, once it sets in, it is very hard to get rid of it.
30. We need to continue to work together as one society, to prevent radicalisation, to counter and to rehabilitate.
31. Once again, I would like to thank Humanity Matters, Dr Noor Huda and his team from the Institute of International Peace Building, and the panel speakers for organising this session. Have a great evening. Thank you.