Singapore has according to some estimates the most diverse population on earth. The resident population of approximately 5.8 million ethnically comprises individuals of Chinese (76.2%), Indian (9%), and Malay (13.4%) descent. The main religions represented are Christianity (18.8%), Buddhism/Taoism (43.2%), Islam (14%) and Hinduism (5%).
The country has not seen successful terrorist attacks in the age of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), but it has had close brushes. In the early 2000s, it was targeted by Jemaah Islamiah (JI), al-Qaeda’s principal offshoot in Southeast Asia. The local JI cell’s plans to attack MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations, government ministries and foreign embassies were interdicted by Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) by the arrests of cell members in 2001 and 2002.
Since 2001, 100 (72 JI and 28 self-radicalised) individuals from the Muslim population in Singapore have been found to have been radicalised, or involved in terrorism-related activities at a level serious enough for the authorities to be placed under preventive detention, which is provided for under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Those detained go through a deradicalisation programme run by religious clerics (the RRG, or Religious Rehabilitation Group), with important support (including psychological counselling) provided by Singapore’s Internal Security Department. The continuing post-release programme of supervision goes some way in explaining why no JI member who has been released from detention is known to have slipped into recidivism. The vast majority have been released.
JI to IS
Of the 23 individuals currently under detention, 6 are JI members. 17 are self-radicalised individuals (many evincing sympathy for, or allegiance to, IS). The latter is a group unknown in Singapore before 2007.
As part of a forthcoming research paper (to be published in August by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)), I have been delving deeper into the case histories of these individuals – especially the more recent, self-radicalised ones.
There was an appreciable uptick in cases after the July 2014 declaration of the so-called caliphate. 6 radicalised individuals were detained under the ISA between 2007-2014, but 2015-2020 saw a further 22 radicalised individuals detained, almost all sympathetic to IS, with some having planned to join the group in Syria. A small number of Singaporeans – likely less than ten – are thought to have actually journeyed to the conflict zone in Syria/Iraq to join IS. The most well- known is Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad, alias Abu Uqayl (now thought to have been killed) who featured in IS propaganda videos in 2017 urging fighters to either join the East Asian fighters or come to the Middle East to undertake jihad.
Online sources : Religion or search for meaning?
Mirroring trends seen elsewhere, high levels of social media use (an avenue of exposure to IS propaganda and finding likeminded individuals online) has played a major role in the radicalisation of the majority of Singapore’s self-radicalised cases. The lure of the so-called caliphate expressed in slick, well-produced imagery and videos makes for a marked difference from the earlier Singapore JI members, whose indoctrination and radicalisation took place for the most part well before the advent of social media, with the Internet itself appearing to have played little or no part in their trajectory.
Surveying what is known of the individuals detained in the period from 2014, one receives the impression of impressionable individuals (several of them teenagers or in their early 20s), influenced by IS propaganda (videos, social media, websites), and especially material that suggested that it was the religious duty of Muslims in Southeast Asia to make hijrah to join the so-called caliphate. Responding to IS’s call for hijrah and making the journey to Syria represented an opportunity to fulfil religious obligations, be a good Muslim, and belong to an in-group.
While the search for spiritual meaning and desire to learn more about Islam (or to be a better Muslim) were important for the earlier generation of JI members, for many of the Singapore self-radicalised individuals it is the search for an ideal world and ideal self-image that are of equal, if not greater importance. As one RRG counsellor observes, “A combination of blind fervour and shallow understanding of Islam among the youths is a lethal combination that can be exploited by extremists.”
In some cases, individuals did not go out seeking jihad or IS material directly: online material concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict led one individual, Adzrul Azizi Bajuri (aged 19 at the time of his detention in 2017) to IS material and thence to radicalisation.
The sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki feature in the radicalisation trajectory of at least 9 of Singapore’s self-radicalisation individuals (with more likely not being reported). Other individuals with followings in Southeast Asia who might not preach the necessity of immediate jihad have been singled out by the authorities for promoting an exclusivist, intolerant brand of Islam. For example the Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik and Zimbabwean cleric Ismail Menk have both been banned from entry.
All the reported “self-radicalised” cases in recent years have had an online element. An example is M Arifil Azim Putra Norja’i, a post-secondary student arrested in 2015 at the age of 19. Arifil had been viewing radical propaganda online since 2013, and befriending individuals online (an element shared by many of the post-2013 Singapore radicalised) whom he thought could assist him in joining IS. He was thwarted in his plans to join IS in Syria but his backup plan – which never came to fruition – was to assassinate government figures.
New types of individuals in Singapore are coming under the thrall of IS, with women for the first time beginning to feature in the ranks of the radicalised. Both of the Singaporean women known to have been radicalised had the same trajectory: they were radicalised by online contacts. One, an infant-care assistant, Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari (aged 22 at the time of her detention In 2017), had been actively posting and sharing pro-IS material online since 2014. Izzah had planned to make the trip with her young child to join IS. Izzah had been looking for an IS supporter to marry and settle down with in Syria- she believed that she would reap “heavenly rewards” if her husband died fighting, and her resulting status as a “martyr’s widow” would help her marry another IS fighter easily. After making progress under RRG counselling, Syaikhah was released in 2019 with some restrictions.
Formerly (in the pre-IS age), according to official data, it would take around twenty-two months for people to become radicalised. But in recent years, with online self-radicalisation preponderant in the Singapore cases, this has been reduced to nine months. While further research is needed, it should be observed that this mirrors trends seen elsewhere (including in the west): there can be no doubt that social media has not just facilitated radicalisation but quickened its tempo.
There have been unusually frank acknowledgements from Singapore officials that self-radicalised individuals are tougher to deradicalise than the earlier generation of JI detainees. This is borne out by the figures: of the 28 self-radicalised individuals to be detained, 17 remain in detention (a “success rate” of 39 per cent), as compared with the success rate for the earlier generation of JI individuals, which is close to 90 per cent. It is worth noting at this point that of the individuals who went through the ISA’s preventive detention and RRG counselling and have subsequently been released, the only two known recidivist cases (individuals who had to be detained a second time) were both individuals for whom online radicalisation and immersion in online jihadist propaganda on the Internet played a role. Abdul Basheer was released from his initial detention in 2010 but was detained again in 2012 when he renewed his online inquiries in waging jihad overseas and again immersed himself in radical websites. Fadil bin Abdul Hamid was initially detained from 2010 to 2012. When released, he made some progress reintegrating into society, but became drawn to radical material online again, falling in particular under the spell of Al-Awlaki, and planned to fight alongside IS in Syria. He was detained again in 2016. Basheer was released in February 2016 when it was assessed that he no longer posed a threat.
Refinements of existing interventions are needed (and have been initiated) in the coming years. One involves communication and confidence measures in the ‘real’ world. In several cases, friends and family were aware of the radicalisation of the individual but chose not to come forward, believing they were protecting the individual. As the authorities have observed, this is a mistaken notion: if spotted early enough, counselling can be given without the need for preventive detention.
Separately, the RRG has invested in developing a pipeline of younger counsellors who are tech savvy, well-versed in social media and IS propaganda online, and who understand the lingo of those who have been hooked. These individuals will have a critical role to play in the continued success of the “Singapore Model”.
Where sources for figures are not given in hyperlinks, these are taken from a database built by the writer on Singapore’s radicalised which takes into account official releases from the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs, media reporting, and other sources.