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Singapore: The Lure of the Far-Right

Singapore: The Lure of the Far-Right
2nd February 2021 Dr. Shashi Jayakumar
In Insights

The news of the detention of a 16 year old self-radicalised Singaporean (of Protestant faith) who planned to murder Muslim congregants at two mosques in December 2020 with a machete has taken many by surprise.

The unnamed individual is not only the youngest individual to date dealt with under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) (which provides for detention without trial) for terrorism-related activities; he is also the first far-right extremist detained in Singapore under the ISA.

The most startling revelation is that the individual (of Indian ethnicity) was deeply influenced by the Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant. In one of the two manifestos he had prepared (intended for dissemination prior to his planned attacks), the youth referred to Tarrant as a “saint” and the Christchurch attacks as a “justifiable killing of Muslims.” He also had settled on a key date, 15 March – the second anniversary of the Christchurch attacks- as the date of his attacks, which he intended to livestream.

A limited amount of information is available on the trajectory of the youth’s radicalisation. Specific incidents appear to have acted as trigger points. One was the attack against Christians in a church in Nice, France, on 29 Oct 2020. One of the manifestos drawn up by the youth had a message embedded within calling on the French people to “stand up for what is right,” claiming that “we cannot let them [i.e. Muslims] lurk in our bushes and wait for them to attack.” He also viewed videos online of Islamic State (IS) atrocities, including videos of IS militants executing Ethiopians Christians  in Libya which also played some part in convincing him that Islam was a religion of violence.

To prepare himself for the attack, the youth had watched YouTube videos on how to use a machete (which he had made preparations to purchase through a local online portal, Carousell), having earlier unsuccessfully attempted to purchase an assault rifle from an unknown individual (and possible scammer) on Telegram. He had done online reconnaissance (using Google Maps and Street View) of the two mosques identified as targets.

Despite his youth, the individual thought through his course of action in a mature, seemingly logical way, extending to stealing his father’s credit card in order to procure a car under a well-known shared car service, and watching videos to prepare for driving an automatic transmission vehicle. He also explored (in what appears to have been  a preliminary fashion) making a Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) bomb.

The indications are that he acted alone.  His immediate family and friends appear to have been completely unaware  of his plans.  But there are unanswered questions – apart from imbibing far-right material, was he part of an interactive online community that might have provided the mood music for this thinking?

In time, investigations might reveal more about how much religion played in the radicalisation process.  Several of the young pro-IS individuals detained in Singapore in recent years do not appear to have been deeply versed  in their religion (although they cared about the general idea of being a good Muslim). Rather, what several seemed to have had were issues at home or at school, or personal troubles. They turned to IS as part of meaning-seeking behaviour, and, at least partly, an avoidance/coping mechanism. Recent investigations of such pro-ISIS individuals suggest that some find it difficult in the social media world to find meaningful real-world connections. Their trajectory must be seen, especially with younger individuals, in the context of the developmental stages of youth and the stressors that come with it. The radicalisation journey of several detained pro-IS Singaporeans can be as little as nine months. Tellingly, the suggestions are that it only a little over a year for the mental journey of the  present, far-right individual under consideration to be complete  – he seems to have only begun surfing websites that led him down this path in 2019.

What is not subject to supposition is that this individual was determined to carry out his plan and was prepared to die doing so. As Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) has observed, the individual did not just have an antipathy to Islam  – he had a fascination with violence. In his second, unfinished, manifesto,  he wrote about his belief that “violence can never be solved with peace.” Peace, in his view while “moral,” was “nowhere near effective” as violence. He also stated his hope that his act would be seen as “a justifiable act of violence” and “would cause a change in those who believe that Islamic extremism is right.”

There are some assumptions that can be made regarding how the Singapore authorities will react to this arrest in the long term. One can expect measures to prevent “alt-right” thinking, or reciprocal radicalisation of the type seen in the West,  from taking root. More generally, there will likely be efforts made to enhance resilience, and to bolster the already ongoing series of active, muscular interventions designed to preserve tolerance and diversity. In spite of this, there are signs of extreme views taking root in some corners – not just at the fringes of religion, but more generally views filtered through social media echo chambers that are polarised even as they are formed, permitting little  meaningful interchange or discourse with other views.

The evolution of the rehabilitative approach in Singapore should also be closely watched. Since its inception in 2003, it has been extremely successful in rehabilitating individuals from the regional extremist group, Jemaah Islamiah, and (latterly) self-radicalised individuals sympathising with IS. It is too early to say whether an analogue to the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG; currently staffed by senior and respected Muslim clerics) will need to be set up to deal with far-right individuals, or whether they will be dealt with on a case by case basis. For the present individual under consideration, ISD has said that besides likely counselling by Christian religious leaders, and psychological counselling, mentoring will also be provided to guide the individual on pro-social behaviour, with arrangements also being made for him to continue his education while in detention.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, and something which has come through strikingly in this episode, is encapsulated in a message  put out on social media by one of the mosques targeted by this individual: that violence has no faith.