While the phenomenon of online radicalization has not escalated alarmingly in Singapore in recent years, neither has it seemed to fade away. This is in spite of the efforts by the government and local community to prevent such a threat from spreading.
A main reason for this is the unbreakably close relationship between self-radicalization and the internet. Unlike many other forms of media, the internet provides an almost unchallenged channel of ideas that knows no physical boundaries or barriers. This characteristic is fully utilized by a rising generation of hate preachers and propagandists who are young, charismatic, and web-savvy.
Youths are especially vulnerable to the emotional traps laid by these internet propagandists. They quickly absorb highly propagandist messages clothed in religious or cultural rhetoric and thrive in a perceived environment of global solidarity and brotherhood. In this manner, the internet has emerged as the “open university” for hate speech and propaganda.
The Threat in Singapore
According to the Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2021, released by the Ministry of Home Affairs in June, the domestic terrorism threat to Singapore stems primarily from self-radicalized individuals influenced by extremist materials encountered online. Like other countries, Singapore is vulnerable to attacks against soft targets by lone actors using easily available materials.
It is no doubt that as long as online radicalization continues to threaten society, young people are at risk. In January 2021, a Singaporean Christian was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for plotting to attack Muslims at two mosques. The 16-year-old is the youngest person to be held under ISA for terrorism thus far, and the first detainee to be influenced by far-right extremist ideology. He was specifically influenced by the Australian Brenton Tarrant, who massacred 50 Muslims in Christchurch in 2019.
In March 2021, a 20-year-old Singaporean Muslim was arrested under the ISA for planning to carry out a knife attack against Jews at a synagogue. He had also made plans to travel to Gaza, Palestine to join the military wing of Hamas in its fight against Israel. This young man was radicalized into a deep hatred for Israel after being convinced that Palestinians were being oppressed in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) continues to detect self-radicalized Singaporeans and foreigners. Since 2015, 54 individuals were dealt with under the ISA for terrorism-related conduct. Forty-four of them were self-radicalized, of which 14 were dealt with since 2019.
The Driving Force
In order to better address this issue, we first have to ask the question: What drives the process of online radicalization? In many cases involving Muslims (which represent the majority of the cases of online self-radicalization in Singapore), individuals who became self-radicalized online were sparked by a desire to become a better, practicing Muslim.
In searching for the “true” Islam, why is it that young Muslims incline to the internet instead of seeking out qualified religious teachers (asatizah) at mosques? Is it merely a matter of convenience, or do they perceived the internet as a more effective tool for filling their spiritual void? Does the internet offer more eloquent and passionate arguments about issues surrounding Muslims and the practicing of Islam in an increasingly challenging world?
Certainly, a major side effect of globalization is the difficulty for individuals to cope with the rapid external changes while preserving their inner sense of identity. Many Muslims’ sense of identity is strongly linked to Muslim values and teachings and hence, their response to globalization is to adhere more strongly to these Islamic values and teachings. Unfortunately, many Muslims today are not equipped with sufficient basic knowledge to adapt true Islamic teachings to the demands of a rapidly changing world.
At the same time, we also face challenges from unqualified religious teachers who are preaching hatred and violence to the masses. For example, a 44-year-old Singaporean was arrested and placed under restriction orders for preaching radical Islam in the community in 2010. Claiming himself to be a religious teacher, or ustaz, it is believed that he influenced many of his students and followers with his ideas and swayed them into the fallacies of extremist ideology.
For example, famous extremist propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki did not have formal Islamic scholarly credentials, yet he was able to command the interest of sections of the Muslim community. This brings us to question the value of accreditations, including the religious kind, when it comes to trusting and believing so-called scholars. Particularly on the internet, will it matter if one has formal accreditations? Or is it just a matter of who has better rhetorical skills and charisma?
This is a major concern in the Singaporean context. The case of this unqualified preacher questions the relevance of the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS), which was introduced by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore in 2005. The scheme, which aims to enhance the public standing of Singapore’s religious teachers, is seen as a reliable reference guide for members of the Singapore Muslim community in Islamic-related matters.
However, while it is imperative that under this system, all preachers of Islam be verified and approved before disseminating knowledge to the public, the ARS still does not have the legal power to bar unqualified preachers from teaching willing students. In addition, there is a need to regularly revise and revisit the requirements for accreditations in line with changes in the needs of the community and the education system.
Evaluating Our Strategies
Since the threat of online radicalization remains ever-present, there is a need to evaluate the government’s current strategies for addressing this issue. Certainly, the detection of radicalized individuals is a monumental task. Often, it is only when someone manifests his or her ideas into action, possibly killing or injuring members of the public, that we can detect and arrest them.
By that time, however, extremist ideology has already been deeply etched into their belief system, making it difficult to eradicate. From an intelligence perspective, self-radicalized individuals are also harder to monitor and detect compared to those who belong to a group, as there is often minimal communication to monitor.
There is an enormous payoff to stepping up efforts to prevent self-radicalization. To this end, a more comprehensive strategy is needed to improve our youth’s capacity to deal with extremist ideas on the internet.
First, there is a need to prioritize programs that educate internet users to deal with internet content. Second, there should be a strong positive presence online to disseminate true Islamic values and effectively engage the online audience. In this respect, while counter-extremist websites have been produced, these are at present very few and amateurish compared to those of the extremists.
Third, there is a continuing need to find ways to deter and invalidate the extremist messages online. While promoting more positive messages is important, we need to reduce the increasing appeal of extremist messages.
As in many open, globalized societies, Singapore continues to be exposed to potential sources of radicalization through a variety of human and institutional catalysts, such as formal and informal religious institutions and, increasingly, within university settings and youth groups.
The internet plays a significant role in this process as it creates a dynamic environment characterized by a confluence of political, religious, racial, and cultural flashpoints. This environment is being exploited by a small yet influential number of radical actors to serve their evil purposes.
Singapore’s efforts to counter the extremism spreading widely on the internet are still in their infancy. More voices of moderation need to be heard from the local community, especially religious leaders and scholars, as much as more counter-extremist websites need to be created.
One of the most important lessons of the Singapore experience is that active and continuous engagement with the Muslim community is vital in the fight against extremism. Cooperation with governments in the region and internationally is also crucial to keep abreast of the latest developments and radicalization trends.