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Staying united against the threat of terrorism, exclusivism and Islamophobia

Speech by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, Minister-in-Charge of Cyber Security & Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs, on the motion on “Staying United Against The Threat” in Parliament

03 October 2017
Mr Speaker,

1. Societies around the world face serious threats from ideologies that profess faith but preach hate and violence. Extremism in the name of religion and race has brought fear and death in its wake.

2. But just as dangerous are exclusivist, beliefs and segregationist practices that result in communities not only staying apart from each other but making no effort to understand each other. These are societies in which the views of one community about the other are informed only by stereotype or prejudice. On the surface, all may appear calm and peaceful, sometimes for years. But when groups segregate themselves from others, social harmony is easily lost and hard to recover. So when a crisis hits, when a terrorist attacks, or when times are tough, such societies can fall apart.

3. The extremism of ISIS has also spawned another monster – that of Islamophobia – in the West. Far right groups in the West are gaining political ground by openly campaigning against Muslims. A few prominent religious leaders in the US have openly accused Islam of being a religion of violence.

4. So Singapore is faced with a triple threat – of extremist and radical ideology, of segregationist beliefs and practices, and of Islamophobia. All of us, regardless of race or religion, must squarely face and defeat this trifecta of disunity and not let it take root in Singapore. As a country founded on multi-racialism where all races live together in mutual respect and equality, this is a threat to our very existence as a nation.

Our Malay/Muslim community has confronted and defeated the extremist threat before

5. As a minority in a plural society, our Malay/Muslim community and its leaders are acutely aware of the challenges. Racial riots defined the fears of our founding generation. Our community’s pioneers saw clearly the importance of a united and strong society, where all communities are well-integrated.

6. Earlier this year during my annual Hari Raya function with community leaders, I emphasised how the Malay/Muslim community has faced evolving challenges with resolve. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the uncovering the plot of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members planning terror attacks in the region and at home, there was intense scrutiny of the community. Yet, the community and the religious leaders rallied together to tackle this threat, along with the rest of Singapore society.

7. Over the past decade, our community has enhanced the capabilities of our religious teachers, or asatizah, strengthened the curriculum of our madrasahs, and revamped the delivery of part-time religious education to meet the needs of the community. We have the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), initiated and led by senior asatizah who volunteered themselves as counsellors to help rehabilitate and re-integrate radicalised individuals. We launched the Harmony Centre@An-Nahdhah Mosque in Bishan and supported inter-faith dialogues. To live out the ideals of Islam as a religion of peace, we created the Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation, or Blessings to All Foundation, to aid universal humanitarian causes to bring aid to Muslims and non-Muslims alike1.

In the new threat environment, the community is rallying to respond

8. The emergence of ISIS-inspired ideologues and extremists and their methods of operation have magnified the challenge ahead of us. Their sophisticated use of the Internet, coinciding with the ubiquity of Internet access, influence and corrupt the impressionable and gullible. Similarly, such content help plant the seeds of doubt and fear in non-Muslims.

9. The security agencies have put in tremendous effort to safeguard our country against terrorism. They have stepped up vigilance and in recent months, have issued detention orders to radicalised individuals who planned to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. But beyond law and enforcement, ultimately it is a battle for the hearts and minds of all Singaporeans, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

10. The Malay/Muslim community, on our part, has stepped up efforts to address this triple threat to our social cohesion and national security. Allow me to highlight the key thrusts of the community efforts.

(1) Developing strong religious leaders

Mr Speaker,

11. One major thrust of our community efforts is to develop a corps of religious leaders and teachers who provide the community with sound guidance, and who can counter dangerous ideologies.

12. Our asatizah can act as a bulwark against extremist and segregationist ideologies. They play a key role in guiding our local Muslims in practicing their faith in accordance with the context of a multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore. Last year, reflecting on views and concerns raised by the community, MUIS and PERGAS, the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association, decided to make the Asatizah Recognition Scheme, or ARS, mandatory. This meant that all existing and aspiring asatizah and Islamic Education Centres and Providers, or IECPs, must register with the Asatizah Recognition Board, headed by MUIS and PERGAS, before they can teach Islam in Singapore. Central to the ARS status is the need for all asatizah to abide by a Code of Ethics, which includes not denigrating any racial or religious group.

13. Anyone who crosses the line will be dealt with decisively. One example is Rasul bin Dahri, a Singaporean preacher who is not ARS-recognised but published books on Islamic doctrine. In June, his books were prohibited under the Undesirable Publications Act, as they contained extremist views under the guise of “religious guidance”. This action shows we have zero tolerance for individuals and publications that promote ill will among different groups.

14. To date, we have more than 3,000 ARS-registered asatizah and Quranic teachers, as well as 174 IECPs. MUIS encourages these asatizah to continuously upgrade themselves, under the Continuous Professional Education (CPE), and organises various training platforms including modules on “moderation in religion”, counselling workshops on developing engaged families and learning journeys to the RRG.

15. Many of our asatizah receive their training in overseas Islamic universities. MUIS together with the NTU-RSIS Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) has developed a two-week programme “Islamic Thought in Context: Living in Plural Societies” to familiarise returning graduates with the need to contextualise religious doctrines for Singapore.

16. While we have all these programmes in place, we want to do more to develop future religious teachers steeped in Islamic learning able to inculcate sound religious values that are appropriate for our unique Singapore context. I am glad that MUIS has started looking into the development of a Singapore Islamic College. With this, our community will be able to train a new generation of asatizah here. At the same time, MUIS will strive to learn and adapt best practices from the best Islamic Universities in the world to our local context.

(2) Striving for comprehensive community engagement

Mr Speaker,

17. Developing religious leaders alone is insufficient.  Effective community engagement is urgent and important. To do so, we need to tailor programmes that cater to the different segments of the community.

18. MUIS has strengthened its part-time religious programmes to include lessons that inoculate our youth against extremist influences. The aLIVE programme, an acronym for “Living Islamic Values Everyday”, is an age-appropriate and interactive class for children aged 9 to 16 years old. For the working adults, MUIS has designed ADIL or Adult Islamic Learning, which includes modules about the universal Islamic values and ethics, such as mutual respect between different communities.

19. To address the serious concern of online radicalisation, MUIS has started parenting seminars to advise parents on issues such as authenticating online Islamic content and dealing with digital addiction among children and youths. MUIS has also developed and distributed an info-kit on “Resilient Families: Safeguarding Against Radicalism” to help parents identify tell-tale signs of a person who may be at risk of radicalisation, and how parents can respond should such a situation arise.

20. Earlier on, I touched on the establishment of the RRG in 2003 to rehabilitate radicalised individuals. The RRG has, over the years, expanded its role in building social resilience. RRG has organised briefings, forums and dialogues to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about key Islamic concepts that have been perverted by terrorists and extremist groups. The RRG also launched a Resource and Counselling Centre at Khadijah Mosque in Geylang to provide training and resources to RRG counsellors, asatizah, and members of the public who are interested to do research on extremism.

21. The RRG has also published content online to explain and debunk the fallacies of ISIS’ ideologies. It also offers over-the-phone counselling through its RRG helpline. The RRG set up its Resource and Counselling Centre (RCC) at Khadijah Mosque. The RCC provides training and resource material to RRG counsellors, asatizah and others who are interested to do research on issues related to extremism. The RCC has hosted over 1,500 visitors, ranging from foreign delegates to students and community groups.

22. To complement the good work of the RRG, MUIS is setting up an Asatizah Youth Network (AYN). The recent arrests of radicalised Singaporeans have highlighted how family and friends could see a loved one was becoming radicalised, but not refer these individuals for help. We have a number of our asatizah who have a strong online presence and have youth-centric programmes that appeal to the young. We want to work with them so that they can serve as the “first line of response” to guide those youth seeking answers and address incipient leanings towards problematic ideologies. The more serious cases will be referred to the RRG for rehabilitation.

23. As for the general public, from time to time, MUIS prepares Friday sermons, as Mr Alex Yam had noted, specifically to educate the community on the threats of ISIS and radical ideologies. Topics include dispelling the notion of the call for armed jihad, condemning ISIS and how it is undermining Islam, and emphasising moderation in Islam. MUIS also works with the RRG in conducting pre-sermon talks covering themes such as cyber-wellness, building resilience against extremist and exclusivist ideologies, and the importance of looking out to save friends or family who may be falling under the influence of radical ideology.

Singaporeans united against division

Mr Speaker,

24. What I have just shared are some of the many efforts that the Malay/Muslim community has embarked on. It has been a difficult and challenging journey for my community. As DPM Tharman recently said at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Majulah Lecture, “growing up as a minority is different from growing up as a majority…never pretend that it’s the same”. Sometimes the majority does not know what it feels to be a minority community. And for the Malay/Muslim community, this sense of being misunderstood is deeply felt, having been in the spotlight for quite some time. It is not a pleasant experience when your religion and your religious orientation is under constant scrutiny. But we persevered.

25. When other faith communities stepped forward to lend support to our struggle, it gave us comfort that we are not in this alone. So while Muslims have come under scrutiny in recent times, Singaporeans recognise that it is not only our community’s battle; it is everyone’s battle. So I was glad, like Mr Pritam Singh, when our Singaporean Buddhist brothers recently stepped forward to lend support to Singaporean Muslims who felt a sense of anguish for the situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar. They did so despite sharing a common faith with the majority in Myanmar. Each and every one of us is a part of Singapore, and we are interconnected in many different ways - linked through history, living side by side in our neighbourhoods, schools, work places, recreational activities, and sometimes through marriage. These connections are the social glue that binds us together as a nation. 

26. We all sing the same national anthem and hold our right fist to our hearts when reciting the pledge. These and many more other experiences of being a Singaporean must mean something to every one of us, especially when the going gets tough for a member of the Singaporean family. We must all work together to ensure that we preserve a cohesive Singapore society. We can defeat extremism, exclusivism and Islamophobia and other threats only if we feel for one another and do whatever we can to tackle these challenges. We require a Team Singapore approach that must become our way of life.

27. We must build friendships and strong bonds between different communities. With solid foundations of mutual understanding and respect, different communities will stand by and help each other. Through the good work of community organisations, the grassroots and the Inter-Racial and –Religious Confidence Circles, or IRCCs, in every constituency, religious and community leaders regularly come together to network and collaborate on projects that help members of different communities work together for common causes.

28. Nevertheless, we need more individuals to step forward both in and outside of social media to reach out to as many as possible. New media and the anonymity it lends have led to individuals denigrating other religions or sowing discord between communities over the internet, inadvertently or otherwise. We need netizens to speak up with moral clarity against injustice and stereotypes, and those who promote hatred and intolerance.

29. Earlier this year, I met Noor Mastura, co-founder of Interfaith Youth Circle, who organises inter-religious dialogues and engagements in safe spaces to better understand each other’s religions and traditions. Last year, I met Muzakkir Samat, who co-edited a book “From Walden to Woodlands”, an interfaith anthology of poetry about nature in Singapore. I understand that the Nanyang Confucian Association in Singapore has organised three Chinese-language forums on ‘Confucianism and Islam’ earlier this year and in June last year to raise the level of understanding of Islam in the Chinese community. The Singapore Buddhist Lodge donates rice to mosques annually before Ramadan to be cooked for the breaking of fast and distributed to needy families. I commend these efforts. We need more to step up and reach out across the boundaries of race and religion.

30. Government can and must deter wrong-doing with laws, and we can support with resources and advice, but we need good people, like Noor Mastura and Muzakkir Samat, to come forward to take action and build bridges across communities. We need Singaporeans to make racial and religious harmony happen in the everyday, through the friendships that are forged in school, in the workplaces, and at play, and the deeper understanding that can happen when we try to discover and appreciate a little more about beliefs and customs different from our own. It is through the sum of all these efforts that we can become a stronger, more resilient, and more harmonious society.

Let me continue in Malay.

31. Tuan Pengerusi, masyarakat sejagat kini sedang bergelut dengan ideologi ekstremis yang mengancam keharmonian dan perpaduan hidup kita semua. Pada masa yang sama, kita berdepan dengan sesetengah kelompok yang bersikap eksklusif dan memencilkan diri sehingga apabila krisis berlaku, ia mengakibatkan perpecahan dalam masyarakat. Pengaruh ekstremis yang disebar ISIS juga telah mewujudkan sentimen Islamofobia yang menuding jari terhadap Islam sebagai agama yang menyebarkan keganasan. Kita di Singapura tidak terlindung daripada ancaman-ancaman ini. Sebagai sebuah negara kecil yang berbilang agama dan kaum, kita tiada pilihan selain memperkukuh lagi daya tahan negara kita.

32. Sebagai minoriti dalam masyarakat majmuk di Singapura, masyarakat Melayu/Islam dan para pemimpinnya telah lama berpegang teguh dengan prinsip bersatu-padu agar semua masyarakat dapat berintegrasi dengan baik. Sejarah pahit ketika rusuhan kaum sebelum kemerdekaan Singapura, menjadi satu pengajaran kepada pemimpin perintis kita. Apabila kita diuji dengan peristiwa 11 September dan komplot pengganas oleh JI ke atas rantau ini termasuk Singapura, para pemimpin agama dan masyarakat berganding bahu dengan segenap rakyat Singapura yang lain untuk mengatasi anasir tersebut.

33. Kini, pengaruh ISIS mewujudkan ancaman baru terutamanya dengan penggunaan media sosial yang licik untuk mempengaruhi orang-orang Islam, dan juga menimbulkan perasaan takut dan syak wasangka dalam orang-orang bukan Islam. Walaupun agensi-agensi keselamatan telah meningkatkan langkah penguatkuasaan, ini tidak memadai. Setiap rakyat Singapura, Muslim atau bukan Muslim, berperanan untuk memastikan ideologi pengganas tidak menular di sini.

34. Sejak beberapa tahun lalu, masyarakat Melayu/Islam telah meningkatkan lagi usaha untuk menyumbang kepada daya tahan Singapura, khususnya dalam dua bidang iaitu mengukuh kepimpinan agama dan mengeratkan jalinan masyarakat dengan lebih menyeluruh. Dalam usaha mengukuh kepimpinan agama, penting bagi golongan asatizah kita diperkasa untuk membimbing masyarakat dalam mengamalkan ajaran agama yang sesuai dengan konteks berbilang kaum dan agama kita di Singapura. Awal tahun ini, Skim Pengiktirafan Asatizah atau ARS telah diwajibkan dan semua asatizah yang ingin mengajar di sini perlu berdaftar dan mematuhi Kod Etika. Kini, MUIS sedang mempergiat usaha untuk membentuk sebuah Kolej Islam di Singapura untuk melahirkan lebih ramai lagi asatizah yang dapat menyokong matlamat ini.

35. Selanjutnya, kita sedang mempergiat usaha untuk mengeratkan jalinan dengan masyarakat melalui program-program yang bersesuaian untuk semua peringkat usia. Selain meningkatkan lagi mutu program-program agama separuh masa, MUIS telah menjangkaui golongan ibu bapa agar mereka lebih peka untuk menilai bahan-bahan agama dan ketagihan siber di kalangan anak-anak. Malah, badan-badan lain turut memainkan peranan untuk membanteras pengganasan. Misalnya, Kumpulan Pemulihan Agama atau RRG telah melakukan banyak usaha untuk mendekati masyarakat Islam dan bukan Islam, melalui program kemasyarakatan mahupun menawarkan maklumat di ruang siber. Untuk melengkapi usaha RRG, MUIS sedang membentuk rangkaian asatizah dan kumpulan belia agar mereka menjadi rujukan pertama bagi anak-anak muda yang mencari huraian agama dan mungkin terpengaruh dengan ideologi yang merbahaya.

36. Tuan Pengerusi, masyarakat Melayu/Islam tidak boleh bersendirian dalam usaha untuk mengekang ideologi ekstremis dan unsur pengganasan. Kita mesti bekerjasama dengan pemerintah dan seluruh rakyat Singapura untuk menewaskan ketiga-tiga ancaman yang merbahaya iaitu pengaruh ekstremis, sikap eksklusif dan sentimen Islamofobia. Usaha mesti diteruskan untuk mengukuhkan lagi persefahaman dan sikap saling hormat-menghormati di antara kaum, dan menghargai perbezaan di antara kita. Kejayaan yang terbesar adalah apabila kita kekal bersatu walau apapun ujian yang melanda. Lebih ramai lagi individu yang harus tampil ke hadapan, sama ada di ruang siber atau di alam nyata, untuk melawan sikap prejudis dan tidak toleran terhadap satu sama lain. Hanya dengan ini, kita dapat bergerak ke arah sebuah masyarakat yang lebih kukuh, berdaya tahan dan harmoni. 

Biar saya rumuskan dalam Bahasa Inggeris.

37. Mr Speaker, we should take heart in what we have achieved so far. If we stand together as one, we will keep Singapore our home safe and secure for all of us and for the generations to come. Let us continue helping one another, reaching out to one another and be a blessing to everyone around us.

38. Mr Speaker, I support the motion. Thank you.


1 Over the past 10 years, the mosques and RLAF have collected over $5 million from the community for international humanitarian relief projects. Some of the notable examples include Syrian refugees in 2014, victims of the Nepal earthquake in 2015, and flood victims in South Asia and refugees from the Rakhine State in Myanmar this year.
Last Updated: 05 October 2017

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