S'pore has to counter misuse of social media by extremists to promote Syrian conflict, says Minister Heng Swee Keat

Thousands of foreign fighters from some 50 countries have gone to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and Singaporeans are "not immune to the call to fight", said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Saturday. -- ST PHOTO: TED
Thousands of foreign fighters from some 50 countries have gone to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and Singaporeans are "not immune to the call to fight", said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Saturday. -- ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

SINGAPORE - Thousands of foreign fighters from some 50 countries have gone to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and Singaporeans are "not immune to the call to fight", said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Saturday.

This is especially so because extremists have employed the Internet and social media to promote their cause, he said adding that Singapore has to counter this misuse of social media.

Mr Heng noted that the conflict, alongside unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, has fed into the "terrorist narrative that there is a global jihad that Muslims must be a part of".

As such, "many governments anticipate that the Syrian conflict will...lead to the perpetuation of the terrorism menace for years to come," said Mr Heng at the 10th annual retreat of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).

The voluntary group made up of asatizah, or religious teachers, counsel radicalised individuals here to get them to abandon their extremist beliefs.

The three-day retreat, which ends on Sunday, focuses on the Syrian conflict this year.

Mr Heng praised RRG for having done "good work" in helping Singapore rehabilitate those found to have "imbibed the terrorist ideology", and also for helping to reintegrate them into society upon their release from detention.

But with social media providing extremists with a means of promoting radical rhetoric, especially among young Internet users, efforts must be made to "reclaim the discourse" online, he urged.

Mr Heng warned that "radical ideologues are manipulating the spirit of altruism in our young people to stir up emotional responses to the perceived oppression of Muslims in conflict zones".

They do so, he said, to justify the use of violence as the "only viable means" to alleviate the plight of the Syrians.

To combat this, the RRG can tap on existing cyber wellness programmes that equip youths with critical reasoning skills, to teach them how to tell apart truth from propaganda, he said.

The group should also explore how it can exert a greater presence on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, he added.

In March, the Ministry of Home Affairs disclosed it was investigating Singaporean Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, 37, for allegedly going to Syria with the intention of taking part in armed violence there.

The supermarket manager, previously an Indian national, became a Singapore citizen in 2008.

Another man, Gul Mohamed Maracachi Maraicar, 37, an Indian national, was found to have helped to radicalise Haja and assisted in his plans in Syria.

Gul, who was a Singapore PR then, was investigated under the Internal Security Act and was eventually deported and banned from entering Singapore for his role in abetting and aiding Haja.

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