400 community volunteers recognised for efforts in rehabilitating terror detainees and their families

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the 15th Ministry of Home Affairs Appreciation Lunch for community volunteers on Sept 7, 2019.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the 15th Ministry of Home Affairs Appreciation Lunch for community volunteers on Sept 7, 2019.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - A mother of two who was resistant to offers of help after her husband was detained by the authorities for terrorism-related conduct eventually opened up after three months of house visits by community outreach officer Siti Nur Hasanah Mohd Yusoff.

In another case, a student whose father was detained dropped out of school for about two years when she was in secondary school. She was later placed in an out-of-school youth programme with Ms Siti's help, passed her O levels and graduated recently from polytechnic.

These were some family members of terror detainees that Ms Siti, 41, from self-help group Yayasan Mendaki, has helped to get back on track in the past five years.

She was among some 400 community volunteers and their families whose efforts were recognised at an annual appreciation lunch organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Saturday (Sept 7).

The volunteers include those from the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), Inter-Agency Aftercare Group (ACG), and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis). Mendaki is one of the agencies under ACG.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was the guest of honour at the event at Regent Singapore, said the volunteers' dedication has been vital to the rehabilitation of detainees.

"You have shown them and their families that the community has not given up on them. This is the encouragement that they need to reintegrate into society.

"Such encouragement can only be given by the community, and by volunteers like you. The Government deeply appreciates your commitment, to help tackle the threat of terrorism, and strengthen our community," he added.

The RRG, launched in 2003, is a non-profit group which trains religious teachers to counsel those who have been influenced or misguided by radical teachings. It also conducts workshops on countering extremist ideology in schools and mosques. ACG volunteers support the families of terrorist detainees.

Since 2002, more than 130 individuals found to have been involved in terrorism-related activities have been dealt with.

MHA said in June that between January and March this year, one Singaporean was issued with a detention order, while another two were issued with restriction orders for their involvement in terrorism-related conduct.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said the commitment of these volunteers has grown, even while the terrorism threat has changed. Today, Singapore faces not only threats from organised cells like the Jemaah Islamiyah, but also from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) returnees and self-radicalised individuals, he said.

The RRG and ACG volunteers have adapted to these challenges, and learnt from others, such as through visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia to bring home best practices in dealing with the threat of self-radicalisation.

He said: "Because of our collective hard work, we have managed to keep extremist ideologies and xenophobia from taking root in our society. Nonetheless, the fight against extremism continues. It is, as it has always been, a battle for hearts and minds."

It is not enough to detect and detain radicalised individuals, he said.

"We must bring those who were radicalised back on the right path. Otherwise, they will continue to pose a threat to society and themselves," he said, adding that this is not something the Government can do alone, but which requires effort from the whole of society.

Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean and Minister for Law and for Home Affairs K Shanmugam were also present at the lunch.

Dr Mohamed Ali, 46, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and vice-chairman of RRG, said the group has evolved from 2003, when it was set up solely to counter Jemaah Islamiyah ideology, to today where its efforts are more comprehensive, including public outreach and education.

More than half of its work today is preventive. For example, it holds conferences, dialogues and seminars to help ensure that the community is less susceptible to being radicalised.

RRG secretary Mohamed Feisal Mohamed Hassan, 45, a research fellow at RSIS, said the partnership between the Government and the community is key to the success of rehabilitation efforts.

Persistence is also important, said Dr Feisal, who has been doing religious counselling since 2003.

"When we meet them, we talk to them like brothers. If you meet them one or two times, people will think you are just playing games.

"But they see us there for years. People change by understanding concepts, but they also change by touch - a touch of concern or love," he added.