Family and friends had no clue of 16-year-old Singaporean's violent plans to attack mosques, anti-Muslim beliefs

The youth had chosen Assyafaah Mosque in Sembawang (left) and Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands as his targets. PHOTOS: SCREENGRAB FROM GOOGLE MAPS, ST FILE
The youth had chosen Assyafaah Mosque in Sembawang (left) and Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands as his targets. PHOTOS: SCREENGRAB FROM GOOGLE MAPS, ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The 16-year-old student who planned to attack Muslims here had spent time online researching hate material and sourcing weapons.

But his school friends and family had no clue of his online activities and anti-Muslim beliefs, the Internal Security Department said in a briefing last Wednesday (Jan 27).

His source of inspiration was Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019 with weapons including several rifles.

The teenager in Singapore had picked the second anniversary of the shootings in New Zealand - March 15 - to attack Muslims at two mosques here. He also tried, but failed, to buy a rifle online.

And like Tarrant, who was sentenced to life in jail without parole last August, the teenager had planned to leave behind a manifesto.

Dr Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist who runs his own practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said: "The differentiating factor is the fact that this boy is 16 - teenagers are impressionable and if they are socially isolated or lack self-confidence and don't have close ties, he or she may be more easily influenced by online propaganda."

He said online materials may give young people a false sense of purpose that they are lacking in their lives.

"It (the online community) becomes an echo chamber where they are not receiving any guidance from authority figures," added Dr Wang.

What can parents and educators look out for?

There are signs to look out for, such as increased isolation from family and friends.

Dr Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer in the communications and new media department at the National University of Singapore, listed others, such as strong beliefs and anger towards certain topics or groups.

And spending long hours online while remaining secretive and unwilling to talk about their Internet usage.

"These are warning signs that should be taken seriously and the first step is to have someone that the child or youth trusts to talk to them," she added.

But it may not be so easy if the individuals are socially withdrawn or if they have no strong peer group, said Associate Professor Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education.

"People or educators would then tend to think they are behaving normally, nobody will notice anything out of the ordinary and there are no warning signs," he added.

What can they do?

Given these difficulties, mental health professionals said it is important to build trust between youth and their caretakers, so extreme views can be expressed and dealt with instead of being left to fester on their own.

Dr Wang said: "The Asian approach is always to instruct and to demand respect... but you have to take an interest in their interests and not dismiss them."

Incontact Counselling and Training psychotherapist and counsellor Aarti Mundae said there is also a need to aid the process of empathy for children towards one another, and minimise any kind of exclusion in academic institutions.

For this to happen, schools and school culture have a part to play.

Ms Tan Siew Hua, a retired teacher who taught English and history in secondary schools for more than 30 years, said schools must be willing to conduct conversations on difficult topics.

"Schools must be open and not hush things up. We have a culture of suppressing information, being afraid of tarnishing the school's reputation, instead of having open conversations," she added.

What to look out for

The Sunday Times spoke to some experts, who gave a few signs that concerned parents can look out for.

1. Strong beliefs or anger towards certain topics or groups.

2. Spending long hours online while remaining secretive and unwilling to talk about their use of the Internet.

3. Obsessiveness about certain topics that the youth bring up repeatedly in school or at home.

4. Increased isolation from family and friends.

5. Open expressions of desire to commit violent acts.

Parents and educators should also be aware that violent or extreme thoughts may not be expressed verbally but through drawings or writing.

What to do

1. Remain calm: Experts stress that reacting with anger or additional control - such as restricting devices or Internet access - may push the youth away from parents and increase their sense of isolation.

2. Engage rather than dismiss: Do not dismiss their thoughts or ideas but try to understand them and provide alternative points of view.

3. Seek professional help: If parents feel out of their depth, they should get help from mental health professionals.