S'pore 'must boost online fight against radicalism'

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said there is a need for alternative narratives online to combat radical ideology.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said there is a need for alternative narratives online to combat radical ideology.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Battle for hearts and minds of young Malay Muslims being waged in cyberspace: Yaacob

The religious authorities in Singapore need to boost their presence online, which is where the battle for the hearts and minds of young Malay Muslims is being waged, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.

There is a need for "alternative narratives online" to combat radical ideology, he told reporters yesterday at Eunos MRT station after launching a Hari Raya-themed MRT train ahead of the festival.

"Several young asatizahs already have programmes available online, it is just a matter of making them popular, making them appealing to young Singaporeans," he said.

Winning the online war against terror groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not easy, but the authorities are trying their best, he noted.

His comments come two days after news about the arrests of two Singaporean auxiliary police officers for terrorism-related offences under the Internal Security Act.

Muhammad Khairul Mohamed, 24, was detained for planning to travel to Syria to fight against the Syrian government, while his colleague Mohamad Rizal Wahid, 36, was placed on a Restriction Order for supporting his plan.

On June 12, the authorities announced the detention of infant care assistant Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, 22, who was planning to travel to Syria to become a "martyr's widow", fighting for ISIS.

Both Khairul and Izzah were radicalised after viewing extremist propaganda online.

When asked, Dr Yaacob said the Malay community takes the threat of terrorism seriously, but added that the threat is "evolving".

"What used to be groups of Jemaah Islamiah, now we are finding lone individuals radicalised because of their own personal challenges. We need to respond to this," he said.

People need a "safe place" to go to for help from the religious authorities if they know someone who has been radicalised, he added.

Over the past three weeks, political leaders have been urging family members and friends to seek help early from the relevant authorities if their loved ones show signs of being radicalised, and Dr Yaacob reiterated that call yesterday.

"There is no sense of shame in coming forward... It is better to nip the problem in the bud than allow it to fester," he said. Friends and family members of Khairul and Izzah now regret not coming forward to seek help, he noted, adding that the authorities are not out to condemn young radicalised individuals.

Dr Yaacob added that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has been training young asatizahs, or religious teachers, to reach out to the young.

One such asatizah is Ustaz Zahid Zin, 33, who conducts weekly classes for young people that he publicises on Facebook and Instagram. The classes have grown from 30 students in 2010, to 500 now.

"(The youth) are interested, they want to learn, but sometimes they don't know where to go," he said.

At a separate event in Siglap, Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman also called on the Muslim community to do more to tackle extremist ideology. He stressed that there is no place for Islamophobia or any form of anti-religious sentiments in Singapore, as these could divide society.

Responding to the recent arrests yesterday, the Security Association of Singapore said it will roll out a set of guidelines for private security agencies to help them identify potentially radicalised individuals.

•Additional reporting by Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore 'must boost online fight against radicalism''. Print Edition | Subscribe