Murali Pillai
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Murali Pillai

Raising concerns about youths being drawn into terrorism and drug abuse

Parliament Q&As : 16th February 2021

Mr Murali Pillai asked the Minister for Home Affairs what are the facts and circumstances that led to the detention of a 16-year-old Singaporean on the grounds that he planned to use a machete to attack Muslims at two local mosques during the 2nd anniversary of the 2019 attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Mr Murali Pillai asked the Minister for Home Affairs what steps have been identified by the Government to counter the trend of persons being self-radicalised through the Internet into inciting violence against persons from different religious groups.

The Minister of State for Home Affairs (Mr Desmond Tan) (for the Minister for Home Affairs): Mr Speaker, please allow me to take together the eight questions on the recent arrest of the 16-year-old self-radicalised Singaporean and measures against extremism and radicalisation from Mr Christopher de Souza, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Murali Pillai and Mr Lim Biow Chuan.

Mr Speaker: Please proceed.

Mr Desmond Tan: Mr Murali asked for the facts and circumstances of the case and Mr Choo asked if investigations were conclusive that he had operated as a “lone wolf”.

The 16-year-old Singaporean was arrested in December 2020. He had made detailed plans and preparations to attack Muslims at two mosques using a machete. He is the first detainee to be inspired by far-right ideology and he is the youngest individual dealt with to-date under the ISA for terrorism-related activities. He was self-radicalised, motivated by a strong antipathy towards Islam and a fascination with violence. He was inspired by Brenton Tarrant, who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019. The 16-year-old Singaporean watched the video of Tarrant’s attack against the two mosques and read Tarrant’s manifesto. He also watched propaganda videos produced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and came to the erroneous conclusion that ISIS represented Islam, and that Islam called on its followers to kill non-Muslims.

He had planned to carry out attacks on 15 March 2021, the second anniversary of the Christchurch attacks, at Assyafaah Mosque and Yusof Ishak Mosque, near his home. To prepare for this, he conducted online reconnaissance and research on both mosques; devised a plan to procure a vehicle to use during the attack; bought a tactical vest from an online platform which he intended to adorn with right-wing extremist symbols and strap on his mobile device to livestream the attack; watched videos to learn how to wield a machete to inflict fatal wounds; and intended to purchase one from an online marketplace. He also wrote two documents which he intended to disseminate prior to his attacks. Both documents expressed his misguided hatred towards Islam, as well as support for the Christchurch attacks and far-right ideology.

ISD’s investigations found that he was operating alone. There was no indication that he had tried to involve others in his plans.

This case shows clearly that violent impulses are not restricted to any particular racial or religious group. People who have been exposed to hate speech can become influenced by it. The 16-year-old youth will undergo psychological and religious counselling to correct his radical ideology and address his propensity for violence. We hope that he will respond positively and will be successfully rehabilitated, so that he can carry on with his life.

Mr de Souza, Mr Choo, Mr Lim and Mr Murali asked about our counter-extremism and counter-radicalisation efforts.

Singapore has been strengthening our laws and building resilience against terrorism. For example, the updated Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act came into force in April 2019. Key changes included expanding the prohibition on financing terrorism activities to include terrorism training, and increasing penalties for failing to disclose information relating to terrorism financing to the authorities.

The detection and arrest of the 16-year-old Singaporean underscores the continued importance of the Internal Security Act, to enable the authorities to act pre-emptively before attacks happen, thus preventing injury, loss of life and damage to our communal harmony.

With regard to offensive weapons and firearms, we exercise tight controls under our laws, and these apply regardless of the modality of sales, be it through physical retail stores or online e-commerce platforms. The Guns, Explosives and Weapons Control Act was passed by Parliament in January this year. It replaced the Arms and Explosives Act and strengthened our regulatory and enforcement regime.

We agree with Mr de Souza that it is important for Singapore to denounce terror attacks whenever they happen, to send a clear message about where we stand as a people on this.

The Government has publicly condemned overseas terrorist attacks. And we are also fortunate to have the support of our religious leaders, who have been proactive in publicly condemning terror attacks and reminding their followers to stay calm and not react to expressions of extreme sentiments and acts of violence in the name of religion.

For example, in the wake of the Christchurch shootings in March 2019, various faith groups issued statements to denounce the shooter’s actions and call for Singaporeans to remain united and reject extremist ideas. Various ground-up interfaith initiatives were also organised, including a youth forum and a remembrance ceremony.

More recently, following the arrest of the 16-year-old youth, our local Christian and Muslim religious leaders met to reaffirm the mutual trust between both communities and condemn the teenager’s plot to attack the two mosques. The leaders of other religious communities echoed the call for Singaporeans to rally together in the fight against terrorism and extremism.

Mr Lim asked how we can improve relations between different religious groups. By showing their solidarity against violence and engaging in regular interactions, joint activities and community projects, our religious groups have maintained and strengthened harmonious relations, even in the wake of incidents that threaten to undermine our social cohesion.

Such efforts are also important in sending a clear signal that our local religious communities stand firmly against radical ideologies and that any copycat attacks will not find traction or support here.

Mr Lim, Mr Choo and Mr Murali asked about our efforts on educating religious groups, youths and the general public on countering radicalisation, and deepening students’ understanding of racial and religious issues.

The SGSecure movement is a call to action to Singaporeans to unite and prepare for the threat of a terrorist attack. We have been reaching out to different groups in the community, including religious organisations, to raise awareness of overseas and local threats of terrorism and radicalisation. We conduct programmes such as interfaith dialogues and activities and visits to the Harmony in Diversity Gallery to sensitise the public to cultural and religious nuances and sensitivities, as well as to deepen mutual respect and understanding among our different races and religions.

We have been sharing with the public how to detect early signs of radicalisation, such as displaying a keen interest in people with extremist views, supporting the use of violence as a solution to achieve one’s agenda and expressing low tolerance and resentment towards multi-racial and multi-religious living. We urge the community to stay alert and to inform the authorities of suspected cases of radicalisation, so that we can intervene early and prevent such persons from harming themselves and others.

Mr Choo asked us what more we can do in schools. We have been working closely with MOE to engage younger Singaporeans on SGSecure. All schools have a framework to drive SGSecure initiatives, which is overseen by school leaders. Age-appropriate SGSecure content is incorporated into story books and card games for students, as well as assembly talks and mobile exhibitions by Home Team agencies.

ISD has also been working with schools, Institutes of Higher Learning and community organisations to conduct counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation outreach activities for students, youths and educators since 2007. These include workshops, talks and seminars. With the COVID-19 pandemic, ISD has leveraged online platforms for its outreach efforts. For example, ISD conducted webinars for educators in Institutes of Higher Learning last year.

Workshops for school counsellors have been conducted since 2016 to sensitise them to the terrorism and radicalisation threat. As of 2019, over 260 School Counsellors in Secondary schools, as well as a number of Student Welfare Officers, have attended the workshops. Each workshop includes a visit to the ISD Heritage Centre to sensitise them to security threats, as well as a one-day training session which provides them with a better understanding of the radicalisation process and the factors, especially among youths; the behavioural indicators to look out for; and the intervention measures they can take. Teachers are encouraged to watch out for early signs of possible radicalisation, such as the avid consumption of radical materials, or expressions of support for terrorist entities and causes.

Community partners such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group also conduct counter-ideology outreach activities targeted at students and youths. For example, the RRG has been working with schools to organise assembly talks, workshops, as well as learning journeys to the RRG Resource and Counselling Centre. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the RRG has intensified its digital outreach efforts. It produced over 60 online lectures, “live” postings, online engagements and videos for the community, including for youths.

The RRG has also reached out to various inter-faith and religious groups. For example, in February 2020, the RRG, together with the Geylang Serai Inter-Racial Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) organised a forum entitled “Harmony Amidst Crisis” to show the solidarity of Singaporeans. Leaders from the various faiths came together to observe a minute of silence for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and also to start the campaign “#outbreak_never_break_us”. The forum featured speakers who touched on the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, the threat of radicalisation and how extremists have been leveraging the pandemic in their recruitment efforts.

Within the classroom, topics on multiracialism and the importance of racial harmony are taught in subjects like Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), History and Social Studies. In Secondary schools’ Social Studies, students examine the impact of social and racial and religious prejudice and misconceptions on people and society. They explore the roles played by individuals and groups in strengthening interactions between different races and they consider how they can play their part to promote social cohesion. As part of the refreshed CCE curriculum, Secondary school teachers will receive specialised training to facilitate discussions on contemporary issues, such as race and religion, to hone students’ perspective-taking skills as well as engender a sense of empathy and respect. All schools will also establish a peer support structure by 2022, where students will learn to support each other and be taught upstanding behaviour, speaking up for their peers where necessary, including in instances of racism and hate speech. These social bonds are the strongest counter possible against the spread of exclusivist and extremist ideologies.

Outside the classroom, there have also been efforts to encourage interracial and interreligious dialogue. For example, the “Regardless of Race” dialogue series organised by OnePeople.sg and supported by MCCY, provides a platform for conversations on sentiments, issues and norms pertaining to race. Since 2019, five sessions have been organised, involving a total of more than 500 participants. Another community-driven initiative to provide more safe spaces for open conversations on religious issues is the “Ask Me Anything” series facilitated by a non-governmental organisation, the WhiteHatters Ltd.

MCCY organised a Hackathon for Social Cohesion in November and December 2020, where more than 200 youths were invited to pitch innovative ideas on strengthening social cohesion and implement projects that promote social, racial and religious harmony.

Mr Speaker, a cohesive and united society is the best defence against terrorism and radicalisation. We will continue to strengthen our efforts to build a resilient community that is prepared for a terrorist attack in Singapore and plays an active part to safeguard Singapore’s unity in the face of this threat.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok): Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank the hon Minister of State for his detailed answers. We owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women of ISD, who have been vigilant in thwarting this attack, which would otherwise have very serious consequences on Singapore and Singaporeans.

My supplementary question relates to this alarming trend of people outside Singapore trying to radicalise impressionable youths. What can we do in Singapore to sensitise our youths to this trend and what steps can they take to report upwards if their friends are actually engaged in such websites.

Mr Desmond Tan: I thank the Member for the supplementary question. In my earlier reply, I have mentioned this is one of the key efforts that we are putting upstream to ensure that we educate our people. And that is the best line of defence — to ensure that they understand what are the right teachings and not be swayed by radical and extremist views. So, working with MOE, working with private organisations, MCCY, we want to reach out to our youths in various platforms, through various means, even in the areas that they are very keen and very interested and are very good at, through social media as well as through online platforms.

I think through these efforts we try our very best to inoculate our youths of today, to allow them to discern what are the right messages, what are the right doctrines and not be swayed by radical ideologies such as the case that has been said here.

There is no easy, foolproof solution when it comes to online access, we all know that. It is a challenge that we all face. We have to constantly look at how we can educate our youths through the school system. But I think also in terms of family, the roles of family, friends and close ones, are very important to make sure that we support our young people and also supervise, to some extent, the access they have online as well.

STEPS TO BRING DOWN NUMBER OF NEW DRUG ABUSERS ARRESTED

Mr Murali Pillai asked the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what steps have been identified by the Central Narcotics Bureau to bring down the number of new drug abusers arrested which stood at 38% of all arrests of drug abusers in 2020; and (b) how it proposes to address the presence of a high number of young persons aged 30 years and below (amounting to 62%) amongst the new drug abusers arrested in 2020.

Mr K Shanmugam: Preventive drug education, or PDE, is the first line of defence in CNB’s drug control approach, to get people not to take up drugs in the first place. Through its PDE initiatives, CNB aims to generate greater public awareness of the harms of drugs, encourage adoption of a drug-free lifestyle, and promote anti-drug advocacy among like-minded individuals and organisations.

To inoculate youths against drug abuse, CNB works closely with MOE to incorporate PDE contents within the school syllabus. CNB also engages students through talks, sharing sessions, exhibitions, skits and the After-School Engagement, or ASE, programme. The interactive PDE skit is an effective and popular PDE programme. It focuses on the harmful consequences of drug abuse and teaches students how to lead a drug-free lifestyle. The skit also provides refusal tips through humourous, relatable themes and storylines. In 2019, 82% of primary and secondary schools had participated in at least one PDE programme.

CNB works with the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force and Singapore Civil Defence Force to engage full-time national servicemen (NSFs). For instance, PDE toolkits and message cards with bite-sized information are provided to NS commanders so that they can engage NSFs under their charge on drug issues. Learning journeys are also organised for Home Team NSFs. Such engagement sessions typically include an anti-drug talk by a CNB officer, a sharing session by an ex-abuser, and a tour of CNB’s heritage gallery.

Social media is another key engagement channel. CNB regularly publishes content about drugs targeting the young on its social media platforms. Recently, in August 2020, the #ILiveFor campaign was launched as part of CNB’s efforts to bring the annual Anti- Drug Abuse Campaign online, in order to reach out to more people in light of the COVID-19 situation. Through a series of interactive social media posts including polls, profile features of everyday people, as well as a sticker pack and an Instagram filter game featuring light-hearted messages, the campaign takes a positive, pro-healthy lifestyle spin to encourage the audience to think about what they live for.

CNB also works with partners to drive the PDE effort. One of CNB’s key partners is the National Council Against Drug Abuse, or NCADA. NCADA launched a media campaign in March 2020, built around Singapore’s first interactive film titled “HIGH”, directed by local filmmaker Royston Tan. The film had garnered 165,000 unique views on its microsite by the end of the campaign in July 2020. Prior to launch, the film was screened at various Institutes of Higher Learning, reaching over 5,000 students. Each film preview was followed by a Safe Zone Discussion, an interactive platform for students to share their thoughts on the film, on drug abuse and anti-drug advocacy.

CNB works with community partners to reinforce and spread the anti-drug message to youths. For instance, CNB supported the Youth Network in Nee Soon Central with its initiatives to get more youths in the constituency to lead or take part in community activities to advocate the drug-free cause, and to build a pool of youth mentors to effect positive influence on their peers.

CNB and NCADA engage community partners and volunteers also through the United Against Drugs Coalition and Anti-Drug Abuse Advocacy Network, or A3 Network. The UADC is an anti-drug alliance that rallies support from local organisations to raise awareness of drug abuse in our society, while the A3 Network brings together passionate individuals from different walks of life to educate and empower them to advocate for a drug-free Singapore. As of December 2020, CNB has 788 A3 advocates, out of which 207 are youths, and 71 partner organisations under the UADC.

In addition to PDE efforts, MHA made amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, or MDA, in 2019 to criminalise acts of contamination which facilitate or promote drug abuse. It is now an offence to introduce a drug trafficker to another person. It is also an offence to teach, instruct, or provide information to another person on how to cultivate, manufacture, consume, traffic, import or export drugs.

MHA has also strengthened the MDA to better protect children and young persons from the harms of drugs. It is an offence for an adult who possesses illicit drugs, knowing that a child, below 16 years of age, is likely to be present in a place, to knowingly or recklessly leave drugs or drug utensils within easy access of the child. It is also an offence for an adult to permit or not take reasonable steps to prevent a young person (below 21 years old) from consuming illicit drugs in the adult’s possession.

CNB will continue to strengthen our PDE efforts and enhance our laws to discourage people from taking up drugs.

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