DPM Lawrence Wong at the Religious Rehabilitation Group's 18th Annual Retreat

DPM Lawrence Wong | 21 June 2023

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Religious Rehabilitation Group’s 18th Annual Retreat on 21 June 2023.

My Parliamentary Colleagues, Mr K Shanmugam, Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim 
Co-Chairmen of the RRG Ustaz Dr Mohamed Ali & Ustaz Hasbi Hassan,
Members of the RRG,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very happy to have this chance to join all of you at your Annual Retreat this year. This is an important event in the RRG calendar every year, where everyone gathers together with your families to share experiences, challenges and best practices, and to have a good bonding time with each other. But as mentioned just now, this year’s retreat holds extra significance because it’s also the 20th Anniversary of the RRG. This marks a major milestone in our efforts to fight terrorism and extremism in Singapore.  

Back in 2003, after we arrested the members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group, the Government faced a very difficult decision – what should we do with these individuals? 

Back then, the idea of rehabilitating and reintegrating terrorists was unheard of. No other country was doing this systematically. So we had no one to look at for solutions. 

But we knew that the terrorists had been radicalised by a distorted understanding of Islam, which is a religion of peace, not violence.

We also knew that these individuals were not just JI members or radicals. They were also individuals with families; they had parents and spouses who loved and cared for them, and children who relied on them.

So the Government decided then to forge our own way forward – to do our best to give these individuals a chance at reintegrating and returning to society.  

That is when we approached leaders of the Muslim community here in Singapore: Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamad and Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan. We asked for their help and religious expertise to counsel the detainees and share Islam’s true teachings. Thankfully, they not only agreed, but pulled together a group of dedicated and learned Islamic scholars and teachers to form the RRG.

The journey over the last 20 years has not been easy or straightforward.  There was no manual or blueprint for the RRG to follow. You had to develop your own strategies and write your counselling manuals from scratch. But you stuck to your beliefs, and your dedication and perseverance has borne great fruit.  

In the last 20 years, the RRG has been a key partner of the Government in countering the threat of terrorism and extremism. Your work has been crucial in rehabilitating many radicalised Singaporeans, and importantly, enabling them to re-join our society.

Out of roughly 140 Singaporeans dealt with for terrorism-related activities, the vast majority (almost 90%) have been successfully reintegrated into society. 

This includes almost all the ex-JI members.

Today, I would like to acknowledge your many contributions and efforts, and say a very big thank you to all members of the RRG.

Your hard work and leadership have made a huge difference – not just to those who have been able to reclaim their lives, but also to our wider Singapore community. Because the success of the RRG is a testament of what Islam truly stands for, and it is also proof of what we can all achieve together, as a multi-racial, multi-religious, and importantly, a united Singapore.  

Changing Nature of Radicalisation 

Today, terrorism may not be top of mind for many Singaporeans. But in fact, the threat of radicalism and extremism remains high. ISD will be releasing its annual Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report next month, but let me share with you some perspectives from the report.  

The global security landscape remains uncertain. Global terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda continue to rebuild their strength and remain determined to sow disorder and chaos by conducting attacks in other countries. This includes Singapore, which is considered a prized target by terrorists. 

The groups have become more sophisticated at using digital platforms like social media to spread their propaganda and incite their followers to conduct attacks. This has not only made extremist material easier to access, but it has also accelerated the process of radicalisation to a matter of months, or even weeks.  All this now takes place behind a computer screen, and it is much harder to detect.  

But what is most concerning is that the terrorist groups have been increasingly targeting youths, who are more impressionable and susceptible to influence. Apart from traditional social media channels, they have started to exploit online music streaming and gaming platforms that are popular with young people. 

Take one self-radicalised 16-year-old who was issued with a Restriction Order in January this year. He was exposed to ISIS ideology and jihadi songs through YouTube and online music streaming platforms. 

He ventured onto ISIS-themed servers in an online game called Roblox – people may be familiar with this, it is very popular with children –  and on this game, it recreated ISIS conflict zones in Syria and Marawi City in the Philippines. There, he practiced shooting ISIS enemies, and even took a bai’ah (or pledge) to an in-game ‘ISIS leader’. All this happened virtually.

So you can imagine this has created a very worrying trend: an increasing number of people dealt with by ISD are youth. Since 2015, ISD has issued ISA orders to 11 self-radicalised Singaporeans below the age of 21. Some of them started their process of radicalisation as young as 14 years old. In all the years prior to 2015, there was only one case of youth radicalisation. But in these last few years, we already have 11 cases. So it’s a sharp increase, and it is a very worrying trend. 

The threat has also gone beyond Islamic extremism, because we have seen a broader range of radical, extremist and violent groups active in spreading their ideologies online. Amongst the 11 self-radicalised youths, which I highlighted just now, one of them was a 16-year-old who had planned to conduct attacks against Muslims at two mosques here in Singapore. He was a Protestant Christian, who had imbibed far-right extremist ideology, including the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the 2019 Christchurch attacker. Thankfully, ISD brought him in before any harm was done. 

Strategies for the Future 

What all this means is that extreme and violent ideologies can radicalise any Singaporean regardless of age, race, or religion. This has serious implications for our society. The extremist and terror threat is far more insidious now. It can reside within our own community. It will seek to exploit our racial and religious differences, and attempt to divide us.  

We know from our own painful history how this can easily lead to conflict and hatred. So we must do our utmost to ensure these ideologies never take root in Singapore, and we must do our utmost to preserve the trust and understanding that our different communities have painstakingly built up with each other over the decades. 

How can we do this? The work of the Police and ISD will continue to be important in detecting and countering radicalised individuals. The Government will also strengthen our levers to protect Singaporeans from radical and extremist ideologies. 

For example, we recently made amendments to the Broadcasting Act to enable IMDA to direct social media services to take down or limit access to harmful online content related to terrorism or violence. 

MHA will also be introducing legislation to further combat online harms, including those which incite terror-related activities. So these are the things that the Government can and will do.

But it would not be possible to completely insulate Singaporeans from everything online. So our approach must be to inoculate Singaporeans against extreme ideologies. This is not something that the Government or enforcement agencies can do alone. To succeed, we will need everyone to do their part; we need active and vigilant citizens who will all contribute to the safety and security of Singapore in their own ways. 

First, we must equip the public with the knowledge to identify and challenge extremist ideas, and to spot tell-tale indicators of radicalisation so they can seek help for their family members or friends. The RRG has played an important role on this front over the years. Those who need to clarify religious concepts, or seek help for someone they suspect might be radicalised can visit the Resource and Counselling Centre or call the RRG Helpline. Last month, as was mentioned just now, the RRG launched the Majulah Gallery, with state-of-the-art exhibitions to educate visitors on terrorism and the important work that you do.

These efforts are meaningful. But with more of our young being targeted online, we will also need to work directly to counter radical ideologies on social media. The RRG already does this on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, and I am glad, as was announced just now, that you will be taking another step forward with the launch of your TikTok account, because TikTok is increasingly more and more popular with young people these days. I am glad that you are doing this. I know from personal experience that it is not easy to put together content on social media that is appealing to young people. It is very challenging. Sometimes you try and you do not get many views, and you have to try something else; it is a bit of a hit and miss. But through these social media platforms, I hope all of us can develop more effective ways to engage young people, to correct misinterpretations and promote a better understanding of religious texts and concepts appropriate to Singapore’s secular society. 

Second, we must evolve our rehabilitation methods so that we can help our detainees, including the growing number of youths, to re-join society.

The increasing array of extremist ideologies – ranging from Islamist extremism to far-right, anti-Semitic, and Neo-Nazi ideas – will make rehabilitation more complex and challenging. We must seek to better understand why some young people are attracted to these ideologies, and work with their families to help them reclaim their lives.

We will also have to strengthen collaboration across our different community groups, share our experiences, so that we can collectively deal with extremism in its various forms. I am glad that the RRG has led the way by sharing your experience with the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS). And this was useful when the NCCS was also counselling the young 16-year-old Christian youth who was detained, the one I mentioned just now.

Finally, for this whole-of-society approach to be effective, we must continue to have strong community leaders who are deeply involved and committed to this important work. This means ensuring a steady renewal and rejuvenation of the RRG and its leadership, something which I understand you have been discussing at this seminar too.

The passing of Ustaz Ali earlier this year was a great loss for RRG and for Singapore. Along with other senior RRG members, Ustaz Ali had set a strong foundation for the work of the RRG, and guided the RRG into what it is today. He played a pivotal role in shaping how the RRG engaged and rehabilitated detainees. He also promoted peace and understanding in our diverse society, and helped build our country into the safe and harmonious society it is today. We are very grateful for his dedication to the community, and to Singapore.

The leadership of the RRG now continues with Ustaz Dr Mohamed Ali and Ustaz Hasbi Hassan, who himself was present at the founding of the RRG. He said to me just now that he was with the RRG from year zero and continue to go strong. I have the utmost confidence in their ability to take the RRG forward, and I am sure they will continue to put in place mechanisms to ensure effective leadership succession in the RRG. I also encourage younger asatizahs to come onboard the RRG, and for those already within the group to play an even more active role. With the threat of radicalisation extending to young people in Singapore, we will need fresh perspectives and new ways of engaging our youth. It is only with your help, coupled with guidance and support from the experienced group of RRG pioneers, that the RRG can sustain its important work into the next decade and beyond.


To conclude, the RRG has come a long way since you were first established 20 years ago. Our uniquely Singaporean way of rehabilitating and reintegrating extremists into society gives hope to every detainee, and sustains our multi-racial and multi-religious society. We could not have made this happen without each one of you here in this room. So once again, I thank all of you for your steady and firm partnership with the Government.  

Let us continue to stand united against any forces or ideologies that seek to tear apart our social fabric. Together, we can continue to protect our way of life, and ensure a safe, secure and united Singapore for many more generations to come. Thank you very much.