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News analysis: Be concerned but no need to be 'panicky' over trend of self-radicalised youth in Singapore, say experts, community groups

SINGAPORE —The numbers may look concerning, but terrorism research experts and leaders of community and youth groups were divided on whether the cases of self-radicalisation among the young in Singapore were a cause for alarm.

News analysis: Be concerned but no need to be 'panicky' over trend of self-radicalised youth in Singapore, say experts, community groups
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  • There were nine young people aged 20 and below who were dealt with under the Internal Security Act in the eight years from 2015
  • Comparatively, there were three young persons under the age of 20 in the 13 years from 2002 to 2014
  • Terrorism research experts and leaders of community and youth groups were divided on whether the numbers were a cause for concern
  • Those who said that it was pointed to the easy access to online content when young people search for guidance or answers to problems in life
  • Others said that the cases of self-radicalisation were isolated ones

SINGAPORE —The numbers may look concerning, but terrorism research experts and leaders of community and youth groups were divided on whether the cases of self-radicalisation among the young in Singapore were a cause for alarm.

Since 2015, nine people under the age of 21 have been detained or have been served Restriction Orders under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Individuals on Restriction Order cannot travel out of Singapore, or change addresses or jobs, without approval. They also cannot access the internet or social media, among other conditions.

On Wednesday (Feb 1), Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the number of young detainees under the ISA in recent years is "a trend that is concerning” and that both the Government and community must work together to prevent radicalisation.

Some of the observers who spoke to TODAY said that the nine cases were isolated ones and did not necessarily point to a growing trend. 

For the others who expressed concern, they said that online content would continue to exert much influence on impressionable youth.

During the times when young people are seeking guidance or meaning in their lives, they may come across terrorism propaganda online easily and that could lead to radicalisation.

The best way to tackle this is to address the concerns of the young more earnestly and engage them in a manner that will gain their trust, so that they do not have to turn elsewhere for support, they added.


On Wednesday, the Internal Security Department (ISD) said that it has detained a self-radicalised, 18-year-old post-secondary student last December for supporting the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). 

Muhammad Irfan Danyal Mohamad Nor became the ninth youth aged 20 and below to be dealt with under the Act in the last eight years from 2015. 

In comparison, there were just three young persons in the 13 years from 2002 to 2014, terrorism researcher Ahmad Saiful Rijal Hassan said in a 2021 commentary for Malay news channel Berita Mediacorp. He is an associate research fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).


Ms Shahrany Hassan, founder of The Whitehatters, a non-government organisation that facilitates dialogue, was disturbed by how young people “within the impressionable age range” are being radicalised online.

Propaganda materials can spread with ease and speed in the online space, she said.

Agreeing, Mr Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, the director of the Dialogue Centre, which facilitates conversations among people with different views, noticed that the ages of people who were self-radicalised were getting younger.

“There is an aspect of grooming that we might need to monitor seriously because of the developmental stage of the individuals. The impact will be long term,” he said.

Taking a more optimistic view, Mr Nassar Mohamad Zain, president of the Malay Youth Literary Association, said that the nine were “really isolated cases”.

He found it heartening that some of them were “picked up very early by the people closest to them — friends and family” before they could act on their plans.

Mr Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at RSIS, said that in the grander scheme of things, Singapore is in a “fairly enviable position” compared to other countries, in the sense that it is largely dealing with individuals with extreme leanings at their ideation stage.

There is a need to stay vigilant, but there is no need to be unnecessarily panicky about it, he added.


High internet usage among youth is a key reason for self-radicalisation, given that it offers easy access to extremist propaganda. 

Mr Mohamed Imran said that extremist groups and terrorist organisations deliberately target the young in online spaces that they frequent, such as gaming channels.

Inquisitive young minds who turn to the web to look for answers about world crises and other problems may end up in the cyber spaces where terrorist recruiters lurk.

“Once these youths see these online spaces as their newfound community, they become vulnerable to radicalisation,” Mr Mohamed Imran said.

Similarly, Mr Muhammad Zahid Mohd Zin, a religious teacher and founder of the Muslim Youth Forum, said that he has seen young people turning to online sources to learn to be a better person, but they do not have proper guidance. That is when they may end up consuming misinformation online. 

The Malay Youth Forum is a non-profit that serves the spiritual, psychological and physical needs of young people.

With three young individuals being detained under ISA since 2020, the observers said that the Covid-19 pandemic could have been a contributing factor as well to self-radicalisation among youth in recent years. 

The prolonged period of isolation during lockdowns and movement restrictions could have led the youth to spend more time online or seek support among online communities.

However, they qualified by saying that more data is needed before they are able to conclude on the extent to which the pandemic may have contributed to this.


The experts and community leaders acknowledged the work already put in by parties such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group.

However, more can always be done for as long as the threat of terrorism and extremism persist, they said.

For instance, referring to the new online safety law that can curtail the public’s access to violent and terrorism-related content, they said that some form of legislation can be useful, but only to a limited extent.

Mr Jasminder Singh of RSIS said that under the new law, any radical or extremist content being posted online may have “a very short life span” since administrators or publishers are obligated to take them down speedily upon the authorities’ order.

However, the vastness of the online space itself would make it near-impossible to restrict access to dangerous materials, he added.

Mr Pantucci of RSIS is of the view that the internet is merely a tool or a "machine" and not the source of the troubles.

“The problem is not the machine. The problem is the ideas that come through the machine and the communities that come through the machine,” he said.

Mr Zahid of Muslim Youth Forum suggested that young leaders should be empowered to “curate moderate content that promote inclusivity and harmony”, countering divisive ones actively propagated by radicals online.

Mr Pantucci said that efforts should be aimed at addressing any discontent, concerns or grievances that young people may experience in their lives, so that they do not need to turn to potentially dangerous corners of the web.

One way to do this is to have better youth engagement — one that is dialogue-centric in nature rather than a top-down approach.

Giving them a safe space to question and engaging them earnestly would engender better trust between them and the society, the experts and community leaders said.

“This will move them away from the need to find a community elsewhere and online, where they can be susceptible to the extremists and terrorists who are lurking and finding ways to recruit and influence these youths,” Mr Mohamed Imran of the Dialogue Centre said.

Related topics

radicalisation Youth Internal Security Act terrorism

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