When it comes to the most hardline of terrorist suspects, the solution for now would be to detain them indefinitely, as it is challenging to rehabilitate them even after years of effort.

This was the general sentiment shared by speakers yesterday — including the Republic’s former security tsar Wong Kan Seng — at the RSIS-Singapore Press Holdings Seminar on the emergence of the Islamic State militant group and its implications.

Mr Wong, the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister until he stepped down from the Cabinet in 2011, said Singapore’s experience had shown that it would take some time for the most hard-core of suspects to change.

“We have a few of them in our detention centre and it’s going to take a while before they see the light. It’s up to them — they have to see the light themselves,” said Mr Wong, adding that religious leaders had tried to speak to these leaders, but “the result so far has not been positive”.

“Only they can save themselves. If they are prepared to remain there forever, that’s their choice as well. Of course, it will be a great risk for the security agencies here to release them just to let them back into society to cause harm again,” said Mr Wong, who was responding to a question on the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts.

Concurring, Major-General Muhammad Tito Karnavian, who stepped down as Commander of Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism force in 2012, said those motivated by ideology were the most difficult to rehabilitate, compared with those motivated by emotional or material reasons.

Major-Gen Tito, also a panellist at the seminar, recalled spending three to four months with Abu Bakar Bashir, the jailed spiritual leader of South-east Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah, and employing many methods, including getting Islamic scholars and his inner circle such as his relatives to approach him — to no avail.

In contrast, rehabilitating a terrorist in Medan who had committed armed robbery was successful, because he was driven by material reasons, he said.

The comments come amid increasing concern in the region over the growing number of people from South-east Asia — estimated to be around 350 — travelling to fight alongside Islamic State militants, who have captured swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Revealing in July that “a handful” of Singaporeans had gone to Syria to take part in the fight, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean warned that those who return would pose a real threat to Singapore.

Earlier this month, Singapore announced that it would join 33 other countries in a multinational coalition to combat the Islamic State.

Speaking to an audience of 130 — including policymakers, academics and the public — Mr Wong said the irony was that the more successful Singapore is in its counterterrorism efforts, the more likely the urgency of the terrorism threat would diminish in the public’s mind.

“The vigilance of security services must ultimately be augmented by the vigilance of the society itself. In Singapore, we have been fortunate to have the support and involvement of several Muslim religious leaders and scholars, as well as ordinary people across various sectors volunteering in rehabilitation counselling work,” Mr Wong said.

“Their efforts have given us a strong foundation of communal trust and social cohesion,” he added.

The speakers yesterday also pointed out the Islamic State’s mastery of social media, with the group spreading its message to the masses easily, and urged more education for the public on how to sieve out misinformation on the Internet.

Also a speaker at the event was former Straits Times writer M Nirmala, whose book, Old War, New Methods, was launched at the seminar.

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