SINGAPORE - When a group of Islamic teachers banded together 10 years ago to counsel detained terrorists, it marked a watershed in combating religious radicalisation in South-east Asia.
The Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist group was not seen as purely a security threat to be handled by the authorities. The teachers took it upon themselves to correct the ideological misunderstandings held by JI members.
Now, after over a decade and more than 1,200 counselling sessions later, the religious leaders - who form the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) - have become the first organisation to be honoured with the Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award, which is in its 16th year. RRG beat four other nominees.
At the award ceremony held at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lauded RRG for its invaluable contribution to maintaining religious harmony in Singapore.
The RRG opened a resource centre last month to share information on its work to counter religious extremism and terrorism threats in Singapore.
Ustaz Ali Haji Mohamed, co-chairman of RRG, yesterday said that many religious leaders from the region and the Middle East have come to Singapore to learn from RRG's experience over the years.
He also recounted the difficult start he and his team had faced. They were viewed with suspicion by some in the Muslim community who second-guessed their intentions, he said.
"The fact that the nomination for this award came from the community showed that the community has seen and appreciated the true intention of our work," he said.
Beyond counselling JI members and their families, the RRG conducts workshops and seminars, and also uses social media to reach out especially to young Muslims.
Self-radicalisation among the young is a concern, said Ustaz Ali, as they come with a staunch belief in their jihad teachings, so the RRG has to counter them and show these young people the right interpretations.
While he is satisfied with the success, with the group having counselled about 40 detainees over the years, their work is not done.
"We have other challenges - we can't stop at the moment, nor in five years or 10 years. I think we have a very long way to go," said Ustaz Ali.
Meanwhile, clinching the Berita Harian Inspiring Young Achiever Award was gold medal winner and rower Saiyidah Aisyah Mohammed Rafa'ee.
In December, she bagged Singapore's first rowing gold at the South-east Asian Games since 1997.
Flying back from Australia, where she is training for the upcoming Asian Games, to receive the award, the sportswoman said it serves as a reminder that she can inspire others.
"It made me realise that... whatever I am doing is not just for myself but also for the people around me," she said.
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