The life of an extremist, gang member and mother to a child who was an activist – we have all heard of them in the news and the activities that they engage themselves in. For those who were violent, we question their misled intentions and purpose in life but for the ones who grief, there are times when we never get to hear their story and for the ones who made that radical change from a life of violence to becoming a promoter of peace, very often, they don’t make as much news of their activities. Yesterday, was an opportunity, an honour to have been in the company of former extremists and gang members who have made that change.
The location took place at SOKA University of America, a liberal arts college with only 400 students. The people in attendance ranged from students to intellectuals to social workers, all in one room with one belief, to support and ignite social change in their communities and around the world for peace.
A former Islamist, Maajid got involved into extremism at a young age, got arrested, served time in prison and is now a peace activist. He summed up his experience and of others who fall into the trap of extremism as individuals who only received or listened to half truths with a focus on the negatives, instead of the positives.
It couldn’t have been wrong when you begin to look at arguments that people make, they negate or leave out the positive that has been done and instead focus on the negatives and develop a narrative out of it. He cited the example of America against Islam as one such narrative, jihadist tend to ignore the good work that America has done for Muslims and focus on the drones and deaths and use it as a cause to wage war against America. By failing to look at the bigger picture, painting the image of America against Islam was a narrative that has managed to garner support and movement all around the world. However, this doesn’t mean that sending out drones to kill is acceptable, it simple means, looking at why certain actions are done.
Then there’s Eric and Paul, former gang members. Eric was shot 5 times in the back, one of which hit is spinal cord, permanently disabling his lower half of his body. Their stories connected with me because as a young boy, I wanted to be a gang member. The school I chose and the friends I hung around with, they made the perfect concoction for a career in a gang. Fortunately or unfortunately, due to my small size, my friends who were gang members managed to discourage me and instead offered me protection at no cost.
Although gang activities in Singapore vary with the one in America, violence is still one common theme and deaths could be a result of the violence. Without access to guns, Singapore gangs are limited to fighting in close body contact, and even so, deaths still occur.
Their stories resonate with me as having been involved in mentoring at-risk youths, some of my mentees do move away from gang activities, I can’t speak the same of my friends whom I know, some are still involved and are even leading the members. I only hope, they realize that there are other options available. The bubble environment they’ve grown up in, shouldn’t be the same one they want to raise their children in and therefore, they should reconsider options and exhaust all of it, and none of it should include turning back to being a gang member.
Then there’s Kerry, an ordained Minister who wanted to and almost bombed an LGBT church. It’s not something that we hear of everyday, but it does happen. There are people living around us who may be on the brink of extremism but they just fail to realize it. When their emotions overcome them and they allow their logic to justify their emotions without considering the relationships and complexities involved, they turn radical and their purpose in life becomes one that is extreme.
Like the panelists, everyone else in the audience believes that people can change. As a community, we need to provide them with the solutions and opportunities which allows them to find their way out of the life they are in. Volunteer your time and expertise, donate your money, there’s always organizations out there who need continuous support to do the work.
Is there a need for such work in Singapore?
Will people be willing to listen to what it is, I don’t know.
Will people be willing to support for such changes, I hope so.
The work that I’ve been involved here has taught me a lot, with less than 2 weeks left, I know there’s a lot more to be done and as much as I would love to stay and extend my time here, it’s time I bring these knowledge, skills and experience back to Singapore and hopefully, there will be an audience ready to listen, to get involved.