Building Resilience through Family and Faith for Malaysian Ex-Detainees Charged under Terrorism-related Acts

Family is one of two factors found to be important in assisting detainees build resilience in preparation of their release. The second is faith. Credit: Ron Lach/


Malaysia recorded roughly 500 terrorism-related arrests between 2013 and 2022, with the highest number between 2015 and 2018. The high number of arrests during those seven years was a consequential outcome of the Daesh global uprising. The Malaysian authorities’ focus back then was to circumvent the threat of terrorism permeating Malaysia. Many arrests were made to prevent various planned attacks, attempts to leave for Syria and dissemination of Daesh ideology. In recent years, especially since 2020, Malaysia has observed a decline in the number of arrests for terrorist-related charges in Malaysia possibly due to effectiveness of mass arrest in intimidating them and movement restrictions due to Covid-19. In 2023, a majority of the detainees have been released, and they are currently facing a new challenge of returning to society as “ex-terrorists” (to prevent unnecessary stigma, the term ex-detainee is used from here onwards) as they have completed their prison sentencing which typically lasts at least two years for rehabilitation purpose . Some served longer prison sentences due to the severity of the involvement and ideology. Therefore, the focus has now shifted towards assisting these individuals to reintegrate into society.

This article highlights the challenges faced by several ex-detainees charged with terrorism-related acts in Malaysia and their coping mechanisms to mitigate these challenges. The content presented here is retrieved from an ongoing research project funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Office of the Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism (OCT).

Challenges faced by Ex-Detainees

Trauma of Arrest

Selected ex-detainees expressed shock at the moment of arrest as they believed they did not commit a crime that was outrageously harmful such as theft or murder, but ideology related offence. This consequently leads to a risk of trauma as they perceived they had been mistreated by the authority. From the author’s interviews, ex-detainees’ belief can be aligned during the prison rehabilitation program which aimed to correct their understandings of Islam. Such efforts contribute to alleviating negative thoughts regarding their arrests. Unfortunately, there were still instances of ex-detainees who remain adamant on their violent ideology despite undergoing this program which has also been recorded in another research. Ostensibly, intervention to prevent prolonged trauma is not an immediate and linear process for selected ex-detainees. Instead, they may require a more intensive and long-term assistance to overcome such trauma. This, thus, emphasizes the need for psychological intervention to be taken into greater consideration in the rehabilitation program.

Prison Trauma

Prison’s ominous environment, proprietary to its structure and system which is meant to punish criminal offenders, may have affected the ex-detainees severely causing a deteriorating mental state long after release. In the author’s interview, the ex-detainees recounted many grim stories, including witnessing attempted suicide, sharing space with other notorious criminals, and being aggravated and subjected to constant dehumanisation by the guards in prison. This is merely a reflection of the prison structure and system in Malaysia. To overcome this issue, active measures need to be taken to improve the prison facilities and amenities to prevent long-term traumas among detainees.

Financial Struggle and Social Stigma Post-Release

Ex-detainees interviewed in this study cited financial struggles as a prevailing problem because they may come from lower socio-economic backgrounds which restricted their economic opportunities. To overcome this issue, the current rehabilitation module includes skills-based trainings for detainees. Additionally, most of the ex-detainees and their family members reported that they suffered from social stigma, caused by uncensored media reports of their arrests, placing them at further risk of isolation from society and returning to normalcy. One ex-detainee expressed her frustration with the local news for publicising her image in a handcuff which she found to be denigrating. Exacerbating this is when stigma is expressed by their own family members. Some ex-detainees’ relatives hesitated to contact or assist them due to fear of arrest and fear that their relationships be publicly known. 

Coping Mechanisms

Two common coping mechanisms reported by the ex-detainees that benefited them during imprisonment and post-release are religion/faith and familial/social support. From interviews in this study, strong faith in God equipped ex-detainees to develop resilience when facing difficulties. Learning the Quran and Hadiths enabled ex-detainees to perceive their hardships as tests from God. This is akin to what is felt by detainees in Indonesia. Their belief that their fate is destined by God facilitates them in construing that they are in servitude of a greater purpose, and their miseries are ephemeral. This instilled an optimistic outlook towards self and built their resilience.

The second most effective coping mechanism was social support. Social support, inclusive of positive feedback and encouragement from loved ones, are palpable means of sustaining a sense of mastery or competence within individuals going through adversities. These are imperative to building resilience among detainees to endure harrowing prison experiences. Although some ex-detainees had difficulties in reaching out to their relatives for help, others were privileged to have devoted family members who provided ceaseless support to them. Ex-detainees with strong familial support had expressed a more positive attitude towards self-growth and willingness to return to society.

Way Forward

Leveraging on the two coping mechanisms could facilitate successful reintegration of ex-detainees. Programs in prison should, thus, include faith-building and social activities to bolster a sense of identity and resilience among the inmates to ensure well-being during imprisonment and post-release. These programs could be particularly beneficial for inmates who have lost considerable support from their loved ones. Additionally, there is a need to restrict uncensored publications within various media outlets to prevent residual stigmas impacting ex-detainees. Otherwise, an ex-detainee’s successful reintegration into society would be impeded.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Dr. Nurul Miza Mohd Rashid is an assistant professor at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. Her research interests include violent extremism and the radicalisation process from a psychological point of view. Her other interests include exploring various psychological processes in media use and social issues permeating Malaysian society, including the intergroup tensions between Malaysians and migrants in Malaysia.