Deradicalization Programs in Malaysian Prisons Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic: Limitations & Challenges

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, developments for deradicalization programs for terrorist inmates in Malaysia must continue. CREDIT: BERNAMA

Malaysia’s Deradicalization & Disengagement Approach

Malaysia employs a combination of deradicalization and disengagement to prepare terrorist inmates for their eventual reintegration into their communities. This combinative approach is evident in the modules developed for terrorist inmates in Malaysia.  These modules were developed by experts from various public-private entities in Malaysia in 2015. Used and referred to both domestically and internationally, these modules have assisted Malaysia to cap its recidivism rate to between 1% to 3% in 2018 while achieving a rehabilitation rate of 97%.  This combinative approach centres on seven factors as illustrated below: 

Figure 1: Malaysian deradicalization approach. Source: Aslam, (2018).

From Figure 1, these seven factors are used by the Malaysian government to address multiple important aspects to assist terrorist inmates give up their pursuit of violence and prepare them for reintegration upon their release from prison. These factors focus on ideological, religious, educational, vocational, social, creative arts therapy, sports and recreation, and psychological aspects.  Since most violent extremist inmates in Malaysia are Muslims, the Religious Rehabilitation Program was introduced in deradicalization programs to address the religious aspect.

Additionally, most of these programs are based on re-education and rehabilitation. Re-education focuses on correcting political and religious misconceptions of these inmates, while rehabilitation is aimed at monitoring them upon their release. Also, as part of rehabilitation, inmates are assisted to ensure smooth reintegration into their communities. Throughout this process, their family members are also engaged as beneficiaries of financial support particularly when the inmates are still detained.

Malaysia’s CT Efforts Influenced by Political Developments and COVID-19

As time is crucial in deradicalization programs, the running of these programs could be influenced by numerous factors including domestic politics. In the past four years alone, Malaysia has experienced several changes in government and saw the appointment of a new head in the country’s Counter Terrorism department.

In 2011, at the verge of political reforms in Malaysia, there were loud sentiments against the Internal Security Act (ISA), deemed to be ‘draconian.’ This led to the ISA being replaced by the Security Offences on Special Measurement Act (SOSMA) in 2012 followed by the Prevention of Crime Act (POCA) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). However, the counter terrorism landscape has changed as both laws and deradicalization modules are used as a measurement of effectiveness. These modules are developed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Malaysian National Security Council (MKN), Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), and Prison Department (Jabatan Penjara). Even though the link between public and private entities began in 2015, academics and experts from NGOs such as IMAN Research, Merdeka Centre, CONCAVE, Wasatiyyah Centre for Peace, KITA, MyRISS, ABIM, and PKPIM were only engaged in 2017 especially with the appointment of Ustaz Zamihan Mat Zain Al-Ghari as deradicalization coordinator former Deputy Prime Minister, Dato Seri Zahid Hamidi.

However, such engagements ended abruptly after Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) landslide win in the 2018 General Election (GE14). Additionally, deradicalization programs were confined to prisons with the involvement of only JAKIM and MKN. Ustaz Zamihan was subsequently reassigned from his position as deradicalization coordinator due to his political views which were critical of the PH government.     

Additionally, the country’s Counter Terrorism Department saw Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay being replaced by Normah Ishak in February 2020. This led to a change in stance for the department. Under Ayob Khan’s purview since 2001, the department adopted zero-tolerance for any form of terrorism in Malaysia. This led to many arrests to prevent and counter violent extremism.  This seemingly changed under Normah Ishak’s directorship. At her helm, there was a significant decrease in the number of raids and arrests which may indicate a decrease in terrorism-related activities. However, if not careful, switching to a softer approach may pose a security risk as a zero-tolerance preventative approach is arguably more ideal for dealing with subversive elements. This is particularly so when the pandemic has led to social restrictions, hindering terrorism. From the author’s interview with a senior Malaysian Special Branch officer, such social restrictions increase opportunities for online radicalization at home and future lone-wolf attacks.

But, Malaysia has continued to remain effective in mitigating terrorism particularly with its  vast experience in dealing with the scourge of terrorism from the time of the communist insurgency and also due to its effective surveillance & monitoring program by MSB. 

With lesser arrests, there are now lesser deradicalization programs being conducted. From the author’s research of such cases since 2014, there were only seven arrests were recorded in 2020 compared to 72 in 2019 and 119 in 2018. Despite the reduced arrests, the Prison Department and the police (PDRM) still encounter challenges in managing and ensuring the effectiveness of deradicalization programs. With limited intellectual resources as private entities are no longer involved, the Prison Department and PDRM continue to rely on their own resources to manage inmates’ rehabilitation activities. The author also argues that this is complicated by their preference to not work with “outsiders” in such programs. Though the Prison Department and PDRM arguably do not entertain encroachments into their “territories”, exceptions are made via ministerial instructions to invite academics into their compounds.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has further hampered the integration of civil society and authorities in PCVE-related matters / activities in Malaysia. Before the pandemic, there was synergy between CSOs and authorities on PCVE including deradicalization programs. CSOs were actively involved in post-prison activities such as preparing inmates for integration, finding employment and emotional support. The PDRM and the Prison Department initiated a series of engagement with NGOs directly under the observation of Ustaz Zamihan. During COVID-19, cooperation between agencies (government and CSOs) lessened and seemed to be confined to webinars, and online forums and conferences. There were also no more field engagements between CSOs and the authorities towards prevention and integration initiatives. Moreover, urgent government initiatives such as the National Action Plan (NAP) on violent extremism excluded the role of CSOs in PCVE and public-private initiatives were discontinued. These initiatives were considered as the new paradigm on deradicalization and were initiated by the Ministry of Home Affairs.  

In March 2020, Malaysia encountered a change in government with the ascendence of Perikatan Nasional (PN); a new coalition government which comprises both incumbent and opposition parties. This untested government without a confirmed majority focused on two main issues: 1) an uphill battle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2) to retain their power. Therefore, deradicalization programs were no longer prioritized. This led to the Prison Department and the PDRM to perform their duties in such programs seemingly without clear directions from the government. With the lack of directions and new approaches, arguably, there has yet to be new developments in Malaysia’s deradicalization programs. With the installation of Ismail Sabri as PM9, the same fate awaits deradicalization programs in Malaysia. As the country is transiting from a pandemic to an endemic status, Ismail Sabri’s government is geared towards retaining political power, sustaining the government, and on social and economic recovery rather than on deradicalization. This is particularly so when the new government experienced several state elections and party defections.   

On a positive note, deradicalization programs in the country continue to include a rigorous evaluation process. Unsurprisingly, the chief executors of this evaluation are the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Prison Department and the PDRM. Inmates will be evaluated psychologically, on their religious understanding and the concept of the role of citizens in nation building. PDRM also uses Digital Voice Stress Analysis (DVSA) also known as ‘Lie Detection’; a procedure used for detection of deception and truth verification to determine psychological stress profiles. Meanwhile, the Prison Department routinely measures psychological, moral and rehabilitation effectiveness by using in-house Likert scales. Both of these agencies hold equal shares to completing 80% of the evaluation process, while the Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for the remaining 20%. Notably, the Ministry of Home Affairs appoints counselors and psychologists from JAKIM and MKN to assist in inmates’ deradicalization. Trained religious leaders and counsellors from various government departments are also seconded to assist in these programs.


As highlighted above, the right approach is central to ensuring the success of rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremist inmates. Unfortunately, recent deradicalization efforts in Malaysia were hampered by domestic politics and COVID-19. Despite this and the decrease in the number inmates, deradicalization efforts must continue as the terrorism threat remains. This is reinforced by the possibility of terrorism-related activities increasing post-pandemic leading to higher number of arrests. It is, thus, important to strengthen deradicalization efforts in Malaysia now when the threat is seemingly on the decline.

One way to do so is the inclusion of external parties. The involvement of external experts contributes to 1) assist the government in rehabilitation programs and 2) to prevent recidivism. Experts such as academics will be beneficial as their approaches and recommendations are based on analyzing data. They can greatly contribute to measuring the level of radicalization during and post-imprisonment. CSOs are also crucial in curbing the threat of terrorism and its impacts. This is because of their active involvement in community-based programs while also rendering psychological support to released inmates and their families.

Through a synergistic relationship between government and private entities, deradicalization efforts can mature quickly and more holistically while increasing the safety of Malaysians.

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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  • Mohd Mizan Aslam is a member of the National Panel for Deradicalization, a special task-force unit for rehabilitation program to terrorist inmates. Mizan also works with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) of Malaysia in developing modules for the program. Mizan was awarded Honorary Major by the Malaysian Armed Forces in September 2016 to recognize his contribution in the field of security, anti-terrorism and deradicalization. He is a founder and the first director of the Malaysian Research Institute for Strategic Studies (MyRISS). He also works with the Middle Eastern Institute (MEI), Washington, USA as a Country Expert in analysing terrorism and extremism issues in MENA. Mizan holds professorships at several universities including Naif Arab University for Security Sciences (NAUSS) and University Islam Sultan Yusof (UNIS).