View of Can Music Therapy be an answer to the terrorist question? - A Singaporean Music Therapist’s Perspective

Can Music Therapy be an answer to the terrorist question? - A Singaporean Music Therapist’s Perspective

By Wang Feng Ng


Terrorism is a global phenomenon. Governments and agencies worldwide have responded to terrorism with various approaches involving for example, the military, ideology, and rehabilitation. A comprehensive comparative account of the various measures adopted is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, this essay raises the question of whether Music Therapy can be one of the creative responses to the terrorist question, and attempts to offer a glimpse of Music Therapy applications in these turbulent times within the Singapore context.

Development of Music Therapy in Singapore

Music Therapy remains an emerging profession in Singapore, despite first being documented in 1989 (Cheng, 1989), primarily due to the lack of trained professionals working here. As of December 2010, only fifteen Music Therapy professionals were based in Singapore. Music Therapy practice was initially confined within special education settings, and only in the past few years availed to other settings, e.g. hospitals and social service agencies. Thus traditionally, Music Therapists based locally have worked with children with a wide range of special needs in special education and early intervention programmes. Newer client populations benefiting from Music Therapy services include at-risk youth, individuals with terminal illness, medical patients with burns and cancer, individuals with Muscular Dystrophy, and geriatrics with dementia.

The local Music Therapy professionals established the Association for Music Therapy, Singapore (AMTS) in 2007, and continue to work to raise awareness of Music Therapy in the community. AMTS became a full organizational member of the World Federation of Music Therapy in 2009. The inaugural issue of AMTS’ bi-annual newsletter, Music Therapy Times, was launched in December 2009. Over the years, AMTS has been conducting public talks (in English, Mandarin and Malay), in efforts by its professional members. In April 2010, AMTS organized Singapore’s first Music Therapy Day and featured world-renowned Music Therapy Pioneer, Dr. Clive Robbins, as the distinguished speaker. Local Music Therapists are still working hard to gain recognition in the medical setting in particular as the Ministry of Health has yet to recognize Music Therapy as one of the core Allied Health Professions. However, this may be set to change, as the Singapore General Hospital- Postgraduate Allied Health Institute is planning to start an accredited Music Therapy training course, in collaboration with the University of the Pacific in 2011.

Contextualizing Singapore’s Response to Terrorism: Singapore’s Experience

Singapore is a multi-religious society with various ethnic groups living together on a small island in her short independent history. In the 1960s, there were violent and bloody racial riots. The leadership responded by laying “strong foundations for managing racial and religious harmony” by fostering “tolerance and trust between our Malay/Muslim, Chinese and Indian communities” (Goh, 2008, p. 17). Singapore has a Presidential Council for Minority Rights (established in 1970) to protect the rights of minorities and guard against discrimination. Over the decades, the government also has been extending social cohesion via education and public housing policies, such that “every public housing estate reflects the national racial composition” (Goh, 2008, p. 17).

However, Singapore, as a prosperous and harmonious society, is not immune to wider currents in the world, more specifically, the “rise of a more assertive, severe and conservative brand of Islam imported from the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent… [that] resulted in more Muslims becoming stricter and more orthodox in matters of diet, dress, religious observances and social interactions” (Ministry of Home Affairs(MHA), 2003a, p. 4) . In December 2001 and August 2002, the Internal Security Department (ISD) of Singapore arrested and detained 31 persons in conjunction with planned attacks on Singapore soil (MHA, 2003a)[1]. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) or “Islamic community” is one of several radical militant groups that has close ties with Al-Qaeda, and is considered the most dangerous one. Thankfully, the planned attacks were foiled.

Recognizing the urgent need to formulate an action plan in response to this growing threat of terrorism in Singapore and the region, the MHA released the White Paper in January 2003 to give a comprehensive account of Singapore’s experience in dealing with terrorism, and explore practical directions that Singapore needed to take (MHA, 2003b). The measures identified include stepping up security measures, strengthening the social fabric to counter the terrorist threat, and policing the spread of extremist ideology. Security measures include the tightening of border controls, the monitoring of terrorist funding, and seeking greater cooperation with agencies in and beyond the region. Singapore’s ideological response involved initiatives that directly counter the ideology and also initiatives that indirectly prevent its spread (Muhammad Haniff & Pereire, 2006). Recognising that JI members were recruited through an “internal process within the Muslim community” whereby JI leaders “used their positions of religious authority and knowledge to manipulate their recruits” (MHA, 2003a, p. 22), the Government also called upon the Muslim community “to propose and implement measures to prevent dangerous foreign influences”, by developing a “comprehensive, self-regulatory system to monitor religious education” (MHA, 2003a, p. 22). The Government cautioned all Singaporeans, not just Muslims, to guard against “extremist teachings and suspicious clandestine activities” (MHA, 2003a, p. 22).

In 2001, the ISD approached Muslim clerics in Singapore to discuss JI’s ideology. These individuals were to become the founding members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), a voluntary group focused on “counter[ing] the ideological misunderstanding of the JI members through counselling” (RRG, 2007). In addition, the RRG has also been involved in the Inter Agency Aftercare Services Group, a communal effort aimed at “providing families of the JI detainees with assistance in their daily affairs” so that the families of the detainee could live life as normal and not be marginalized (Feisal Mohamed Hassan, n.d., p. 11). The aftercare programme is also a “means for ISD and the community to manage the susceptibilities of vulnerable families and ensure that a second generation of JI does not develop” (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies(RSIS), 2009a, p. 33).

In order to strengthen the social fabric of Singapore, Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCCs)[2] were set up in 2002, as an initiative by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, to “foster friendship and build trust” (Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports(MCYS), 2007) between ethnic, religious and community leaders “through inter-faith and inter-ethnic themed activities such as inter-faith heritage trails, inter-faith talks and dialogues and various ethnic and religious celebrations” (Government of Singapore, 2010). There is also the Community Engagement Programme (CEP)[3] that "seeks to develop strong and deep networks of trust and vigilance among the different racial and religious communities” (MCYS, 2007). The CEP spearheaded various initiatives since 2006, one of the more recent being the Orange Ribbon Celebrations, a month-long celebration starting in July 2010, to commemorate racial harmony (The Orange Ribbon Celebrations, 2010). The MHA Minister Wong Kan Seng stated that the Government recognized that such constructs were artificial and “cannot be expected to really foster understanding among Singaporeans” and concede that “[u]ltimately... Singaporeans themselves must individually make the effort to build meaningful relationships with each other” (MHA, 2003b). In reiterating that the arrests should not cause any divisiveness in the community, PM Goh[4] also proposed a “Code on Religious Harmony” which highlights “the way that we should conduct ourselves as we pursue our respective religious beliefs in multi-racial Singapore” (MHA, 2003a, p. 23).

Music Therapy Initiatives in Countering Terrorism – From Prevention to Detainee Rehabilitation

Music Therapy as a discipline (in the U.S.A.) had its beginnings in treating war veterans returning from the World Wars. It is fitting that in today's context, Music Therapists can offer their services in terms of promoting peace and dialogue, thereby countering terrorism. One vocal champion of peace work was the founder of Music Therapists for Peace, Inc. (MTP), Professor Edith Hillman Boxill, who had submitted a proposal to the Special Representative to the United Nations for Children and Armed Conflict, to provide Music Therapy to war-traumatized children, in June 2000 (E. H. Boxill, personal communication, October 14, 2004). Targeting an organization such as the United Nations is just one of many possibilities. Creating a space for cultural and musical exchange on a global level can also lead to meaningful dialogue about creating a “culture of peace” (Vinader Lopez, n.d.). In this spirit, Argentina-based Music Therapist Maria-Elena Vinader Lopez has been running the weekly radio show “Imagine Peace is Possible” since 2003. As Edith Boxill passed away in 2005 at the age of 88, reins have since been passed to Vinader Lopez, who serves as the International Director of MTP.

In the absence of any existing protocol involving Music Therapy in terms of responding to the terrorist threat, three Music Therapy initiatives are hereby explored in the local context, focusing namely on prevention at the community level, crisis intervention targeting trauma survivors, and detainee rehabilitation.

Music Therapy for the Community - Prevention

Music Therapists can potentially enhance existing programming under the Community Engagement Programme mentioned earlier by conducting music workshops to encourage communication and teamwork amongst community leaders from diverse backgrounds – particularly starting with young student leaders, e.g. in leadership camps. While the “traditional” clinical aspects of what defines Music Therapy may be lacking in such workshops, Music Therapists can still provide educational and meaningful experiences to participants to achieve specific learning outcomes. Indeed, the Music Therapist may be one of various professionals who can offer this type of workshop-based services. However, the trained Music Therapist may be differentiated as one who can better tailor successful musical experiences to the target audience.

Music Therapy in Crisis Intervention

Music Therapists have extensively documented their work with trauma survivors, addressing various physical, emotional and sexual trauma issues (Ng, 2005, citing Short, 1991; Slotoroff, 1994; Ventre, 1994), including childhood trauma (Ng, 2005, citing Blake & Bishop, 1994; Bray Wesley, 2003; Montello, 1999; 2003; Rogers, 2003; Robarts, 2003; Shöenfeld, 2003). “While [M]usic [T]herapy will not cure or solve problems brought on by the crisis, [M]usic [T]herapy can help children and adults in crisis learn and use positive coping skills and express difficult feelings and emotions” (American Music Therapy Association, n.d.). Musical expression, being a creative act, represents the polar opposite of trauma and its associated violence and destruction (Dixon, 2002). Hence, music can offer a means of starting the process of meaningful engagement with the self and others. Through music, trust and relationships can be rebuilt (Pavlicevic, 2002).

In the event of a terrorist attack, a Music Therapy crisis response protocol may be adopted. Ideally, Music Therapists can facilitate groups where the attacks hit the hardest, in principle following pioneering work documented in Loewy and Frisch Hara (2002), following the September 11th attacks in New York City. A core of at least three Music Therapists with more experience should monitor the implementation and allocation of Music Therapy services. The Music Therapists may, in addition to their regular jobs, which if ongoing during times of crisis, seek their employer’s approval to take one day of work (as volunteer leave) each week to fulfil this crisis response duty for a designated period. This would need to be worked out between the Music Therapists, relevant government agencies and employers.

In times of crisis, it is important to keep going about life as normal as possible. Hence, it is crucial to have music going on where music had been a regular part of life. Groups of music volunteers (both those who have been volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as new volunteers who would like to do something to help) need to be mobilized systematically to various avenues. It may be appropriate to set up a database for music volunteers to sign up and to receive alerts. This may best be achieved as a joint effort between the various hospitals, Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs), and the National Council of Social Services, the government agency that oversees VWOs. It may be appropriate for volunteers to be briefed by the Music Therapist prior to any contact with survivors, so that they do not re-traumatize the individuals they set out to help, and to refer individuals who need additional support to the Music Therapist.

Music Therapy in Crisis Intervention: Challenges of Implementation

One of the biggest challenges in implementing such a protocol has to be the lack of trained professionals. (The impending establishment of a locally-based accredited training programme would alleviate this shortage.) There are relatively few trained Music Therapists in South-East Asia at present and to the author’s best current knowledge, Singapore is the first country in South-East Asia to have enough professionals to form a Music Therapy association. In times of crisis, the Music Therapists would also welcome help from colleagues from overseas to join the local team in delivering services where there is greatest need. The Music Therapists based here may also be mobilized to assist in regional crisis areas where the need arises. The World Federation of Music Therapy is likely the most well-placed to monitor global needs as such and make the necessary connections to deliver Music Therapy services where appropriate. The local Music Therapy community would also benefit from collaboration with Music Therapy agencies outside Singapore to pool resources. Another challenge would be winning over the relevant government agencies to include Music Therapy as one of the offered services, as Music Therapy is still seen as an emerging profession here. On a related note, as Music Therapy works well as an adjunctive treatment, more collaboration with fellow allied health professionals (e.g. physiotherapists, occupational therapists) would also be key – as they have a larger representation and are more established in Singapore.

Music Therapy in Detainee Rehabilitation

While the use of Art Therapy in detainee rehabilitation is a not a new phenomenon in other countries, Music Therapy would be a new addition to the range of psychosocial interventions made available to the detainee, who is to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society (RSIS, 2010). In Singapore, the detainees and those under Restriction Order supervision undergo a “holistic rehabilitation programme” whereby they are “regularly assessed by ISD psychologists and given counselling based on psychological needs” (RSIS, 2009b). Music Therapy can very well fit within the holistic rehabilitation programme, by addressing the emotional, cognitive, social and even spiritual aspects of the detainee.

Music Therapy requires the active participation of the client in music-making. It is a process rooted in empathy, creativity, and successful and empowering experiences in the context of a therapeutic relationship with a trained Music Therapy professional. Hence, it may begin to offer the radicalized detainee a more constructive and inclusive way to relate to the world. For example, the detainee may be engaged in lyric discussion to reflect on his/her worldview, or compose songs about coming to terms with consequences brought about by terrorism.

It was noted in the White Paper that the psychological profile of many of the JI members included characteristics such as “high compliance, low assertiveness, low in the questioning of religious values, and high levels of guilt and loneliness” (MHA, 2003b, p. 17). It was also noted that the JI members were “not ignorant, destitute or disenfranchised outcasts”, with most of them educated in secular educational institutions and holding “normal, respectable jobs” (MHA, 2003b, p. 15). These observations were congruent with what other studies have found – that terrorists are typically at average or above-average levels in terms of socio-economic background and education (Bjørgo, 2005). The JI members also “needed a sense of belonging without close attachments” (MHA, 2003b, p. 17) as being part of a group was important to their identity. While members joined for various reasons, from altruistic to selfish and fearful ones, it is important to recognize that they were not irrational. It is highly relevant for the Music Therapist to understand the detainee’s motivations for joining JI – and then effectively target the appropriate treatment goals in sessions.

Music Therapy in Detainee Rehabilitation: Implications

The implications of providing Music Therapy to rehabilitate detainees are manyfold. The suitability of music as the treatment modality needs to be examined for those detainees who have formed very negative associations to music, having been taught that music was decadent, or that only “jihadist” music was the only “correct” type of music. It may be possible to reach the part of the detainee that once enjoyed music, perhaps during his childhood or early adult years, before becoming radicalized. There may very well be an intact healthy self imprisoned within the radicalized self, as Robbins & Robbins (1990) talks about reaching the healthy “music child” within the “condition child”. However, as long as the detainee was resistant to music, or to non-jihadist music, it may be inappropriate to use music as the treatment modality. Music is a tool that can be used, it is not inherently good or bad. Hence, the Music Therapist working in detainee rehabilitation should be emotionally aware and guard against the use of music by the detainee to reinforce misguided extremist ideology to justify terrorism. Music Therapy supervision would be a high priority for work with this population. Close communication with team members, including religious counsellors, psychologists, and social workers, would be crucial for successful rehabilitation.


Due to the globalization of terrorism, multi-ethnic and religious Singapore is not immune to threats coming from within. The three initiatives discussed earlier offer a glimpse of Music Therapy’s response to the terrorist question in the local context. The first initiative involves working at the prevention and community level to increase social resilience, under the Community Engagement Programme. Secondly, Music Therapy can be used in direct crisis intervention by reaching out to trauma survivors. Music-making is a creative act and it can help the trauma survivor engage meaningfully with the self and others in a safe environment facilitated by the trained Music Therapist. Thirdly, Music Therapy can also play a role in detainee rehabilitation, playing an adjunctive role to existing rehabilitation interventions, by offering the detainee a more constructive and inclusive way to relate to the world.

Crucial to the success of the Music Therapy response to the terrorist question would have to be the close collaboration with fellow team members, with fellow Music Therapists (based in Singapore and beyond), and also agencies in and beyond Singapore’s borders.


The author thanks her project supervisor, Dr. Anthony Meadows, and also Professor Edith Boxill, for patiently offering guidance on an early manuscript which later evolved into this piece. The author also appreciates input and encouragement from her esteemed colleagues.


[1] Out of these 31 detainees, 29 were later identified to be Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members, while 2 were from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2003a).

[2] The Inter-Racial Confidence Circles were renamed as Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles in 2007 to “better reflect the IRCCs’ role as constituency-level platforms for the strengthening of engagement among religious and community leaders” (MCYS, 2007).

[3] The CEP is supported by five governmental agencies, namely the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, Ministry of Manpower, and the People’s Association (MHA, 2010), with the Ministry of Home Affairs as the coordinating agency (B. Ng, personal communication, 27 July, 2010).

[4] PM Goh also called for the formation of “Harmony Circles at community levels, schools and work places” to promote better inter-racial and inter-religious understand [sic] between the different communities” (MHA, 2003a, p. 23).


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