Did Singapore deport an Indonesian preacher without explanation?

On 16 May, the Indonesian preacher Abdul Somad Batubara was denied entry into Singapore at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. A day later, he posted an image and a short video on Instagram where he claimed that he had been deported after being held in a 1×2 metre room akin to prison. The video showed him in a holding room with white walls and an open ceiling covered by a wire mesh, and what appears to be a surveillance camera in the corner. The post had received well over 200,000 likes within two days, and Somad’s account is followed by over 6.5 million people.

He later directed his followers to an interview on his personal YouTube channel, HAI GUYS OFFICIAL, where he expanded on the events of his visit, the purpose of which he said was for a vacation. Somad claimed that he was held in single detention for an hour and then held in a larger, stuffy room with his family and friends, as well as their children, for another three hours. He reiterated that the news of his being deported was not a hoax, and said that the Singaporean immigration officials could not explain why he was being deported, asking sarcastically if it was because of terrorists, ISIS or drugs.

Not deportation but a denial of entry

The authorities of both Indonesia and Singapore responded later on 17 May, clarifying that Somad was not, in fact, deported, but rather denied entry—a crucial difference for its legal repercussions.

The Indonesian Embassy in Singapore informed when contacted by Indonesian news agency ANTARA that Singapore’s Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) had issued a not to land (NTL) notice for Somad as he did not meet the criteria for foreigners to enter Singapore, and as Somad was the head of the family group he was travelling with, they had also been denied entry.

They noted that the definition of deportation was if a person had entered a country and then been withdrawn and sent back to the country of origin, which was not the case for Somad as he had not yet entered Singapore. It is unclear if Somad was aware of the difference when claiming to have been deported in his social media posts.

Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) later issued a press release, clarifying Somad had been refused entry to his history of preaching extremist and segregationist teachings, which were ‘unacceptable in Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society’. For example, Somad had preached that suicide bombings were legitimate ‘martydom operations’ in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as denigrating the Christian crucifix as the dwelling place of infidel ‘jinns’ (spirits or demons) and non-Muslims as ‘kafirs’ (infidels). They emphasised that ‘a visitor’s entry into Singapore is neither automatic nor a right’.

In Somad’s YouTube video, he styles himself as a scholar, with a section of the video overlaid with his title as Ust. Prof H Abdul Somad, Lc., MA., Ph. D. Later in the video, he also suggests that Singapore is perhaps unaware of academic credentials and should update their information by communicating with Malaysia and Brunei. To illustrate he emphasises that he has a doctorate from International University Selangor and is also a visiting professor at the Islamic University Sultan Sharif Ali (UNISSA). With these, he feigns ignorance of the reasons for his denial of entry into Singapore.

It is true that Somad has an honorary doctorate from International Islamic University College Selangor Malaysia, though these are often given in recognition of contributions rather than the academic achievement required for a typical doctoral degree. He also did serve as a guest professor at UNISSA in Brunei.

Despite Somad’s credentials, his extremism has been a known fact, even in his home country. The Jakarta Post previously reported that Somad had been left off the Indonesian Religious Affairs Ministry’s list of moderate Islamic preachers—a list created in recent years to counter growing Islamic fundamentalism in the country. He has also been criticised by moderate Islamic groups and reported to the police on blasphemy charges by a number of organisations for his statements on Christianity.

In response to MHA’s statement, Somad doubled down on his previous preachings, stating, ‘I will never stop preaching this. If they see me as an extremist, a segregationist, then so be it. It’s my religion’s teachings, and I will continue to preach it’.

As such, is false that Somad was deported, and that this was done without explanation.

We have reached out to ICA for comment on Somad’s claim that he was held for four hours in prison-like conditions, one of which was in a small room 2m2 in size, and another three hours in stuffy conditions with children. We will update the article when we have received a response.

The preacher’s inflamed crowd takes to social media

Somad’s claims of deportation were reported in news outlets such as Tribunnews, while the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia’s top body of Islamic scholars, said that Singapore’s decision should be ‘protested’.

Despite the clarifications from the authorities, the social media accounts of multiple Singapore government officials were flooded with comments from Somad’s supporters soon after his social media posts, many carrying the hashtags #SaveUAS or #SaveUstadzAbdulSomad.

The affected accounts included those of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Halimah Yacob and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, as well as the official Twitter page of the Singapore government. Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) also noted that calls for these cyber-attacks were spreading on public Indonesian chat groups.

MCI has advised organisations to strengthen their defences against cyber-attacks, and the Singapore Computer Emergency Response Team (SingCERT) had contacted two affected event management companies who had had their websites hacked to offer help.

Many of the comments accused Singapore of Islamophobia and demanded an explanation for the denial of entry, unaware that an official statement had already been given. Others also accused Singapore of arrogance and of being corrupt. A few appeared to veer towards nationalism, making references to the Indonesian Navy vessel KRI Usman Harun (359) that was named after a commando who had participated in the 1965 MacDonald House bombing during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation.

An online resistance emerges

We reached out to MAFINDO, an anti-hoax community and non-profit organisation in Indonesia that is a fellow member of the Asian Fact-Checkers Network (AFCN). Black Dot Research launched AFCN in 2021 to bring together key fact-checking organisations from around Asia to collaborate, share best practices and exchange expertise in order to collectively tackle the constantly evolving and rising threat of misinformation and disinformation, commonly known as ‘fake news’, in the region. AFCN also aims to enhance capabilities of fact-checkers and other stakeholders across Asia to be able to address current and future threats.

MAFINDO pointed out that despite the initial uproar surrounding the news, the unruly behaviour of Somad’s supporters may eventually backfire on him. A large number of Indonesian netizens have begun fighting back the radicals on social media, expressing vocal support for Singapore’s actions.

These netizens have also made important contributions to countering the falsehoods online, pointing out that Singapore does not discriminate against Islamic preachers and has denied entry to radical religious figures of other faiths.

In addition, MAFINDO drew attention to the fact that Singapore is not alone in denying entry to Somad, as the preacher himself admitted in his YouTube video. The Indonesian website Coconuts reports that Somad had been refused entry to Hong Kong, Timor Leste, Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom in recent years.

The claims of Singapore’s discrimination against Islamic preachers are therefore also false.

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