Facing down violent extremism

As Singapore marks Total Defence Day today, it is worth reflecting on the vital role of civilians in the war against terror.

Violent extremism is not deterred by military force, however powerful or capable. Countries armed with nuclear weapons like Britain, France and the United States have all failed to deter terror attacks. Amid the bloodshed, Singaporeans enjoy a fragile peace. Will the Republic be forever immune to such attacks? The hard truth is "no".

Singapore's multi-agency counter-terrorism effort is round the clock, 24/365. But it is near impossible for security agencies to prevent individuals - the so-called lone wolves - from killing in the name of violent extremism when everyday objects from cars to kitchen knives can be used as weapons of choice. Today, such extremists are also willing to die while committing mass murder and thus cannot be deterred.

Still, continued vigilance is never futile as the success of such attacks is not inevitable. Accurate, relevant and timely intelligence, robust security checks and alert, disciplined fast responders can frustrate attempts to wreak havoc.

Should the worst happen, it is almost certain that terror groups will rush to claim bragging rights as authors of the "first" successful attack on Singapore. An attack here will have propaganda value far in excess of the size and complexity of the operation or actual body count. Singapore is a prized target as it is one of the last world cities to have successfully kept the scourge of terrorism at bay.

Back in the 1960s in the days of Confrontation, Singaporeans endured a brutal campaign of urban bombings when Indonesia waged an undeclared war against the Malaysian federation.

A video screengrab of a finalist for the N.E.mation! competition, a digital animation competition organised for young people to express their thoughts on Total Defence. Violent extremists find accomplices in the complacency and apathy of some members
A video screengrab of a finalist for the N.E.mation! competition, a digital animation competition organised for young people to express their thoughts on Total Defence. Violent extremists find accomplices in the complacency and apathy of some members of the public. By contrast, residents who are alert and aware of possible threats can foil attempts to harm the city. PHOTO: NEXUS

Seven Singapore residents died and more than 50 were injured in 42 bomb attacks that targeted people indiscriminately and without warning between 1963 and 1965. Even during the most intense phase of the urban bombing campaign in March 1965, with seven bomb attacks and three deaths that month, Singaporeans stayed united.

After Confrontation, Singaporeans enjoyed years of peace until March 1985, when a bomb was set off in the heart of Orchard Road at Faber House, presumably aimed at the Embassy of Israel which was then located in the building. Faber House was bombed again in December 1986. There were small-scale bombings at AIA Building and Shell Tower from November to December 1987, three attacks within two months. Since then, Singapore has kept terrorist bombers at bay.

Today, if the Republic suffers an attack of violent extremism, younger Singaporeans accustomed to years of stability, growth and prosperity must demonstrate the same tenacity and courage that the founding generation displayed during Confrontation.

Singapore's multi-agency counter-terrorism effort is round the clock, 24/365. But it is near impossible for security agencies to prevent individuals - the so-called lone wolves - from killing in the name of violent extremism when everyday objects from cars to kitchen knives can be used as weapons of choice. Today, such extremists are also willing to die while committing mass murder and thus cannot be deterred.

This year, activities marking Total Defence Day on the day British forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942, represent a timely juncture for all here to remember that today's peace rests on the shoulders of leaders and citizen soldiers who have demonstrated a steadfast will and ability to defend this island. Nobody else is responsible for this nation's defence and security.

The twin pillars of Singapore's defence policy - deterrence and defence diplomacy - remain vital, relevant and effective in safeguarding its interests amid regional tensions. But new threats have emerged aside from more conventional war machines like submarines, tanks, rocket launchers and war planes that the Singapore Armed Forces keeps a close eye on. These include car and human bombs that lone wolves not on any terror watch list can turn to, to wreak mayhem.

The arrest of foreign nationals here linked to terrorist groups and recent attacks in Jakarta are stark reminders that the threat is neither theoretical nor remote but a clear and present danger that Singapore must contend with daily.

Violent extremists find accomplices in the complacency and apathy of some members of the public.

By contrast, residents who are alert and aware of possible threats can foil attempts to harm the city.

A good example of that is to be found in police crime data, which shows that three in 10 arrests for serious offences like murder, robbery and housebreaking were made possible by citizens' arrest or information from the public. An alert citizenry therefore has a part to play in safeguarding Singapore: Together, the members of this society keep Singapore strong.

Across the globe, courageous and alert citizens who stepped forward without hesitation have thwarted terror attacks and saved countless lives. These include the foiling of an attempted attack on the Thalys high-speed train in Europe last August and a plan to blow up an American airliner in December 2001 by a terrorist who concealed explosives in his shoe.

Here in Singapore, the arrest of terrorist sleeper cells by the Internal Security Department in December 2001 was only possible due to intelligence provided by ordinary citizens.

If there is a buzzword to keep in mind this Total Defence Day, I would say it is "Keep Calm and Carry On". Attempts by violent extremists to unnerve society must be faced down by ordinary Singaporeans determined to show that such plots will not succeed in destabilising this city-state.

After last month's bombings in Jakarta, Indonesians launched a movement that coined the defiant rejoinder, #KamiTidakTakut ("We are not afraid" in Bahasa Indonesia). That ground-up effort exemplifies the "Keep Calm and Carry On" mindset that thwarts terror. That is why Total Defence matters.

As regional tensions defy resolution and as violent extremism threatens to unsettle life here, everyone here must play his or her part to face down threats to Singapore's security.

  • The writer was formerly this newspaper's defence correspondent. He is a member of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Facing down violent extremism'. Print Edition | Subscribe