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Leverage Total Defence to bolster SGSecure

If you have yet to hear of SGSecure, you soon will. The Ministry of Home Affairs-led movement has pledged to galvanise the whole of Singapore society - about one million households - in a door-to-door effort to spread security awareness messages and teach people first-aid skills like treating burns and bandaging wounds.

Launched last Saturday by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, SGSecure was established to get people in Singapore to stay alert, stay united and stay strong in the face of terror threats.

Singaporeans have survived the Japanese Occupation during World War II, the urban terror campaign waged during Indonesia's Confrontation with Malaysia in the 1960s (of which Singapore was then part) and the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003, but the terror threat our country now faces seeks to fracture and destabilise Singapore along racial and religious fault lines. The massive push to get SGSecure moving shows that this threat is like no other in Singapore's history.

In the current security climate, attacks by terrorist groups or individuals acting as lone wolves, having been swayed by radical ideals, are a clear and present danger. Attacks will be sudden, brutal and indiscriminate. The purveyors of violent ideology do not fear death. Indeed, in many terror attacks, there is no exit plan as death is sought after.

Terrorists cannot be deterred in the traditional sense with promises of a swift and decisive response by military firepower. In fact, the harder the target, the more attractive it becomes. In the wake of a successful strike, the propaganda value from having beaten security forces is magnified.

In the current security climate, attacks by terrorist groups or individuals acting as lone wolves are a clear and present danger. SGSecure, which was launched by PM Lee last Saturday, was established to get people in Singapore to stay alert, stay uni
In the current security climate, attacks by terrorist groups or individuals acting as lone wolves are a clear and present danger. SGSecure, which was launched by PM Lee last Saturday, was established to get people in Singapore to stay alert, stay united and stay strong in the face of terror threats. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The city-state of Singapore, which stands alone as an oasis of calm in a restive region, is such a trophy target. And the old chestnut that terrorists need to be lucky only once, while counter-terrorist forces need to be on their guard all the time, explains why security messages of late have gravitated to the "not a question of if but when" narrative when discussing the likelihood that blood will be shed in the Lion City.

The tally of terror attacks worldwide shows how lives have been torn asunder and changed irredeemably after peaceful, everyday situations were defiled by terrorism. The record of violence includes random knife attacks in the street, shootings in cafes and theatres, bombings at airports and train stations, and people mown down by a truck after watching a fireworks display.

Short of living life as a hermit behind locked doors, we have to understand and accept that the current security climate is a new normal that societies worldwide have to contend with.

SGSecure's terrorism-centric focus is therefore aimed at reinforcing Singapore's ability to weather the aftermath of an attack through strengthened community vigilance, cohesion and resilience. There is no model answer for SGSecure's strategists to follow as the challenges for this city-state's densely populated, multiracial society and lack of exposure to national security threats are quite possibly unique.

In Singapore, one can expect security levels to be raised even more once measures that are already the norm in some Asian cities are implemented here. These include security checks at shopping centres and cinemas, with bag searches and metal detectors. These are tasks which will no doubt raise the cost of doing business. But they are, nonetheless, necessary and timely as the price of complacency or lack of vigilance could be a successful attack that exacts a far greater price by destabilising Singapore.

The bright spot amid the gloom is that, as a country, we have had decades to prepare for the worst. The defence and security community here has invested years in thinking through how to safeguard Singapore from a full spectrum of threats.

If SGSecure's message that there is a part for everyone sounds familiar, it is thanks to the groundwork laid by years of Total Defence campaigns.

Launched in 1984 and led by the Ministry of Defence, Total Defence aims to harness military, civil, economic, psychological and social elements to combat threats to Singapore's well-being.

Mindef has done a commendable job keeping Total Defence relevant in the past 32 years. Initiatives such as the N.E.mation! digital animation competition for students to express their thoughts on national resilience through creative videos seed Total Defence messages among the young, ensuring successive generations carry security awareness into adulthood.

Making provisions for primary school pupils to watch the National Day Parade has allowed thousands of children to see the Total Defence element in the show, with fire engines, police cars and Singapore Armed Forces war machines driving home the military and civil defence elements that pupils remember for years.

Interestingly, Total Defence was absent from PM Lee's speech at the launch of SGSecure.

Mentioning one should not come at the expense of the other. And the ability of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Mindef to work in a tightly coordinated fashion when propagating security themes is crucial in keeping key messages aligned and to avoid confusing the public. After all, the decades worth of positive Total Defence mileage is a valuable lever which SGSecure strategists should consider using to move SGSecure from a cold start into high gear quickly and with a credible voice.

PM Lee recognises the challenges and this explains why we have a Coordinating Minister for National Security overseeing the national counter-terrorism effort who can ensure ministries work towards a common agenda.

There is a part for one and all, to keep the peace we want - be it for Total Defence or SGSecure. When will you step forward?

• The writer is a member of Mindef's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (Accord).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Leverage Total Defence to bolster SGSecure'. Print Edition | Subscribe