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Prepare for the inevitable: Terror at home

As terror attacks erupt closer to home, Singapore must brace itself for a possible attack on home ground. When this happens, "social responders" are needed to complement government agencies' efforts to cope.

The past 12 months or so have seen a series of murderous outrages: the cafe hostage-taking in Sydney in December 2014, the assault on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015, the coordinated attacks in Paris in December 2015, followed by bombings in Brussels in March this year and then the Orlando nightclub attack last month.

In the last fortnight or so alone, there have been shootings in Dhaka and bombings in Baghdad and Saudi Arabia during the Muslims' fasting month of Ramadan.

Closer to home, there was last week's attack at a nightclub in Puchong, Selangor, when a grenade blast wounded eight people. Malaysian police confirmed on Monday it was the first successful Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attack on Malaysian soil.

In Jakarta, an attack in January killed at least seven. Just yesterday, a suicide bomber struck in Solo, Central Java. He is suspected to have ISIS links.

The attacks stoke fears that radical supporters of ISIS are opening a new front for terrorism in the region.

There are four points which stand out from this pattern.

First, that the victims of these attacks included Muslims and non-Muslims. In Baghdad and Saudi Arabia, attackers paid no heed to the sanctity of the holy month of Ramadan. In fact, ISIS urged its supporters to stage attacks during the month.


On Jan 4 this year, Jakarta was rocked by several blasts, including one outside a Starbucks cafe (left) and a police post. It is time for Singapore to prepare for the inevitable - an attack, probably on a vulnerable civilian target - and ask ourselves how best we should manage. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Second, the targets were not security-hardened locations such as military or government installations but civilian premises. The vulnerability of such premises is obvious and impossible to reasonably mitigate.

Third, in several cases, the perpetrators were seemingly self-radicalised.

Fourth, each attack can be seen as an attempt to top the preceding one in scale of carnage and viciousness.

Singapore has received the attention of terrorists before. As far back as the 1960s, we were subject to waves of bombings perpetrated by first, communists, and later, Indonesian insurgents - two of whom were caught and hanged in 1965.

In more recent times, the Internal Security Department disrupted planned attacks by Jemaah Islamiah in 2001 and made several arrests of terrorists or terrorist sympathisers in subsequent years.

The ministries of Home Affairs and Defence have been coordinating and investing in new capabilities to upgrade operational responsiveness in the event of an attack. This is to be welcomed but these are responses and not preventive. In the past, we could rely on shows of force as a deterrent. But it is clear from all the recent attacks that the new generation of terrorists care nothing for their own survival and hence will not be dissuaded by the availability of highly trained contingency forces. Rather, it would motivate them to cause maximum harm in the minimum time before these forces engage and overwhelm them.

It is time for us to prepare for the inevitable - an attack on Singapore, probably on a vulnerable civilian target - and ask ourselves how best we should manage.

Singapore is a very small country, with a compact heterogeneous population and whose economic premise is to be open to and engaged with the global economic, capital and labour flows. A large part of Singapore's attractiveness to foreign investors and to global talent is its perceived social and political stability and security.

Thus the impact of a terrorist attack would have implications beyond terror and carnage caused. It would shatter the perception of Singapore as a safe place to live and invest in.

The reputational damage would not be limited to the views of foreigners but would deeply wound the psyche of Singaporeans - who have become conditioned to taking their security for granted after five decades of internal calm and social harmony.

It is important that Singaporeans consider how they would respond to an eventual attack so that proactive and deliberate steps can be taken to strengthen the security, not just of our physical installations, but of our civil bonds.

To do so, we should be thinking of a response that extends far beyond the limit of the capacity of the government agencies.

It is at the community level that the vital preparations must be in place. These should not be "go through the motions"exercises but a serious and sustained engagement at the grassroots level of how best to and who will do what and when to immediately respond to calm public anger, manage social distrust and prevent knee-jerk retaliations - at the level of each block, each school and at each street corner.

These "social responders" should be seen as vital complements to the first responders such as police, military and civil defence personnel. Protocols should be in place to "recluse" any social responder personally affected by attacks. In a small community, mass attacks are likely to touch most Singaporeans. The only question would be matter of degrees of remove from the victims.

Social responders should be volunteers, not people compelled by a system seeking to tot up numbers to meet a target. They should be filtered on the basis of emotional and motivational suitability to fill this sensitive but crucial function. Training and practice, both initial and recurrent, should be provided to prepare them adequately. Their contingent contribution should be factored into an overall response plan which extends beyond the dimension of security to consider social, political and economic considerations.

We should also lay contingent plans for a reserve of blood donors for the various blood types who can be tapped immediately upon an attack to provide critical reinforcement to the blood bank.

Psychologists and social workers should be identified in the civilian community, and not just the government agencies, to provide victim, affected family and general community-level psychological support and aftercare.

The Ministry of Finance should have a quick response plan to support the economy through the aftershock of an attack while the Monetary Authority of Singapore should be prepared to support the Singapore dollar in the event of a panic sell-off.

Industry and trade associations and large corporates also have a function to calm the workforce, reinforce positive messages and avoid inadvertently alienating staff with ethnic or religious characte- ristics affiliated with the terrorists.

These necessary remedial measures are collective responses which are secondary to the most determinative of choices - which will be individual. All Singaporeans have to get up the next day, share their streets with one another as they do every day, and go to work or school even as they ache with the pain of loss and strain with fear of further attacks.

To defeat the terrorists is not only to kill them; more fundamentally, defeating terrorism means having the resolve not to let terror dominate or change us; having the determination not to turn against one another; having the commitment to continue to survive and succeed; and carrying on the adamant and insistent keeping of faith with the ideal of being one people and one nation.

If potential terrorists assess that Singapore, with its hard defence and strong sinews of resilience, is unlikely to be shaken from its course, that would be the best deterrent of all.


  • The writer is the CEO of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Prepare for the inevitable: terror at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe