Indranee Rajah For The Straits Times

When horror strikes in the heart of peaceful places

Flowers being removed at a memorial site outside the Lindt cafe in Sydney on Tuesday, one week after the siege which saw two hostages and the gunman killed. What is striking about such incidents is the everyday ordinariness of where the victims were
Flowers being removed at a memorial site outside the Lindt cafe in Sydney on Tuesday, one week after the siege which saw two hostages and the gunman killed. What is striking about such incidents is the everyday ordinariness of where the victims were and what they were doing before the bloodbath.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There's an intangible fight at the invisible front in the war against terror. All of us - not just law enforcement agencies - are involved in that fight.

Exploring  the malls while on leave last week, I saw parents and children enjoying family time together, friends chatting over coffee and cakes, youngsters thronging the cineplexes and shoppers intent on their Christmas shopping. There were scents of heady fragrances and freshly baked cookies, shiny baubles and decorations, the sparkle of Orchard Road lights and cool rainy weather - all evoking that special, familiar year-end feeling of happy anticipation, relaxed excitement and mellowness that signal Christmas and New Year.

These were the sights and sounds of Singapore residents and tourists going about their holiday season activities.

Then I reflected on the news headlines of that same week:

  • the Sydney siege in a cafe on Dec 15 which left two hostages and the gunman, an Australian resident of Iranian origin, dead;
  • the Peshawar school attack a day later which saw 132 Pakistani children, nine staff and their Taleban attackers all killed;
  • Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's court appearance on Dec 18 for the Boston Marathon bombings where five were killed and 280 injured. Tsarnaev is a US citizen, formerly of Dagestan;
  • the granting of bail on Dec 18 to the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks of 2008, where 166 people were killed, including Singaporean lawyer Lo Hwei Yen who was attending a legal seminar.

This caused me to reflect on these earlier events: the October hatchet attack on four New York police officers by radicalised African-American convert Zale Thompson;

  • the Brussels Jewish Museum killings of May by a French national of Algerian origin;
  • the hacking and partial beheading of British soldier Lee Rigby, in a United Kingdom public street in May last year. The assailants were British citizens of Nigerian descent.

All acts of terrorism, or influenced by it.

What is striking is the sheer everyday ordinariness of where the victims were and what they were doing before the descent into a bloodbath: a cafe where people pop in for that morning cup of mocha or latte (how many of us do this every day?); a school - where children go expecting nothing more than lessons; a city marathon - a common event in all the big cities of the world; a seminar in a hotel; a visit to a museum; a walk along a high street.

Ordinary people in ordinary places doing ordinary things on what began as an ordinary day.

None of them would have expected when they set out in the morning that by the end of the day they would be dead or grievously wounded, victims of terrorism, their names and life stories broadcast across all media, and subjects of worldwide expressions of grief, sympathy and mourning.

Also striking is that these events were not confined to a particular area or nationality. They were spread over different cities in different continents.

Victims and perpetrators hail from a multiplicity of nationalities, countries and backgrounds.

It used to be that for this kind of thing to happen to you, you had to be in a conflict zone or a country engaged in a civil war.

Sept 11, 2001 - when terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York and other sites - changed all that.

The new form of terror is to bring horror to the heart of peaceful places. 9/11 also marked another change, the devolution of such attacks to autonomous terror cells.

The Sydney siege, the Lee Rigby murder, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Brussels museum killings represent yet a further devolution of terror activity from terror groups to self-starting radicalised individuals or "lone wolves".

The aftermath, though, is always the same - the pain, the grief and the psychological scarring at personal and national levels, the soul searching, the struggle to make sense of it all, the inquiries to find out what went wrong and whether it could have been avoided, and - most insidious of all - the straining of community relationships, even though the perpetrators were extremists acting from a perversion of religion, a grotesque distortion to which the millions of others of the same religion do not subscribe.

Free societies and everyday terror

The question is how free and open societies like Singapore should find their way forward in this environment, which is not set to go away any time soon.

It starts with strong laws and robust enforcement.

Much will rest with the security agencies, but for them to do the job properly they must be equipped with the right powers and the right tools to deal with terror plots pre-emptively, not just retrospectively.

However, given the devolved, distributed and asymmetrical nature of the phenomenon, it also means that every individual - you and I - is at the forefront of this fight. What, you may ask, does it fall to each of us to do?

First, as the Prime Minister has said, to be vigilant. The thing is, terrorism isn't exactly high on anyone's agenda as we go about the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.

These events, tragic though they be, are seen through the filter of "things that happen to other people, not us". Over time, memory fades. There are young people today who weren't born when 9/11 occurred, so that event has not even entered their collective consciousness.

Moreover, one can't be in a heightened state of alert all the time. The key is to be able to go about as normal, but with an underlying constant alertness to pick up the things which seem just that little bit "off", or to report as soon as you know something is wrong.

I read on BBC News how the British police managed to stop a teenage girl just before she boarded the plane to join the fight in Syria, influenced no doubt by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's call for militant brides. The tip-off came from a member of the public.

Her parents were completely unaware of her plans.

Second, to build strong communities, as Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen have highlighted.

The impact of terror-related incidents goes well beyond immediate bereavement - the incidents drive a wedge between people, causing fear, suspicion and distrust.

They poison the well of social harmony. In every single case after the attacks listed above, there have been heightened tensions between communities - one need look no further than what is happening now in Australia and the United States. If we have an incident in Singapore, we must expect tension too.

The best counter lies in having strong communities, where relationships are built on mutual trust and understanding, so that if we are ever put to the test, we will have enough knowledge, enough goodwill, enough resilience and enough strength in our bonds to withstand the strain that will inevitably follow.

The importance of integration and cohesion before any such event occurs cannot be overstated.

Singapore's multiracial, multi-religious character which defines us as a people is not just a societal ideal.

It is a powerful foundation and bulwark of defence against divisive forces, not to be taken for granted or squandered, but constantly tended and nurtured. Social defence is one of the five pillars of Total Defence for good reasons. This is one of them.

Third, to distinguish between extremist radicals and the millions of others of the same faith who have nothing to do with extremism and who just want to live peacefully with others.

#illridewithyou, a trending movement on Twitter born out of one woman's effort to reassure another in Islamic head-dress in the wake of the Sydney siege, illustrates how individual acts of discernment and understanding can make a difference.

Fourth, to work to achieve the right equilibrium of individual identity and communal unity. All cultures, ethnicities and religions have distinguishing features. These are held dear as they define identities and beliefs.

Yet, #illridewithyou also illustrates how things that distinguish can also give rise to communal issues. We need every community to examine whether what it is doing contributes to greater togetherness or greater separation.

In our little oasis of calm, these incidents and concerns seem far removed. However, there is no guarantee that nothing will ever happen here.

These are extraordinary times. But as ordinary people we can make a big difference by living out these four things in our ordinary lives, so as to give ourselves better than ordinary odds in averting or overcoming such incidents.

The writer is Senior Minister of State for Law and Education and an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC.