Hotels: The main challenge is vigilance

 Smoke billows from the Taj hotel as firing continues between the terrorists and security personnel in Mumbai on Nov 29, 2008.
Smoke billows from the Taj hotel as firing continues between the terrorists and security personnel in Mumbai on Nov 29, 2008.PHOTO: EPA

THE man wears an earpiece, a clear giveaway of his role as a security officer in an Orchard Road hotel. But it is his frequent rounds in the lobby that show he means business. He establishes eye contact with this reporter thrice in the 40 minutes she “loiters” there.

Later, he tells her: “Don’t worry. If you were really a terrorist, I definitely saw you.” He points to two closed-circuit TV cameras hanging from the ceiling: “So did these.”

Security experts say there’s plenty of surveillance equipment in most public places here. A post-9/11 world and an educational campaign have also made Singaporeans more aware of their surroundings: Many know that they must alert the authorities if they see suspicious items like an abandoned bag.

But is vigilance enough, if terrorists target hotels here?

Between 2002 and 2011, there were at least 18 major terror attacks against hotels worldwide, says the New York State Intelligence Centre, in a 2012 report. It defines a major attack as one which results in at least 10 casualties.

For many, the 2008 attack in Mumbai springs to mind. One of the 166 people killed was Ms Lo Hwei Yen, the first Singaporean to die in an overseas terrorist attack. Her body was found on the 19th floor of the Oberoi Trident Hotel.

What steps are hotel groups taking to prevent a similar tragedy here? Those who spoke to Insight did not give specifics, citing security concerns.

But they can look to the Singapore Standard for Hotel Security, set in 2009, for guidance. It covers, among other things, access, electronic surveillance and the quality of security personnel.

Most of the Singapore Hotels Association’s members try to meet these guidelines, says executive director Margaret Heng, adding that the main challenge is ensuring “both staff and the public remain vigilant at all times”.

A Marina Mandarin spokesman says security and surveillance equipment at its hotels are updated regularly, with the most recent taking place last November. In line with the new Personal Data Protection Act, staff also undergo training on how to secure guests’ private details, to prevent sabotage.

Meanwhile, a Grand Hyatt spokesman says the hotel has “multiple measures in place”, including regular emergency drills. And at the Swissotel Merchant Court, security officers monitor crime cases in the area and watch if weak spots emerge on the hotel’s property.

Several hotels also participate in emergency response exercises, like the police’s yearly Exercise Heartbeat, which simulates terror threats.

At the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel – the subject of a non-credible terror “threat” by an international student on Facebook in 2012 – it was clear to this reporter that there was a strong security presence, with at least one officer in full view of an entry or exit point. An officer there who spoke on condition of anonymity said all cars which park there are checked thoroughly by his colleagues.

But options are more limited when it comes to human traffic: An officer must make a judgment call based on body language.

That’s because metal detectors can be troublesome, especially when it comes to tourists here to shop or hotel guests who wear jewellery or watches.

Additional measures would also change the environment. In 2004, 10 bombs aboard four commuter trains in Madrid were set off; 191 people were killed. Here, a year later, a new unit comprising armed police troopers was created to patrol MRT stations. Today, these guards can be seen at various stations occasionally.

Similarly, guards at various hotels say they step up checks after attacks in neighbouring countries, or based on advice from the police.

The officer at the Orchard hotel told this reporter that his colleagues checked the undercarriage of cars more zealously and frequently in the wake of the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005. 

Such measures come with a cost, says an expert, who asked not to be named. “It’s not just inconvenient, it also impacts the psyche,” he says. “Vigilance means you’re less at peace.”