The new normal: Tighter security to protect the public from terror

Police will soon have powers to mandate tighter security measures at mass events to protect people from terror attacks. Insight looks at why these are critical.

Communications executive Dax Lim, 29, has been a Coldplay fan since he was a teenager.

So when the British rock band performed at the National Stadium on Saturday just over a week ago, Mr Lim got tickets and trooped down to the venue with his wife.

There, along with the 50,000 other concert-goers, they had their tickets scanned and bags checked by security personnel before being allowed to enter the stadium. Despite the huge numbers, the whole process took only about 15 minutes.

Mass checks like these will be a way of life as Singapore moves to put in place measures to combat the terror threat - which is at its highest level in recent times.

Recent attacks overseas have shown that there is a need to urgently step up security where soft targets are concerned. Consider the recent attacks - on Westminster Bridge in London last month, where an attacker mowed down pedestrians with a car; and just last week when a suicide bomber carried out an attack on the metro in St Petersburg, Russia.

 

And here, just last Sunday, an unattended bag at Hougang MRT station sparked a bomb scare and left people on edge after the authorities closed the station and issued public alerts to stay away.

The 39-year-old man who left the bag there, which was later found to contain household items, was arrested for causing a public nuisance. But the issue underscores the vulnerability of soft targets here.

That is why last Monday, Parliament passed changes to the Public Order Act, giving powers to the police to direct event organisers to put in place security measures such as bag and body checks, anti-vehicle barricades or even the presence of armed auxiliary police officers.

The changes to the Public Order Act will step up security at large-scale events, which are major soft targets.

Later this year, a new Infrastructure Protection Act will also be introduced to ensure selected key buildings have enough protection. It will require new, large-scale commercial buildings to go through a review during the design stage to determine what security measures are needed.

But will beefing up security measures help stave off a terror attack? Insight takes a look at the issue.

CHANGING MODUS OPERANDI

Terrorist attacks worldwide are on the rise.

SECURITY FIRST

When there is a risk of a potential terrorist attack at an event... it's really in the public interest that the Government does something about it, that the necessary security measures are taken. Otherwise, we are putting lives at risk.

HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM

In a report last week charting the risk of terrorism and political violence, global risk management company Aon said there was a 14 per cent increase in such attacks worldwide last year.

Singapore's terrorism and political violence risk level was also raised from "negligible" to "low" in light of recent arrests of purported extremists in the country, and the Indonesian authorities' reported disruption last year of a terrorist plot to attack the island.

Mr Julian Taylor, Aon Risk Solutions' head of crisis management in Asia, says he expects a further increase in terrorist activity in Asia this year, partly driven by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters returning to the region from the Middle East.

LARGE CROWDS

A terror attack outside the stadium while everyone is queueing could have been quite devastating, considering people are just pooling outside the gates and waiting.

MR DAX LIM, who attended last weekend's Coldplay concert, on security measures.

He also points out that attacks are becoming more diverse, with terrorists moving away from "large-scale bomb attacks towards highly motivated individuals or groups using hand-held weapons or vehicles".

This is clear from attacks last year - notably, the Nice truck attack during French national day celebrations last July, when an attacker mowed down festival-goers with a cargo truck, killing 86.

Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, says terrorists are no longer interested in negotiating, but instead want to cause maximum casualties.

He says: "There is a new threat landscape and unless Singapore upgrades and updates its legislation, it will not be able to control the spread of extremism and terrorism."

The Government has said repeatedly that an attack in Singapore is not a question of whether it will take place, but when it will happen.

One way the Government is trying to head off a possible strike is by passing laws such as the amendments to the Public Order Act, and the upcoming Infrastructure Protection Act.


Dr Rohan Gunaratna says terrorists now want to cause maximum casualties instead of negotiating.

Said Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament last week: "When there is a risk of a potential terrorist attack at an event... it's really in the public interest that the Government does something about it, that the necessary security measures are taken. Otherwise, we are putting lives at risk."

What this would mean is that greater inconvenience - such as bag and body checks and greater surveillance - at events, and even in the course of daily living could be a way of life in future, and the public would have to come to terms with this.

As it stands, there is room for improvement. Mr Lim, who was at the Coldplay concert, said there could have been tighter security and crowd control outside the stadium.

Concert organiser Live Nation Lushington says it conducted bag checks, deployed auxiliary police, private and venue security, uniformed and plainclothes policemen, and used CCTV cameras and scanners.


Mr Eric Gigou of the French police special forces says the key is to react quickly during an attack to minimise casualties.

"With the new law, we will place greater emphasis on event safety," says the company's managing director, Mr Michael Roche.

BUILDING RESILIENCE

Having said that, it is not possible to totally secure all aspects of daily life.

Mr Shanmugam pointed this out in a speech at Milipol Asia-Pacific 2017, a homeland security conference held last week, when he said "you cannot turn the city into a garrison".

What can be done, then, is to teach citizens to be more resilient, and how they can react when faced with a terror attack, says Professor Alexander Siedschlag, who chairs the Pennsylvania State University's homeland security programme in the United States.

Incidents such as the Orlando nightclub shooting, where a lone gunman killed 49 people, have led the authorities in the US to teach citizens basic triage, such as how to staunch bleeding wounds, so that they can better respond to "active shooter" incidents, he adds.

"We can't harden nightclubs to the point where nobody can get in and nobody can dance," he says.

Other things that are important include terrorism awareness programmes that tell people to be vigilant for suspicious characters and unattended bags, and how to identify potential threats, says Mr Andrin Raj, South-east Asia regional director for the International Association for Counter-Terrorism and Security Professionals.

In many ways this is already being done here. The SGSecure national movement seeks to sensitise, train and mobilise Singaporeans in preventing terrorism and dealing with its aftermath.

One of its goals is to reach out to one million households to educate people on what to do in an attack and encourage them to learn how to use emergency equipment.

There are signs that it is having an effect - the SGSecure mobile app has been downloaded to 380,000 mobile devices since it was launched six months ago.

This app was put into action last Sunday when the bomb scare happened in Hougang. Members of the public told The Sunday Times they stayed away and went to investigate only after the "all-clear" was broadcast on the app.

Mr Shanmugam said last week at Milipol that this was proof there was "general sensitisation" to the possibility of an attack.

And it is only when society is aware of the threat, that people can do their bit.

Says Mr Raj: "Fighting terror is not just the Government's responsibility - it is everyone's responsibility. You might not be able to stop an attack, but you could help mitigate the risk or the damage."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'The new normal: Tighter security'. Print Edition | Subscribe