Enhancing Singapore's response to terrorism

Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam announced changes to harden Singapore against a terrorist attack at a Home Team Leaders' Forum yesterday. Here is an edited excerpt of his speech.

It is no longer a question of whether an attack will take place but when an attack is going to take place in Singapore and we have to be prepared for that. The critical task for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is really to deal with this in the coming years.

I will deal with our response in two categories: (i) the security response that is needed; and (ii) the community response that is needed.


The attacks in Paris on Nov 13, last year and in Jakarta on Jan 14 this year have shown a different, more dangerous modus operandi. These were multi-shooter attacks staged almost simultaneously over different locations. Second, the targets were crowded places where people congregate, with little or no security protection, like restaurants, a sports stadium, concert hall, shopping malls. Third, in Paris, the attackers took hostages, not to negotiate but to inflict maximum casualties.


The intent of such attacks is to achieve high, maximum public visibility, inflict maximum damage and create a climate of fear. Beyond the loss of lives, the attackers wanted to destroy the psychological resilience and social fabric of local communities. They wanted to divide and tear apart communities.

We have in place a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, which has dealt with the challenges so far and quite effectively. Now we have to deal with an increased set of threats and deal with a new modus operandi. There is no time to waste. We have to do this urgently. We have to and will significantly enhance measures in two areas: security protection and vigilance, and security response.

Protective security measures for buildings and premises will be enhanced. These include critical infrastructure including Changi Airport (above) and government buildings, and also soft targets like sports facilities, entertainment centres and shopping malls. ST FILE PHOTO


First, we will further enhance protective security measures for buildings and premises. These include critical infrastructure, like Changi Airport and government buildings, and also soft targets, like entertainment centres, sports facilities and shopping centres.

Security vigilance will be substantially enhanced through a significant expansion of CCTV coverage. The enhanced CCTV coverage will give us three significant advantages in our fight against terrorism:

  • Greater deterrence via police cameras at HDB blocks and other places;
  • It will give police a better sense-making; and
  • Situational awareness. This is critical.

The Home Team will develop deep data analytical capabilities to allow real-time monitoring and analysis of the CCTV data. This will allow us to plan and execute our responses much more incisively. The footage will also help us identify the perpetrators, shorten the time taken to apprehend them and prevent them from launching more attacks.


We will complete the installation of police cameras at 10,000 HDB resident blocks and multi-storey car parks this year. We will then move to cover common areas in the heartland, especially areas with high human traffic such as town centres, hawker centres, walkways linking up to major transportation nodes. Phased installation of cameras will start later this year. It will be completed progressively over the next four years. Beyond police cameras, there are other data that we can make better use of. This includes existing CCTVs islandwide.


We will set up the network infrastructure to allow CCTV data in more areas to be accessible to the police, on-demand. These include CCTVs monitoring the public transportation system, commercial buildings with high footfall and government buildings. I will speak about this in Parliament, at some point, soon. Police will work closely with premises owners to allow police access to their CCTVs. Members of public will also be able to submit videos to the police on crowdsourcing platforms.

This is a necessary, strategic and direct response to the evolving nature of the threats.

Second, we will, where necessary, enact legislation, rules to require premises owners and organisers of major events to put in place necessary security measures.

For example, MHA will engage developers of large-scale building projects which are likely to have high volume of human traffic to factor in new security considerations at the design stage. Premises owners could be asked to put in place CCTV systems that meet baseline technical standards. We will also look at existing buildings. At major events, organisers may be, will be asked to screen persons before they enter the venue. During periods of heightened security alert, these measures will be enhanced.

There are good reasons for requiring these measures. Terrorist attacks in other places have focused on soft targets because there was little or no security protection. We need to do more, to partner with the private and people sectors to better protect these soft targets. In Paris at Stade de France, strict security checks were conducted by competent personnel at the entrances. Three would-be suicide bombers who wanted to go into the stadium were deterred by the checks, so their bombs went off outside. Imagine the consequences if they had managed to get into the stadium and then exploded themselves.

In the Jakarta attacks, the primary target appears not to have been the Sarinah Mall. They apparently were targeting a larger mall nearby but that mall had tight screening measures. They were deterred by that and went to the Sarinah Mall. If that larger mall did not have security measures, the impact of the attack would have been more devastating.

The proposed increased security measures will increase building and operating costs. This unfortunately cannot be avoided. The terrorists have imposed multiple costs on society ranging from increased costs due to heightened security measures, to the costs to the social fabric.

The Home Team will work with premises owners and event organisers to safeguard the security of the people who patronise their premises and attend their events. For visitors, there will be more inconvenience. We will all need to get used to more security and bag checks prior to entry. But I believe that our people will understand and accept the need for these measures.


These are preventive, protective measures that we intend to put in place with necessary legislation. But we must assume that even with all these measures, some attacks will get through, so we will also enhance our ability to respond to these attacks. When an attack takes place, the speed and the manner in which we respond will be critical in taking down the attackers and limiting the damage.

The Home Team has studied the recent attacks. We will upgrade our capabilities and modify our operational set-up so that we can better deal with these challenges. It is critical for our security forces to arrive quickly - the current norms have to change, and they must have the capacity to take down the attackers, which means enhancing the numbers. These forces must be mentally prepared, tactically well-trained, and well-equipped to react quickly to the situation.

The Paris attacks revealed the challenges in dealing with armed violence staged at multiple locations. Paris had well-trained front-line responders and specialised units. Even then, post-incident analysis showed that there were substantial periods when the terrorists operated with little or no hindrance. One officer arrived at the Bataclan concert hall 15 minutes into the attack. He managed to stall the killing by shooting one attacker. But this officer was then ordered to withdraw in favour of a more specialised anti-terrorism unit; that unit arrived half an hour into the assault. By that time, the killing was effectively over. The specialised anti-terrorism unit initially headed towards restaurants on the Rue de Charonne where the killing had ended more than 20 minutes before that.

Police have studied these shootings. We will reorganise the police response forces to a terrorist incident, enhance their firepower and operational capability, and deploy them in a way so that they can arrive faster at any location in Singapore. This is going to be absolutely critical to deal with the mode of terrorist attacks where the aim of the attackers is to kill as many people as they can and inflict maximum damage and fear.

We will form new Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) to respond quickly, engage the attackers and minimise the casualties. This means increasing the number of personnel and the ERTs. We have to increase the number of police officers to be trained. They will be specially trained with counter- assault skills and equipped with the necessary weapons. Day to day, they will patrol the terrain and engage stakeholders to build familiarity with the areas they will be in charge of. The aim is to significantly upgrade our immediate response capability.

We will also enhance the response of the second wave of forces. These are the specialist teams from the Special Operations Command and the Gurkha Contingent. They will be enabled to arrive at the scene faster. On top of this, the Home Team will also work more closely with the SAF to deal with the threat, where necessary.


Next, let me talk about community response. Our ability to deal with terrorism effectively as a country depends on how many Singaporeans face up to, and respond, to this challenge as individuals and as members of the community. I mentioned earlier that the aim of the attackers is to inflict maximum fear and casualties and divide society. This is why the cornerstone of a counter-terrorism strategy has to be a community response plan - one that enhances community vigilance, community cohesion and community resilience.

This is not a completely new strategy. After the London incidents of July 2005, we introduced the Community Engagement Programme (CEP). This was to ensure that we were better equipped to maintain social cohesion and unity should an attack take place. Just stay united in a crisis.

Over the years, through the CEP, we have built networks of community leaders and influencers. They have helped strengthen the understanding and ties between different races and religions. These are networks that can be activated when a crisis occurs. For example, after the Paris attacks, customised messages were disseminated through these networks.

Given today's threat environment, we will have to revamp the CEP considerably. There is a strong, urgent need for the community to be vigilant before and during an attack. A community that knows how to respond, a community that is prepared and equipped with the necessary skills to protect themselves, their families and the community.


With these considerations in mind, the Home Team will develop and launch a new national programme, which we will call "SG Secure". SG Secure will represent our national strategy to safeguard our homeland and our way of life against this threat. Just as we have "Total Defence", which involves every Singaporean playing a part for the defence of Singapore, SG Secure must become a rallying call for Singaporeans from all walks of life to unite, to play a part in making Singapore a safe place that it is today.

It has to be a new national movement to sensitise, organise, train and exercise Singaporeans, so that we can better protect ourselves from attacks. SG Secure cannot be just another public awareness campaign. It has to be a call to action. It has to be a movement.

We have to execute this in a systematic, structured and sustained manner and I don't underestimate the difficulties. Training up our own forces, increasing the numbers that we have, increasing the number of ERTs, getting building premises owners to put in measures, all these we can do through legislation, through effort. But getting the community together in this new movement is a different ball game and it is not going to be easy. But we have to try and we have to do it. It can only be achieved if we can get everyone to participate. It will take time and resources from all in society. But it has to be done, to keep Singapore safe and secure.

We will reach out to Singaporeans in neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces, the NS community and community groups. We will work with partners to develop or enhance programmes to sensitise, train and mobilise different groups of Singaporeans.

They will be empowered and enabled to:

  • Stay alert - be vigilant and alert to unusual behaviour or items in their surroundings, know how to respond and protect themselves, their family and their friends;
  • Stay united - cherish and safeguard Singapore's multiracial and multi-religious social fabric;
  • Stay strong - be ready to deal with crises if they occur, be resilient as individuals and as a community, help each other bounce back quickly and overcome adversity.

There is another aspect to the community response, to which we have to pay a lot of attention and work with some of the other agencies and ministries, and that relates to, not the cases of self-radicalisation but the causes of self-radicalisation, including the influence of preachers, whether local or foreign, who advocate intolerance, and the influences from online, and how we can inoculate Singaporeans against these trends. We will pay a lot of attention to that as well. None of these is going to be easy.

The Home Team will roll out SG Secure, together with our partners, later this year. We will urge all Singaporeans to come on board and take an active role in this programme: (i) to understand the security landscape and the threats that we face; (ii) to be equipped with right skills; and (iii) to help spread the messages of vigilance, cohesion and resilience to friends, families and colleagues. There will be emergency preparedness exercises; we will have to get them upgraded significantly from where they are now.

So if an attack occurs, we need to be able to recover well. The day after is even more important. We have to emerge stronger, more united and more determined as Singaporeans. If we look at what happened in Paris and Jakarta, after the Paris attacks, social media users posted the hashtag #PorteOuverte, which means "open door", to offer shelter and help to those on the streets with nowhere to go. It was organic and a ground-up response - overwhelming. After the Jakarta attacks, Indonesians started tweeting #KamiTidakTakut, which means "we are not afraid". This goes back to the heart of the issue. The terrorists wanted to spread fear and alarm and the population responds - we open our doors to strangers because they have nowhere to go; we tell the attackers that we are not afraid; we will fight back. That is what we need. We must have that same spirit in Singapore.

The terrorism threat to us is real. We will take all precautions to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place in Singapore. We, the Home Team agencies, will do our utmost. We hope we never have an attack but if an attack occurs, we have to prepare Singaporeans with psychological and other skills, to come together and emerge stronger.

A Singapore that is even more united and determined to safeguard our way of life, our racial and religious harmony. A Singapore, where every Singaporean knows that he or she can rely on fellow countrymen. This is how we must be able to respond to terrorism.

The fight ultimately is one between Freedom and Terror; a fight between Liberty and Servitude; a fight between the spirit of Humanity and the forces of Darkness; or very simply, a fight between Good and Evil. I don't believe that the terrorists will ever win in the longer term. We must believe that we can never be kept down by terror. Liberty, Freedom and the Human Spirit will ultimately succeed. But we have to be prepared to fight for it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Enhancing S'pore's response to terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe