I was at Flinders Street station in Melbourne on Monday (Dec 18), with some visiting relatives. I had taken a day off work to show them around.
On Thursday afternoon, I got messages from friends telling me a car had ploughed into pedestrians on the walkway at the junction of Flinders Street and Elizabeth Street. Reports say 19 were injured, some critically. Nine were foreigners, including from South Korea and China.
The driver, Saeed Noori, 32, an Australian citizen of Afghan descent, has been held in police custody.
Victoria state police classified it as a deliberate act (i.e. not an accident). The driver was known to police for assault issues and had mental health issues.
While in police custody, he spoke of the “mistreatment of Muslims” but police said there was no “evidence or any intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism” as yet.
Across Melbourne, expressions of shock and sympathy unfolded. Flinders Street is iconic to the city. Even tourists know it as home to the centrally-located eponymous train station next to the Yarra river bank and beside Federation Square, an art and museum district with an open air plaza.
Friends swopped notes on when they were last at Flinders Street. Many recalled that just 11 months earlier, a similar car attack had taken place when a car crashed onto the pedestrianised Bourke Street Mall.
Since that attack, state authorities had beefed up controls in the area, putting in bollards to make it harder for vehicles to be driven onto pedestrian walkways teeming with people. A loudspeaker emergency warning system was also set up, although it was not activated on Thursday as the attack was deemed a one-off episode, not a sustained terror attack that would require people to seek refuge from rampaging teams.
Here in Melbourne where I’ve stayed for the last six weeks, the mood is one of life-goes-on.
There’s some anti-Muslim chatter about the driver being from Afghanistan, but on Twitter, the #melbourne-related hashtags are filled with more factual information sharing and expressions of sympathy than vitriol.
I couldn’t help wondering how Singaporeans would fare when/if it becomes the scene of an attack. Authorities are preparing people psychologically with a campaign on how it’s “when, not if” a terror-related attack breaks out in Singapore. There’s also a campaign for people to Run, Hide, Tell if they are caught in an attack.
But how will Singaporeans respond in the heat of an attack?
While scanning the news and watching the videos of the Melbourne car attack, I was struck most by the reactions of those around the attack. While it is human instinct to flee from violence, there was a group who did the opposite.
Video images show a white Suzuki Vitara moving rapidly through the streets and into people. It crashed into a tram stop in the middle of the road and came to a stop. Instead of fleeing from a violent attacker, some people rushed towards the car. Photographs show the car surrounded by people opening the door, dragging the driver out.
An off-duty policeman was among them. He wrestled the driver, dragged him out arrested him. Moments later, uniformed police came. The driver was apparently unarmed, but those who rushed to the car to confront him and stop any further carnage could not have known it.
A woman pedestrian Kat Edwards was at the tram stop near the intersection when she heard the vehicle. She told The Age, a Melbourne daily: “I saw the driver, but I also saw a man lying at a tram stop, so I decided to run towards that man and tend to him.”
Reading these reports of people who ran towards the centre of an attack reminded me of the London Bridge attack in June this year, when many bystanders stepped up to fight or try to stop knife-wielding attackers on a rampage. An off-duty serviceman was stabbed all over his body; an Australian nurse died trying to help others; an Asian business journalist suffered a throat gash trying to stop the attackers. There were many others who tried to stop the attackers.
How will Singaporeans react to a mass attack on our streets, by one or a few people armed with knives, or other weapon, or using a vehicle to ram through people? Most of us will run for sure. Will some brave souls step up to stop further killings, or will we stay away to keep our own family and ourselves safe?
Intervening in the hot moments of an attack requires good situational judgment and physical courage. It endangers your own life, and perhaps those around you. It can also mean the difference between no lives lost and many.
Reading the reports, I was struck by another thing: the absence of criticism directed at state and law enforcement authorities.
In Singapore, it has become commonplace to diss the government (including the police) for everything. A sour mood of finger-pointing and negative judgment prevails.
I had expected some criticism of the Melbourne city council or Victoria state authorities. Perhaps questions being asked on why, barely a year after the last car-driven attack, not enough bollards and barriers were put across major iconic streets. Perhaps questions asked on why an emergency warning system installed since that attack had not been activated.
There was very little of such views. Instead, there was widespread acclaim for the heroic off-duty policeman who rushed to confront and arrest the driver.
The issue of tramways in Melbourne was raised - not by irate netizens, but by leaders. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited this as one factor why Melbourne was vulnerable to car attacks - the tramways in the middle of the broad boulevards allowed cars to pull away from parked cars in traffic to speed down the tramway on their killing path.
He said this was an issue the Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews was also highly aware of. Mr Andrews and the acting police commissioner both also addressed the issue in their public statements, with the latter saying a balance had to be struck between public transport and protecting people. Perhaps because they addressed it so directly, a perceived weakness of Melbourne’s cityscape did not blow up into a major source of criticism the day after the attack.
Being in Melbourne this week made me hope fervently Singaporeans are never tested this way. But when/if an attack happens at home, I hope we will come together in solidarity - during the attack, looking out for fellow human beings who are victims; and after the attack, supporting our emergency, law enforcement and other officers whose job it is to protect us.
Mr Turnbull was able to say of Australia: “We are a nation that looks after each other. Mateship, solidarity, that degree of mutual respect and love that we always show when times are tough was brought out in sharp relief in Melbourne.” I hope Singaporeans will be able to say that of ourselves if we were to suffer an attack.
This is a rather grim topic to write about this Christmas season. But we live in a craze-filled modern age when violence and terror respect no person, no city and no festivity.
In such times, we must remain clear-eyed and realistic. When evil happens, we must try to respond the best we can, with humanity and a sense of unity.