Planning for the worst

TRYING to gauge how people will react in an emergency helps to prepare for it. To that end, simulations are useful if they provide an accurate picture of what is most likely to occur. Singapore's preparations for eventualities would benefit from fruitful collaboration between a French multinational company, Thales, and local universities and government agencies to predict public responses in emergencies, such as a fire or a bomb blast, within reasonable parameters of certainty.

The challenge for realistic computerised simulations would lie in building into them the social, cultural and psychological instincts and propensities that drive populations to behave in a certain way when under extreme stress. By paying close attention to these variables, scenario planners would have a clear idea of how emergency services should respond to contingencies, marshalling and deploying resources in a way designed to achieve immediate and maximum impact.

This is where the collaboration between foreign and local researchers could make a difference to contingency planning in Singapore's specific context. A stoic society such as Japan can survive a massive earthquake or a tsunami without widespread disorder or crimes. Such law-and-order breakdowns habitually take place for lesser reasons in other societies. Where Singaporeans fall in that spectrum would have much to do with their collective resilience in a catastrophe.

Clearly, much would depend on the scale of a contingency, but its nature might matter more. A fire in an office block could lead to a stampede with casualties that could have been avoided had all followed evacuation rules calmly.

Worse would be a terrorist attack in a public place that introduces an ethnic element into the ensuing panic. Would Singaporeans react to the crisis in ethnic terms? If they did, they would contribute to the terrorist objective, which would not be the attack itself but the wider and lasting damage that it would inflict on social relations nurtured over decades. The maturity with which Western populations have overcome terrorist provocations in New York, London, Madrid, Sydney and elsewhere offers a template of hope for scenario planners.

Enhancing a population's psychologically immunity to attacks on their sense of identity and cohesion is not just the Government's job. The Community Engagement Programme is an example of how guided grassroots efforts could help Singapore prepare psychologically to pre-empt the worst consequences of an unprecedented event such as a terrorist attack that is low in probability but high in impact. Scenario planning is an aid to such national efforts.