Singaporeans shouldn't overreact to terrorism

The latest terrorist attacks - in London's Westminster last week and in France's Orly airport earlier this month - manifest the strategy of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to inspire and drive self-radicalised sympathisers around the world. Its message to such people might be summed up as: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are and whenever possible.

Such "lone wolf" attacks are going to be more common. Taking a back seat are the sophisticated attacks, like 9/11, when terrorists took control of and crashed aircraft into buildings in America in 2001, the July 7 attacks on London's public transport in 2005, and the Paris attack in November 2015, all requiring elaborate planning and execution involving many people.

What should our society's response be to the pervasive threat that terrorism presents today?

First, the Government and Singaporeans should not overreact. To be sure, all necessary precautions have to be taken; that much is expected of the Government. But that response alone is grossly inadequate. The SGSecure initiative seeks to prepare Singaporeans to identify threats and respond decisively in the eventuality of a terrorist attack. Even then, the Government has been prudent to remind Singaporeans that even the best of efforts will not result in total security. Hence, the SGSecure's "not if, but when" tagline.

On the other hand, overreacting can undermine the trust between communities engendered over the years. This occurs when the acts of a misled few are imputed to the community at large.

To do so would give rise to debilitating suspicion and animosity among different communities, compromising our ability to close ranks and rally together as one. The social fabric torn asunder is an outcome that must be guarded against.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's timely reminder in 2006 when he launched the Community Engagement Programme (now incorporated as part of the SGSecure initiative) bears reiteration.

He said: "We must know that this is not a Malay-Muslim problem. This is a national problem and non-Muslims also have to play our part, for example, by preserving the space for minorities in the majority Chinese society by upholding the ideals of meritocracy and equal opportunity and treatment, regardless of race, language and religion, and by clearly distinguishing the small number of extremists who are a threat to us from the majority of moderate, rational, loyal Muslim Singaporeans, with whom we work together to tackle a shared problem."

Second, even in the face of heightened threat levels, we must endeavour to ensure that our way of life is not dictated by terrorism. Consider the London attack last week. It is hard to see how precautions could have been undertaken to prevent the attack, save for extremely disruptive methods that would have come at an exceptional cost and would have been an acknowledgement of deep-seated fear. The better approach is to focus on things within our control. This includes strengthening our multi-racialism and enhancing inter-ethnic ties. The increased threat level should inspire us to make that extra effort to reach out to fellow Singaporeans and acquire a better understanding of the issues and what is at stake in these challenging times.

These will help our society to be resilient and will not provide any opportunity for others to drive a wedge using the fault lines of race, language, religion or values.

Third, the security of the nation-state and various faith communities are indivisible; the insecurity of one negatively affects the security of another. It is crucial that the Muslim community is not put on the defensive by being treated as a community "at risk".

Managing and responding to the terrorism threat is a national endeavour, not solely a Muslim-Singaporean concern. Spotlighting the community only exaggerates the latent perception of Muslim-Singaporeans as being particularly susceptible to violent radicalism.

It also takes us away from the imperative of a thoughtful response to a grave threat, especially in enhancing meaningful inter-faith engagement and acquiring a deeper appreciation of the commonalities that bind our plural society. Given the policymakers' self-ascription of Singapore as an "iconic target" for terrorists, social cohesion and resilience are critical resources in ensuring that Singapore does not implode in the aftermath of a terrorist strike.

Fourth, heightened vigilance should not result in excessive policing and surveillance. Ring-fencing the heart and soul of Singaporean society cannot be just a hard-nosed security exercise, for that only generates suspicion among communities. Managing the terrorism threat requires the sensitive implementation of security measures that are aligned with our overarching shared values of non-discrimination, the rule of law and our fundamental liberties.

Security and liberty need not be traded off against each other. Security measures should not breed distrust between the authorities and the people, within the Muslim community and among the people.

The strongest protection against radicalisation and the best form of resilience is a society that is committed to and gives effect to its values and way of life in word and in deeds, even in challenging times.

Fifth, terrorism thrives on the powerful appeal of religiously inspired ideas and values on co-religionists, which cannot be countered by coercive policing, draconian laws and tough rhetoric. The better strategy is to challenge those captivating but misleading ideas and values head on. This contesting of ideas is crucial as part of the process of persuasion. However, this challenge must come from knowledgeable and credible voices within the Muslim-Singaporean community.

Ultimately, robust social cohesion requires the equally important vanguard action of strengthening Singaporean society that terror entrepreneurs seek to fragment and impose their nihilism on.

The mindset and actions of each of us matter tremendously, as the cohesion and resilience of our society cannot be engineered top-down by the Government, but will have to grow organically in the hearts and minds of every Singaporean.The resolute faith and confidence in our society, our shared values and way of life is the best form of protection and resilience.

•The writer is associate professor of law at the School of Law, Singapore Management University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Singaporeans shouldn't overreact to terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe