Singapore's decision to train some 18,000 soldiers every year, including full-time national servicemen and NSmen, in counter-terrorism represents a significant investment in meeting an existential security threat. Traditionally, armies have been deployed to stop invasions and other external challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. A clear distinction could be made between those threats and internal challenges such as civil unrest and armed violence, for which the police and paramilitary forces sufficed unless they were in danger of being overwhelmed - in which case the military moved in.
That binary world of security has long disappeared. Terrorism is both an external threat generated outside the borders of a nation, and an internal threat in which citizens (or outsiders) take up arms against the state in support of a foreign master. The alarming situation in Marawi illustrates the unholy confluence perfectly. The siege there, which has not been repelled completely, shows how a group of brigands affiliated to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could capture and hold territory in astonishing defiance of the writ of the Philippine state. It has now fallen on the military to reverse a civilian situation that went completely out of control.
While Singapore's police and intelligence community have worked assiduously to prevent anything remotely akin to Marawi from occurring here, the first rule of war must be to take the unexpected for granted. In that deterrent spirit, the military must be prepared, institutionally and mentally, to join fully in the counter-terrorism effort. Singapore's latest moves do just that. A rapid-response, anti-terrorist unit, called the Army Deployment Force, was officially formed last year. The collective aim is to prevail swiftly and conclusively in urban war against terrorists. Unlike vast terrain in which towns can be lost to terrorists but regained later, the tactical and the strategic lie closely intertwined in city-state Singapore. Terrorists are aware of that. Hence the need to enhance the capabilities that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will bring to bear against them in its counter-terrorist incarnation. These include scenario-based simulation, live-firing for homeland security operations, and search-and-arrest procedures.
Singaporeans should not be alarmed by such routines but be reassured by them. The SAF's higher counter-insurgency profile does not mean that it will be diverted from its duty to protect borders. Instead, it will help to protect borders within Singapore - between peace and war - along with the borders that demarcate the nation's place in the world. The sight of soldiers on the street should become habitual, just as the presence of the police is today. Ultimately, the aim is to convince terrorists that it is not worth thinking of Singapore as a target because it stands ready and united.
Correction note: In our earlier story, we said a rapid-response, anti-terrorist unit, called the Army Deployment Force, was officially formed on July 12, 2017. This is incorrect. The unit was formed last year. We are sorry for the error.