The attack in Jakarta last week was a failure from the terrorists' point of view. The loss of combatants compared to the victims' toll was not a numerical success for the perpetrators, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The attack was almost amateurish by the standards of morbid professionalism set by militants in the 2001 outrage in the United States, the Bali bombings of 2002, the 2008 attack in Mumbai, and the recent strike in Paris, among major incidents. Even the psychological impact of a handful of militants holding entire societies to ransom, for hours if not longer, was absent from the Jakarta attack, which fizzled out not long after it begun. Indonesia's police must be commended for the professionalism with which they swung into concerted action and neutralised the attackers before they could wreak havoc.
Nevertheless, ISIS has demonstrated its ability to hit Jakarta with an evasive degree of coordination that challenges the remit of the police and the intelligence agencies. If terror could strike the Indonesian capital so easily, how well guarded could other cities possibly be, to say nothing of suburbs and towns lying across the sprawling archipelago? True, these are less likely to attract terrorist attention than political, economic and cultural centres such as Jakarta and Bali because of diminishing propaganda returns, but terror anywhere is terror everywhere.
By the same logic, the fight against terror has to occur internationally if it is to succeed within nations. Even as Indonesia renews its efforts to uproot terror cells on its territory, it needs to coordinate its actions closely with its Asean partners and friends such as America and Australia. Malaysia and the southern Philippines, in particular, are defined targets of ISIS plans for South-east Asia. The presence in the insurgent ranks of ISIS of fighters from this region, as from Europe and Africa, reveals how it views the world as an indivisible trophy from its base in the Middle East. Every terror attack not foiled would enable ISIS to advance towards its goal of bringing South-east Asia into its nefarious global fold.
The lesson for Singapore in all this is to never forget that it lies at the heart of a desired region. Its efforts to secure its physical borders and domestic infrastructure against insidious terror have worked till now. However, that deterrent "best" must be accompanied by the ability to countenance the worst. If an attack were ever to occur here, its human tragedy would be magnified by Singapore's small size and population. However, if an attack were to tear into its multiracial and multi-religious fabric, terrorism would score a political victory beyond the toll of numbers. It would test Singaporeans' often repeated pledge of being one united people, despite its disparate society. Singapore must stand together.