Staying secure amid the terror threat

The day after: Would Singaporeans stay unified?

Mr Baey Yam Keng (far left), Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, observing a discussion between religious and community leaders during a crisis preparedness exercise in March this year.
Mr Baey Yam Keng (far left), Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, observing a discussion between religious and community leaders during a crisis preparedness exercise in March this year.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
The panel (from top): Prof David Chan, Associate Prof Kumar Ramakrishna and Mr Remy Mahzam.
Prof David Chan.
Associate Prof Kumar Ramakrishna.
Associate Prof Kumar Ramakrishna.
Mr Remy Mahzam.
Mr Remy Mahzam.

On the night of Nov 13 a year ago, the Syeds, a Muslim family of five, were watching football on TV at home in the French capital of Paris when they heard gunshots.

The nearby Bataclan theatre was under attack by ISIS extremists and, soon, police and terrified concertgoers were running past the Syeds' home.

The family opened their doors and, together with their neighbours, gave what help they could to the injured in the courtyard of their building.

Because of their actions, the community in Paris' lively 11th district has grown closer in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, a fact highlighted in media reports as they commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and injured another 370.

These community bonds are a precious thing against an enemy which is trying to pull society apart, said the panel of experts during the round-table with Insight last Monday.

The question is, would Singaporeans rally together in a similar fashion if a terror attack were to happen here? Or would we turn against one another?

  • THE ROUND-TABLE

    The Sunday Times round-table comprised three experts:

    PROFESSOR DAVID CHAN

    Director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute and professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University.

    ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR KUMAR RAMAKRISHNA

    Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of National Security Studies Programme at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

    MR REMY MAHZAM

    Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at RSIS.

    The discussion was moderated by Straits Times political editor Zakir Hussain, accompanied by reporters Danson Cheong and Lim Yan Liang.

How Singaporeans would react the day after an attack is one of the top concerns of both security experts and the Government.

Some focus has been placed on this: A day after last month's islandwide anti-terror exercise, another wide-ranging exercise was carried out at the grassroots level, where community leaders discussed how racial and religious tensions can be defused after an attack.

Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said at a dialogue last Monday: "We will be tested not only by whether an attack takes place, but also by how society responds the day after."

Citing how people in Paris and London "bounced back with spirit" after attacks, he added: "If we started pointing fingers at each other, we would have lost. But if we respond strongly, then we would have won."

Recognising that ISIS' goal is to divide society and create ethnic and religious conflict is the first step to any strategy, said roundtable panellist Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"The likes of ISIS are very sectarian. Their operations and attacks are designed to create conflict and divide society so that they will polarise it, turn society against each other and then they will find opportunities to recruit," he said.

"We must not allow these groups which are trying to divide society to break up the multicultural fabric that we've built up for so many years."

 

This resilience is rooted in Singapore's social and racial harmony, said Associate Professor Kumar, citing the work of community groups such as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs). Set up after the first wave of Jemaah Islamiah arrests in Singapore in 2001, the IRCCs organise dialogues between leaders of different faiths and are a platform for believers of different stripes to forge links with one another.

Their members now take part in crisis preparedness exercises regularly to discuss how they can react in the event of a terror attack.

Such bonds of cohesion are very difficult to build up.

"It's exactly the same as trust, very difficult to build up and, once built up, it's difficult to maintain and quite easily lost," said another panellist, Professor David Chan, a behavioural scientist.

EMBRACING DIVERSITY

An important thing to realise is, even though attacks are often committed in the name of Islam, the religion and Muslims are not to blame, said Prof Chan.

"It's important for the non- Muslims in this case to really understand that (terrorism) is not about the religion or religiosity or religious consciousness. It is about the criminals who are making use of the religion," he said.

In Singapore's context, the Chinese, as the majority racial group, should take the respon- sibility to be sensitive to differences and embrace diversity, Prof Chan said.

He pointed out that, as the majority group, a Chinese person could possibly go about daily life without interacting with a Malay, but the reverse would be difficult.

At the same time, any approach also has to take into consideration non-Singaporeans, said Prof Chan, adding that 40 per cent of the population here are either permanent residents or foreigners.

"You cannot have a security situation where you focus only on Singaporeans. You need to focus on the foreigners here, who are diverse," he added.

Encouraging dialogue and appealing to a common humanity that cuts across cultures could be one way to do this.

"How we do it is not to stifle and shut people up, but to appeal to a common core value identity that we believe in... You and I are different in our religion, race and skin colour, but we are Singaporean, we are humans. That needs to be activated," said Prof Chan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'The day after: Would S'poreans stay unified?'. Print Edition | Subscribe