From The Gallery

Balancing security needs and ability to carry on with normal life

Singaporeans woke up yesterday to the news of terrorist attacks in France and Canada that, together, left three dead and five injured.

The reports were another sombre reminder of the serious threats to security worldwide - threats that Singapore is not immune from.

MPs took this to heart as Parliament debated the Infrastructure Protection Bill. The law, which was passed yesterday, requires owners of iconic buildings or those with high footfall to submit security plans for government approval at the design stage - either when the building is being built, or before a major renovation.

For other buildings, the law gives the Government powers to direct owners to implement certain security measures, perhaps in response to evolving security risks.

MPs accepted the Bill's necessity but debated over the practical question of who pays for the added measures, and whether costs will eventually trickle down to tenants and consumers.

Second Home Affairs Minister Josephine Teo replied that the Government already bears "much of the cost" of security, and that businesses must do their part.

Still, she said her ministry will help manage costs. For example, building owners will first be engaged "on what security measures would be effective and practical", with directives issued as a last resort.

The Government is right to take into account concerns about costs. But the reality in this age of heightened threats is this: If security in a building is not up to standard, and, as a result, an attack is not stopped, or casualties are higher than they would have been, the ripple effects can be quite serious - including on our social cohesion the day after the attack. We hence do not have the luxury of letting owners of each building decide for themselves what they want to do.

This is not very different from stricter regulations on financial institutions being justifiable on the basis that if those institutions were to fail, the Government would have to step in to deal with the fallout.

A second, longer-term issue was touched on by a few MPs but was not debated more fully. This is the issue of whether security measures can be overdone. Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said: "We should also not go overboard and have the country in perpetual lockdown mode. We must be able to go about our daily activities efficiently. If we cannot live normal lives, the terrorists have already won."

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) added: "I am concerned about how we are going to achieve the balance between our security needs and public convenience. If we overdo it, we may end up with protected areas which are operated like prisons. On the other hand, if our protection measures are insufficient, such lapses could invite exploitation by terrorists."

This is not a trivial issue. A thorough discussion might not be needed yet, but it is a discussion that cannot be postponed forever, especially if the threat starts to trigger more stringent measures, in buildings or elsewhere. Some of the inconveniences can be reduced through less intrusively-designed security measures. Some cities are doing this at a more advanced level. Singapore should learn from them.

But good design can only go so far. At some point, inconvenience has to kick in. What is worse is if the inconveniences breed a sense of fear, which in turn changes our way of life. How vigorously are Singaporeans prepared to resist such a change?

A big part of this battle is fought in the psychological sphere.

A professor in terrorism and religion in the West once explained to me how groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria want Western societies to evolve. After one or two attacks, or more, they want societies to look at the Muslim community differently, and then to start discriminating against them - through security measures that target them, or a lower willingness to interact daily with them. This marginalises the community over time and provides radical groups with more recruits for attacks - a vicious circle.

This is already starting to happen in the West. It is, in part, what has fuelled the rise of far right parties.

It can happen in Singapore. But Singaporeans must not let it. If there is one element in our way of life that Singaporeans must be prepared to defend tooth and nail, it is our multireligious and multiracial fabric.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Balancing security needs and ability to carry on with normal life'. Print Edition | Subscribe