A WORRY for any security agency is the effect a terrorist attack would have on social cohesion, but Singapore’s long-term measures to maintain racial harmony will serve the country well, say experts.
“We asked ourselves ‘how would our people react after a terrorist attack in Singapore? Especially if the perpetrators were home-grown?” said then Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng following the London suicide bombings in 2005.
The Government decided that the answer was building social resilience and, in 2006, it launched the Community Engagement Programme to build bonds and trust across communities, including religious groups.
The programme has tapped grassroots-level relationships established earlier by the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs). The IRCCs were formed after the first wave of Jemaah Islamiah arrests in Singapore in 2001, and regularly bring together community and religious leaders.
Regular meetings and tabletop simulation exercises since then mean that there is a coherent plan should there be an extremist attack here, religious and community leaders tell Insight.
Mr Jaspal Singh, a Sikh religious leader and member of Geylang Serai IRCC, says: “In the event of, say, a bomb blast, the various religious leaders will call for a meeting and make a press statement saying we do not condone or encourage such acts and that these are the doings of individuals, and not a directive given by a particular religion.”
Echoing this, Reverend Gabriel Liew, a member of Kampong Glam IRCC, says that having respected leaders of the different religions standing together in solidarity and denouncing the act of terrorism will isolate the terrorists and show the public they do not represent whichever religion they may claim to be from.
Aside from high-visibility terror attacks, community leaders are also briefed on how to tackle smaller flare-ups that, if mishandled, may lead to racial or religious conflict, says Mr Lionel De Souza, secretary of Hougang IRCC.
Simulation exercises include scenarios such as what happens if someone accidentally reverses a vehicle and hits a congregation member at a place of worship, and how to defuse the tension should a large crowd then form, says Mr Singh.
“When things like that happen, sentiments may be aroused,” he says. “So when we meet up every few months, we discuss topics like this, and what we should do if what happened in Sydney or Paris happens in Singapore.”
While there are public plans in the event of an attack, much of the work to prevent religious tension and divisions is done in private between religious leaders and their members, says Rev Liew.
“When I know of Christians who are narrow-minded or angry, I tell them that that's not the way to practise our faith,” he says. “You have to give your members a positive impression of people of other religions, and these things must be done even before a crisis happens.”
Mr De Souza, who witnessed the communal riots in 1964 as a young police detective, says he is confident that such extensive violence is unlikely to be stirred up today – even in the event of a surprise attack – because Singaporeans are better prepared and educated on the importance of racial harmony.
“The moment something like this happens, we know how to extinguish the fire...,” says the 72-year-old. “But it’s not just about protocols but relationships, and maintaining them is an ongoing process.”