FOUR years ago, a Singaporean named Grace Lin wrote to The Straits Times’ Forum page to complain that her elderly father was stopped from bringing flower fertiliser from Malaysia into Singapore. The Customs authorities confiscated his fertiliser, and took down his personal details.
Such is the level of control exercised by the Singapore authorities over ingredients that could be used in homemade explosive devices, of which the ammonium nitrate found in some fertilisers is one.
This, and equally strict access to firearms, are major parts of Singapore’s counter-terrorism strategy.
The type of armed terrorist attack first seen in Mumbai in 2008, and most recently in the massacre of 17 people in Paris last week, is thus exceedingly unlikely here, say experts.
In Singapore – which has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world – anyone caught using an illegal firearm faces the death penalty. Those found unlawfully possessing a gun or ammunition can be jailed between five and 10 years and given at least six strokes of the cane.
A licence is required for legal gun ownership in Singapore, and applicants must fulfil a series of strict requirements, including passing background checks delving into their criminal, medical and mental-health records. They must also pass a shooting proficiency test.
A 2007 study by Small Arms Survey, an independent research firm in Geneva, puts the rate of gun ownership in Singapore at about one gun per 200 people - among the lowest in the world.
The United States, with 88.8 privately-held guns per 100 people, topped the list of 178 countries surveyed.
Despite this, Singapore remains vulnerable to those determined to procure assault weapons.
Associate research fellow Joseph Franco of the Centre of Excellence for National Security recalls Jemaah Islamiah members acquiring weapons like assault rifles and precursor chemicals for explosives, like ammonium nitrate, from the Philippines for their failed plot against foreign missions here over a decade ago. They tried smuggling them into the country through Indonesia, even stashing part of their stockpile in neighbouring Malaysia.
But things have changed. The internal security situation in Indonesia and the southern Philippines seems to have stabilised, he explains, adding that he doubts there is a threat of weapons flowing easily from these countries into Singapore.
Even so, he cautions: “It would suffice to say that, in general, the unresolved conflicts in Asean – such as in Mindanao (in the Philippines) and in southern Thailand – can act as ‘ungoverned spaces’ where terrorists can source for arms.”
The determined terrorist need not have firearms or explosives to wreak havoc. China, which has similarly few guns as in Singapore, has been roiled by incidents where attackers hack at civilians with watermelon knives, or simply drive a car into a crowd.
Weapons will never be hard to come by for the determined terrorist, notes counter-terrorism and political science expert Bilveer Singh: “The world is over-weaponised.”