MASKED gunmen on the run in Paris last week left a bloody trail in unassuming places: the offices of a satirical magazine, a Jewish grocery store, a petrol station.
These join a long list of innocuous places – a shopping mall in Nairobi, a cafe in Sydney, a train station in Kunming – which have been turned into execution sites in recent years.
With the “low-cost, high-impact” style of attacks by radicalised individuals or small groups increasingly the norm in terrorist attacks, Singaporeans and the Government are trying to adapt.
Cafes and shops have been putting in place upgraded surveillance systems, while security industry players expect counter-terrorism training to soon be made a core certification for the thousands of security guards at condominiums and offices.
Over the past six years, “soft targets” ranging from Biopolis to Sentosa have been the sites of staged bomb detonations and shooting rampages as part of the annual Exercise Heartbeat, designed to stress-test how the authorities and their private-sector partners respond to such an attack.
But there is only so much that can be done to secure ordinary public places without costly disruptions to the economy and to Singaporeans’ everyday lives. “You have to have a balance between free society and security. You can't turn every place into a prison or a fortress,” said Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam last week, after signing a condolence book at the French Embassy for victims of the Paris attacks that killed 17.
Experts note that the death count from these soft-target incidents is usually low, with little long-term fall-out, as the attack sites are not integral, strategic ones like power plants or airports. Rather, the aim is psychological damage and lingering trauma in the form of paranoia, mistrust and acts of revenge against racial and religious minorities.
“Such a terrorist attack itself is not damaging to Singapore,” Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), makes clear. “It's the aftermath of an attack that will harm Singapore.”
Are the strategies enough?
Since 9/11, the Singapore authorities have honed an overarching counter-terrorism strategy that experts say is one of the best in the world.
Singapore has no home-grown terrorist groups, unlike Indonesia and the Philippines, and is blessed with an island geography demarcated by clear, policeable borders.
Strict border control to prevent the flow of both radicalised individuals and a broad list of controlled items – even fertilisers, which contain the bomb-making material ammonium nitrate – is the strategy’s foundation.
Intelligence-sharing with South-east Asian neighbours of the sort that decimated the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) network is a major prong, as is what Muslim scholars have termed “the Singapore approach” of a sustained ideological campaign to root out and counter extremist teachings that may influence some in the Muslim community, with respected clerics leading the charge.
But the strongest of foundations have hairline cracks.
Social-media networks have effectively spread the transnational ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to all corners of the world, Singapore included. Last year, the Government confirmed that a few Singaporeans had travelled to Syria to take part in the conflict there; hundreds of Malaysians and Indonesians have done the same.
ISIS has also perfected what experts call “crowd-sourced terrorism”: inspiring individuals to unleash violence in their societies with crude, basic weapons.
“The terrorist group provides the overall extremist narrative through social-media channels that legitimises violence. Vulnerable, disaffected individuals do not need any training or specialised skills and can just engage in acts like knifing incidents or driving cars into crowded bus stops,” says Dr Kumar Ramakrishna, head of RSIS’ Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS).
Access to firearms and explosive material is strictly controlled in Singapore, and the authorities require shops to register buyers of everyday items which could be weaponised.
But the use of “watermelon knives” by terrorists to kill 31 people in China’s Yunnan province last March illustrates that no regulations can stop a determined radical wreaking havoc.
Dr Gunaratna says Singapore must restrict even more tightly access to websites that espouse radical ideology, not just those hosted in the Middle East, but also those from the developed West.
Experts are unanimous that traditional policing methods are unequal to the challenge of the self-radicalised terrorist.
“The best way to counter the attacks of these ‘“no-pattern” pattern’ individuals is to have better community policing,” says CENS associate research fellow Joseph Franco. “Kicking down doors and raids can only do so much. The best way to prevent and pre-empt attacks is to get information from the ground.”
Says Dr Ramakrishna: “Community and religious leaders, teachers, family and friends of vulnerable individuals – which includes commanders of young national servicemen due to their access to arms – must be more aware of early warning indicators of radicalisation.”
Tip-offs from ordinary Singaporeans have proved decisive in protecting the country from harm: JI’s presence in Singapore was undetected until a member of the local Muslim community alerted the authorities, just after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on America, to an individual with links to Al-Qaeda.
From there, Singapore law enforcement uncovered a cell of over 30 JI members.
In other countries, vigilant individuals have single-handedly foiled threats. For example, a shopkeeper in Britain once noticed a university-educated, poshly-accented man buying huge amounts of ammonium nitrate and flagged him to the authorities, who uncovered a terror plot. The usual buyers of fertiliser material in Britain are manual labourers in the agriculture sector.
But some worry that Singapore’s success thus far has led to complacency.
This is compounded by how the authorities’ counter-terrorism strategy is largely invisible to the ordinary Singaporean, as it favours tight border control and intelligence-sharing over more disruptive, visible methods like installing security screenings at every MRT station – something commuters in Beijing, for example, endure.
“Complacency is always a potential problem, not only for us but also for many other countries,” says Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah. “Human memory is short. When things are safe and uneventful for a long while, people tend to assume that things will always continue like that. However, recent events have shown that peace can be abruptly shattered. We need all Singaporeans to play their part to prevent such attacks by being vigilant and alert.”
Says CENS research fellow Damien Cheong: “People generally believe that Singapore is very safe, and that should a crime or attack be carried out, the authorities would be swift to take action. Many of us as individuals are ill-equipped to handle our personal safety effectively, due in part to complacency and a lack of situational awareness and training. This is something we should work on.”
United community is vital
Ultimately, the most important question is not whether an attack like the massacre in Paris could happen in Singapore, but how the country and its citizens will respond if it does.
“Can I say that it will never happen (in Singapore)? I cannot say,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier this week. “So what I can do is to try my best to prepare people psychologically, so that if it happens, we’re not completely shocked and stunned, and we are able to maintain the ties between the communities and we keep our multiracial fabric.
“Because the greatest threat to us is not just direct casualties of an incident, but the trust and the confidence that we have built up over the years between the communities.”
Ms Indranee believes that when it comes to multiracial and religious tolerance and harmony, “Singapore is doing well by any measure”. “You have not, for example, seen here the kind of angst and soul-searching that is currently going on in Europe. One of the reasons is that we have been resolute in creating common space and common respect for each other.”
The resilience of a society, says counter-terrorism and political science expert Bilveer Singh, lies not just in deterring attacks but also in “coming out stronger from them”.
“If we fail to recover and in fact go on an internal blood-letting, then you would have allowed the terrorist to succeed,” says Dr Singh. “A united nation is the single most important message to the terrorist that he has failed. And that is not just about the Government responding but, more importantly, the people and community.”
Cafe puts security cameras in 50 outlets
The Sydney cafe siege has been a wake-up call for some eateries here.
A major chain, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, is installing security cameras in its 50 outlets and staff now look out for “suspicious activity”, such as someone loitering or leaving a bag behind, says executive chairman Adrin Loi.
“There have been so many cases lately. We thought we should do something in our outlets,” says the 60-year-old. “The Sydney incident showed us how vulnerable a society can be.”
Teachers highlight to students learning points
When it comes to safeguarding schools from terrorist attacks, or the fallout from one, international ones here are stepping up security, while one aspect of local educators’ overall approach is education itself.
The Education Ministry is tightlipped on actual security measures in public schools here, saying only that teachers and school leaders highlight current issues and world events for students to discuss pertinent learning points.
Security at train and bus stations stepped up
Terrorists have already had one of Singapore’s own train stations in their sights.
In January 2002, the authorities revealed that Yishun MRT station had been the target of a bomb plot by a terrorist cell here. The unnerving revelation came just months after 9/11, and underpinned an urgent need to bolster the security of “soft targets” such as train stations and bus interchanges.
Finance offices have drills, strict access rules
Given Singapore’s openness and connectivity as a global financial centre, owners of key office buildings are only too well aware that they could become prime targets in terror attacks.
This is especially so at the Marina Bay Financial Centre (MBFC) – home to big-name corporations such as Standard Chartered Bank, American Express and DBS Bank – which has the largest share of top-tier office space here.
Sports organisers work with govt agencies
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 250 racegoers, dispelled any notion that sporting events – even one as steeped in the spirit of community as a marathon – are safe from terror attacks.
The threat is made worse by the fact that sporting occasions are “soft targets” – they are especially difficult to secure, given the large number of people involved.
Hotels: The main challenge is vigilance
The man wears an earpiece, a clear giveaway of his role as a security officer in an Orchard Road hotel. But it is his frequent rounds in the lobby that show he means business. He establishes eye contact with this reporter thrice in the 40 minutes she “loiters” there.
Later, he tells her: “Don’t worry. If you were really a terrorist, I definitely saw you.” He points to two closed-circuit TV cameras hanging from the ceiling: “So did these.”
Lone wolves a ticking time bomb
A WEEK before Christmas, the world held its breath as a tense hostage situation unfolded in a cafe in Sydney’s central business district.
A black flag bearing the Islamic declaration of faith was pressed against the cafe window by hostages, sparking a wave of speculation that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was behind the attack.
Strict gun and border controls help keep out arms
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.
Moves to build social resilience serve S’pore well
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.