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Fighting terrorism cannot be the responsibility of the Government alone


07 Jun Fighting terrorism cannot be the responsibility of the Government alone

The arrest of eight Bangladeshis in Singapore last month for plotting terror attacks in their home country highlighted gaps in Singapore’s overall strategy for dealing with the rising threat of terrorism in the region.

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the arrests, the latest in a number of recent terror-related ones, were down to the good work of security agencies in Singapore.

He also revealed that the information that had led to the arrests did not come from the community.

The fact that members of the public had not noticed anything suspicious is worrying.

The eight men, who had formed what they called the “Islamic State in Bangladesh”, may have avoided drawing attention to themselves by holding their meetings mostly in parks or open fields.

Still, this raises the question of whether members of the general public are uninterested when it comes to issues of security threats, or have a faith in our security agencies that borders on complacency.

Mr Shanmugam and other leaders have emphasised in recent months that terrorism presents a clear and present threat to Singapore.

In March, the government unveiled the SG Secure programme, a community-centered response plan aimed at enhancing Singapore’s ability to respond to potential terror attacks by groups such as the Islamic State.

One element of the programme is the “Run, Hide, Tell” initiative. This encourages people not to panic when confronted with a terror threat, run away from the attackers if possible, hide from them if it is not, and above all, remember to call the police.

This is similar to the “Run, Hide, Fight” system promulgated by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, with the obvious difference in the final action.

Over the weekend of May 28 and 29, police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force kicked off a new series of Emergency Preparedness (EP) Days to be held across the island, including simulated terror attacks.

Previous EP Days have focused on issues such as crime prevention and fire safety.

These and other efforts under the SG Secure banner are laudable and necessary in the current environment, but it is not clear how effective they will be or how their impact can be tracked or measured.

Even if the message hits home, will it wane after a few months, which is the typical shelf life of nationwide campaigns?

Of course, the one thing that will ensure it stays in the public’s mind is an actual terror attack. But no one would wish for one, just for this reason.

Indeed, the challenge is to jog Singaporeans out of complacency, without catapulting them to a state of paranoia and panic at the other extreme.

Nor do we want people to resort to vigilantism, an extreme form of neighbourhood watch, and take matters into their own hands.

For a country that, fortunately, is not exposed to regular security threats as much as some other nations are around the world, most people living in Singapore are probably not aware of how to prepare themselves — mentally and physically — for such challenges.

The public needs training in how to run, where to hide, and how to stay safe and secure enough to actually find the opportunity to inform the authorities about what is happening.

The Home Team’s anti-terror drills in neighbourhoods are a promising start, and the police have also begun deploying community engagement officers to talk to residents about SG Secure’s key messages.

But is such training the sole responsibility of the government? Or can the private sector and other organisations contribute to preparing Singaporeans to deal with terror attacks?

These and other questions will require answers in the near future. But for now, the need for heightened vigilance remains high.

The risk of self-radicalised individuals remains a persistent danger for a small but open country like Singapore.

The recent Bangladeshi arrests show the potential impact of foreigners who may be radicalised as well.

At the same time, the experience in Molenbeek in Brussels, which gained notoriety for being a hotbed of jihadi recruitment that played a role in the 2015 Paris attacks, shows that terror organisations may not just target religious extremists, but possibly the disenfranchised, marginalised and even criminal elements of society.

This could open up new vulnerabilities in a country like Singapore, and is something that needs to be tackled holistically, by the authorities and the public together.

How this will be done is not yet clear, but what is clear is that it will take time to achieve a new stable equilibrium amid the “troubled peace” that is fast becoming the new normal for Singapore and the world.

This new normal will definitely require a new level of understanding and awareness of the broader security environment and threat levels facing globalised city-states such as Singapore on the part of its people.

As the environment evolves, so must our ability to constantly update and refresh our own knowledge and capabilities, and learn from the examples of other countries around the world.

This must be tempered with an appreciation of the need for Singapore to continue to remain open and connected to the rest of the world in order to stay relevant and important.


Nicholas Fang is the executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This commentary was originally published in TODAY on 7 June 2016.

Photo Credit: People’s Association