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Commentary: If Singapore were to come under attack or face a natural disaster, how prepared would you be?

A recent study shows that only 31% of households in Singapore have a plan for what to do in the event of a disaster. This does not bode well, says Jared Ng of the Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk.

Commentary: If Singapore were to come under attack or face a natural disaster, how prepared would you be?
File photo of people walking along Orchard Road in Singapore on Oct 1, 2021. (File photo: CNA/Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Every year on Feb 15, the siren wails of Singapore’s public warning system ring across the country at 6.20pm to commemorate Total Defence Day.

Now, without asking Google or ChatGPT, do you know what the annual exercise is for? Do you know what the siren wails sound like?

A quick history lesson - 6.20pm on Feb 15 is the exact time the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese during World War II in 1942. The surrender marked the beginning of a dark chapter in Singapore’s history, leading to almost four years of occupation.

Eighty-one years later, the surrender of Singapore is still a grim reminder of the importance of maintaining a robust and strong defence system.

But even though the sirens go off every year, you may be hard-pressed to find people who know what to do, should there be an actual emergency, because Singapore hardly experiences incidents that warrant their use.

The sudden blare of the sirens may cause us to take pause from whatever we are doing at that particular moment, but much like our reaction to fire drills, many of us tend to take it as simply an annual sounding exercise.

THE EFFECTIVENESS OF OUR SIRENS

For warnings to be effective in reducing harm, people have to be prepared and ready.

However, a report by the Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (IPUR) in November last year showed that only 31 per cent of households in Singapore have a plan for what to do in the event of a disaster.

More worryingly, the report also found that only 18 per cent of people in Singapore actually “receive” the warning signal. This suggests that while residents may physically hear the siren wails, they are not “tuned in” to the signal and do not register its significance as a warning. This not only dulls the primary objective of the sirens but could also lead to confusion and panic in the event of an emergency.

It is worth thinking about whether siren wails are effective enough in keeping residents prepared and alert to threats.

While we need not be on heightened alert all the time, being prepared can help prevent panic and reduce the number of casualties in an emergency. The recent back-to-back earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria - where more than 35,000 people have died - are a sombre reminder of the importance of knowing what to do when disaster strikes.

As new technologies and capabilities emerge, it might be useful to consider what other platforms can complement Singapore’s public warning system, to not only effectively disseminate warnings but inform residents on how to react.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

One reason why people may not take the siren wails seriously is because they are not cognisant of recent experiences of disaster. Singapore has experienced very few emergencies that threaten property and livelihoods, and which require residents to take protective action. As such, the urgency or value of such warning drills naturally take a backseat in terms of importance.

While other countries in Asia have had to cope with man-made and natural disasters, Singapore has been more fortunate.

The absence of terror attacks or natural disasters has meant that our perception of these risks is lowered. This perception may lead many in Singapore to dismiss occasions such as Total Defence Day and the meaning attributed to the day.

As a result, people may not actively play a part in preparedness initiatives or take ownership of the need to be better prepared.

CHANGING RISK LANDSCAPE

Preparedness and vigilance against external threats have always been important and is the core message behind Total Defence Day, but it can be argued that it has never been more important than it is today.

We constantly read and hear about war and violence in other countries, and how our personal data can be compromised and used against us in the form of cyberattacks and scams.

As a matter of fact, the rapid rise of cyber threats and disinformation prompted Singapore in 2019 to introduce digital defence as the sixth pillar in its national defence framework. The other five pillars are military, civil, economic, social and psychological defence.

Although Singapore is relatively guarded against natural disasters, climate change impacts our country in other ways that may go unnoticed. Sea level rise as a result of increased rainfall may lead to flash floods, and urban heating contributes to stress and greater use of air-conditioning which in turn increases energy demands.

Singapore may not directly experience intense storms or droughts, but as the country imports about 90 per cent of its food, the ripple-down effects from other countries that suffer these extreme weather incidents can threaten its food security.

Having a better understanding of the threats that exist in and around Singapore takes us one step closer to being prepared for them.

As borders open and we start looking at vacation spots, there is a chance some of us might get caught in an earthquake or flood. Having the know-how to take necessary precaution and action in these situations could prove to be life-saving.

Jared Ng is the Communications Manager at the Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk at NUS.

Source: CNA/aj

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