SINGAPORE: Close to 80 Singaporeans have been detained under the Internal Security Act for terrorism-related activities since 2002, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
These statistics are just the most recent indicators of how the terror threat to Singapore continues to remain at its highest levels in years, despite Islamic State (IS) losses in the Middle East and the defeat of IS-linked militants in Marawi in the Philippines.
“Security agencies in the regional countries have equally been ramping up their efforts to counter, and have been arresting a lot of people,” said Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.
“We have been arresting more people. So I would say that the threats had increased substantially a few years ago, and they continue at a high level. And we must expect that as the kinetic fighting in the Middle East dies down, you will expect them to pop up in other places including Southeast Asia.”
Key to the threat lies in effective use of online propaganda by militants, aimed squarely at the Malay Muslim community in Singapore and the region. In September, a propaganda video featuring Singaporean militant Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad came to light, where he called on viewers to join IS fighters in the Middle East and East Asia. Jihadist publications have also identified Singapore as a key target for attack, according to the MHA’s inaugural Terrorism Threat Assessment Report released in July.
And despite Singapore’s emphasis on racial and religious harmony, the period of time it takes to become radicalised is also getting shorter, said Mr Shanmugam.
“Now sometimes it's a matter of days. Prior to that, there is exposure to a line of thought, a type of religious teaching that predisposes one towards becoming radicalised. And the kind of people you come in contact with, the thoughts they convey to you. That’s a problem all over the world, including Singapore.”
STEPPED UP SECURITY
Faced with threats from beyond and within Singapore’s borders, the Singapore Police Force has restructured its systems and stepped up its capabilities in recent months. The efforts to improve the effectiveness of the police force will continue into 2018, said Director of Operations, Assistant Commissioner (AC) How Kwang Hwee.
More manpower has been dedicated to specialised units that could go toe-to-toe with armed terrorist aggressors, such as the Emergency Response Teams, Rapid Deployment Troops, and the recently-deployed In-Situ Reaction Teams. Even frontline officers - who are more likely to fight crime than heavily-armed terrorists - have seen their traditional revolvers replaced with automatic pistols capable of greater firepower since April.
“We will continue to be plugged in to what is happening globally and regionally, the threats that we face, the types of terror attacks that are happening,” said AC How.
“As we observed in recent times, terrorists have started to use common tools - knives, vehicles - for their attacks, and we have to be prepared to respond to such attacks in Singapore. We look at what overseas forces do in response to attacks in their country - in London, in New York, in Paris. We learn from them, we adapt our tactics, our training and our response protocols to deal with some of these attacks of concern.”
AC How added that technology has also been leveraged on heavily to complement ground forces, amid growing manpower pressures. This includes the continued rollout of the PolCam 2.0 CCTV projects across the island, and the use of unmanned vehicles both over land and sea to improve surveillance capabilities.
But he also noted that prolonged vigilance can take its toll on security forces, and careful management is needed for them to stay effective.
“Even as we ramp up our readiness, our exercises, our training, we put in place a system where officers are rotated across duties so they don’t get fatigue. Even in a particular shift they are deployed, we pay attention to how the shift system works, the amount of time they are deployed, the amount of time to rest, as well as conducting exercise when they are on duty, to keep them on their toes, to up the readiness, such that when a real attack happens, we are ready to respond,” said AC How.
SGSECURE: MUCH WORK ACCOMPLISHED, MORE REMAINS TO BE DONE
Going forward, authorities say the wider public also needs to play a bigger role in complementing and supporting security efforts. Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the anti-terror SGSecure movement, Mr Shanmugam had said in September that there was “still some way to go” in preparing Singaporeans for any terror attack.
To date, about 200,000 households have been engaged by the authorities under a slew of SGSecure initiatives such as Emergency Preparedness Days - with another 800,000 remaining. On the business front, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) launched its SGSecure at Workplaces programme in September to have 30,000 SGSecure-engaged companies by 2020. Among other things, it encourages firms to appoint and register an SGSecure representative with the ministry to serve as a key point of contact.
An MOM spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia that since the launch, over 600 SGSecure representatives have been registered with the ministry, and more than 700 companies have implemented risk management plans that address terror threats.
“MOM is working with associations in the five priority sectors (i.e. F&B, retail, hospitality, entertainment and transport) and building owners to get more companies to be SGSecure-ready in 2018. The recent Exercise Heartbeat, a simulated terror attack jointly organised by the Singapore Police Force and MOM held at the Clarke Quay area, is an example of how we work with businesses to sensitise their staff and test their preparedness,” said the spokesperson.
The figures are a fraction of the over 314,000 firms in Singapore, as of the end of November 2017, according to latest figures from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. But Mr Shanmugam said such efforts should be seen in the context of the size of the task at hand.
"In an ideal world, everyone will be trained and ready today. But is that realistic? Given the number of companies, establishments, and given that we are and have been a very safe place, the first and most difficult task is getting people to understand that this is real and this is serious,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“What we're trying to do is to try and get this message down to pretty much every citizen, every household, every company, and then get people trained. It's a massive task. You can't just wave a magic wand and say it's done."
And as much as security forces could suffer from fatigue, Mr Shanmugam also noted the possibility of complacency from the community - stemming from constant messaging efforts.
“That is a real issue, particularly in the context that Singapore is one of the safest places in the world,” said Mr Shanmugam. “People feel totally safe - there hasn't been a terror attack, and therefore it is not easy for people to comprehend that this is really very serious.”
“And given that we've been talking about it now for a few years, yes - people might start thinking 'well yes it is high' – (but) it's not that they don't believe us, they might accept that it is high - but routine sets in. We just have to keep ploughing on, we just have to keep sending out the message, we just have to keep training people. You don't want the alternate situation - a lot of people get sensitised very quickly to the risk if there is an attack and people die.”
OPEN LINES OF COMMUNICATION, UNDERSTANDING AND RESPECT
Deputy Head of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Dr Jolene Jerard, said that on the part of the authorities, the pace of efforts to date have been commendable.
She also noted efforts to build on the mutual respect and understanding between racial and religious communities - which moved beyond tolerance, to understanding and acceptance of practices and beliefs. These included community dialogues and sharing sessions between leaders and members of the various groups held throughout the year.
"With that conversation, it then opens doors to discussions between not only having a unified message of standing together and being united in the face of terrorism, but also looking at it in parallel - wherein you are having conversations on the challenges (such as) the element of Islamophobia, for example," said Dr Jerard.
Such efforts are set to be backed by tougher laws next year against those who incite hatred and ill will among different faith groups, in order to safeguard religious harmony.