SINGAPORE: Religious organisations (ROs) can prepare for terror threats under a new programme that improves their ability to protect their premises and congregants, and help others in times of crisis.
The Crisis Preparedness for Religious Organisations (CPRO) programme, launched on Tuesday (Jan 14), aims to raise awareness of possible terror threats, introduce a crisis-ready mentality and improve security measures.
The programme is an initiative under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s (MCCY) SGSecure Community Network to ensure that ROs are well-prepared for crises.
Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu said terrorists around the world have attacked places of worship as “easy and soft” targets, enabling them to inflict “pain and damage”.
In March last year, a 29-year-old man opened fire at two mosques in New Zealand, killing 51 people in what was the country’s deadliest mass shooting. The suspect faces multiple charges including murder and terrorism.
“Such attacks can easily incite hatred and conflict, and sow animosity between the different faiths and races,” Ms Fu said at the Counter-Terrorism Seminar for ROs attended by more than 200 organisations on Tuesday.
“Therefore, ROs must stay vigilant against the threat of terrorism, be ready to respond to a crisis, and help the community stay resilient by providing the physical and spiritual support in a crisis.”
CHECKLIST, TRAINING, EXERCISE
MCCY said 100 ROs are expected to complete the CPRO programme by end-2020. Participation is free, with the length depending on an RO’s congregation size and how prepared it already is for a crisis. There are more than 800 ROs in Singapore.
Under the programme, ROs will first complete a self-assessment checklist to gauge their readiness and identify gaps in areas such as emergency response, contingency planning and relevant skills required in a crisis.
They can then attend up to nine modules to train members in crisis contingency planning, emergency response like the use of improvised first aid and automated external defibrillators (AED), and psychological resilience like mediation and mental wellness support.
Finally, ROs will participate in scenario-based exercises with other organisations in their vicinity to test their crisis response capabilities, validate their plans and ensure that staff and followers are well-prepared.
Ms Fu said congregants, and not just religious leaders, should participate to ensure ROs are fully prepared.
“The CPRO will train the followers in emergency response skills in order to support the RO and the larger community,” she said, adding that leaders should encourage congregants to attend basic training in administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and AED.
“They can also sign up for programmes on psychological resilience and mental wellness, and mediation.”
ROs that complete the programme will receive a certificate from MCCY, and are encouraged to become advocates of the programme and guide other ROs that wish to participate.
RELIGIOUS ORGANISATIONS, SECURITY AGENCIES HELPED DEVELOP PROGRAMME
In developing the programme, MCCY said it partnered representatives from more than 30 ROs to identify their needs in a crisis, develop a programme prototype and gather feedback on their user experience.
MCCY also partnered security and community agencies, such as the police and Singapore Civil Defence Force, to develop the training modules.
Last November, the two agencies conducted an anti-terrorism exercise at the Sultan Mosque, the first time such an exercise was held at a place of worship.
The CPRO programme was first announced during MCCY’s Committee of Supply budget debate last March, when Ms Fu urged ROs to join a new accreditation scheme aimed at preparing places of worship for crises.
“Through the CPRO, our communities will be well prepared to respond and well-connected to support one another to stay resilient in the event of a crisis,” she said on Tuesday.
“Only then can we stay united and not allow terrorism to tear apart our social fabric.”
RELIGIOUS ORGANISATIONS WELCOME MOVE
Deputy executive director of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore Ben Ee said the CPRO programme will help improve his organisation's post-incident response.
"After the (incident) is when the long slog is," he said. "After the event is when you can do it right, or do it painfully."
While he said some of his staff are trained in basic first aid and the use of AEDs, he identified the ability to provide mental health support as one gap.
Mr Ee said he is "quite concerned" for the safety of visitors to his temple. "We have our own (crisis) plans, but whether our plans will work or not and whether we have the resources to see it through - this framework will guide us on what we have done and what we can do better," he said.
More importantly, Mr Ee said the CPRO programme will allow ROs to share knowledge and resources on handling crises, pointing out that his Chinatown temple is located near a Hindu temple and a mosque.
Mr Yacob Ahmad, who heads the mosque planning office at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, said the CPRO programme will set a crisis preparedness benchmark for ROs to follow.
"The biggest challenge would be awareness (of terrorist threats). The messaging is very strong that it's a matter of if, not when," he said.
"But I think our community will still need to have more than just awareness - something that they believe in."
Nevertheless Mr Yacob, who has spearheaded crisis management for mosques since 2017, said existing training programmes can be very specific, down to where to hide during a shooting.
Some offices in the mosque, he said, are not readily accessible to the public and have a card entry system, meaning they have an extra layer of security.
Mr Yacob said the CPRO programme will enable ROs to learn how counterparts from different faiths manage their own facilities, as he stressed the importance of having a crisis plan that is tailored to the facility.
"All of us are religious institutions; we are open, we are not hard targets," he added. "So we have to think of creative ways (to manage the threats). We cannot be deploying the police."
MORE RELIGIOUS ORGANISATIONS COMMIT TO SAFEGUARDING HARMONY
Ms Fu also provided an update on the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony in Singapore, which religious leaders affirmed last June as a “clear stand” against extremist and exclusivist ideologies.
Ms Fu said a further 250 ROs and community organisations have affirmed the commitment since its launch, doubling the number to more than 500.
“This is an encouraging sign that we collectively recognise the importance of a cohesive society,” she said.
“By affirming the commitment, ROs pledged their support to a culture of mutual consideration and maintaining solidarity in times of crisis," Ms Fu added.