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How Safe Is Singapore: Terrorism in Singapore

Terrorism in Singapore is a topic many may fear to discuss about openly as it maybe a sensitive topic, especially since race and religion are often involved in such acts. Terrorism causes potential harm to the nation which explains why the government takes extra measures to keep the people of Singapore as safe as possible.

The Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong considers race and religion as the country’s “most visceral and dangerous fault line.” This is because a terrorist threat can potentially disrupt the country’s multicultural harmony, jeopardize the citizen’s safety and ultimately make one lose trust in the government’s reputation for keeping their citizens safe. 

Fortunately, Singapore has not experienced an actual terrorist attack on its ground in two decades.

This may highly be due to its constant attempts to respond to rapidly emerging terrorism trends and efforts in adopting social resilience as a key counterterrorism strategy. 

Besides its constant effort in countering terrorism, Singapore is also known to be a safe country to live in because of its high levels of safety and security.

A 2019 global study by the Gallup’s Law and Order Index showed that Singapore has once again topped the list where 97 percent of Singaporeans reported feeling safe while walking alone at night in their area as compared to the global average of 69 percent. 

Singapore has been ranked number one for this index ever since 2015. The Law and Order Index is a composite score based on how much confidence the people have in their local police force, their feelings of personal safety, and the incidence of theft, assault or mugging in the past year.

As a country where safety and security is highly sought after, it is no wonder why there is an increasing number of expats bringing their families over to live in Singapore. This might also be a valid reason as to why many global companies chose Singapore as the country for their main headquarters to be located at. 

While all these tell us Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world to live in, it doesn’t mean that Singapore has never encountered terrorist threats before. Let us walk you through the terror threats that have happened in Singapore’s history.  

Terrorist attacks in Singapore

Past terror attacks in Singapore involved members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) linked to Al-Qaeda, an international terrorist group that was considered one of the world’s most dangerous. 

The Global Security Organisation states that “Jemaah Islamiya is a Southeast Asian terrorist network with links to al-Qaida. The network plotted in secrecy through the late 1990s, following the stated goal of creating an idealized Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the southern Philippines, and southern Thailand.”

There were many incidents where members of the JI attempted to attack Singapore. In 2001, the Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) prevented Singapore’s JI members from launching a series of bomb attacks including a sea-borne bomb attack against US ships by using a small vessel, an attack on US assets at the Paya Lebar Air Base and other attacks targeting the US interests in the country.

Then in 2002, the ISD arrested 13 JI members who had planned to bomb targets near the Yishun MRT station.

The Mas Selamat escape in February 2008 has also led Singapore to a state of emergency and a period of uncertainty. Mas Selemat Kastari was known as the head of the JI network in Singapore and was detained under the country’s Internal Security Act after allegedly having plotted to crash a hijacked plane into Singapore’s international airport.  

According to The Straits Times, Mas Selamat and two other accomplices had attempted to develop several other terror attack plans which included kidnapping Chinese Singaporeans in Johor as hostages in return for the release of all JI detainees in Singapore. And, if they could not get what they wanted, all the hostages were to be killed and video-taped for distribution to the international community. 

Though he was eventually caught in Malaysia in May 2009, the escape for more than a year was a huge blow to Singapore’s counterterrorism reputation as anything could have happened during the period when he was on the loose. 

The JI network in Singapore may have been crippled by the ISD previously, but there have been recent news stating the JI may be making a comeback, with younger radicalised Singaporeans being influenced to join them.

Click here to view the past 20 years of attempted terror attacks in Singapore. 

Risk of terrorism in Singapore

The risk of terrorism in Singapore is at its highest level in recent years. Especially with the current Covid-19 pandemic, it may have caused great distress and restrictions to thousands across the world, including the citizens in Singapore. 

Multiple terrorist attacks around the world meant that Singapore also faced an increased risk of such terror. Extremist terrorism have the ability to spread their ideologies through digital media – which may be the cause for more recent attacks in different countries. 

In Singapore, the domestic terrorism threat comes primarily from self-radicalised individuals influenced by those extremist materials online. The lack of physical interactions and social connections can open an individual to new ideas and a new identity that may include political radicalization. 

As they become isolated from friends, family, or other basic needs, these people are most likely to spend more time on digital platforms where they may begin to associate with unlike parties to include political, religious or cultural radicals. 

Like many other countries, Singapore is vulnerable to such attacks against soft targets by these people that have been exposed and influenced by those easily available objects online. In fact, all it takes is for a single individual to make an online comment about an issue relating to race or religion and the matter would stir up a commotion among the community. 

With the younger Singaporeans being more opinionated and fighting for free speech nowadays, multi-racial and multi-religious sensitive topics that were once shied away are now becoming a more debatable topic in the society. And this may contribute to the risk of terrorism in Singapore if not handled carefully. 

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once said, “Singapore’s racial harmony is still a work in progress. We have to keep on bringing all the communities closer together, and from time to time adjust the delicate balance that the different communities have reached.” 

Singapore can never afford to let its guard down when it comes to efforts for constantly improving its communal harmony. And if there’s anything that can undermine the peace, harmony and internal security that Singapore enjoys, it would probably be the cause of imported foreign grievances, hate speech and divisive rhetoric.  

How does Singapore combat terrorism?

Strengthen homeland security

Although Singapore is a small country, it is a powerful nation. Together with various other key players such as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the Singapore Police Force (SPF), the Home Team (consisting of the Ministry of Home Affairs and affiliate agencies) works round-the-clock to keep Singapore safe and secure amidst an increasingly complex operating landscape. 

Efforts to strengthen homeland security include:

  1. Conducting joint security patrols at Changi Airport by the SAF partners and the SPF.
  2. Providing high security for large-scale national events such as SG50 by the SAF and Whole-of-Government (WoG).
  3. Participating in joint exercises with MHA and SPF such as the MHA & SAF Counter Terrorism Exercise.

Other efforts include deploying Officers of the Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) who patrol bus interchanges and MRT stations. They are trained to spot suspicious people, behaviour and conduct spot-checks when necessary to ensure that the public transport network is safe for all commuters to use. 

The Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority (SITSA), set up in 2009 under the MHA, has also been merged under the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) which helps to monitor and respond to cyber threats. It also serves as a way to detect and respond to potential self-radicalised individuals in the nation. 

Building social resilience to counter terrorism

Besides all these, the government also believes in adopting social resilience to counter-terrorism as a key strategy in the early days. Because Singapore is a multicultural society with people from very different backgrounds and beliefs, building social resilience is critical. 

The social cohesion that we enjoy today does not come naturally. Rather, it comes from an effort to build mutual trust and respect which lies deep within our daily communication and the ability to understand one another as individuals with no judgments  – and all this takes time. 

Unfortunately, a single terrorist attack or any racial/religious threats can destroy decades of harmony building efforts within seconds. And that is why the government has invested so much in various ways to strengthen and build social resilience in the community. 

An example of the government’s effort include the formation of Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) to promote racial and religious harmony in Singapore. The SGinHarmony initiative as well as inter-faith and inter-ethnic activities, such as heritage trails, dialogues, visits to places of worship, ethnic and religious celebrations are part of the IRCC that is open for all to participate in the community. 

SGSecure Movement

The SGSecure movement is one of many ways in which Singapore is responding to the global terrorism threat. Although there are currently no specific attacks detected against Singapore, there is a possibility that the country could face one at any moment in the future. It is therefore crucial to have such movements in place so everyone in the community will be prepared if an attack arises.  

Launched in September 2016, the SGSecure is a national movement that seeks to sensitise, train and mobilise the community in the fight against terror. It consists of three parts:

  1. It helps to raise awareness on the threat of terrorism in Singapore by offering basic advice on how to stay safe and latest updates on the global terrorism trends. 
  2. It educates people in the community on what to do in the fight against terrorism by providing various programs that allows one to equip themselves with basic emergency preparedness skills. It has also provided a list of typical tell-tale indicators on what you should look out for when an individual in the community is being radicalised and how you can help these individuals. 
  3. It provides a call-to-action whenever required by encouraging people to download the SGSecure app which then allows users to report suspicious sightings to the authorities in a few simple steps.

All members of the public, including the workforce, are encouraged to take part in this movement to be well-prepared and equipped with essential skills in the face of an attack.

For more information on the SGSecure Movement, click here

Of course, there were many other events, initiatives and programs from the government to engage the public about the dangers of terrorism and to combat terrorism as a whole.

Individuals however, must also work together to remain vigilant and be alert at all times as the consequences of terrorist attacks are far beyond the physical damage – it can bring distrust and break us apart. 

Singapore is overall one of the safest countries to live in if you’re thinking of a country to move to but we should not be complacent with our safety and security measures.

Where necessary, one should still take extra precautions when you’re out and about, including expats like yourself – because we will never know what can or will happen in the next moment.

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