January 17 — Earlier this week the region and the world watched as armed men roamed through central Jakarta inflicting arbitrary violence on a terrified populace. Explosions, gun shots, bodies — no longer confined to active warzones but now in the centre of an otherwise peaceful capital.
Of course scenes of this nature are now troublingly familiar. Just a few months ago we saw much the same in Paris.
In fact in comparison to the scale of the attacks in France – Jakarta’s was a lucky escape. The police and military responded quickly – and there were seven casualties; five civilians and two attackers.
It is a testament to today’s grim reality that this can be called a relative success and relief for Indonesian authorities but that is now the reality.
Attacks in major cities worldwide are increasingly frequent and arbitrary. No longer freak occurrences that explode onto our television screens once a decade — today, various toxic forces in geopolitics have aligned to make it so that we are no longer safe, even in cities thousands of miles from active conflict.
I’m not trying to be an alarmist here.
And it is worth noting that Singapore has not suffered a terrorist attack since the early 70s and the Laju Incident.
Our island is well defended, and its small size and relatively neutral foreign policy may mean we are off the radar of international terrorist groups — for now.
But this island remains a key node in the system of global trade. A vital commercial centre, a major nexus for multinationals, expatriates and tourists from a range of nations and faiths and as some have argued very likely we will soon become a target.
An attack or some sort of imminent threat is more likely a question of when, not if and the next logical question is what we will do when it happens. How will Singapore, its government, security forces and people respond if ever we have to confront scenes like those we’ve seen in Paris and Jakarta?
On the government side, I would expect our police and military to respond rapidly and effectively. Despite the odd embarrassment, our police are well equipped, trained and prepared.
In fact across the government sector we can boast a regionally and even globally enviable state of preparedness. The government has been carrying out attack and response simulations over the past few years and as early as the 90s, Singapore began establishing elite rapid response teams.
But while it can be assumed that the government is ready to act, my unhappy hypothetical scenario raises two further questions:
1. Is our society ready?
We haven’t faced a violent threat in the living memory of most of our citizens — so how will we respond to an assault? With blind fear and hatred?
Given the limited development of Singapore’s media and civil society groups, an attack would genuinely test the limits of our national unity. The space for open discussion in our society has long been too limited and in this scenario, polarization between communities and calls for yet more government surveillance are quite possible.
2. Is this really all we can do?
Is there nothing we can do to influence the world around us to make it so this sort of atrocity never occurs on our soil, must we really just ready ourselves and wait?
Of course the major geopolitical causes of these attacks are beyond Singapore but as a prosperous and deeply globalized nation, perhaps it’s time to think about Singapore’s responsibility to build peace.
We have a proven diplomatic service, considerable standing in the world and economic and educational resources.
Shouldn’t we be deploying more of these resources to actively influence global security, not by military means but my means of facilitating genuine understanding and holding the broad range of stakeholders responsible for the current state of affairs more sternly to account?
Surely the best defense — even in matters of world peace — remains a good offence?