Of the alarm bells that the London explosions set off throughout the world, few cities outside the West have been affected the way Singapore is.
Already in a state of alert, the security forces here stepped up patrol of trains and other crowded places as though it was going to be the next target.
Officials were immediately dispatched to the British capital to study how the authorities there coped with and investigated the disaster.
From shopkeepers to taxi drivers and now commuters, Singaporeans have been asked to report on suspicious people and unattended objects in a multi-faceted campaign to head off possible terrorist attacks.
Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan explained to the nation: “Even a city as hardened and prepared as London became victim to terrorist attacks. The next target could well be Singapore.”
Security measures had been in place since it became a target three years ago. More than 30 local Jemaah Islamiah militants were arrested for plotting to set off bombs in strategic places and crowded MRT stations.
So with just a month away from its big 40th National Day celebration, Singapore – a major trading post and home to 7,000 foreign corporations (1,200 American) – finds itself in danger of attack.
Immediately after the London blasts, the government mounted a nationwide alert.
Undercover police started to ride mass transit trains. Elite officers carrying sub-machineguns patrolled the business district, tourist and other crowded places. Commuters with rucksacks are being checked.
A special mass transit police unit and detection dog teams will soon begin operation.
Security patrols increased at Changi airport, the Shenton Way business district and Orchard Road. Even the rarely seen Gurkha contingent was spotted patrolling the City Hall area.
Singapore says it is monitoring its citizens who visit Pakistan’s Islamic religious schools, or madrasahs, following reports that two of the four suspected bombers in Britain had returned from such trips.
On Thursday, it announced the seizure of S$85mil of “dirty money” since 2000, believed linked to terrorism financing and money laundering.
All is not fine. The government wants to be prepared without creating a “Fortress Singapore” that will cause panic and upset business.
After a long era of stability, Singaporeans simply can’t be convinced that an attack is under way, and if it is, the government could handle it anyway.
This state of preparedness may in fact be luring people into a false sense of security, the best weapon for potential bombers.
To the government, the worry of a bombing attack at Orchard Road or Changi airport ranks second only to the republic’s economic dilemma.
“Any poverty from joblessness or a widening gap between rich and poor could fuel the danger,” a minister replied when I asked him which posed the bigger threat.
Today, messages flash regularly across MRT screens exhorting commuters to report suspicious characters or unattended objects – but with poor response. Most people tend to leave the job to someone else.
Television recently reported how Singaporeans ignored a bag deliberately left at the busy Raffles Place to test public reaction – until it was spotted by two American women.
Dr Tan said that with experience of such things, the women raised the alarm.
An MP also spoke of public nonchalance in seeing “a suspicious-looking man with a cap in a sweater on a hot day with fake bombs strapped to him”.
She said: “Nobody around him batted an eyelid.”
Dr Tan urged people to serve as “the eyes and ears” and the extended reach of the security agencies, he said.
The authorities have rallied all the taxi drivers and shop-owners to appeal to them to report any suspicious-looking people.
Already a feature in many busy spots and 200 schools, CCTV cameras may soon make an appearance in the Housing Board estates where 90% of the people live.
Keeping Singapore safe is not just internal security, but also cooperation with other countries, from the US and Britain to Indonesia and Malaysia.
The strong relationship and exchange of intelligence with the two nearest neighbours has been a major help.
It has also been reaching out to the Middle East partly for trade but also to stiffen relationship with nations ranging from Iran, Syria, and Egypt to the Gulf States.
Singapore is impressed with the way the British public had remained calm during the attacks and subsequent efforts not to allow the bombers to upset race relations.
Singapore had long feared that a major attack that causes many deaths could result in race tension or violence, so part of its strategy involves measures to head it off.
This sensitivity was evident when it arrested 31 Muslim militants under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Official Malay organisations immediately moved to provide funds and aid to wives and children who had lost their breadwinners.
Even the conditions for the inmates are better than for communist detainees during the 60s and 70s. They are allowed to read books and study for exams.
The objective appears to be aimed at changing minds rather than punishing people.
Meanwhile, the ruling People’s Action Party has identified 10 well-qualified Malay Muslims as potential candidates for the next general elections. If they are selected, it will be the largest number ever to stand under its banner.
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