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What S’poreans should do as security threats evolve

The think-tank I lead interacts regularly with some of the world’s foremost strategic thinkers — those who have spent most or all of their professional lives examining security from academic, policymaking or intelligence perspectives. Their consensus is that the future of security worldwide has never before been so uncertain, and so fraught with impending dangers.

What S’poreans should do as security threats evolve
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The think-tank I lead interacts regularly with some of the world’s foremost strategic thinkers — those who have spent most or all of their professional lives examining security from academic, policymaking or intelligence perspectives. Their consensus is that the future of security worldwide has never before been so uncertain, and so fraught with impending dangers.

Much has been said about the terror threat by Islamic State (IS), and we can see how terrorism is drawing inexorably closer to our shores: From the Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok last year to the Jakarta attacks last month, to the multiple arrests of IS-influenced individuals in Malaysia and, most recently, the arrest of a cell of radicalised Bangladeshis in Singapore. The last in particular should give us pause, as the men could have easily changed their target to Singapore.

It would be a serious error, however, to suggest that a terror attack is the only major risk Singapore faces. The sobering fact is that this is just one aspect of the security challenge.

We face a future where the Internet and other tools we use daily — items we might hardly give a second thought to, such as fridges and televisions — will be connected in a mesh, the Internet of Things (IOT). Security agencies and the private sector are only now starting to give serious thought to securing the IOT against hackers.

Public awareness of hacking threats, either within or outside the IOT, is generally low. We cannot completely rule out states as well as irregular actors attempting a crippling cyberattack on Singapore, perhaps through exploiting the IOT, as fanciful as that might seem now.

Here, we face an additional problem: When we have a critical vulnerability in the terrorism sphere, a friendly third party might sometimes assist with information that helps overcome the threat. With the cybersphere, these otherwise friendly third parties become interested observers themselves, and could hide the knowledge of our vulnerability for a day when they might need to exploit it themselves.

Different slow-burning issues can also develop over time. If we are not alert, these can slowly “boil” us. These could range from low-intensity, persistent cyberintrusions that degrade a country’s defences and over time erode a country’s resolve, to the effects of climate change on national security. Consider, for example, the day when we could see the first climate refugees attempting to land on our shores.


Many countries have experienced wars, terrorist acts and other tragedies. The people in some of these places have been able to face these events with a certain degree of composure, and to organise responses without solely relying on governments. For example, during the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the largely unknown and unplanned evacuation from Manhattan’s downtown by a flotilla of private boats saw 500,000 people rescued in 9 hours.

Why some people are able to react this way is an extraordinarily complex question, one still being studied by academics and researchers. However, experts agree that resilience and a strong psychological make-up are key, and that conditions for these can be present even in cultural contexts without a long history of acts of war or natural disasters.

This is partly why there is also a growing recognition in Singapore that the so-called “softer” facets of national security should evolve to assume a co-equal status with the “hard” parts of Total Defence.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in this year’s Total Defence campaign, with the theme Together We Keep Singapore Strong, which is specifically targeted at reinforcing Singaporeans’ resilience. It is also no coincidence that Mr Lim Siong Guan, former head of the Civil Service and a prime mover in the introduction of the Total Defence concept in 1984, recently observed that “ … psychological defence is the starting point of Total Defence, not military defence.”

Total Defence should evolve to empower the people. Society and community have to play a larger role, because we cannot remain immune from what has taken place in our immediate neighbourhood and the wider world over the past few years.

Singaporeans are increasingly taking responsibility for their own safety. We now have Citizens on Patrol teams — with a total membership of 14,000 islandwide — that look out for suspicious individuals.

Beyond this, more could be done in terms of bringing the considerable energies of our active citizenry to bear on issues linked to national resilience and preparedness. Many NGOs and volunteer organisations are concerned with social interests and issues such as animal welfare. Why not defence and cutting-edge resilience issues? After all, we have a rising demographic of Singaporeans willing to engage in issues that have to do with the changing dynamics of globalisation and security.

If a crisis does strike, government agencies will deploy their well-rehearsed drawer plans. But what is needed is a ground-up response, premised on a strong sense of self-sufficiency and inherent resilience to the “first hit”. This must come from the people. Think Je Suis Charlie (France), Not in My Name (The United Kingdom) and Kami Tidak Takut (Indonesia). The government can facilitate this, as well as the “bouncing back” after an event, but it should be several steps removed, and seen to be removed, when the grassroots reaction sprouts. This is the fundamental heartware that we must work towards.


It will not be an easy task. Singapore remains one of the safest cities in the world. Conditions of normalcy have prevailed for decades, making it difficult for people to envision a crisis and routinely be in a state of readiness.

This is where Total Defence comes in. While the five pillars of Total Defence — military, civil, economic, social and psychological defence — will remain key to a holistic understanding of our nation’s security, there is the opportunity to deliver the messages in new ways. There should be more by way of “looking in”: Conveying a greater sense of the international and regional security picture — through National Education and Social Studies in schools, for example, and through regular interchanges between the people, policymakers and academics.

The next step would be facilitating an open discussion (perhaps leveraging on voluntary welfare organisations and civil society) where people themselves ask and discuss key questions: What if a crisis happens here? Are we ready? This could be called Our Singapore Security Conversation.

Only then should we attempt to properly emphasise the importance of everyone’s involvement in creating a society that can bounce back quickly after a crisis. This may be preferable in the long run to the “vulnerability” narrative that Singaporeans have become accustomed to hearing. Yes, we are vulnerable. But it is resilience that will move the people, not vulnerability.

When Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey was asked in July last year about the spate of IS-linked arrests in the lead-up to the US’ Independence Day, he replied, “This is sort of the new normal”.

We have to get ready for this sort of new normal becoming permanent in a world that will be increasingly insalubrious. We will be only be ready for it if all concerned understand that Singapore’s future security will rest increasingly in the hands of the people. The extent to which we acknowledge and act on this determines the shape or form in which we make it to SG100.


Dr Shashi Jayakumar is the Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Today is Total Defence Day.

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