Who says Singaporeans don’t care about terror threat
What stood out in the recent Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019 were the results of a public survey that suggest that Singapore society has earned a distinction in its basic disposition in combating terrorism. Yet several analysts have arrived at a negative interpretation of the data by focusing on specific findings rather than accounting for all the findings as a whole.
Towards the end of last month, the Ministry of Home Affairs published the Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019, stating that the terror threat level remains high.
However, what stood out were the results of a “Public Survey on the Terrorist Threat and SGSecure” that came as an appendix.
This survey is a milestone in Singapore’s counter-terrorism efforts.
First, it is the first large-scale survey of its kind as it involved 2,010 Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents, aged 15 years and above—a sample that is statistically representative of the national population.
Second, the results of the survey, which provide a scorecard of our society’s basic disposition in combating terrorism, suggest that Singapore has essentially earned a distinction.
Yet several analysts recently interviewed by our local media have arrived at a negative interpretation of the data by focusing on specific findings rather than accounting for all the findings as a whole.
In doing so, they have ended up mistaking the trees for the forest. While the intention was not deliberate, their sombre reading of the survey results risks dampening the spirit of our citizens who in reality are doing pretty well and need to be encouraged further.
Two findings that analysts have identified as sticking points in our national fight against terrorism is that only 60 per cent of Singaporeans recognised our country as a terrorist target and only 20 percent felt the threat as imminent.
These scores led one observer to conclude that “while 60 per cent of Singaporeans are aware of the terrorist threat, only 20 per cent are really prepared for it”.
These interpretations ignore several critical data points that point to a different conclusion.
First, nine in 10 Singaporeans agreed that it was their responsibility to safeguard Singapore’s safety and security in the fight against terrorism—a score of 90 per cent. Overall, 97 per cent of Singaporeans agree that they have some kind of role to play.
This means that Singaporeans are not of the opinion that it should only be our Home Team and other government agencies that are responsible for public security and safety.
Second, 75 per cent agreed that they were generally alert and kept a lookout for suspicious behaviour or packages when in a public place. This is roughly an ‘A’ grade for vigilance.
These additional findings affirm the point that there is a distinction between perceiving a threat as imminent and being prepared to deal with it regardless.
In other words, the correct conclusion to draw is that whether or not Singaporeans think a terrorist threat is looming, it is actually immaterial.
By extension, it may not matter all too much whether or not our citizens are keeping track of the nitty gritty of the developments in global terrorism.
What is centrally important from the survey results is that Singaporeans have ownership of our nation’s public security, and they will step up to mitigate an attack.
The baseline is that Singaporeans demonstrate that they recognise terrorism as a serious enough of a problem.
If anything, what we want is a generally vigilant but reasonably relaxed posture, which is psychologically sustainable for social well-being since terrorism is a slow-burn threat over many years.
There is actually more good news from the survey, and it has to do with the overall returns on Singapore’s long-established efforts in mobilising its citizens in fending off terrorism, which precede the two-year-old SGSecure initiative.
Out of the average of 90 per cent of Singaporeans agreeing that it is their responsibility to contribute in the fight against terrorism, 86 per cent of those who were unaware of SGSecure felt the same way while the figure jumped to 92 per cent for those aware of it.
Again, critics may choose to focus on the marginal improvement of six per cent brought about by the SGSecure initiative.
What is more constructive is to recognise that the non-SGSecure-influenced result is already a strong ‘A’ grade, with the SGSecure-influenced result being an ‘A plus’.
These figures suggest that Singapore’s range of public initiatives to raise awareness and empower its citizens have had a significant effect.
In that sense, SGSecure should be seen as an additional shot in the arm rather than an effort that generated only a marginal return on investment.
Actually the boost provided by SGSecure has made a significant difference where it matters.
While 63 per cent who were not aware of SGSecure agreed that they were alert and kept a lookout for suspicious behaviour and packages, this number jumped to 78 per cent for those exposed to this initiative—a significant improvement of 15 per cent.
Doing something actionable to mitigate the risk of potential terrorism is more valuable than simply having a sense of responsibility about it.
At the end of the day, no survey, no matter rigorously designed, is going to capture perfect and complete information.
In this case, the survey questions required the respondents to assess themselves. As people, we are naturally inclined to assess ourselves in a favourable light. Sociologists call this a “social desirability bias”.
In addition to surveys, the authorities could consider conducting simple objective tests to determine our level of competency in maintaining vigilance on the ground.
What such tests would be doing, in effect, is to audit our society’s operational readiness in fighting terrorism.
Some may also suggest that we look towards pegging our survey scores against the performance of other societies. While this could be somewhat helpful, it is not currently clear, from public research, if there are similar surveys conducted by other countries of their people’s threat perception and responses.
In any case, because the geographical, political, economic, and societal makeup of every country is quite unique, the scores Singaporeans have attained from this survey may only be relevant to its ‘body mass index’.
Attaining similar scores in Indonesia, for example, would lend a different interpretation.
What matters now is that we know Singaporeans have reflected the will to fight terrorism.
The next step is to sharpen their capability to keep it at bay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Graham Ong-Webb is a Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technogical University. His research areas include geopolitical developments in the Asia Pacific and Singapore’s counter-terrorism and security architecture, among others.