Terrorism Preparedness Primer for Singapore

Hamas has called for a global day of terrorism on 13 October. Here in Singapore, it is tempting to believe that it has little to do with us. The Middle East is far away, and Singapore doesn’t embroil itself in international affairs. Yet this is a mistake.

Singapore’s long-standing relationship with Israel and the United States is well known. Singapore is a target of Islamist terrorists. As former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kauisan points out, Hamas maintains an office in Malaysia, calling itself the Palestinian Cultural Office Malaysia.

Hamas is closer to Singapore than most people think. And Hamas has many fellow travellers in the region, other Islamist terrorist groups who are united in the cause of destroying the Great Satan, the Little Satan, and their allies.

Singapore will likely go on heightened alert on 13 October. But as long as the Israeli-Hamas war continues, Singapore must remain on alert. And though the war may end someday, vigilance may not. Hamas and their allies will continue to plot attacks, regardless of how the conflict may pan out.

Singapore is a safe and prosperous society. It is tempting to believe that the government will take care of terrorism for you.

This is a mistake.

Earlier this year, I was involved in a dispute. The other party was approaching me aggressively and issuing threats. The subject had a cane in his hand, his fists were clenched, his body language was tense. He and I were on hair triggers.

At that time, I was on the phone with the police. I communicated the situation clearly. The dispatcher said the police were on their way.

It took the first responders 30 minutes to arrive.

Fortunately for everyone involved, I de-escalated the situation. The other guy walked away. Nonetheless, had events spiralled out of control, I would have been on my own for 30 minutes.

A lot can happen in that time.

I read once that the police standard for emergency response was 15 minutes or less. Regardless of how long they take, police response is not instant. If there isn’t a police officer who just happens to be nearby when you call them, the police won’t show immediately.

Until they arrive, you are on your own.

Anyone who wishes to ensure the safety of his friends, family and loved ones must be cognizant of this. In a crisis, you are the first responder. You must rescue yourself and those around you. By the time the authorities show up, it may be too late. At the very least, you must buy time for them to arrive.

Different countries have different circumstances. Some principles are universal, some can only be applied to a specific context. For those Singaporeans who take the threat of terrorism seriously, this primer is for you.

Security Response and Theatre

Over the coming days and weeks, expected elevated security in public places. This means Special Operations officers and Gurkhas conducting high-profile patrols in public places, increased police and military presence in key installations, and plainclothes officers discreetly watching areas of interest.

In this time period, don’t do anything stupid. Don’t harass security personnel on duty, and don’t give them a reason to pay attention to you. Times are difficult already; don’t make things worse for everyone. This ought to go without saying, but we don’t live in that kind of world anymore.

You should also expect ‘heightened security measures’ or something to that effect. Metal detectors, X-rays and sniffer dogs at public buildings, including MRT stations and public transport hubs.

This is security theatre.

These security checks will create choke points at the entrances. There will be long queues and large crowds. Movement will be slow.

A terrorist intent on mass destruction will see a target-rich environment.

Public transportation stations are especially vulnerable. Millions of people use public transport in Singapore every day. Most of the people working the security checkpoints at train stations and bus interchanges tend to be old uncles and aunties working retirement jobs. They are unarmed. And during regular times, the X-ray machines and metal detectors are in the public areas, cordoned off with belt stanchions. Any dedicated saboteur can easily access them.

Should a terrorist attack, do you believe the staff will be able to defend you?

Security checks like these don’t do much to deter terrorists. A terrorist who sees this checkpoint will simply turn around and find an alternate route. It is not practical to have checkpoints for every single bus stop and train station in Singapore. It is impossible to scan every single passenger who boards a taxi.

These security measures are just security theatre. They create the illusion of security while enhancing your own danger. Should you have to pass through a checkpoint, you must be on guard.

You are in a target-rich environment.

Run. Hide. Fight.

The official government advisory in a terrorist attack is Run, Hide, Tell. Run away. Hide somewhere. Then tell the police.

The Pulse nightclub shooting showed how this strategy will work on real life. When the shooter opened fire, many people tried to run. Others tried to hide in the bathrooms.

The shooter entered the bathrooms and shot everyone he saw.

The shooter was outnumbered. Had the patrons organized an ambush, they could have overwhelmed him the moment he entered the bathroom. Instead, they tried to hide—in rooms with no cover. And when the shooter opened fire, they continued to hide.

The victims did alert the police. The police had an overabundance of information. Over the next 45 minutes, over 100 police officers arrived. It took another 2 hours for the police to take down the shooter.

And 49 victims died.

This is the fatal flaw of Run, Hide, Tell. It assumes that you are able to run and hide. It glosses over police response time. If you can’t escape, you’re reduced to cowering in a corner, hoping that the terrorist won’t find you before the police do.

If he does, you have no response.

The American approach is Run, Hide, Fight. You can see a video here. Unlike Run, Hide, Tell, this advocates a more active approach to your own protection. However, it is the only the beginning of an effective strategy.

What is a more realistic strategy for Singaporeans?

Awareness, Avoidance, Action

Start with awareness.

Many people spend their days lost in their screens, headphones blaring music into their ears. This is the exact opposite of how you should go about your daily life.

Pay attention to everything around you. Leave your headphones at home and your devices in your bag. Instead of giving your attention to entertainment devices, observe the world around you. Pay special attention to things that are out of place.

A person wearing a heavy jacket in hot weather. Someone muttering to himself while patting down his pockets or waist. An abandoned bag lying near a place where people congregate. Suspicious behaviours that are out of place in the area.

Should you see something wrong, act. Immediately.

Leave the area. Contact the authorities. Help others escape if the situation calls for it.

Don’t be like these people in Buangkok last year. When a sword-swinging mentally unsound person wandered the streets of the neighbourhood, pedestrians ignored him. Some even waited patiently at a traffic light, when the roads were clear, even as the subject approached.

They only acted when the subject attacked them.

Fortunately, the civilians survived. But this attack was entirely avoidable. Had the pedestrians left the scene, no one would have gotten hurt. Instead, they just stood in place like deer caught in the headlights.

Should something like this occur, accept the situation as it is. Do not pretend that the subject didn’t see you. Do not freeze and hope that the subject will pass you by. Do not stay where you are. Do not tell yourself that nothing is wrong.

This is how prey thinks, and prey get eaten.

Stillness is death. Movement is life. Develop a bias for action. Treat suspicious behaviour with the gravity it deserves. Don’t tell yourself that it’s not your problem. Having noticed it, it becomes your problem. If you don’t do anything, and something happens, you bear the responsibility. You pay the price for your non-action. And if you ever see someone with a weapon wandering around, leave the scene immediately.

Whenever you arrive at a location, log the entrances and exits. Plan your egress routes, both primary and backup routes. An emergency is a poor time to plan your escape. Once you see a trigger to leave, leave immediately. You won’t have time to hunt for an escape route. Take everyone around you with you, and get out of the area as quickly as you can.

Should you travel with others, pay attention to what they are wearing. Take a good, hard look at their clothing and distinguishing features. If you are separated from them, you may have to describe them to the authorities. In a high stress situation, it is difficult to rummage around what’s left of your short term memory. Entrain your brain in a calm period, so that you know what to say in times of stress.

Awareness and avoidance is the best way to stay safe. You cannot be hurt if you are not around when trouble comes. However, this may not always work. You must have a plan for violence.

And a plan to do violence.

Barricade and Ambush

When you think ‘hide’, you may think of making yourself as small as possible, tucked away in a far corner. It’s instinct. But this instinct can get you killed.

Suppose an active shooter is roaming your building. You decide to hide under your desk. You curl up in a ball, press yourself against the floor, and stay quiet.

Then he looks under the desk.

And then you have no way out.

‘Hiding’ like this traps yourself. You are exchanging certain freedom of movement for the possibility of concealment. If the attacker takes the time to thoroughly search the room, he will find you. And you will be in a position of massive disadvantage.

When you think ‘hide’, don’t just think of concealment. Make it hard for the subject to enter the room. Lock the doors and windows. Barricade the entrances with heavy objects. Turn off the lights and electricity. Stay as quiet as you can.

‘Hiding’ here means you do not draw attention to yourself. Don’t make any sounds or do anything that may attract an attacker’s attention. Should he try to search for you, make it difficult for him to access your position. He may decide to move on to an easier target. At the very least, it buys time for the police to arrive—and for you to prepare.

The next time you go out, observe the environment around you. Will you pass through places where you cannot hide from a determined attacker? Are there areas with limited exits that one or two attackers can easily control?

For most Singaporeans, the answer is yes. At least twice a day, if not more. I’m not in the business of giving terrorists ideas, but if you think about it, you will find them immediately.

There are areas where you cannot ride or hide. In such situations, the American response is to fight. But this is simplistic—especially for Singapore.

The attacker will be armed. You are not. The attacker will be strong, aggressive and determined. You may not be. There may be multiple attackers. You may have friends, family and loved ones with you.

And the Singapore government, in its infinite wisdom and eternal benevolence, holds that the carriage of arms is a privilege mainly for public servants carrying out their duties.

To survive this encounter, you must stack every advantage you have in your favour. In the Run, Hide, Fight video shared above, look at the Fight section. Notice that the civilians organised a response, grabbed weapons, and confronted the attacker when he entered.

‘Hide’ here does not mean curling up in a ball and hoping the attacker doesn’t find you. ‘Hide’ means lying in wait and ambushing the attacker if he enters the room. You need to arm yourself, position yourself away from doorways and windows, and keep still. Should the attacker break in, you must overwhelm him before he can do the same unto you.

This is dangerous. There is a chance that you may be killed or injured. But if you do nothing, you will be killed or injured.

Courage leads to life. Fear leads to death. Cling too tightly to life and you will lose it; act without regard of your own life and you may survive. Violence is not something that people in a safe society like Singapore think on. And yet, for this very reason, they are extremely vulnerable to violence should it ever enter their lives.

Do not be soft. Do not shy away from the brutal reality of violence. The sooner you make peace with it, the more effective you will be. Recognise that in the gravest extreme, you may have to defend your life with deadly force.

Give yourself permission to defend yourself and those around you. Commit to defence should the need arrive. All the martial arts training and all the gear in the world won’t save you unless you are already committed.

The day of violence may never come for you. But if it does, and you are not committed to action, you have already lost.

The Beginning of Preparation

All this is simply the beginning of preparation. There is no way to fit everything you need to know in a single blog post. Continue to expand your knowledge. Seek out additional training and articles by qualified instructors and experts. Develop awareness, fitness, self-defence and first aid skills, and other essential knowledge.

The key is mindset. Embrace personal responsibility and cultivate courage. Should an attack occur, you are your own hero. Do not hope that the authorities will save you; they will take a while to arrive. You must take action to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you.

This line of thinking is alien to your average civilian. It is tempting to keep your head down, to remain in a permanent state of ease and inattention, to act as if nothing is happening. Normalcy bias is normal, but it will get you killed. No one is as invested in your own survival as you. If you will not look out for yourself, you are trusting in the mercy of wolves.

We live in a world where the evil visit violence on the helpless. You may never encounter this in person. But should you do, you must have a plan. Should danger arise, you must be able to execute that plan without hesitation.

No one is as invested in your own safety as you. If you won’t commit to it, no one will.



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