The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) recently published the Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019, stating that the terror threat level remains high.
The first part of the report highlights the persistence of extremist ideology, the resilience of terrorist groups in South-east Asia, the involvement of Singaporeans in conflict zones, and the radicalisation of Singaporeans and foreigners living in Singapore as the drivers of the threat.
Yet the report is unlikely to elicit much concern among Singaporeans. Indeed, the report also found only a small number of Singaporeans think a terror attack here is imminent.
After all, Singapore has not experienced any actual terrorist attacks and security agencies can be relied on to be operationally prepared even if there are no known terrorist plots.
Years of constant public vigilance may also lead to alert fatigue especially in the backdrop of emergent security threats — cyberattacks and online disinformation (fake news).
However, we should peruse the MHA report with other recent developments in mind.
The Jan 27 bomb attack in a southern Philippines church which killed 20 people and the multiple suicide bombings in Surabaya in May last year underscored the close proximity of terrorism to Singapore.
Earlier this month, Parliament passed the Payment Services Act in part to prevent terrorist groups from exploiting the digital economy to move their financial resources at the expense of Singaporeans’ interests.
Cyber-terrorism is a veritable threat as the Islamic State-linked “Caliphate Cyber Shield” had on Jan 7 pledged to target digital data and financial systems.
The purported death of Singaporean militant Abu Hud Zain in Mindanao in December 2018 suggests that Singapore continues to be an important node for regional terrorist groups.
The refusal of Indonesian Abu Bakar Bashir — who is the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) — to pledge loyalty to his country may be a fresh signal to terrorists in South-east Asia to be steadfast in upholding their virulent ideology and violent methods despite tribulations.
Extremist ideology, which forms the pathway that radicalises individuals into committing terrorist attacks, remains undiminished.
Recently, MHA issued restriction orders under the Internal Security Act against radical religious teacher Murad Mohd Said and his student.
They were propagating ideas that demonise and promote harm to people of different beliefs. Furthermore, by demonising pluralism, their ideas can create communal distrust and fuel Islamophobia in Singapore.
While security agencies can act swiftly against radical ideologues in real life, countering online radicalisation continues to be a more challenging task.
Efforts by governments and social media companies to take down online extremist propaganda, as well as the use of military means to neutralise the producers of propaganda who operate from conflict zones, have their limitations.
Pro-Islamic State groups, for example, are reportedly preventing their propaganda on social media from being monitored and taken down by using creative tactics such as hijacking twitter hashtags and shifting to hidden forums in the Dark Web.
Therefore, it is important that Singaporeans build up their digital literacy and critical thinking skills as psychological firewalls against extremist propaganda, which essentially is a form of online disinformation.
While radicalisation is often seen as a security issue for the government to solve, it is above all a social issue for Singaporeans. It entraps vulnerable individuals to head down a destructive path in life and leave detrimental effects on their families and friends.
The report also highlights the issue of radicalised foreigners — living and working in Singapore — as a cause for concern.
Readers should look at this issue from a balanced perspective and not allow emotions and biases to pigeonhole all foreigners as a source of security problems. The biases are real as there is a global trend of xenophobic undercurrents in which foreigners are unfairly blamed for myriad social and economic problems.
Concerns over terrorism must not lead to distrust and discriminate foreigners who like Singaporeans are generally peaceful and part of the Singapore society.
Terrorism should not be a reason, for example, to deprive domestic workers of their basic human rights such as free time to rest and socialise either offline or online.
Terrorism affects Singaporeans and foreigners equally. A terrorist attack in a public place here would cause harm to both Singaporeans and foreigners.
Terrorism is, therefore, a common threat to people of all nationalities and backgrounds. As Singapore is a globalised society, this common threat can be mitigated if Singaporeans and foreigners work together to protect each other from terrorist attacks and radicalisation.
The second part of the report, which explains the importance of programmes such as SGSecure to raise community preparedness, also highlights the complacency of Singaporeans and the need for them to do more for their security.
An important finding of the National Security Awareness Survey is that only 60 per cent of Singaporeans recognised Singapore as a terrorist target but only 20 per cent felt the threat as imminent.
Hence, while 60 per cent of Singaporeans are aware of the terrorist threat, only 20 per cent are really prepared for it.
The absence of actual attacks and known terrorist plots makes it an uphill task to convince more Singaporeans to be constantly aware of the threat. Nonetheless, public education efforts should continue apace to prevent the threat awareness level from slidng below 60 per cent.
Moving forward, more can be done to try new ways to persuade Singaporeans who are aware of the terrorist threat to also recognise that the threat is imminent.
This essentially entails raising the level of preparedness (20 per cent) to match the level of awareness (60 per cent).
In this regard, MHA announced during the SGSecure Community Conference on Jan 26 that it will be upscaling outreach efforts. The goal however should not be to attain perfection but sufficiency in the level of community preparedness.
If we cannot persuade all Singaporeans to be prepared, we should ensure that there are enough Singaporeans who are prepared to help one another during a terrorist threat.
*Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He previously worked in the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Singapore Police Force and the National Security Coordination Secretariat. This article was published at TodayOnline