A case of “when”, not “if”

Barcelona is the latest of a growing list of cities afflicted by the scourge of terrorism.

While Singapore stands with Barcelona and Spain in solidarity, we must be cognisant of the global terror threat that is probably at its peak since the 9/11 attacks orchestrated by Al-Qaeda.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam stated that, “It is no longer a question of whether an attack will take place, but really, when is an attack going to take place in Singapore…”

How can Singapore shore up its defences and try its best to put off potential terror attacks? How can we mitigate the fall-out when it happens? How will our society and the social fabric hold up in the face of evil?

The controversy over the SGSecure app

The SGSecure app was launched in September 2016 as part of a concerted effort to shore up national security in light of a more volatile and tenuous global environment.

However, most Singaporeans only began to hear more about it when the SGSecure app began to receive online feedback from users saying that NSFs were coerced into downloading the app on the pain of signing extras.

The efficacy of these statements remains up in the air but certainly did not make for good public relations.

However, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) stated that its personnel are part of the national security effort and have to download the app onto their smartphones as part of a more comprehensive counter-terrorism programme.

Yet, the SGSecure app does not appear to have unique functions at first glance.

At second glance, the app still does not reveal its secret powers. Netizens have analysed the app front and back, inside and out, and have mostly concluded that the app does not offer anything manifestly new to Singapore’s counterterrorism efforts.

  • The app allows users to report suspicious characters and activities via pictures and videos. While this function offers convenience and efficiency, the same can be achieved via an emergency call to the police or having sending the various media via WhatsApp.
  • The app also enables users to call and SMS the police, as well as call the ambulance and fire service. However, this is done by redirecting the user to his call function on the phone. It would be much easier to just quickly dial the numbers of the required emergency services.
  • The app notifies users when there are alerts being sent out by official agencies. Once again, this is inbuilt redundancy because telcos can transmit urgent messages via good old SMSes.

The war against the Islamic State (IS) might feel very distant for the average Singaporean.

The truth is starker: Returning fighters as IS collapses in the Syria and Iraq means that the terror threat in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, is higher than ever.

This is especially pertinent since Singapore is deemed to be a hard target; any successful terror strike in the island-state will be seen to be a momentous victory for the rogue elements in the region.

While the SGSecure app does not seem to be a cyber-talisman which keeps Singaporeans safe and sound and away from harm’s way, the furore over the way some servicemen were compelled to download the app could be a blessing in disguise: the episode has trained the spotlight on the SGSecure agency and its objectives to secure Singapore’s shores against hostile elements which mean to do the country and its citizens harm.

The government, as part of its push for tighter national security, should grasp this silver lining in an episode characterised by poor communication to underline the importance of having the community on board in a holistic spearhead against potential security threats in Singapore.

Singaporeans are used to prosperity, stability and peace – we revel in them.

But when – it’s a “when”, no longer “if” – Singapore is attacked by hostile elements intent on spreading fear and paranoia among the populace, are we ready to face up to the challenge and be resilient?

Can we ever be sufficiently prepared to confront the terror threat which could cause upheaval in our ways of life and even potentially strain the very fabric of the multiracial and multicultural Singapore society?

In times of peace, we must gird our loins and prepare ourselves for instability and unrest – for the saying goes, more sweat in training, less blood in war.

We may not be at war yet, but the war on terror continues to rage all around us, and it would be a matter of time before we get sucked into the riptide – and when the time comes, Singaporeans would appreciate the government’s efforts, including initiatives such as the SGSecure app, in safeguarding our homes and lives.

The paternalistic approach of compelling people to download the app on the pain of punishment has not worked and could even backfire as people make a mockery of the app as a way of registering protest.

Instead of cajoling and coercing national servicemen with not much choice in the matter, relevant security and intelligent agencies must work together to make the SGSecure app a more relevant and useful tool in our toolbox against terror.

Policymakers ought to focus on and demonstrate the tangible benefits of the improved app – quality is easily recognised and people will experience the upside and spread the word among their family and friends.

National security is not a joke; the government ought to use the SGSecure’s app moment in the spotlight to brook a larger and very important conversation on securing Singapore’s security and preparing Singaporeans for the eventuality of a terror attack within our borders.

In light of the recent lone wolf terror attacks on Barcelona, Manchester, London and Nice, Singapore must be prepared for the eventuality that evil will stare us in the face. We can try our best but it is nigh impossible to have a foolproof dragnet against would-be terrorists until they strike.

Yet, we can choose to unite and come together as one to look evil in its eye and proclaim that it shall not triumph over us.

Jason T

Jason is a private sector economist and writes on The Flip Side in his personal capacity. He focuses on domestic policy issues and is most enamoured to help the most vulnerable in society.