Until 9 August 1965, the island of Singapore was regarded as
part of the Malay Peninsula.
For over a century, under British
colonial administration, Singapore thrived as an entrepôt serving
Malaya’s mining and rubber boom. Then came Separation from
Malaysia: we found ourselves cut off from our hinterland, having to
think about issues of sovereignty, defence and economic survival
for the first time. It was a fraught period in our history. Indonesia’s
then President Sukarno had hostile intentions to dominate the
region. Singapore was a country born into crisis.
One of the most pressing priorities immediately after Independence was to secure the borders of the infant state. 2 Personnel were pulled from across the Civil Service to form a new Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose first order of the day was to secure recognition for Singapore from as many countries as would oblige, as quickly as possible. 3 At the time, we could call upon only two professional battalions for security. To beef these up, volunteers were called forward. These brave citizens, who included teachers, policemen, civil servants and others, formed the core of a new People’s Defence Force. Before the fledgling state could find its footing, the British administration announced in 1967 that it would withdraw all its military forces from Singapore. This was an alarming blow at a vulnerable time. To make matters worse, British military bases at the time accounted for a significant 20% of the Singapore economy, employing some 30,000 Singaporeans. 4
As Singapore’s leaders bargained with the British government to delay the withdrawal and secure military assistance, efforts intensified to build up the nation’s economic 5 and defence capabilities to cope with the British withdrawal. A Bases Economic Conversion Department was set up to convert 15,000 acres of British bases for commercial use. These vast tracts of land were to become shipyards, aviation facilities, Sentosa Island and more. Out of the fever of this necessity, Singapore managed to turn out 17.5% economic growth by 1971, even as the British troops were pulling out, avoiding large-scale unemployment. The expansion of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that took place at this time, made possible with the mandatory conscription of male citizens through National Service and the build-up of air and naval capabilities, greatly bolstered the viability of the nation’s defence. One of our earliest crises had been forestalled. This nascent resilience and resolve would soon be put to the test.
FACING UP TO CRISIS; BUILDING UP CAPABILITIESThe Laju Incident
On 31 January 1974, four armed terrorists staged a bomb attack at the Shell oil refinery on Singapore’s Pulau Bukom. In an attempt to escape, they hijacked the ferry Laju. The attack on Shell, a Dutch company, had been completely unexpected – the terrorists’ grievances were not directed at Singapore, but were instead a protest against the Netherlands’ support for Israel in the Middle Eastern conflict. Security forces prevented the hijackers from escaping but Laju’s three crewmen were held hostage. After a standoff of eight days, Mr Tee Tua Ba, then commander of the Marine Police, convinced the hijackers to release the hostages in exchange for safe passage out of the country.
To guarantee safe passage for the hijackers, a team of 13 Singaporean officials accompanied the hijackers’ flight out of Singapore, at great personal risk. Mr Seah Wai Toh from the Internal Security Department (ISD), who was one of the guarantors, recalled, “I asked for three volunteers, 17 hands shot up! 17! Some even didn’t have passports; they rushed to Immigration and got their passports.” 6 Fortunately all of them returned to Singapore safely. Thanks to the courage of the officials involved, the incident was resolved without any casualties. The leader of the Singapore team who had risked their lives was Mr S. R. Nathan, 7 who later became President of the Republic of Singapore.
The Laju episode hastened Singapore’s efforts to build up capabilities to deal with incidents of such nature in future. Police National Service, for instance, was introduced in part to bolster the manpower needed to further secure key installations. 8
One significant outcome was the establishment of the Executive Group (EG). 9 Comprising staff from the Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Communications as well as the SAF, the Police Force, ISD and other government agencies, EG was perhaps the first platform to coordinate efforts across different agencies in Singapore’s Public Service, and it would play a major role in helping Singapore to cope with crises to come.
Hotel New World
EG was in the middle of a routine meeting when news of one of Singapore’s worst catastrophes came through. On 15 March 1986, the seven-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road suddenly collapsed, leaving many trapped beneath the debris.
Mr Cheong Quee Wah, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and chairman of EG at the time, set up a command post on site. 10 The Civil Defence Force was activated; the SAF rushed men and machines to provide support; and hospitals were alerted to receive large numbers of casualties.
As news of the collapse spread across Singapore, members of the wider community were quick to respond; 146 volunteers with prior civil defence training were among the first on the scene. 11 In the days that followed, community volunteers from across the country came forward to support the primary rescuers. British, Japanese, Korean and Thai tunnelling contractors working on the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) lent their expertise to help tunnel through the ruins to reach survivors.
The combined efforts of the rescue personnel, volunteers and foreign experts saved 17 lives, but were unable to rescue the other 33 people. However, the disaster clearly vindicated earlier decisions to develop crisis response capabilities and the effectiveness of EG in coordinating inter-agency responses. 12 The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) had just been established several years earlier, with a rigorous training regime. Three decades after the incident, the rescue commander at the time, Colonel Chng Teow Hua, reflected, “Nothing comes free; training helps prepare for crisis. During crisis, they [rescuers] all knew what to do.” 13
Subsequently, public agencies would make it a point to develop contingency plans for “all types of conceivable disasters”. 14 As Singapore grew in success, it would continue to plan ahead and prepare for the worst.
EG would soon be tested again.
The SQ117 Hijack
After the Laju incident, Singapore witnessed two hijacks of foreign planes to Singapore. 15 Both these incidents were swiftly resolved, with the hijackers surrendering to Singaporean officials, demonstrating the growing competence and confidence of Singapore’s security forces and crisis response measures. But something far more dramatic was to occur.
On 26 March 1991, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ117 from Kuala Lumpur was hijacked, with 114 passengers and 11 crew members on board. 16
By the time SQ117 landed in Changi Airport, contingency plans had already been activated. Police cordoned off the plane. EG, reporting to the Ministers for Home Affairs and Defence, stood ready. This was a scenario that had already been worked through in many prior exercises and drills. 17, 18
Once again, the terrorists’ ire was not directed at Singapore; they were Pakistanis pressing the government in Pakistan to release some prisoners and to speak to opposition leaders. But Pakistani officials refused to accede to these demands. The Australian government had also rejected the hijackers’ request for passage into Sydney. Even though negotiations stretched into the early hours of the morning, no breakthrough emerged.
At 6:45am, the increasingly agitated hijackers threatened to kill hostages. It was no feint: to assert their demands, the hijackers had already beaten up and pushed two flight stewards out of the plane onto the tarmac.
Faced with a critical situation, EG had to make a hard decision. Mr Lim Siong Guan, chairman of EG at the time, remembered distinctly “that was the time where I decided, as Chair, to say, ‘We move in.’” 19
At 6:47am, the order was issued to storm the plane: “Indigo now! Indigo now!” 20
Right on cue, commandos blasted their way into the plane. Amidst the flashbang of stun grenades and staccato of machine guns, all four hijackers were killed within 30 seconds. 21 All 114 passengers and 11 crew members of Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 were safe.
Only years later would the identity of these soldiers be revealed as members of the elite Special Operations Force (SOF). Although rumours about the SOF had been circulating since the 1980s, there had been no official confirmation that such a highly capable force had been prepared, well in advance, to deal precisely with crises like this.
While the SQ117 hijack was resolved within minutes, the capabilities to execute such a smooth operation – from police negotiators to SOF – had taken years to hone. It was the culmination of EG’s decade of efforts to coordinate responses across different government agencies, and the outcome of rigorous contingency planning, regular exercises and sound, early operational analysis. 22 , 23 Just as critical was the dedication and professionalism of the public officers involved: from those who had to make critical decisions under pressure, to those who had put their own lives on the line to save the lives of fellow Singaporeans. 24
STANDING TOGETHER IN DIFFICULT TIMES
Counter-terrorism after 9/11 and the Jemaah Islamiyah Plot
The 9/11 attack in 2001 on the United States (US) dramatically altered the security landscape across the world. No longer was the greatest threat that of hijackers taking over particular aircraft or vessels as a political bargaining chip. Instead, entire airliners had been commandeered to kill thousands of innocent civilians without the opportunity for negotiation or recourse.
Although the 9/11 attacks occurred continents away, Singapore initiated
its crisis management apparatus as a precaution.
on the day of the attacks, EG was in session. Before dawn,
police and military forces were mobilising to bolster the security
of key installations across the country. Later, leave for all police
personnel would be cancelled and training activities reduced to
focus on security duties. This hardening of security also served to
reassure Singaporeans who were waking up to news of the catastrophic
attacks in the US.
Singaporeans were soon stunned by revelations that attacks had similarly been planned on local targets. In December 2001, ISD detained 13 members of the terrorist group which called itself Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional terrorist organisation with links to Al-Qaeda. 27 At the time of the arrests, members of this group had been planning a series of bomb attacks in Singapore that would have had catastrophic consequences.
No less significant than the threat to lives was the risk these plots posed to the fabric of Singapore’s multicultural society. Although Singapore had enjoyed harmonious race relations and social stability for decades, it did have to confront the violence and bloodshed of racial riots during the early years of nation-building.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the JI plots, Singapore’s Islamic teachers and leaders roundly condemned the hijacking of their faith to justify terrorism, 28 even as other leaders encouraged their communities to maintain their longstanding trust and confidence in their Muslim fellow citizens. Two of Singapore’s most respected Islamic teachers, Ustaz Ali Mohamed and Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan, led some Islamic scholars to counsel the JI detainees and to correct their misguided beliefs in an initiative later known as the Religious Rehabilitation Group. As a result, a number of former JI members were de-radicalised and allowed to return to their families and reintegrate with society.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
A crisis of a completely different nature descended upon Singapore in 2003. On 1 March, a little-understood virus, with symptoms resembling a bad case of flu, entered the country from Hong Kong, borne by a Singaporean infected by a doctor from China. 29 On 6 March, after Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH) reported three cases of atypical pneumonia, the Ministry of Health (MOH) directed hospitals to isolate the patients as a precautionary measure. 30 By 15 March, patients around the globe were succumbing to what the World Health Organization (WHO) began calling Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). By then, 82 people in Singapore had already become infected. 31
MOH set up a SARS Task Force immediately and issued infection- control directives to hospitals. TTSH was designated the SARS hospital to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading to other hospitals. The Infectious Disease Act was invoked to keep some 740 people who had been in contact with the infected in home quarantine.
More measures were implemented progressively: fever screening at border checkpoints, using thermal scanners successfully developed by ST Technologies from a Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) prototype; schools were closed. But the number of infections continued to rise; by 30 March, four Singaporeans had succumbed to the virus.
Despite the very real risks to themselves and their loved ones, Singapore’s doctors, nurses and medical workers pressed on with their duties, taking what precautions they could. Indeed, 21 healthcare workers in TTSH were infected in mid-March. “That affected morale very, very badly because suddenly, you had ICU (intensive care unit) nurses falling sick,” a doctor recounted, “And when you see your own colleague or people that you know falling sick, it’s really quite bad.” 32
Remarkably, doctors and nurses from other hospitals volunteered to reinforce colleagues at TTSH. Other hospitals took on additional medical cases diverted from TTSH. “We knew we were gambling with our lives,” recalled Dr Dessmon Tai, Director of ICU at TTSH. “Medicine being my vocation, I told myself that I could not turn my back on my responsibilities, however dangerous, especially in the thick of an unprecedented national crisis.” 33
Fears of catching the deadly contagion emptied streets of crowds; tourism numbers fell by 42%. 34 The economy suffered losses amounting to half a billion dollars a month. The assessment was that “the problem has gone beyond a medical one [and was] affecting the psychology of the people, affecting the economy and the society.” 35 On 2 April, EG was activated by a new Ministerial Committee on SARS to coordinate a “concerted government-wide” response. A $230-million package was introduced to tide the tourism and transportation sectors through the crisis, among many other measures.
The outbreak at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre on 19 April
was a watershed – for the first time, SARS had broken out of the
hospital system and entered the community.
With MOH’s resources
already stretched, EG activated the SAF, SCDF, SPF, the People’s
Association (PA) and other agencies. Within 48 hours, the SAF and
DSTA had set up a national contact tracing centre. PA mobilised
its network of volunteers – ordinary citizens – to help with contact
tracing, alongside officers from the National Environment Agency
(NEA), Criminal Investigation Department, Central Narcotics Bureau
and Ministry of Defence. SCDF officers offered to serve home
quarantine orders, “no questions asked”,
putting themselves at
risk of infection by doing so.
Within three days of shutting down the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, officers from various agencies, working with grassroots volunteers, managed to track down 831 tenants and 1,689 workers. Recalling the episode, Mrs Ow Foong Pheng, then Secretary of EG, remarked, “It’s the efficiency for which we are touted, and it worked.” 38
To prevent SARS spreading from the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre into the community through the vegetable supply chain, the Government monitored the health of hawkers across Singapore. Screening stations in all markets were set up by 650 grassroots volunteers within 36 hours. Later, NEA would initiate island-wide cleaning of all wet markets and hawker centres, along with compulsory temperature checks for some 55,000 stallholders. At the height of the SARS outbreak in May, NEA would also launch a national “Singapore OK” Campaign to keep hygiene standards high in public places, and to boost public confidence, countering the corrosive climate of fear caused by SARS.
To make up for disruptions to vegetable supplies due to the closure
of the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, Singapore Food Industries
stepped in to help, working with its overseas suppliers to increase
vegetable shipments. Anticipating a shortage of medical protection
gowns, officials at the International Enterprise (IE) Singapore
sought help from local garment manufacturers.
produced several million sets of protective gowns for use in hospitals
across the country.
From across different walks of life, many stepped up to help. Hotels such as Robertson Quay Hotel and Allson Hotel accommodated hospital staff on precautionary quarantine. 40 Several religious groups made rice dumplings for healthcare workers. Working in the background, EG continued to marshal wide-ranging government efforts: from containing SARS to dealing with the socio-economic fallout. Ordinary Singaporeans surged forward and stayed on their assigned tasks even in the face of certain risks to their lives, supporting public officers in containing the epidemic. Behind the scenes, laboratories such as NEA’s Environmental Health Institute, DSO National Laboratories and hospital clinical laboratories worked tirelessly with clinicians to diagnose, treat and contain the disease. DSO and the Genome Institute of Singapore helped conduct studies on the new virus.
On 4 May, the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre reopened. When no new cases were recorded for 20 days, WHO took Singapore off its “SARS list” on 30 May. Several countries also lifted travel advisories against Singapore; foreign arrivals rose for the first time since the outbreak. Of the 238 people infected with SARS, 33 had succumbed. 41 Dr Stephen Lambert, WHO’s representative in Singapore, was full of praise for “the comprehensive nature” of Singapore’s response. 42 The WHO concluded that “Singapore’s handling of the crisis [had been] exemplary.” 43
Weathering the Haze
While Singapore has always been, and will always be, exposed to effects from outside its borders, our capacity to weather the shocks and crises that come with being a small, open global economy has also broadened considerably.
When transboundary haze – caused by slash-and-burn plantation
farming in nearby Indonesia – reached hazardous levels in 2013, an
Inter-Agency Haze Task Force
set up in the 1990s and led by NEA
stood ready to deal with the emerging situation. Demonstrating
Singapore’s by now seasoned whole-of-government response,
a slew of measures quickly followed, after Mr Choi Shing Kwok,
Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Environment and Water
Resources (MEWR), convened a Crisis Management Group (Haze)
meeting to lead and coordinate government responses. MOH announced
subsidised treatment of haze-related ailments for needy patients at private clinics.
The SAF was activated, together with
grassroots volunteers mobilised by the People’s Association, to
distribute N95 masks to 200,000 vulnerable households across
Singapore. To avoid panic buying, MOH released an additional
3 million protective N95 masks to retailers.
Once again, the wider community reached out spontaneously to help those in need, supplementing government initiatives to support the members of society most vulnerable to distress from pollution. Three brothers gave out more than 400 N95 masks bought with their own funds to lower-income households in their Chai Chee neighbourhood. 46 Other business people rallied volunteers to donate and distribute over 7,000 masks to needy families. 47sup> Mr Prakash Nair, a Potong Pasir resident, offered an air-conditioned room in his flat as shelter from the haze and hosted two neighbours when the PSI was hazardous. The FairPrice supermarket chain donated $1 million, which was matched by the Government through the Community Development Councils to fund emergency packs containing food and N95 masks for the needy. 48 Seeking to resolve issues for the long term and to prevent future crises, Singapore’s authorities would continue to engage their regional counterparts through diplomacy, education, legislation and technical cooperation 49 in order to address the haze at source. Our leaders took decisive action to demonstrate our collective will to address the crisis. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, travelled personally to Jakarta to deliver a letter to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from Singapore’s Prime Minister, reiterating the seriousness of the haze situation and offering to assist Indonesia in dealing with the fires in Sumatra. Recognising Singapore’s national resolve and the extent of the crisis, President Yudhoyono apologised on 24 June for the pollution and deployed more resources towards putting out the fires in Sumatra. A shift in wind direction on 22 June helped dissipate the haze, improving the situation for the year.
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT PROGRAMME
Race and religion are highly emotive issues which if not managed properly can fuel social unrest. The good communal relations among Singaporeans, built up over the years, need to be actively maintained.
The Community Engagement Programme (CEP), launched in 2006 and led by the Ministry of Home Affairs, is a long-term effort to strengthen intercommunal ties and put in place response plans to help deal with potential communal tension after an incident or crisis that could affect our social cohesion. It cultivates communal understanding and emergency preparedness in five domains: grassroots organisations, education institutions, religious and cultural groups, businesses and unions, and the media and academia. Designed to be a ground-up initiative, the efforts of each domain cluster is facilitated and supported by a public agency.
The CEP strategy is to develop practical, ground capability that can mobilise and intervene quickly in difficult times. Within each domain, community leaders are trained, prepared and develop networks of trust to help manage and mitigate the effects of a crisis. The aim is both to strengthen social cohesion and to build up resilience in the wider community.
Resilience of a people must mean Singaporeans themselves taking the initiative to deal with the haze and acting with calm and purpose... Whether it is the haze this time, some mutated virus or terrorist act the next, we need to respond to threats together, whether as a Government, employers, unions, NGOs
or the community.
– Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence
COHESION AND TOUGHNESS
Singapore’s early decisions to invest in specialist capabilities to deal with a wide range of crises and contingencies have been underpinned by a keen awareness that it is inherently vulnerable and susceptible to external sources of disruption. Equally important: a culture of discipline and wariness against complacency – constant drills and regular exercises which have helped build up a sense of familiarity in dealing with the unexpected, with the opportunity to refine measures and strategies ahead of an actual crisis.
With EG, Singapore had anticipated the importance of coordination among multiple agencies during emergencies long before the “whole-of-government” concept gained currency. All of these have contributed to quick and confident decision-making as well as smooth operations during difficult times.
These capabilities would have been for naught without the dedication
and professionalism of public officers, who have been preparedto put themselves in harm’s way for the public good,
or to work beyond the call of duty. Ambulance driver
Mr Koo Koon Kai, for example, explained why he continued
to rush victim after victim to hospitals despite
his fatigue after the Spyros tanker exploded in Jurong
Shipyard in 1978. “This is not just work. There are
human lives at stake.”
NEA vector control officer Ms
Halimah Bte Abdullah learnt Mandarin in 2012 at her
own expense so that she could carry out her duties
among the non-English speaking in the community – an invaluable
skill when the dengue epidemic hit Singapore in 2013.
The uncovering of the JI plot tested Singapore’s multiracial society, but the community came away strengthened as a result. The readiness of Islamic teachers to reach out to those misguided by radicalism, correct their theological misunderstanding, and reintegrate them into society, proved more compelling than any government effort could.
The severe haze in 2013 and other episodes have shown that a significant number of Singaporeans readily help those in need, and look out for the disadvantaged, on their own initiative. These self-directed initiatives complement government efforts, allowing the whole community to pull through and recover from crisis.
The need for such community instincts has become more important. The big issues that threaten us cut across borders and boundaries, and are seldom easy to predict. With globalisation and technology compressing time and space, we can expect crises and disruptions to become ever more rapid, acute and complex. But the sense of cohesion and toughness of mind and spirit among our people, ready to lend a hand in times of need, will afford Singapore a far greater responsiveness than any government coordinated response alone can provide. This whole-of-nation resilience will stand the nation in good stead, whatever the crisis or challenge to come.