Soldiers and police face 'terrorists' at Changi Airport's MRT station during a counter-terror drill held in October. Photo: SG govt
Soldiers and police face 'terrorists' at Changi Airport's MRT station during a counter-terror drill held in October. Photo: SG govt

Singapore has been a safe harbor – to date – in the volatile Southeast Asian region, which has been plagued by intermittent terrorist attacks. But Lion City has been on high alert and a growing number of its citizens fear that the wealthy city-state may soon be targeted by extremists.

Major nations in the ASEAN region such as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, have seen hefty casualties from attacks either by homegrown extremists or agitators overseas. And Singapore may cease to be an exception if zealots from Islamic State infiltrate deeper in this part of the world.

The toll of an attack could be significant. A successful terrorist strike on the country’s financial center or container port, one of the world’s busiest, would be economically destabilizing to both Singapore and the region, and would likely leave a deep psychological impact on local people. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said a terror attack is inevitable, as noted in an Asia Times report early this month.

If carried out in the name of Islam, suspicion and enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims would complicate community relations in the multi-ethnic state.

Singaporean Army units are sent in to hunt down and neutralize terrorists in a drill at the city’s airport. Photo: Singapore government.

The Singaporean Army has had a slew of drills in recent years to prepare for any such eventualities.

One was Highcrest, an exercise at sea in October that tested how security agencies could coordinate responses to thwart possible attacks, like stopping terrorists in speedboats with illegal arms from reaching Singapore’s shores. The drill was corroborated by a civilian who alerts authorities through the SGSecure app.

Another was Northstar, an exercise held in the wee hours of a morning in the same month at Changi Airport, which examined multi-agency responses to a shooting rampage by multiple gunmen and a suicide bomb attack at the air hub. Other scenarios included stabbings and vehicle attacks.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his wife Ho Ching, and his deputy Teo Chee Hean inspect the drill held at Changi Airport in October. Photo: Singapore government.

“The airport is a high-profile target; it is plausible that something like this could happen in Singapore one day. If it does happen, we must be sure that our responders are ready for it,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

“The two exercises were held over the same period to see how attacks on land can impact (on) operations at sea, and vice versa,” Singapore’s Defence Ministry said in a statement at that time.

Exercise Northstar had two phases. The first was at Changi Airport and the second tested responses to car-bombings in an urban setting.

A simulated car bomb scenario. Photo: Singapore govt

Another comprehensive preparedness drill is being planned to involve police and soldiers acting as attackers and selected members of the public being mobilized for a highly-simulated exercise.

Singaporean authorities also have much to do to hone the nation’s ability to deal with the aftermath of an attack for things such as disaster victim identification.

One of the most pressing tasks in the wake of an attack would be the accurate identification of perpetrators and victims for the purpose of further investigation, as well as closure for immediate family members.

One of the ways that identification can be done is through the matching of dental records, carried out by a forensic odontologist. This area of medicine is so exclusive that the government has admitted that there are only two military doctors in Singapore who can do that work.