Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Terror threats during Singapore's 2011 General Election

Already dangerous on ordinary days, the terror threat to Singapore will get more acute as the General Elections (GE) draws near.

A successful attack not only rewards terror elements with bragging rights for hitting a prize target. A strategically timed attack may also upset voting patterns and result in a freak election result in the Lion City.

The attacks on 11 March 2004 against Spanish commuter trains, executed three days before Spain’s GE, resulted in a fierce backlash against the party in power. A government was ousted and Spanish warfighters pulled out of Iraq. For the fraction of the weight in explosives used to bomb Libya, shadowy terror elements achieved regime change and the removal of Spanish forces from a theatre of combat.

Seen in a Singaporean context, a standalone terror attack could result in robust support for the Republic’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) as voters flock to safety during a crisis. In past years, Singaporean voters have tended to swing toward the stability and assurance of the PAP’s governance during economic crisis and emergencies such as the SARS crisis.

Past is prologue: The Confrontation urban bombings
Residents of pre-independent Singapore endured a sustained urban bombing campaign after Indonesia waged an undeclared war, a Confrontation (konfrontasi) with Malaysia, which Singapore had merged with.

A check with The Straits Times newspaper records show that between September 1963 and May 1965, 42 bombs exploded in Singapore. These killed seven Singaporeans and injured more than 50 people. The Confrontation bombing campaign was the longest urban bombing campaign waged against Singapore.

Though the security situation was described as tense, the city state survived the bombings under the guidance of Malaysian leaders (Singapore was then part of Malaysia) and the security afforded by the Malaysian Armed Forces and the British military presence.

Urban bombings also failed to unsettle Singaporeans in post-independent Singapore.

Of these events, perhaps the best known is the attack on the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom in January 1974 – an incident which led to the hijacking of the passenger ferry, Laju.

The 1980s saw five bombings against commercial buildings in Orchard Road and the financial district. These include the attacks in March 1985 and December 1986 on Faber House, where the Embassy of Israel was located, the consecutive bombings in November 1987 on AIA building and Shell Tower and one more explosion at that bomb magnet, the AIA building, in December 1987.

Attacks by improvised explosive devices with low explosive energy yield did not inflict any casualties and damage to infrastructure was light. The public relations impact was therefore comparatively weak. Indeed, few Singaporeans remember these bombings apart from security agents who track such security incidents.

It is important to note that all of the city state’s past experiences with terror bombings were with standalone attacks waged with small IEDs. These were weapons of limited effect. Absent were coordinated strikes at multiple targets, aimed at driving home a political agenda by exploiting the shock effect from a high bodycount.

General Election 2011 - Never say never
In the current security environment, a well planned terror attack against Singapore timed to coincide with a GE could tell a different, more tragic story. If agenda-based terrorism replaces sporadic standalone attacks, the net effect on the public’s psyche may swing support away from the ruling PAP.

The PAP’s case is not helped by the poor general knowledge that many voters have of Singapore’s role in international peace support operations, particularly the operational deployments by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

To be sure, a successful attack should not come as a total shock as security planners have long warned that it is only a matter of time before terror elements get lucky. There have been near misses and close calls. Very public security gaffes have been reported - the escape of terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari and vandalism at the MRT train depot being celebrated examples - but no one knows the extent of surveillance carried out in Singapore as a precursor to an attack.

If agenda-based terrorism forces voters to choose between living in a peaceful Singapore and supporting SAF missions in faraway lands like Afghanistan, I bet Singaporeans will pick the former.

The average Singaporean does not understand nor appreciate why Singaporean warfighters need to risk their lives in foreign places. Even newshounds will find that the SAF’s overseas missions are sparsely reported outside of official Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) media channels. These pop up in the form of brief news releases whenever some big shot makes a surprise visit.

The deployments are also showcased in documentaries that have limited appeal outside the fraternity of defence buffs. Step outside this circle of enthusiasts and few people care or know about the SAF. Indeed, the single picture of the maid carrying a field pack for a recruit is better known among Singaporeans than any of MINDEF’s recent documentaries.

Such ignorance is self-inflicted as MINDEF/SAF maintains tight control over the angling of defence themed stories and has a publicity plan that rolls out such-and-such an event at such-and-such an opportune time. MINDEF/SAF has yet to learn that a little more trust with the mainstream media and netizens would pay dividends over time as news gatherers pay back that trust with interest.

With the GE round the corner, it is unrealistic to expect Singaporeans to be overnight experts on the intricacies of coalition taskings or the necessity for SAF involvement in peace support operations. Our short term defence lies with the SAF and Home Team forces tasked with Singapore’s security. We hope they are up to the mark.

Hearts and minds
Ignorant or frightened voters are Singapore’s fragile underbelly. Terror elements know this. The Madrid bombings successfully executed regime change in Spain on a strategic scale with far less firepower than NATO forces have thus far expended to achieve the same goal in Libya.

Singapore's crackdown against terror suspects in the city state and staunch support for United States global war against extremists is likely to place the island high on the hit list of terror elements.

Even more alarming is the likelihood that a GE attack will fracture Singapore's bickering political entities. The ruling party’s avowed goal to demolish the opposition will make it all the more difficult for Singaporeans of different political leanings to close ranks in a post-attack scenario, when national unity is a natural balm.

One side does not trust all the others. The demolition derby will hurt commitment to defence (C2D) when political leaders have trashed and lambasted one another so viciously that rapproachment is unlikely. During an election campaign, political schadenfreude and C2D are inversely linked. The net result is an erosion in C2D as political entities hammer one another, especially in situations where the lines between political party and the State are blurred.

Indeed, if the PAP runs its campaign by its playbook, we can expect to see its political opponents come under even closer scrutiny - to phrase it politely - as polling day approaches.

Mind you, mopping up operations could continue way after the GE results are announced, further damaging opportunities for political reconciliation.

Such friction works to the advantage of unfriendly elements as a successful attack is likely to trigger a vicious blame game and finger pointing for any security failures, real or perceived.

It is therefore regrettable to see character mauling distract voters from pressing issues of the day (such as accountability) as fallout from such methods will only fuel mistrust and animosity among political opponents. Tactics that lack finesse also run the risk of losing support from Singaporeans who have traditionally supported the party with convincing national deliverables and a sensible approach towards defence planning.

In a perfect storm, character bashing may end up bolstering the resolve of the opposing camp and stirring misgivings among one's own supporters. (Mind you, political assassinations may yield results completely different from what the perpetrators imagined. Just ask the Filipinos about Benigno Aquino and what his death led to.)

Depending on the scale of the terror attack, a mounting death toll may exact a price from politicians voted in by Singaporeans to ensure more good years. The backlash from a failure to secure our future together could therefore result in the freak election result scenario so feared by PAP stalwarts. This scenario would weaken Singapore's international and regional standing as the city state's political system has not been built around a dual party system.

So will Singaporeans continue staying together, moving ahead if voters vent their post-attack fury on the PAP?

This is a weakness astute terror minds may be tempted to exploit - if not during GE 2011 then perhaps during a future election as the trophy target may prove too tempting to overlook.

And if Singaporeans fail to condemn the political circus, we do not have to wait for a luck strike by terrorists to tear apart this accidental nation. We may end up doing it ourselves.

1 comment:

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

I think it's more likely that in the Singapore context, a successful terror attack would drive voters towards the PAP. Essentially a flight to safety.

In the case of Spain, those who supported the US invasion of Iraq like to characterise the defeat of the pro-Bush Spanish PM as an act of appeasement on the part of the Spanish electorate. Other observers ascribe the defeat of PM Aznar to his inital attempt to cover up evidence of al-qaeda involement and blame the bombings instead on a domestic separatist movement for political advantage.

In the Singapore context, the electorate would only turn against the incumbent government if an incident occurred and the PAP tried first to blame it on gay activists or marxist conspirators but it then emerged before polling day that the perpetrators were associates of Mas Selamat.