Issue 115 | Oct-Dec 2018

Slaying the Black Swan, SG Style

Mr Raj Joshua Thomas (Arts and Social Sciences ’04, Law ’12)

The SGSecure national movement is Singapore’s community response to the threat of terror. It aims to sensitise, train, and mobilise our community to prevent and deal with a terror attack.

Mr Raj Joshua Thomas is President of the Security Association Singapore and CEO of full-service security firm TwinRock. He regularly advises clients on security risk mitigation measures, including counter-terror procedures and protocols.

Economist and statistician Nicholas Taleb, in his lauded The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable defined a “black swan” as a high-profile, hard-to-predict event that has an effect of large magnitude and consequence in history. While Taleb’s black swan theory is concerned with events in the financial world, his discourse on the subject may also be applied to understand the effect of terrorist attacks on societies, and how countries should craft their counter-terrorism strategies.  

Taleb identifies three characteristics of a black swan:

  1. The event is outside of the realm of regular expectations;
  2. The event carries an extreme impact;
  3. In spite of its outlier status, speculation arises post the event, to try to explain it, and it is retrospectively postulated to have been predictable. 

A black swan essentially changes the complexion of a society in an unexpected manner, shaped by the emotions stirred up by such a disruptive event. 

In the wake of an increase in the incidence of acts of terror, many countries have published national counter-terrorism strategies that seek to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks. A quick survey of the national strategies of other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Denmark, shows an emphatic effort in preventing a terrorist attack, through identifying and dealing with potential terrorists, supporting operations against terror groups overseas and beefing up the emergency services. 


A 360 Approach

Singapore’s counter-terrorism strategy includes the above, but has also incorporated a concerted effort to engage the public and enlist their participation in the effort. This is the SGSecure movement. The Singapore approach — unique among that undertaken in most countries — aims to negate the factors that would have made a terrorist attack a black swan, reducing its effect on the history of our nation and the way of life in Singapore.

First, the paradigm of how the Singapore government regards a terrorist attack is encapsulated in the SGSecure slogan: “Not If, but When” — that in spite of robust vigilance and prevention efforts, a terror attack in Singapore is inevitable. This seeks to remove the sting of shock should such an event occur in Singapore, allowing Singaporeans to fall back on the responses stipulated in the SGSecure schema. Indeed, a 2016 Sunday Times poll found that three out of four Singaporeans believed that a terror strike in Singapore was “only a matter of time”. Instead of relying on just trying to predict and prevent terror attacks, the acceptance that it is only a matter of time before it happens builds a sense of urgency to prepare against the inevitable, akin in tenor to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s comments that being prepared for terror attacks is “part and parcel of living in a big city”. 

Second, SGSecure aims to reduce the impact that a terrorist attack has on Singaporeans’ way of life. It holds: “The intent of terrorists is to inject fear and weaken the psychological resilience and social fabric of our society. This is why the cornerstone of our counter-terrorism strategy must be the strengthening of community vigilance, cohesion and resilience”. In this regard, the SGSecure ‘Stay Strong’ pillar prescribes how one should react during a terror attack, specifically, the application of the Run, Hide, Tell sequence, and improvised first aid (Press, Tie, Tell). Further to the immediate physical reaction to an attack, SGSecure also advises on how to cope during a crisis. For example, it prescribes that persons could turn to family and friends for comfort, and should resume their daily routine and keep themselves occupied. It further cautions against avoiding people of other races, or religions. The objective of this portion of SGSecure is to blunt the impact of a terror attack and help Singaporeans revert to their usual way of life as soon as possible.

Third, SGSecure specifically provides for how Singaporeans should react in the aftermath of an attack, setting out, inter alia, steps to prevent speculation as to the details and motivations for the attack, that may fuel suspicion and discord. This is intended to ameliorate the possibility of finger-pointing at any particular group. SGSecure advises not to spread rumours, or to post or share videos that can cause worry and panic, and instead, to keep up with and rely on advisories and information from official sources. In this regard, SGSecure seeks to control the narrative after an attack. 

The 911 attacks is the most obvious black swan in recent times. Among other things, it has had significant impact on relations between communities within societies. A comprehensive 2017 Pew Research Centre Study on Muslims and Islam in the US and Europe underscores the growing distrust of minority communities. For example, the study showed that 41% of US adults felt that “Islam encourages violence more than other faiths” while 35% found that there was a “great deal or fair amount of extremism among US Muslims”. Half of the respondents felt that “Islam is not part of mainstream society”. In the UK, which has faced several attacks by Islamist extremists, over a quarter of respondents said they had an “unfavourable view of Muslims”. On their part, migrant communities say they face increasing discrimination. 50% of Muslims in the US felt that “In recent years, being Muslim in the US has gotten more difficult” while a significant 75% said that there was “a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the US”. 

A House United

Such a situation where one community becomes targeted and distrusted after a black swan is simply untenable in Singapore. Our society is based on mutual respect for our constituent communities and this fine balance has brought us internal stability and is an integral aspect of our way of life. The safeguarding against a terror attack becoming a black swan must therefore begin even before a terror attack occurs. SGSecure provides for this, by encouraging Singaporeans to be part of a cohesive community by deepening mutual trust and respect through learning about different cultures, races and religious practices, and building links and friendships with neighbours regardless of creed. 

This approach is markedly different from that taken in, for example, Denmark, which in May this year passed a new law requiring children in ghettoes, who are mostly Muslim, to attend mandatory training in “Danish values”. This includes being taught about Danish culture and language, and the celebration of Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. This new legislation has been criticised as targeting Muslims, and seeking to fight extremism by countering it with Danish values. Far from preparing Danish society from recovering from a terror attack, this type of policy drives wedges between communities and would invariably lead to more distrust and discrimination after an attack. Policies like these increase the likelihood that a terror attack would have a black swan effect. 

Nonetheless, while the SGSecure movement has been well-conceived, it is an ongoing effort. A 2017 Sunday Times poll found that with four in five Singaporeans were unprepared for a terrorist attack. Another survey by The Straits Times in 2016 found that social cohesion needed to be worked on, with half of the respondents stating that they were aware that there was a significant number of Singaporeans who were at least mildly racist. As such, there is yet work to be done to condition Singapore society to withstand against a terror attack changing our way of life. But, as succinctly put by Minister for Home Affairs Mr K Shanmugam (Law ’84), “you can’t just wave a magic wand and say it’s done”. While SGSecure may not be a magic wand, it is an integral tool that equips Singaporeans to slay the black swan, by preparing — socially, psychologically and skills-wise — for any act of terror on our soil. 
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