Lessons From the Recent London Blasts

The recent multiple bombing of three of London’s Underground stations and a double-decker bus by politically-inspired extremists shocked the world. It was especially tragic for the British as it came so soon after their joy of having their capital declared the venue for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games by the International Olympic Council meeting in Singapore. This carnage, which resulted in more than 50 people dead and 700 injured, both British and foreigners, were roundly condemned world-wide, including Singapore. All hope that its perpetrators will be brought to justice, before they can do more harm to others.

Sadly acts of terrorism are increasing and they cut across national and racial boundaries. They had already inflicted mayhem and fear in America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Even with the best security measures and vigilance in place, they can still happen anywhere, especially as these terrorists are fanatics and are not afraid to die for their cause. All that any country and its people can do is to make it very difficult for them to succeed so that they might be deterred from carrying out their inhuman deeds there.While the world empathise with the British misfortune and share their misery, the British government and Londoners have won the admiration of one and all for the efficient and orderly way in which they handled this disaster, for their stoicism and, above all, for not allowing these wanton acts of destruction to hamper their daily routine and change their way of life.

Impressed by the praiseworthy response of Londoners to this catastrophe, our Minister for Defence, Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean, has called upon Singaporeans to emulate their sterling quality in the face of adversity. The minister’s statement also brings to mind the exemplary public behaviour of the Kobe residents when a severe earthquake in 1995 devastated many parts of this lovely Japanese city, resulting in large scale damage and loss of lives there.

Can Singapore and its people match the British and the Japanese spirit if a national calamity due to terrorism should befall us? First and foremost, I am confident that our Government’s emergency plans will be activated efficiently and expeditiously, as much meticulous planning has already gone into them, but  how Singaporeans would react immediately in such an emergency is, in my view, debatable. Judging from our past national crises, Singaporeans tended to overreact initially, instead of behaving more rationally like the Japanese and the Londoners did when adversity struck. This is, perhaps, attributable to our traditional Asian upbringing, which values family ties and kinship more than one’s civic responsibilities. For example, to our family and relatives we can be loyal and helpful beyond belief but, to a stranger, we can appear uncaring, selfish or even antisocial as we owe no obligation to extend civility to him or her. This is evident from the way some of us drive, jump queues, spit in public, urinate in lifts, discarding objects from high-rise apartments, misusing mobile phone in public and increased littering in public places, to name the more obvious shortcomings.

Another common Singaporean trait is that we can be easily swayed by others. This means that, in an emergency, panicky or disorderly behaviour can often be ignited simply by the selfish acts of a few unthinking individuals and this can worsen an already difficult situation. Fortunately, the majority of Singaporeans are now more civil with better education and wider contact with the outside world. Turning to the Government role, while it has effective emergency plans and has communicated these to the public in various forms from time to time, these may not be firmly etched in people’s minds after some lapse of time.It would be most useful for our Government and community leaders to reaffirm the community responsibilities in an emergency, through the most appropriate means at their disposal, including but not limiting to the media, community centres, educational institutions, other relevant public bodies and tourism organisations. A simply written booklet in all four official languages, with creative and succinct graphic illustrations of the Dos and Don’ts in an emergency, should be sent to all households in order to heighten public awareness of the danger of terrorism and how they can help ensure their own safety and assist security forces to better cope with such a situation.

I believe that, with the Government, the public and the other sectors of the community working together as a cohesive team like they did during the SARS episode, we will rise to the occasion, as in Britain, if a major terrorist attack materialises here.

Lam Pin Foo

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