Armed Hostilities

Singapore Armed Forces in Counter-Terrorism Efforts


The floodgates of heaven remained open amidst the ominous gray sky as Lo Hwei Yen’s coffin was carried out of church. Her heartrending death in Mumbai at the bloodied hands of terrorists after having been taken hostage had led to a national outpouring of grief over Singapore’s first victim of terrorism. This tragedy can only serve to remind all Singaporeans that terrorism transcends all boundaries, and the need to remain vigilant has never been more crucial than at present, in the wake of resurgent terrorists.

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Flipping through the pages of history, we are presented with the ever-changing facet of warfare, from one that was fought with such primitive tools as human fists and wooden clubs to the present era of intricate machines and superior technology. Similarly, the threats that challenge countries to take up arms against have evolved drastically. Beyond the many ‘traditional’ sources of disagreement and war pertaining to conflicts over land, power, resources and even religions, one of the most malignant of threats that continues to plague countries today, even those with the most advanced of technologies and the most capable of security forces, is the threat of terrorism.

Although Singapore has not faced any imminent dangers posed by the persistent threat of terrorism, recent developments have revealed the daunting truth that we are not immune to the dangers that lurk beyond our shores. Miss Lo Hwei Yen became the first Singaporean to fall victim to terrorists, while other Singaporeans continue to live in trauma after surviving terrorist attacks in foreign countries. These fortunate Singaporeans may have escaped physically unscathed, but without entrenched emotional scares that may never heal. Thus, we must face up to this new reality – the rise of terrorism.

The rise of terrorism

The definition of terrorism is “the act of intending to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for an ideological goal (as opposed to a lone attack), and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatant”.1 Terrorists had thrown the gauntlet down on modern civilization in the most resounding manner by hijacking America aircrafts which were, under their abominable intentions, maneuvered to strike strategic locations in the United State of America. The audacity of the terrorists, more so the uncanny confidence with which their heinous acts were carried out following intensive and immaculate planning stunned the world, compounded by the extensive damage inflicted and the astronomical number of lives lost. These terrorists had then succeeded in crippling the world’s powerhouse, and suddenly we could not be blissful to the threat of terrorism anymore.

Since that fateful day when terrorism presented itself as a threat to be reckoned with, many countries have been grappling to eradicate this threat with different degrees of success. While some have consistently thwarted the many ambitious and dubious plans of terrorists to stage an encore of the 911 attacks, others continue to be at the receiving end of these terrorists’ assuaging of assaults.

What viewpoint does singapore have for regional security?

Taken as a whole, the Asian-Pacific security remains comparatively stable despite the numerous uncertainties the region continues to face.2 Alongside the mounting interest in ensuring that the existing economic cooperation is improved, the region has not witnessed any major wars or conflicts. The economic cooperation is aimed at producing integrated markets in the region (East Asia). This however could be jeopardized by the threat of terrorism and tensions in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. Regionally, in the Northeast Asia, the state of affairs in the Korean Peninsula causes a lot of concern especially following its decisions on reactivate its nuclear programme, end its collaboration and cooperation with the IAE (the International Atomic Energy Agency) and consequent withdrawal from the NPT (the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty).

The United States, China and Japan have exhibited a stable triangular relationship which has continued to provide a strong basis for stability as well as economic cooperation in the region. Given that this fosters economic development in the region, economic performance of the mentioned countries and in particular Japan and China would have a more direct bearing on the economic prosperity and political stability in the region. In spite of Timor Leste’s recently gaining independence, (on May 2002) there is enormous reconstruction that needs to be done hence the security in the region is imperative for guaranteeing this reconstruction. The international community must extend their assistance to provide this much needed security to ensure stability and viability.

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The ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) remains the most significant multilateral medium for carrying out discussions and exchanging ideas that relate to regional security issues. The ARF has played a major role in the recent years which has greatly augmented the confidence and trust amongst the member states. In addition it has also helped in developing mutual norms of behavior among the member states. Notwithstanding its great role towards moving in the direction of Preventive Diplomacy (PD) and subsequently undertaking to discuss the implications of terrorism as well as the practical ways of countering terrorism, there is need for the ARF to keep addressing the existent traditional threats regional security.

General evaluation of the regional co-operation surrounding Singapore

As already mentioned above, the regional security co-operation of the Asian-Pacific is comparatively stable and hence the co-operation is relatively in good progress. This co-operation is exhibited through the exchange visits, security dialogues and joint training among other bilateral collaborations that have grown in depth and scope. Countering terrorism has also played a major role as a galvanizing factor giving extra impulsion to regional co-operation. In effect, the threat of terrorism has been concretely addressed through several measures that ASEAN has taken since 2001. In a summit held on 7th November 2001 ASEAN leaders declared a joint action to counter-terrorism. There are also close efforts by ASEAN foreign ministers and other key players to ensure that an advance is made on the practical sections of cooperation.3 Substantial implementation has been done within the ARF by taking measures that would build up more confidence in the member states. Such measures include inter-session meetings workshops on various issues to counter-terrorism. Singapore strongly believes that in order for the ASEAN and ARF countries to succeed in their effort to counter terrorism in the region there should be timely exchange of information intermarried with a momentous practical cooperation.

How does Singapore approach the issue of terrorism and contribute to regional security?

Peace and prosperity are two valuable elements that Singapore as a small country struggles for. Economic well being and security are therefore imperative to the prosperity of Singapore especially considering the global integration of this century. Singapore has approached this by establishing affable relationship with other countries and work with friendly countries to encourage dialogue building of confidence with each other and boost co-operation on bilateral as well as multilateral basis.4 Multilateral defence and military dialogue together with cooperation are very important when maritime security and counter-terrorism are put into consideration. Besides, disaster relief, human assistance, and transnational ties still have great room for furtherance. Incorporation of military involvement into these issues of dialogue and co-operation can help develop a mutual relationship that is important in building up trust and enhancing confidence among the regional armed forces thereby making it possible for counter-terrorism efforts to be successful.

Singapore’s counter-terrorism efforts

Counter-terrorism in Singapore entails several measures employed in Singapore which are used in detecting and preventing terrorism. Besides, these measures help to minimize damage from such terrorist acts in case they occur. Encompassing these measures are all levels of the society, such as defence, the internal security, the sector concerned with security of the border and infrastructure, civil defence, the division responsible for medical readiness and then that which is responsible for ensuring psychological preparedness.5

Terrorism is not a new thing in Singapore. The very first incident started way back from 1965, on 10th March, the MacDonald House was bombed by members of the Korps Komando Operasi Angkatan Laut (KKO) (Indonesia Marine Corp) who are against the formation of Malaysia, killing 3 and at least injuring 33 people at that time.6 Thus, to be always ready and prepare, the concept of total defence is being introduced by the government in 1984 to deal with Singapore’s defence and national security matters. The 5 aspects of Total Defence7 are: 1) Military Defence 2) Civil Defence 3) Economic Defence 4) Social Defence 5) Psychological Defence. The 5 aspects addresses the concept that it is not the sole responsibility of Singapore’s regular armed forces but everyone responsibilities for the security threats that are lining Singapore.

The first aspect of Total Defence clearly states that Military defence is something that cannot be missing in the part to deter and prevent security threats facing Singapore. All along in the recent years, the Singapore Police Force had been in charged of enhancing the security in Singapore. But with the largest number of workforce in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), it is also by its nature to play a very important part in the military defence of Singapore.

Involvement of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)

The SAF consists of the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). Their mission is to enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor.8 It is in line with Ministry of Defence’s defence policy to ensure that Singapore enjoys peace and stability, and that Singapore’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are protected. Moreover, it also contributes to the peace and security with nearby regional countries by keeping up the good relationships with these countries. As mentioned by Chief of Army, Major General, Neo Kian Hong in the November 2008 issue of the Annual Defence Journal when interviewed, that any threat to the security of our neighbor will invariably affect Singapore’s own security as well. Thus Singapore will continue to work closely with their neighboring defense partners9

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SAF is trained and built up for conventional capabilities. Over the years, it had evolved to undertake a full spectrum of operations, ranging from civil emergencies, homeland security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peace support operations to a full force spectrum of operations.

The organisation has endeavored to encourage regional military co-operation by developing a broad range of bilateral relations with several armed forces in the region. Such interactions incorporate joint military training and exercises, cross-attendance of military courses among other programmes like professional seminars. The involvement of the SAF is therefore significant in enhancing its interoperability with other friendly armed forces and bringing terrorism to the check. To provide a basis for the involvement of the SAF are the following key participatory achievements made by the SAF:

  • In 2002, SAF was involved in a number of multilateral exercises. Part of these exercises included an exercise comprising the Thai Armed Forces, the US Armed Forces and the SAF (in Exercise Cobra Squad) in May 2002.
  • In the same year, 2002 SAF hosted the third ASEAN Chief of Armies Multilateral Meeting (ACAMM). The theme of the meeting was in line with providing the ASEAN Army Chiefs with an opportunity for discussing issues concerned with counter-terrorism and other security threats
  • It played a participatory role in several 10multilateral exercises in 2003. exercises such as the Exercise Flying Fish which integrated all five countries
  • Subsequent to the success of the 2002 conference, the SAF arranged for another conference dubbed the C4I Conference [i.e. Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence] this conference enabled experts fro around the world to share views and ideas that would make it easier to combat terrorism in a collaborative manner
  • Singapore has constantly supported the peacekeeping efforts of the UN. Singapore deployed peacekeepers to the formerly East Timor (now Timor-Leste)
  • Singapore has also supported the reconstruction efforts of Iraq by sending a Landing Ship Tank and a transport aircraft to the Middle East

In 2005, the Singapore Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies identified two main security concerns.11 One of the two was the threat perception of the defence sector. One point clearly brought out here was that the mechanisms applied in threat perception and combating terrorism should not by any means undermine efforts to bring peace within the region by destabilizing other nations. Thus it would do much to collaborate only with friendly countries that are ready to cooperate in fighting the terrorism and threats of terrorism. Singapore uses specialized military, civil defence units and law enforcement to fight against terrorism. The civil defence units include the Singapore Special Operations force, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosive Defence Group and the Special operations Command.

The Singapore Armed Forces received another backing from the policy makers in May 2007 when the parliament of the land passed an act in amendment to the SAF Act which gave more powers to SAF. Through this, a group of about 2,000 SAF personnel are selected and trained to carry out security operations in selected areas. They are given mandate to search and arrest or detain and use reasonable force to combat terror suspects.

In the advent of 2006, Singapore carried out an exercise which entailed simulated terrorist bomb attack on 4 mobile response team stations and a bus interchange. The exercise was aimed at creating awareness to the twenty-two involved agencies plus the two thousand emergency personnel incorporated into the exercise. Incorporating psychological preparedness of the public is an imperative ingredient of fighting terrorism and thus, it was one of the objectives of the Exercise NORTHSTAR V mentioned. High levels of coordination of the pertinent agencies as well as effectiveness and readiness are equally important in the cases of civil emergency.

Nevertheless, opponents of involvement of the Singapore Armed Forces argue12 that military involvement would lead to obsessive enforcement of rules. The involvement of SAF in the counter-terrorism efforts is however welcomed and should be backed as it is in line with the efforts bringing peace and tranquility in the region and foster economic development, security and stability. The major challenges Singapore faces in the fight against terrorism are budgetary constraints, transformation of SAF in terms of modernization, the need for more superior doctrinal and organizational innovational, the need to develop novel strategies in military thinking in order to appropriately respond to the emerging non-conventional challenges like complex emergencies and terrorism. Despite all that, it is the challenges that have necessitated the collective involvement between the SAF and other stakeholders to come up with ways to counter the same problems for common good economically, socially, politically and psychologically.


  1. Tim, Huxley. 2004. “Singapore and the Revolution in Military Affairs: The Perspective of an Outsider”, POINTER Vol. 30 No. 1.
  2. Tan, Andrew. 2003. “Military Change in a Transforming Security Landscape: Implications for the SAF”, POINTER Vol. 29 No. 3, pp 30-33.
  3. BG Jimmy Khoo. 2003. “Eight Big Reasons Why Transformation Is Not For The SAF”, POINTER Vol. 29 No. 4, pp 6-15.
  4. Cher, Benjamin T. W. 2003. “A Learning Army – Translating Theory into Practice”, POINTER Vol. 29 No. 1.
  5. Dawen, Choy et al, 2003. “Producing the Capacity to Transform: Defence Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century”, POINTER Monograph No.1, pp 41-50.
  6. Record, Jeffery. 2003. “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism”. The Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, pp 22-52.
  7. MINDEF: About MINDEF: Defence Policy: 2008.


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Terrorism.

Andrew, Tan. 2003. “Military Change in a Transforming Security Landscape”.

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Andrew, Tan. 2003. “Military Change in a Transforming Security Landscape”.

Huxley, Tim. 2004. “Singapore and the Revolution in Military Affairs”.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Counter-terrorism in Sinapore.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. MacDonald House Bombing.

Total Defence. About Total Defence.

MINDEF: About us – Mission, [Online]. (2008).

Record, Jeffery. 2003. “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism”. The Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, pp. 22-52.

Huxley, Tim. 2004. “Singapore and the Revolution in Military Affairs”.

Jeffrey Record, 2005. “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism”.

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