Commentary: Could It Happen in Singapore?

By Michael Shari

On Oct. 29, more than 1,200 people filed into the Singapore Cricket Club to mourn eight members of the club's rugby team killed in the terrorist attack in Bali earlier in the month. Gathering on the cricket green behind the British Colonial clubhouse, the crowd chuckled warmly at the captain's accounts of his teammates' merriment in their final hours at the beach resort, then wept bitterly as the vicar of the local Anglican church led them in prayer.

Not so long ago, Singapore residents almost uniformly believed they lived in a safe haven. The risk of crime--much less terrorism--had always been remote. The city-state has laws controlling everything from chewing-gum sales to spitting, and surveillance cameras keep watch over virtually all public places. Singapore is still the safest place in Southeast Asia, but the Bali bombing has brought the danger of terrorism much closer to home. "We've always had such a safe society to live in," says Margaret Woodward, general manager of Harry's bar, a popular expat hangout. "Who would have thought that this would be a concern in Singapore?"

The threat may well get closer still. The U.S., British, and Australian governments have warned that al Qaeda is seeking more "soft targets" where Westerners congregate. Since the Bali attack, the fear that terrorists will hit Singapore--and that no security apparatus will be able to stop it--permeates the daily lives of its 4.5 million residents, a quarter of whom are foreigners. "From being in a trade post, all of a sudden you're in a war against terrorism," says one Western diplomat.

The fear is not unfounded. Last December, Allied troops recovered a videotape from the ruins of an al Qaeda house in Afghanistan that exposed a terrorist cell in Singapore. In response, Singapore has detained 32 members of the island's Muslim minority. They stand accused of planning to bomb the American, British, Australian, and Israeli embassies, plotting to hijack a plane with the aim of crashing it into the city's Changi airport, and scheming to inflame Singapore's already tense relations with Malaysia by severing a water pipeline linking the two countries.

Meanwhile, life goes on, albeit with trepidation. Bomb threats, previously unheard of, are now almost routine. In late October, the Singapore branch of Maybank, a Malaysian bank, and the headquarters of the Singapore government's Housing & Development Board, were evacuated. And a Singapore Airlines flight to Los Angeles was grounded by a bomb scare.

That has Singapore officials stepping up security measures. Foreign embassies are now ringed by armed guards and bullet-proof vehicles. White-helmeted military police patrol Science Park, an industrial zone that is home to foreign tech ventures. Black-and-white steel barricades have been set up in the alleys behind Boat Quay--a riverfront strip that is Singapore's most popular expatriate haunt--as a deterrent to car bombs.

Even children are affected. Soldiers toting machine guns guard the American Club, a popular spot for children's parties, which appeared on a list of 200 targets Singapore police found when arresting suspected terrorists in December. International schools have started transporting their students in unmarked buses. And some schools are now under 24-hour guard. "We have taken appropriate measures to protect ourselves," says Ministry of Home Affairs spokeswoman Katherine Ng. "However, the police cannot be at every street corner."

Meanwhile, Singaporean Muslims are keen to reassure the rest of the island that they're not hostile. Leaders of the Islamic community--14% of Singapore's residents are Muslim--are quoted frequently in the state-controlled media calling for calm. And a Muslim taxi driver told a visiting German executive in late October that an Islamic anti-terrorism squad had tried to recruit him. The mission: hunt down and behead members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a suspected terrorist group. The driver said he had declined because he is elderly and opposes all violence. Whether or not the driver was exaggerating, the German didn't sleep soundly that night. In that way, at least, he fit right into the new Singapore.

Singapore Bureau Chief Shari covers southeast Asia.

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