In the past decade, the world has experienced several surprise disasters that dwarfed 9/11, in either casualties and/or cost -- e.g., the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that triggered a gigantic tsunami that killed more than 200,000 in 11 countries; the 2007 criminally inspired Wall Street subprime mortgage meltdown that triggered a worldwide financial and economic crisis and left tens of millions jobless; the Haiti earthquake that took 230,000 lives.
And now Eyjafjallajokull, the unpronounceable (in English) Icelandic volcano that blew its top, spewing thick ash that rose 5 miles before forming a gigantic cloud that drifted east, blanketing half of Europe, grounding tens of thousands of flights between European cities and in and out of Europe from the rest of the world, stranding 3 million passengers and costing the airlines $200 million a day.
As Singapore's equivalent of the U.S. director of national intelligence who coordinates all intelligence and counter-intelligence for one of the world's most important trade hubs, Peter Ho became the champion of "mainstreaming counter-terrorism." This is tantamount to synergizing CT at each and every level of both the public and private sectors.
"Be As One" is the national security motto. In a recent poll, 83 percent of respondents said they were aware of security efforts but less than half said they were aware of what steps to take.
Ho is a persuasive and influential force of nature in Singapore -- and beyond. In addition to his national security and intelligence coordination responsibilities, he is head of the civil service, permanent secretary of the foreign affairs ministry and permanent secretary (special duties) in the prime minister's office.
What Singapore has achieved and what is tested and retested day and night is light-years beyond what is possible in the United States without incurring the wrath of civil libertarians.
But Singaporeans, almost 5 million, are remarkably self-disciplined in a seamless cultural, ethnic and religious amalgam of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European influences.
Its famed orchids are exported to Europe daily. Its high-tech exports are universally known. More than 10 million tourists a year descend on the world's most important city-state, which is also the world's top container port. With two new major resort areas, 30 million visitors are expected by 2015. Singapore Airways was the first to buy the 550-passenger Airbus 380. The city's huge hub airport puts every major U.S. airport to shame. Several American billionaires have moved out of dollars and euros and into a basket of Asian currencies based in Singapore.
A weapon of mass destruction act of terrorism in Singapore could disrupt world trade and trigger an economic and financial tsunami. Physical protection closely follows the Israeli model. Oil reserves and military supplies are stored underground. Man-made Jurong Island is a petrochemical hub and the world's third largest refinery with $35 billion invested and protected like Fort Knox. Ministers' salaries top $1 million a year, a powerful disincentive to corruption.
Streamlining CT by synergizing awareness was the theme of last week's fourth conference for senior national security officers, organized by Singapore's premier think tank, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Muslim youth, self-radicalized via the Internet and who then espouse al-Qaida's propaganda themes, was a key subject of mutual concern among participating Asian-Pacific nations. Some jihadi volunteers take up offers to train in Pakistan. The Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group in Southeast Asia, long believed to have been brought under control, is resurgent in both the Philippines and Indonesia. Their security services are disrupting networks again that were assessed as defunct.
Physical hardening of numerous sites and resilience for quick recovery from a terrorist attack are no longer deemed sufficient in Singapore. Countering radicalization at grassroots that could tip over into acts of terrorism is the emerging danger. A lawyer for a top Singaporean law firm, with an "excellent pedigree," self-radicalized and left for Afghanistan before anything was detected. Profiling is useless in a multiracial, multireligious society that enjoys a unique form of social cohesion.
Crime and terrorism are inseparable and go beyond traditional police work when they emanate from the same radical incubator. "Radical violence," is the enemy and "posturing paranoia, the danger," said Kumar Ramakrishna, head of RSIS' National Security Center and who was the chairman of the conference.
As recently as 2007, the home front threat perception was oriented toward the incoming human tide of business and tourist visitors. Risk assessments on inbound traffic are networked with the eyes and ears of ticketing agents, baggage handlers and a sense of collective vigilance among all the stake holders. It's an integral part of the common approach of all government departments coupled with a wider dialogue between the entire public and private sectors.
The private sector, down to small and medium enterprises, commits substantial resources from their profits to physical, data and fiber security.
Operation North Star 7 last July was simulated terrorist attacks copied on the 2008 Mumbai infiltrators who traveled from Pakistan and killed 172. In Singapore, they also came by boat lugging heavy knapsacks. One group was almost immediately intercepted by a police tactical unit. Several more groups were blocked but one "terrorist" unit made it into a hotel ballroom where they took several hostages.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of modern Singapore founder and builder Lee Kuan Yew, and his security and intelligence ministers, followed North Star as it unfolded blow by blow. Gaps are tested repeatedly until judged impregnable. Navy, army and air force are all integrated with one objective -- the security of the island. Defenders have to be lucky all the time; the terrorists, only once.
Singapore's Community Engagement Program keeps its many races and religions on the same anti-terrorist page, designed to ensure rapid, united anti-terrorist action -- and, if necessary, equally rapid recovery.
Ho the historian is acutely aware that global trade hubs have come and gone throughout history. "Hubs in networks are spikes in a flat world," he says. Examples: Malacca, Venice, Boston. By the 13th century, Venice was the second largest city in Europe -- after Paris -- and its most prosperous. Then Portugal, at the turn of the 16th century discovered a sea route to the East Indies -- and Venice lost the foundation of its wealth.
Ho worries the melting of glaciers and the widening of the Northwest Passage will open up a shorter and cheaper trade route between Europe and Asia. Not tomorrow. But he is constantly looking over the horizon -- and explaining why Singapore must constantly innovate and can never rest.