BY KENNY CHEE
THERE was a suspicious- looking car in Orchard Road emitting smoke.
Instead of calling the authorities, many people simply walked by.
A few even posed for photographs beside it.
These are among some eyebrow-raising results gleaned from a terrorist car-bomb exercise done by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and police last Tuesday.
Commenting on the lax attitude of Singaporeans towards potential terror threats, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said at the National Security Seminar yesterday: "Our public is generally complacent about the possibility of a terror incident occurring in Singapore."
The exercise, code-named Exercise Times Square, was conducted from 8am to 7pm at nine locations in Shenton Way, Orchard Road, HarbourFront, Boat Quay and Marina Bay.
It was modelled after the Times Square terror incident in New York in May, where a street vendor spotted and foiled a car-bomb attack.
The cars used in the exercise were rigged with telltale signs of car bombs.
The passenger seats had liquefied- petroleum-gas cylinders wired to devices.
Wires were sticking out of the car undercarriages.
The vehicles would also emit smoke if people failed to notice the initial car-bomb signs.
Officials from MHA and the police observed the reactions of 7,200 people who walked within 10m of the rigged cars.
Mr Wong said that only 260 people took notice of the cars, and of these people, just 52 acted instantly to contact the police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, or security officers of nearby buildings.
Mr Wong, who is also the Coordinating Minister for National Security, said there is still "cause for some satisfaction" as some people had acted quickly.
Mr Wong added: "Over time, people become less vigilant."
He said that this was so not just in Singapore, which has not experienced a terror attack, "but also in societies which have been traumatised by such incidents".
"This is perhaps inevitable and natural, because a community needs to get on with life and not live perpetually in the clutches of fear that a traumatic terror incident provokes," he said.
Mr Wong called for the building of groups - in the private sector and in the community at large - that are very prepared to deal with terror threats.
This is opposed to trying to achieve a uniformly high level of alertness across society.
Asked about the exercise findings, Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Singaporeans "still have some way to go" in being alert to "suspicious happenings".
He said that no matter how good the authorities and security personnel are, they cannot be everywhere at the same time.
"So they need the assistance of the public to help them spot anything amiss," he said.
Prof Ramakrishna reiterated the importance of raising public vigilance through messages on terror threats, such as those at MRT stations.
Because there are no successful terror attacks here yet, "the average Singaporean is not sensitised to the need to be alert", he said.
The challenge is deciding how often the messages should be sent out, so as not to desensitise the public to them, he added.
For more my paper stories click here.