For nine and a half hours, the entire nation was on edge.
The year was 1991 and on the morning of Mar. 26, a Singapore Airlines Airbus A310, shortly after departure from Subang International Airport near Kuala Lumpur, was hijacked by four Pakistani terrorists.
Armed with explosives and knives, the terrorists demanded to speak with the Pakistani ambassador in Singapore for the release of 11 of their comrades from various prisons in Pakistan.
They also ordered the flight crew to add sufficient fuel for a trip to Sydney.
If the demands were not met, they threatened that they would kill all 114 passengers and 11 crew aboard SQ117, one by one.
To prove their point, the terrorists even pushed two flight attendants out of the plane after the plane landed in Changi Airport.
In the early morning of Mar. 27, 1991, the terrorists said that they would start killing one hostage every 10 minutes.
Time was ticking.
But Singapore had an ace up the sleeve: the Singapore Commando unit.
In just 30 seconds, they opened the plane’s doors using explosives and killed all four terrorists, with no hostages injured.
The valiant Commandos were awarded the Medal for Valour, while the pilot of the flight and the chief police negotiator received the Public Service Star.
And this incident, ladies and gentlemen, underscores the importance of a swift and decisive Military Defence, changing the way we view our armed forces forever.
The SQ117 hijack, of course, wasn’t the only significant event in Singapore’s history -- we have also been shaped by several other life-changing episodes.
Here’s a blast from the past with some other events:
SARS is the virus that I just want to minus
Remember this gem?
While a lighthearted way to educate the public about SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the 2003 outbreak of the infectious disease was a far deadlier affair as compared to Covid-19.
It halted and changed our way of life, when one Singaporean carried the deadly virus from Hong Kong to Singapore, subsequently leading to the infection of 238 people, of whom 33 died.
How did SARS halt and change our lives, you say?
As this strain of coronavirus caused high fevers, local authorities conducted temperature screenings across our island and at immigration checkpoints.
Our civil defence force, healthcare workers and various ministries worked tirelessly to educate the public on how everyone played a part in stopping the spread of this illness.
Singaporeans of all ages who lived through the SARS pandemic will also vividly remember carrying personal thermometers and monitoring their own temperatures at least twice a day.
Mandatory quarantine for those who had recently travelled was instated, contact tracing was meticulously carried out and a public SARS hotline was also set up to cater to all matters regarding the virus.
All those measures may feel familiar given that we are in the midst of another pandemic.
But maybe another way to think about it is that we learnt from our experience dealing with SARS, which gave us a valuable framework to start with.
A devastating 1985 recession
Things may look hunky dory for Singapore in the decades following our independence: our economy was on the upward trajectory, there were jobs for most Singaporeans.
And then life decided to throw the proverbial spanner in 1985.
Singapore’s growth rate in the second quarter of 1985 was -1.4 per cent and crashed to -3.5 per cent by the following quarter.
Although an important regional trading hub, Singapore suddenly saw its regional countries trading directly instead of through Singapore after Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines implemented exit taxes on Singapore
Suddenly there was extremely low demand for the nation’s goods and services as Malaysia introduced a 50 per cent tax on goods bought from Singapore by residents.
Other pillars of our economy like oil refining and shipbuilding were doing badly too due to the rise of strong competitors. Domestically, construction projects quickly and suddenly dwindled.
Long story short: it was a rather huge spanner.
Well, if life gives you a huge spanner, you just need to be a better mechanic. Metaphorically speaking.
Singapore liberalised various services sectors like finance, telecommunications and utilities, reduced employer CPF contributions, lowered interest rates of loans and introduced rebates on government fees, and personal, corporate and property taxes.
Some of these measures are still in place today to help safeguard our economy just in case an even larger spanner (ahem Covid-19) comes along again.
The Singhealth Cyber Attack woke Singaporeans up to the danger of cyber threats
To be honest, Digital Defence sounds like some gaming lingo but it is no less important than the rest of the Defences.
Case in point: A well-planned attack carried out by cyber attackers between Jun. 27 and Jul. 4, 2018 exfiltrated the personal data of 1.5 million patients, including those of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (gasp!) and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (double gasp!).
Using custom malware and open-source hacking tools, the attackers managed to access and copy the personal particulars of visitors of several public facilities with a trojan horse (malicious yet legitimate-looking file).
As boomers would have it, “how can this b allow?”
Thankfully, this attack contributed to the push for enhanced digital security. With more Singaporeans aware of the importance of a 2FA for all important online portals for instance.
We should not allow this to happen again.
People of different races protected each other during the 1969 Riots
Way before Singapore enjoyed the racial harmony that we so painstakingly strove to build, 1969 witnessed a series of violent public incidences that resulted in four dead and 80 injured.
Fuelled by the May 13 ethnic clash that happened in Kuala Lumpur, groups of Chinese and Malays took to the streets of newly independent Singapore, from May 31 to Jun. 6, 1969, desiring to exact vengeance on each other.
Rumours spread to Singapore that Chinese rioters involved in the May 13 riots in Malaysia were severely and unjustly punished, and that the Malaysian Armed Forces were persecuting members of one ethnic group more harshly than another.
This air of hatred drove Chinese men in Singapore to take out their unhappiness on Malays, and Malay men likewise reciprocated.
During the tumult, however, the goodness of some Singaporeans shone through – some Chinese families sheltered Malays who were attacked, and some Malay households also nursed and gave refuge to Chinese victims.
The police force and armed forces carried out security sweeps across the island. However, the long-term solution was to nurture racial harmony and understanding between Singaporeans of different backgrounds.
Today, Singapore’s Social Defence is strong – we handle inter-race relations delicately and work to dispel rumours quickly.
In order to be a psychologically strong nation, we not only need to actively nurture racial and religious harmony and tolerance, but also stay committed to and confident in Singapore’s future.
Let’s not take things for granted
Total Defence is not a one-day observance but a practice of everyday vigilance.
Even during times of peace and stability, all Singaporeans need to understand and contribute to our country’s Military, Civil, Economic, Social, Digital and Psychological Defence.
During trying times, such as this pandemic, all pillars of national defence have been tested by new challenges and threats, which is where the cooperation and awareness of all Singaporeans play a part.
The resolve of our people and competency of our defence forces help us feel confident that we will be able to emerge stronger through every crisis, as we have done so in the past.
This article sponsored by Nexus, MINDEF made this writer aware of the events that shaped Singapore’s history.