Why are some of my friends not impressed with the recent Exercise Northstar V, a full-scale civil emergency exercise to test the Singaporeans’ readiness in event of a terrorist attack?

To them, it was merely an exciting…

…drama performed by actors and actresses. Some played the roles of rescuers, others the victims. They were all dressed and made up for the well-rehearsed show. The sound and visual effects came from thunderflashes and other props.

To them, 6.30am was a bad time for the show, as there were not many spectators. It wasn’t quite realistic, because true-blue terrorists want to cause maximum chaos and mayhem – they would not choose that time to launch an attack.

To them, the drill failed to educate the “spectators” on the proper way to respond to the situation. For many of the thousands affected, being caught in the mock terrorist exercise was pure bad luck. They seemed too upset by the disruption to their plans to have learnt anything.

Should such civil emergency exercises be discontinued so that the public will not be inconvenienced? After all, it was a show and most members of the public were just going through the motions.

My answer is an emphatic no. We should have more such drills. The exercises should be supported by all, because these will programme us what to do should terrorists actually strike.

I am sure the various agencies involved in Exercise Northstar V have learnt much of value. They will need more such exercises to discover what strategies work best under various circumstances. It will also keep their machinery oiled.

Yes, I agree with my friends that we can never be totally prepared for the real thing. But we can lessen the impact substantially with preparation and, more importantly, our confidence will be fortified.

I commend the authorities for the tremendous effort put into organising Sunday’s civil emergency exercise, and the thoughtful way it was conducted, minimising inconvenience to the public.

But I am concerned about the attitudes of those who did not take the exercise seriously, including my friends. They could at least appreciate what had been done for them.

Those who were there and cursing their bad luck should have taken the opportunity to learn how best to respond. They should consider themselves fortunate that that was not a real attack and that they could walk away having benefited.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said there will be more civil emergency exercises and the next one could be held during peak hours. Why not? Make it as realistic as possible. Conduct the exercise without giving any notice. Let the public experience the “actual” conditions of an attack.

I look forward to being caught in such a drill so that I know for sure that I will be ready and that Singapore will be ready, too. Never mind the inconvenience: It is better to prepare and prevent, than to repair and repent.

(This article was published on 11 January 2006 of Today)