Commentary: No one forgets where they were on 9/11. What happens next is what counts
Everything changed on 9/11, and we will continue to feel its legacy for years to come, says Irene Hoe.
SINGAPORE: At 9.03pm in Singapore, the second plane hits the South Tower.
I am riveted to my computer screen, editing a story in the Straits Times newsroom, when I hear my colleagues go from confused shock to horrified shouting.
“Plane crash?” I ask my colleague. The answer comes again and again as CNN replays scenes of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the tower like a recurring nightmare.
Suddenly, my news editor is in front of me. He points and barks simple instructions, “Get over to the TV. You’re doing the front page. Just keep writing.”
All night, alerts zip and zing across my computer screen; above me, scenes of desperate people leaping to certain death from the flaming upper storeys of the World Trade Center or running in the streets, covered in dust and confusion.
There is so much fire and smoke in the sky, you can almost smell it halfway across the world.
We rushed our first edition to print at about 1.30am. But the work goes on to keep the story moving for the final edition for the morning news.
A young reporter brings me a government press release announcing that the alert level has been raised in Singapore and wonders aloud why, if the events were happening in New York City.
I remind her that Singapore is host to American warships and troops. "Our own planes and helicopters are likely to be on patrol all night. You’ll hear them", I told her.
SURVEILLANCE FOR SECURITY
Twenty years on, we may not think of 9/11 much more than once a year. But its legacy pervades our lives, even in Singapore.
The attacks brought on a strange chill of vulnerability and spurred an immediate reaction in security.
Technology arising from terror’s fallout has become so much a part of routine that most of us do not even consider how this initially uneasy union has continued to insert itself into our daily lives.
Take surveillance cameras: I don’t know how many there were back in 2001 but by 2030, Singapore aims to have more than 200,000 police cameras in operation, more than twice the 90,000 installed since 2012.
Then there are the closed-circuit television (CCTV) deployed in shopping malls, by banks, supermarkets, offices and other workplaces that have been installed in the name of security.
On the streets and on public transport, it is no longer alarming to see armed police officers or soldiers on patrol. Office buildings require visitors to present photo identification and sign in.
Many companies also require staff to wear identification passes or use them to pass through secured office doors. Before 9/11, offices rarely locked their doors during office hours.
We welcomed the omnipresence of surveillance and enforcement on condition that they keep us safe from attack. We constantly hear from our leaders that it is a matter of “not if, but when” an attack will happen in Singapore.
OUR SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Last week, a friend sent me a picture of the famous roti john at the old Taman Serasi food centre.
It reminded me how a Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) cell with Al-Qaeda links in Singapore had planned to park truck bombs there.
But before they could, the Internal Security Department (ISD) moved in and arrested 15 individuals in December 2001. That plot to attack embassies, US military assets and commercial interests, and Yishun MRT station, was foiled. ISD subsequently made more arrests and uncovered plans that identified water pipelines and Changi Airport as potential targets.
One oft-forgotten detail is that a Singaporean Muslim had come forward with the crucial lead to the JI arrests. And it chilled me to think how JI could have otherwise disrupted our lives and torn apart our social fabric.
In the wake of 9/11 emerged heartbreaking stories of racism and violence against the Arab and Muslim communities in the US. Did we in Singapore look at one another suspiciously after the attacks? Did we suddenly fear the terror in our backyard?
Thankfully, we never reached the stage of turning on one another. According to a 2018 study by the Institute of Policy Studies, most Singaporeans may be quick to associate terror with race or religion, but say they would not associate local communities with extremist groups misappropriating their labels.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF AIR TRAVEL
The most immediate impact of 9/11 for many was felt at the airport. An American acquaintance in Singapore was to have flown home on United Airlines on Sep 12 but had to scramble for alternative plans and accommodation when authorities closed off US airspace.
It took days for the global backlog to be cleared after civilian air traffic was allowed to resume. The US created the Transportation Security Administration to manage security duties at airports not long after, with uniformed military personnel patrolling airports.
On my next trip to New York in 2002, queues were long, tempers were short. The nail clipper and paper cutter I always carried in my hand luggage were confiscated by a snarling airport officer and flung into a bin.
Security screening at Changi Airport for US-bound flights became more stringent and much more visible overnight. At the gate for United Airlines, queues followed roped lines, manned by uniformed police checking passports and asking detailed questions.
Most of us now carry a biometric passport, one item in a tsunami of security changes since 9/11.
With the advances in technology, today it carries not just our personal information, but also our iris and fingerprint biometrics - verified by scanners at airports, which have become standard at just about all airports since 9/11. We just stand and look where we are told.
A close friend and I had planned a trip to California from Singapore around 2004. Although he had lived in Singapore for decades, he carried a Malaysian passport.
His application for a US visa was stuck in limbo, as were for many others from Muslim-majority countries, and after nearly a year, we gave up.
SHAPING WHO WE ARE IN THE AFTERMATH
The events of 9/11 have left an indelible mark on Singapore and the world. The attack created anxiety and unease.
But once our initial fears lifted, we did more than accept the material changes to our lives. We kept the ensuing vigilance and resolve to stay united as a community.
Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. It shook us to our core and changed how we collectively saw the world.
Then, we started going to work, shaping our world as we now saw it. It is unlikely that we will revert to a pre-9/11 way of looking at security or air travel, but it has reminded us how our home is more precious than ever.
Every September 11, my mind goes back to that night in the newsroom.
It was a Tuesday in Singapore. At 8.46pm, the first plane crashes into the North Tower. But it's what comes after in the hours, days and years that truly counts.
Irene Hoe is a writer, editor and coach and has been a journalist for many decades.