National Resilience: Developing a Whole-of-Society Response

A more robust society begins with clarity about shared priorities, risks, constraints and capabilities.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2011


Issue 10, 9 Oct 2011


Security is often said to begin with threat assessment. In a professional game of football, the opponent's best offensive players are identified and entire defence strategies are then built around restricting their movement. Likewise, given scarce resources, government agencies identify, prioritise and develop defences against the most probable threats to national well-being. Underpinning this risk assessment approach to security is the assumption that we can actually "know the enemy" well enough to gauge the extent of threat to our way of life.

The problem of course is that we cannot truly do so. Good security professionals are masters of improvisation. Plans often change at the point of execution simply because threats do not manifest themselves along expected trajectories. Risk and threat assessments are useful but at best arbitrary guides. Furthermore, in an interconnected world where local conditions can potentially trigger off events/movements with global ramifications, it is difficult to accurately assess the threats we face. Beyond merely grappling with when and how a threat or any modern day phenomenon would manifest, modern day societies struggle even to identify what challenges there are in the horizon.

The Arab Spring of 2011 is a particularly instructive example. The desperation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian food peddler angered by the confiscation of his wares, led to his self immolation (January 2011) and launched a wave of revolutions in the region. Spurred on by social media, it rapidly caught on across North Africa and the Middle East. Its influence gained a global resonance quickly and sparked copycat riots in the Far East. Not only were these events largely unforeseen, it was the speed and reach of the riots that demonstrated how 21st century economic, technological and social mediums, and tools had radically transformed the way security challenges manifest.

So why is it so difficult to "know the enemy" in our time? Our dilemma is often explained with the term complexity.1As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, the threats we face adopt the attendant characteristics we have come to associate with globalisation and the information and technological revolution: particularly two key traits known very well to complexity theorists — broad inter-linkages across domains and rapidity of manifestation. It was impossible, a century ago, for political revolutions in the Middle East to have caused nervousness in China. With the Internet and social media, this is the "new normal" — an interconnected world with tight linkages, where threats are difficult to assess and where events in one area can be rapidly modelled in another.


Traditional security doctrines advocate resistance and robustness: where there is a potential of security risks, governments should invest resources to prevent its manifestation; governments should develop robust defensive measures at the point of prevention and response. However, in the event that a threat successfully breaches the defences under these circumstances, consequences tend to be catastrophic. Given the complexity we face, such a resistance strategy is no longer tenable. A new strategy of resilience that encompasses a full gamut of responses — prevention, response and recovery — is needed. Compared to a resistance strategy, the doctrine of resilience accepts that some threats will eventually come to fruition, but society must absorb the stress and recover rapidly. Allocating resources for rapid recovery (instead of solely prevention) becomes essential.

A strategy of resilience is not new and has long gained credence in academic literature dealing with disaster prevention, emergency preparedness, environmental sciences and even social psychology. Security professionals only began to consider it seriously after 9/11, when the developed world realised the threats to national security had become multifaceted, amorphous and essentially complex. Since then, a number of countries have infused resilience into their broader national security strategies. For example, resilience was made a key strategic pillar of Obama's National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2010. Subsequently, a resilience directorate was established in the White House. In Singapore, the National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS) coordinates security resilience across the whole-of-government. Guided by the Strategic Framework for National Security, enacted in 2004, resilience is placed at the heart of Singapore's strategic response to national security threats. This greater emphasis on resilience has a number of advantages. For one, resilience is an effective deterrent. Nations which are able to respond rapidly to a terrorist attack and recover quickly tend to dissuade terrorists from mounting another attack due to low psychological payoffs. Furthermore, resilience has also become a "competitive differentiator for companies and countries alike, (as) advancing resilience almost always provides a positive return on a relatively smaller investment."2

The doctrine of resilience accepts that some threats will eventually come to fruition, but society must absorb the stress and recover rapidly.


Beyond this broad acceptance of resilience among policymakers, a number of challenges remain. First, there is no common lexicon for resilience3 amongst governments. In Israel, resilience is understood to be the ability of the populace to deal with day-to-day harassment from terrorist groups and the existential threat of military invasion. In Australia, resilience is used in reference to the ability of communities to recover after an environmental disaster. Given the variety of thought in understanding resilience, each country must then be left to develop its own resilience mantra — based on its own domestic conditions.

Second, resilience is faced with the difficulties of measurement and assessment. To date, there is almost no way to assess how resilient a society is. This is compounded by the reality that resilience is often threat specific. A society may be resilient to a terrorist attack but not against a pandemic. In addition, the institutional capabilities required for inculcating resilience against any of these threats are dissimilar. Certainly there is a distinction between "evergreen resilience virtues" and "threat specific" resilience virtues. For example, regardless of threat type, leadership is often cited as a necessary condiment against any threat. However, even these virtues are notoriously hard to measure, what more inculcate. Resilience can only be properly assessed once it is actually tested.

Finally, resilience requires structural and conceptual shifts that are difficult for governments to execute. There were historical roots to this. In the Cold War era, the threat of nuclear war diminished any sense of ownership one had for one's own security as the spectre of total annihilation made any individual effort meaningless. Security became the purview of the government. This led to the professionalisation of security work within vast national bureaucracies, diminishing the need for citizens to take responsibility for the security of their own communities. However, 21st century threats are of far lower intensity and greater unpredictability. One of the reasons why resilience is apt for our time is because it represents a whole-of-society approach to security: blending government, local communities, the media, religious organisations and NGOs. Yet given that government bureaucracies were woven and built in response to Cold War related threats, structural and conceptual challenges of expanding its reach to include all of society remains challenging.

Resilience is often threat specific. A society may be resilient to a terrorist attack but not against a pandemic.


Given that governments face these challenges in constructing resilience, how should resilience be developed strategically? I would argue that this has to be accomplished on two levels: first, the conceptual/intellectual level and second, the capabilities level.

Conceptually, each country needs to build its own indigenous lexicon of resilience and expand it into other spheres beyond the traditional realms of security and emergency preparedness. This is premised on the fact that the threats facing each country and the traits that determine resilience in each society are rarely similar. Furthermore, resilience is grossly incomplete without engaging the complex social and economic realities that affect the outcomes of a crisis. Resilience as such should not be seen as an outcome that is affected by a series of policies, but a doctrine of governance that encompasses a wide variety of socio-economic and security policies which undergird a society both in peacetime and in crisis. Positioning resilience as such provides the philosophy with a number of advantages.

Resilience represents a wholeof-society approach to security

First, governments will have to move beyond mere operational exigencies during a crisis to consider the society's unique social-political values that may serve to build resilience in the face of unexpected change. This carries resilience further than just crisis management to change management, a crucial paradigm for resilience to work. For example, countries like the US and UK, in a bid to build resilience, have established emergency preparedness clubs within local communities to respond to threats. However, during the occurrence of threats, these have proven to be less successful than previously envisaged. Resilience measures in such explicitly organised forms tend to be problematic. Experience has shown that local communities are likely to band around established organisations of interest, like community clubs, business associations, religious organisations and other places towards which they have a clear affective inclination. Proximity of affection — in organisations where friends and family have built strong ties — has been demonstrated to be more important, since people look first to communities they have found historical resonance with for leadership, aid and resources in the face of change. Such realities require conceptual shifts in government thinking. Instead of building social institutions to provide crisis-response, governments can harness existing community organisations, whose values and resources can support change management.

Second, a broad conception of resilience imbues government policies with relevant principles of change management. For example, if a society were to be resilient, it might need to hedge against overspecialisation and overconcentration of resources. In international trade, efficiency is gained when a nation produces the products in which it has comparative advantage in. Certainly that would maximise productivity. However, if resilience were to be incorporated as part of the overall philosophy, a balance would need to be struck between diversification and specialisation to protect a country from unexpected changes in the global economy. A broad conception of resilience acknowledges the trade-offs that need to be made (e.g. from loss of efficiency) in order to generate sufficient latency as a buffer against any uncertainty that might arise from the prevailing risk landscape.

Resilience, a doctrine of governance that encompasses a wide variety of socioeconomic and security policies which undergird a society both in peacetime and in crisis.

Finally, going through the process of devising a broad and national definition of resilience pushes public servants to identify the intangible values and principles that form the national psyche of the country. Typically, public servants have been more accustomed to quantitative measurements of a country's economic and social well-being. However, to build resilience, we need to question and identify the fundamental and often intangible traits of society that allow it to falter or survive, or even thrive in the face of a crisis. As in the seminal book, Built to Last, such intangible values, once enunciated and built upon, have the powerful effect of bringing a country to "greatness", even in the face of broad sweeping change.


In Singapore, we face the twin challenges of a rapidly evolving external threat environment as well as an "Age of Social Angst" — where tensions from globalisation and the IT revolution are manifesting themselves as challenges to our social compact. Given this, resilience for Singapore is about safeguarding society while navigating through the rough waters of our regional and global environment. To strengthen the unity and retain the trust of the populace in the face of growing income divides, immigration, increased pluralism and the rise of social media, the tone of governance as well as the social levers employed need to be considered carefully. At the heart of Singapore's resilience is whether the populace's affective and pragmatic needs, as well as their values/beliefs, are aligned to the wider vision of Singapore.

In that light, the Government needs to ensure that resilience is firmly embedded within the broader process of policymaking and matched with the underlying capabilities so as to harness it (see Figure 1).


As part of the broader policy process, resilience is the natural strategic response that arises from good strategic anticipation and risk management. Also, building resilience in Singapore requires effective sense-making of our social compact. Both are needed to determine what the challenges are or broad forces that might catalyse change in the horizon, as well as the concerns of Singapore society. That can then be translated into a risk assessment map to prioritise the risks that a country faces. From there, resilience might be regarded as the strategic response to change — where government harnesses the national strengths of the populace and existing institutions, both government and non-government, to overcome adversity and thrive in the face of these challenges.

A broad conception of resilience acknowledges the trade-offs that need to be made in order to generate sufficient latency as a buffer against any uncertainty.

To support this process, four capabilities need to be established in any government — Policy Coordination, Strategic Engagement, Research, and Crisis Management. For Singapore, we have built sophisticated and effective crisis management capabilities and as such, our concerns are enhancing our capabilities in policy coordination and research. Briefly, these are the functions associated with each of these capabilities.

Policy Coordination — For resilience to be imbued into the psyche of policymaking and the society, policy has to be coordinated from the centre to ensure coherence. More and more, as resilience gains ascendency in governance, a centre to direct and synchronise aims as well as the lexicon of resilience is needed. This does not negate the ground-up and organic process by which resilience is often nurtured, but instead ensures that government agencies have clarity and coherence at the heart of resilience policymaking. Currently in Singapore, there is yet to be a central node to coordinate resilience policy on a cross sector basis (Security, Economic and Social).

Strategic Engagement — Governments have to move beyond strategic communications to strategic engagement. Communications have the connotation of speaking to the populace, whereas engagement is about partnering the populace. This is particularly crucial in resilience building as resilience is about building networks between government, the general populace, businesses, non-government organisations and religious organisations.

Research and Sense-making — In every society, resilience needs to be studied and measured. In particular, research teases out the traits that make up a resilient society and informs policy options. Measurement tools, though often arbitrary, provide useful guides to policymakers. Given the complex make-up of society, traditional survey tools are insufficient and a more complex suite of tools is needed to understand the social compact.

Resilience is not about resisting change but instead harnessing it to allow a country to thrive.

Crisis Management — Part of building resilience is ensuring that the government has strong crisis management systems. Strong crisis resilience builds strong peacetime resilience and vice versa.


Governments today need to build resilience more systematically in the face of the tremendous changes taking place in the world. Having gained ascendency in the security and emergency preparedness circles, resilience should move beyond these realms and inform the broader philosophy of governance. Its applications may reach into social, economic and political spaces, and aid in a nation's management of change. At its heart, resilience is not resistance. It is not about resisting change but instead harnessing it to allow a country to thrive. In order to accomplish that, governments need to have the right capabilities and appropriate levers to build resilience. Only then are we able to know ourselves, face up to an amorphous enemy and increase the chances of victory.


Charles Ng is Assistant Director at the National Security Coordination Secretariat, Prime Minister's Office. The views expressed in this article are his own.


  1. Broadly, complexity is often tied to the concept of an ecosystem — where a set of parts or elements that have relationships among them are differentiated from relationships with other elements outside the relational regime.
  2. US Department of Homeland Security, Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report (Washington: February 2010), pp15, pp61
  3. In a study on the confluence between Risk and Resilience concepts, the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute (HSI) discovered 119 different definitions for resilience. From the resilience of a child's psychology in educational theory to the resilience of metallic elements in physics, there is rarely any convergence in the use of the term.

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