This article was first published in Living in Singapore magazine (October/November 2021 issue)
This article was written by communications specialist Cara D'Avanzo
“I happened to have the news on that night, and across the ticker came the words, ‘a small plane has hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City,’” recalls teacher Ian Coppell. For him, as for many in the Singapore American School community, this was the start of a profoundly sad and unsettling period. On the 20th anniversary of the events that would leave so many grieving and our world changed, community members who were in Singapore in 2001 recall what it was like to be connected to an American institution in the days, weeks, and months following the September 11th attacks.
It was a different era and news traveled more slowly, especially for expatriates. “I was reading in bed,” recalls Karen Feist-Coppell, Coppell’s wife and also an SAS teacher. “I came down [when Ian called] and saw the second plane hit. The next morning we arrived at school well before 7 a.m. The office was quiet and dark. A colleague came in with a chipper ‘good morning!’ I asked her if she thought we would have an emergency faculty meeting and she asked, ‘Why?’ She heard the news first from me.” School was not canceled that day, and faculty grappled with how to share the news appropriately with each grade level. “I was teaching fifth grade at the time, and we decided to speak about it generally but not to share details or images of what had happened,” recalls Coppell.
Half a world away and with limited home contact, the SAS community slowly took in what was occurring in the country many called home. Communications Director Kyle Aldous, then a twelfth grade student and new to Singapore, saw the news on the family television before school, and recalls, “It was a big topic of conversation all day long in classes and there was a sense of panic for people with family on the US East Coast.” Aldous’ clearest recollection centers on the SAS school buses: “I remember that overnight, it seemed, the US colors of red, white, and blue were painted over in yellow. This was done to make us less obviously American, and so less of a target. That felt like a very stark change and the situation became more ‘real’ to me at that point.”
Ann Tan, who was executive assistant to the superintendent, remembers, “The American community was totally traumatized. Several families kept their kids at home to help them manage the post-attack emotions. At school, psychologists, counselors, and faculty were all involved to help kids deal with this barbaric and cowardly attack on innocent lives.” Many remember the memorial event held at the old National Stadium, when an estimated 15,000 Singaporeans, Americans, and others gathered to mourn and express solidarity. The SAS choir sang and students displayed a banner they had made that read, “We Are One.” In his remarks, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong affirmed Singapore’s solidarity with the US: “Suddenly, we all felt vulnerable to terrorism. Humanity and the civilized world have been attacked. The world as we knew it on 11 September 2001 has changed forever.”
The 9/11 attacks led to heightened security in Singapore, especially for institutions linked to the US and its allies. Police officers from the Gurkha Contingent counter-terrorism force were dispatched to guard such sites. In Coppell’s memory, the SAS superintendent received a letter stating that several Gurkhas had been assigned to the school; when he called to ask when to expect them, the answer was “they are arriving now.” The Gurkhas would maintain a campus presence for seven years, and adults and children alike were reassured by their stern demeanor, distinctive uniform, and visible weapons, including the impressive traditional kukri knife.
In the following months, Singapore authorities broke up a terror cell planning attacks on Western-linked targets, eventually arresting nearly 30 people. “For us students, daily life went on,” recalls Aldous, “and we met friends at the American Club, had Halloween, and went on school trips.” But Coppell points out that measures we now take for granted were put in place then: “Of course, we think of stricter airport security, but there were less obvious changes too. For instance, we may enjoy Holland Village’s weekend pedestrian mall without realizing that traffic was first banned there because, as a known gathering spot for Westerners, it was considered a potential target for a car bomb.” Schools, businesses, and public buildings enhanced security, while the government increased its surveillance capabilities.
Security Manager Isaac Benjamin, who joined SAS in 2003, recalls that the ongoing “heightened alert” status was the new normal for the school. “For me it was a tense period,” he recalls, ”and we were constantly on our toes.” The next few years saw attacks in Bali, London, and elsewhere. “I frequently had to consult the police and US Embassy on our escalation plans,” recalls Benjamin. With a grant from the US State Department, SAS upgraded its physical security with barriers, cameras, and smart technology. When the government finally determined it was safe to remove the Gurkhas, Benjamin says, “we were just reluctant to let them go. It took several high-level meetings with us at Jurong Police Headquarters for them to convince us.”
While no current SAS students were alive when 9/11 occurred, today they learn about it in age-appropriate ways at the school. Younger students engage in friendship-building exercises and teach each other about their cultures, while older students learn about the historical events through social studies lessons, advisory groups, and student-led activities. “Students today sometimes feel it is not relevant to them, or that they know it all already,” notes one teacher involved with the initiatives. “But it’s important that we transmit to them our memories of what a shock the attacks were to us and encourage them to get involved in making the world they are inheriting a better place.”
As they thought back upon the events of 20 years ago, it was clear that for many in the SAS community, 9/11 will always evoke strong feelings. One of Tan’s friends visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum recently and shared her pictures. Seeing photos of the former Twin Towers site, Tan, who has never visited New York, was deeply affected: “The memorial site sent a lump to my throat. Names of innocent dead—old, young, and children—were inscribed… We all need to count our blessings [and consider] their sacrifices a reminder to us to be gracious, be patient, be forgiving, and be thankful.”
- September 11