The Role of Psychological First Aid in Singapore’s Total Defence Strategy

When the World Health Organisation announced the COVID-19 pandemic on 11 March 2020, the world was reeling from the chaos. Few people were prepared for it and every country’s response to the global health threat was put to the test. Singapore gained international recognition for its effective handling of the crisis thanks to an efficient and unified government response.

The impact of the pandemic, however, brought about concern, anxiety, and fear, during and even years after it was over. This highlights the importance of providing psychological support and aid in the event of a crisis and also in its aftermath. While emotional distress is often not visible, for many, it can be as painful and debilitating as a physical injury.

Resilience in the face of psychological trauma is crucial and the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) recognises it as an important element of national defence. In their six-pillar Total Defence1 (TD) strategy, Psychological Defence is one distinct pillar. Together with the other five pillars – Military, Civil, Economic, Social and Digital - TD’s core message is for everyone to play a role in strengthening the country’s defences against threats and challenges.

First introduced in 1984, TD will celebrate its fortieth anniversary on 15 February 2024 – TD40. The campaign theme for this year is 'Together We Keep Singapore Strong', which focuses on the various ways Singaporeans can put Total Defence into action in their daily lives. 

Singapore Red Cross’ (SRC) Psychological First Aid (PFA) course responds to the call of TD’s Psychological Defence Pillar, aimed at developing resilience and strength to return to normalcy in the aftermath of a crisis.

On 6 May 2023, in partnership with SGSecure, SRC launched and conducted its first PFA training tailored for SGSecure Responders. 

Witnessed by Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs & Ministry of Social and Family Development, she mentioned in her speech that, “[…] even before the pandemic, the SGSecure national movement had already identified and promoted psychological first aid as one of the key emergency preparedness skills to train our community in, and to be able to mobilise our community capability in response to a terrorist attack.”2

She added, “Psychological first aid incorporated in our emergency preparedness programmes thus go [sic] a long way towards building a resilient people and a resilient nation.” 

SRC’s PFA course was first launched to the public in September 2016. After the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, psychological assistance courses gained greater traction in helping to build community resilience. One of the goals of the PFA course is to provide learners with basic knowledge and skills to help people affected by crises in life. 

Based on the World Health Organisation Standard and endorsed by the Danish Red Cross with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support, PFA provides supportive and practical assistance to people suffering crisis events to mitigate the long-term adverse effects on mental health and facilitate recovery. It instructs participants to recognise distress signs, including suicidal thoughts. With the DNA of the IFRC rooted in delivering humanitarian aid to disaster areas that are the frontlines of where PFA is most needed, the SRC’s PFA programme is best suited to bolster Singapore’s resilience in the face of crisis.

At PFA’s public launch in 2016, Mr Benjamin William, Secretary-General and CEO of the SRC had already echoed the same thought as MOS Ms Sun when he said, “[Psychological First Aid] also serves as an additional line of defence to help Singapore respond to and bounce back from crisis. […] It supports SGSecure and can be a key component in building a resilient Singapore that is strong and prepared for adversity.”

In 2023, SRC trained 5,820 people in PFA, including 582 first responders under the partnership with SGSecure. This number was double that of 2022. SRC currently trains the full-day PFA every day, in a sustained effort to train as many people as we can in PFA. Although recommended for first responders, particularly those providing services to people exposed to crises, it is open to people who wish to learn how to handle crises and assist people affected by them. 

For those who wish to attend more in-depth training, SRC provides an Advanced Psychological First Aid (APFA) that extends the one-day PFA training to two. The advanced course includes an assessment at the end of day two.

Learning PFA can help with crises in both the personal and professional domains. Getting trained in PFA equips a person to provide emotional support and guidance to those in need. It provides a possible lifeline to those in psychological pain. In line with TD40’s theme of “Together We Keep Singapore Strong”, participants learn skills of building human connection in a non-intrusive and compassionate way, which ultimately results in community resilience.

1Total Defence <> [accessed 22 January 2024].

2Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Media Room’, Speeches, 6 May 2023 <> [accessed 22 January 2024]. 

By Michelle Tanmizi, Volunteer Writer
Copyedited by Stella Lim, Marketing & Communications

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