Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Six unique spots in Singapore lost after the 9/11 security lockdown

Singaporeans in their teens would probably have fuzzy recollections of how parts of this island looked like before the security clampdown that came about after the terror attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001.

As with many things in life, you don't realise what you've missed until it's gone. Here are our top six picks, in no particular order.

1. Changi Village Road
A magnet for plane spotters by day and *ahem* "courting couples" by night, the slight elevation of Changi Village Road gave one an unblocked view of the airport runway and taxiways. It was a real treat watching planes come and go at one of Asia's busiest airports. The place now sits within the fence line of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West).

2. Sembawang Wharves
There was a time when the name of a visiting warship was all that was needed for a visitor's pass to the quayside where foreign warships came alongside for port calls. No one bothered if you walked in with a camera and you could gawk at the open yard full of brand new cars waiting for their date with a Ro-Ro. All that changed after 9/11 with heightened security in the area, complete with security troopers from the Singapore Armed Forces Island Defence Group. 

3. Gombak Drive
One could walk all the way up Gombak Drive to the hallowed gates of the Singapore Ministry of Defence, no questions asked. Just make sure you do an abut turn before the MPs at the gate. There was this particular tree in front of a security signboard near the main gate guard post that generated chuckles from visitors: stand at one particular spot and the tree trunk blocked out the letter "P" in the written warning that said: 
Show Your 
Pass Without Demand 
Today, the road leading to Block M, Gombak Drive resembles the CIQ at the Causeway. Ahhh... life was indeed simpler then.

4. Central Manpower Base, Depot Road
Cheap curry puffs colour marked for potatoes and sardines were one hot staple at CMPB. The various canteen dishes were kept affordable too and welcomed all. Visitors could walk right in as there was hardly a sentry in sight pre-9/11. Today: Don't venture there unless on an official visit.

5. SAFTI Military Institute, Upper Jurong Road
The sprawling camp, home to the SAF Officer Corps, was designed from a blank sheet of paper as an open concept camp ala West Point in the US. No need to change pass. No perimeter fence. Visitors were allowed to roam the grounds to see the citizens' army up close and many did indeed do so. The grounds were a favourite with wedding couples, who used the cropped lawns and well manicured terrain as the backdrop for their wedding photo shoot.

6. Jurong Island
When the island was first opened as Singapore's petrochemical hub, you could drive in whenever you fancied for a look at the newest refineries on the island. Go at night and be dazzled by the Christmas tree-like effect from the fairyland of lights that typifies a modern petrochem hub. The empty, desert-like, yet-to-be-occupied plots of industrial land and roads leading to empty seafronts were also a favourite with courting couples looking for some private space *grin* or shutter bugs who wanted to snap pictures of the refineries at night. Missed that sight? Too bad. It's gone. Forever! 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Islamic State versus SAF Volunteer Corps: Five reasons why IS has a more effective volunteer programme

Two armed organisations, same challenge: How to uproot civilians from their daily routine to support a military cause.

In one corner: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with nearly 50 years of brand equity, full support from the apparatus of state, an alumni of 900,000 Singaporean men who have served full-time National Service, a credible (albeit unproven) arsenal of some of the deadliest war machines you will find in Southeast Asia, a mobilisation process (proven) that gives Singapore one of the fastest transitions from peace to war. The target of the newly-announced SAF Volunteer Corps: 100 to 150 volunteers to be recruited over a year.

Then look at the Islamic State (IS): Volunteers who step forward are branded as terrorists and emerge on the watch list of assorted intelligence agencies. Deployed in-theatre, they face attacks by the combined might of some of the world's most powerfully-armed countries. Homecoming will probably earn them a chat with their local police.

And yet, to the consternation of IS detractors, tens of thousands are said to have stepped forward from all over the world, with a level of motivation that has seen some willingly take on offensive ops that leads to their certain death. The growing IS footprint on maps of the Middle East would not have been possible without the support of their volunteers. If there was a prize for a successful volunteer programme, this organisation - whatever you think of their end-state or motivation - will probably be hard to beat.

Here's why:

1. The volunteer programme is sexy. 
Move from civvie street to join their ranks and one instantly becomes a "fighter". The world's media trips over itself trying to guesstimate the size of their volunteer corps (30,000+ fighters?) and brands all who join it fighters, regardless of the level and quality of military training (if any) these new recruits possess. The word "IS fighter", when blended with the fear-mongering that assorted bespoke videos are engineered to provoke, creates an armed organisation whose shock effect is probably all out of proportion to the actual military capability of their military hardware and small arms.

2. Their ground-up movement or GUMS is phenomenal. 
No Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). No public relations campaign to generate and sustain media interest. No fancy literature to explain their volunteer corps equivalent. Unlimited call up period with the prospect of an anonymous death. Even so, many individuals have made their personal life changing decision to leave their loved ones to join a condemned cause with little or no prospect of home leave. Active in cyberspace, this has led to the recruitment message spreading to all corners of the planet, in various tongues and calibrated in a tone that resonates with their target audience. Can you beat that?

3. Their source of funding is mysterious. 
If press reports are to be believed, the allowance that an IS "fighter" receives is higher than that of an average full-time National Servicemen. Enough said.

4. Their common purpose has been elevated as a noble cause. 
Generations ago, there was an army whose soldiers defied world opinion, marched on wars of conquest and fought to the bitter end even as their dying nation was bombed to smithereens. Their belt buckles carried the slogan: Gott Mit Uns. And they believed it resolutely. In 2014, we again see a common purpose framed around servitude to God. In IS battle cries and on their black flags, service for a higher purpose is proclaimed. Tens of thousands believe this and have made the great trek to join their warring brethren. The optics of this volunteer effort is hard to beat.

5. The world is their audience. 
With the world as their catchment area, the size of their recruitment area for potential recruits is vast. But potentially high returns (in volunteers) comes with high risk as world governments close ranks to crimp this effort. And yet they thrive and one must ask why?

At another time in another place, the Spanish Civil War also saw legions of recruits, fired up by propaganda and personal conviction, flock to Spain to fight for their cause. Both sides, operating in a pre-Internet age, used their recruitment processes to good effect during the Spanish Civil War. So one must think through if IS' volunteer campaign is successful because of social media, or whether it thrives regardless of the tools at its disposal. And if the present-day IS and Spanish militias of yesteryear are guide posts to how hearts and minds campaigns should be won, then the SAFVC's stated aim of 100 to 150 volunteers is perhaps way below par and one wonders why the bar has been set so low? This brings us to the next point.

Even before the SAFVC recruitment effort opened shop on Monday (13 October'14) to Singaporeans and Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs) aged between 18 to 45 years old who want to serve the SAF in uniform, three volunteers were presented to journalists at a media conference at Maju Camp - the SAFVC headquarters.

The fact that MINDEF/SAF had these individuals to parade in front of the media suggests that the SAFVC has an inkling how many Singaporeans/SPRs will respond to their call to action, since three individuals (2% of the SAFVC recruitment target) had evidently stepped forward as volunteers before the recruitment drive went "live". So while it's anyone's guess how many more will apply, it's a pretty safe bet that the figure of 100 to 150 volunteers is not a stretch target but one which can be (somewhat) comfortably achieved. Indeed, one could surmise that the recruitment target will be breached (which is a good thing) and the ground swell of support maximised for PR value in due course as SAFVC can cherry pick the best individuals to fill those 100 to 150 roles.

What's next for the SAFVC is to think through how a GUM can generate and sustain awareness of, and interest in, their cause in a way that eventually ingrains the SAFVC effort as part of the Singapore landscape.

The SAFVC is more than just pulling in warm bodies, numbering 100 to 150 plus souls, which is just about enough to fill the ranks of a slim fit infantry Company.

It is about offering an avenue for Singaporeans/SPRs who need not serve National Service opportunities to contribute to our national defence.

This cause too is a noble and essential duty. SAFVC fighters, please step forward.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Innovations in defence: Malaysia Boleh

When the Royal Malaysian Navy was tasked to conduct anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, it cranked into action plans to convert civilian-flagged vessels into naval auxiliaries.

The two ships, Bunga Mas Lima and Bunga Mas Enam, exemplify the British concept of Ships Taken Up From Trade or STUFT, a concept for harnessing civil resources as military assets that was demonstrated with decisive effect by the British Royal Navy during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

This gem of an idea by the Malaysians is but one of many examples of the innovative spirit in defence science and engineering north of the Causeway. The speed with which the MISC ships were role-changed for a naval role, given a fresh coat of haze gray warpaint and teeth in the form of naval helicopters tells us something about the level of the ops-tech integration in Malaysia's defence eco-system.

More recently, Malaysian Minister of Defence, Hishammuddin Hussein has said abandoned Petronas oil rigs off Sabah are to be given a new lease of life as forward operating bases. The converted rigs will be gifted to the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) as floating lily pads that can be used to generate and sustain the Malaysian military's presence and authority in the seas south of the Philippines that have been used by lawless elements to test Malaysian resolve.

Malaysia's plans for Petronas oil rigs hark back to the British idea of building platforms to defend the mouth of the River Thames against German air and seaborne intruders during World War Two. They also mirror the Iranian practice of using oil rigs to exert a military presence at sea.

When ESSCOM's assets are in place, Malaysian authorities are likely to welcome opportunities to square off the challenge. Knowing the level of training and motivation of Malaysian forces, such engagements are likely to be embarrassingly one-sided.

Closer to home, the raising of two battalions of Keris (Brazilian ASTROS II) multiple rocket launchers by the Malaysian Army shows that its defence strategists understand and appreciate the decisive impact that MRLs have in the confined battespace of peninsular Malaysia.

So while an MRL - a tactical level artillery asset - would hardly caused ripples when fielded by a European army (so vast are distances there), the weapon system is a tactical asset with strategic effect in the Malaysian Army's theatre of operations. In Europe, strategic weapon systems are subject to close monitoring and arms control protocols. But not so in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, someone in the Malaysian defence ecosystem must  have recognised the advantage that a mobile weapon system with a long reach can have during an Auto Strike situation when drawer plans must kick into action quickly to beat the reaction time of a hostile force as it mobilises from peace to war.

The addition of Metis M anti-tank missiles to Malaysia's war chest some years ago is noteworthy on two counts. Firstly, from an operational standpoint, the Metis missiles pack a punch as they have been designed to destroy modern main battle tanks like the Merkava. Secondly, from a force development standpoint, the in-service date for these hard-hitting missiles is indeed interesting to ponder over. Isn't it?

Alas, the Malaysians may not be masters of maximising public relations value from their defence innovations. They lack an annual Defence Technology Prize ceremony which lauds innovation, creativity and best practices in military technology. And while in Singapore, the Singapore Combat Engineers' idea for building a Floating Platform as an interim venue for our National Day Parades has been widely publicised, we have yet to see the Petronas oil rigs enjoy similar PR traction.

But just because you don't hear about their innovations, doesn't mean they have none to celebrate. Give credit where it is due. Well done Malaysia.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unfinished business? Should the Singapore Armed Forces deploy to fight IS?

As the Americans scour the globe for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), it is only a matter of time before Gombak Drive receives a call to arms.

Singapore should be wary of any request(s) to commit the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against IS forces, until and unless the United States demonstrates it is aware of the nature and complexity of the threat it faces in the theatre of operations.

At present, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has defied the slew of life-changing, post-9/11 counter terrorism measures devised to deter, detect and defeat the sort of nemesis that IS has come to represent.

The fact that IS has grown in stature and battlefield effectiveness to a sort of Foreign Legion for like-minded individuals indicates this is no self-radicalised group that somehow attained strength in numbers.

As yet, we do not know who their backers are. And these entities must have deep pockets, perhaps sustained by protection money from oil-rich Arab states in exchange for (temporary) immunity from the problems that have wracked some of their neighbours.

From a logistics standpoint, IS strategists must have mulled over and implemented plans, processes and procedures to rearm, refuel and resupply an estimated 31,000 combatants in a battlespace that spans the now none existent border between Iraq and Syria. In any language, this is a sizeable army, not some rag tag militia with no form or structure. They represent a credible army in the field with an unknown order of battle, funded in the face of heightened financial stringency that monitors everything from the Hawala system to the global financial system.

Until we unmask the threat, the strategy to exploit air supremacy over Syria and Iraq to hit IS positions doesn't have legs to stand on. If it succeeds, it will be one of the few case studies in the profession of arms where air power alone wins the fight.

No country seems willing to put skin in the game with boots on the ground.

Ground forces have taken the form of advisors tasked to train, organise and equip anti-IS forces. This game plan is fraught with folly principally because known one can tell for sure who will ultimately benefit from the training and arms infusion.

This is why Singapore should sit things out before joining the posse.

This is no Operation Blue Ridge redux. The downside risk of having SAF train and arm combatants who are not what they seem is uncomfortably high. We should not place our people in this ambiguous situation which, truth be told, can be traced  back to the US decision to invade Iraq years ago on unsubstantiated claims the then regime was dabbling in weapons of massed destruction.

If anything, the deployment could take the form of a single KC-135R aerial refuelling tanker or C-130 airlifter sent to help the anti-IS coalition sustain the aerial bombardment of hostile positions. But until we know who the warplanes are being deployed against, and that airpower isn't being used by an astute enemy (which has no air force) to bomb their rivals into oblivion, should we even do so blindly?

Singapore's contributions to past international peace support missions indicate we will not shy from adversity, from combat situations or from doing the "right thing" when it matters.

There's a time, place and purpose to everything. And the time is not right for Singapore to join the anti-IS coalition with the deployment of SAF ground forces.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Prospects for non grads in S'pore: Societal shift needed to accept unconventional pathways

When I left the Singapore school system more than 25 years ago with qualifications that earned me a rejection letter from a local university, that development was the best jump start to self-development and lifelong learning I could ask for.

Thanks to a Singaporean who made his own way up the career ladder without a degree, my unconventional academic journey was eventually recognised when he gave me a chance to prove myself in corporate life.

That individual, Mr S.R. Nathan, embodies the societal shift needed as we ponder the value and potential of non graduates versus graduates.

The year was 1996. The place: An office at Raffles City which Mr Nathan used as ambassador-at-large.

He looked through my job application for his then-new strategic studies institute without a word before raising his head and asking a single question: You have A Levels and then you went on to Masters. So you don't have a first degree?

Mr Nathan's perceptiveness saw the past five years of my life compressed into mere minutes, with the expectation that as far as job prospects were concerned, I would soon be shown the door. 

Had it been any other public servant, the show would probably be over. But Mr Nathan bade me to continue.

He listened intently as I described how A level results failed to book me a place at a local university.

He seemed intrigued with the decision to head to work after my full-time National Service, starting at the age of 22 as the Singapore correspondent for a UK-based defence weekly. I was then the youngest freelancer engaged by the magazine and learned what I could from seasoned defence journalists.

The years of freelance work for defence publications, an invitation to present a paper at a defence forum at the age of 23 eventually led to a British academic sketching out options for furthering one's studies overseas. Back in the United Kingdom, that academic shared my dream with colleagues who taught defence/strategic studies. Three were approached. Three wrote back. They hailed from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, King's College in London and the University of Hull. All were prepared to assess the application for a Masters programme.

And so, the paper chase moved into high gear.

The British publisher of the defence magazine -  then and now an influential voice in the British defence scene - supported the application. As did the Naval Attache from an embassy in Singapore. Their endorsements underscored the value not just of networking (which anyone can do), but of proving oneself to an international audience who can be discerning.  

And so, off I went to the UK for a course of study that leverage on what I assessed to be two strengths: in language and in military history/defence matters. In the early 1990s, Singapore's education system did not offer any courses in strategic studies to students outside the Singapore Armed Forces. This meant that the net had to be cast wide to countries that did offer such courses to civilians. Help came from unexpected quarters. At the time, when the National Defense University in the United States was downsizing its National Security Management courses due to budget cuts, a contact there mailed the entire series of Blue Book textbooks to me. This series of about a dozen books proved of immense value in laying the academic foundation so necessary for the Masters in Strategic Studies that I embarked on from September 1995.

Thanks to that piece of paper and with Mr Nathan's advice, I eventually joined Singapore Press Holdings as a daily-rated temp, converting to full-time employment six months later. I have not looked back since.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. The five years in the academic wilderness as a non graduate taught me who my real friends were. Some made scornful remarks about freelance work (try telling people you work from home), others were dismissive about strategic studies/war studies as they'd never heard of it (honestly, their views didn't matter and I gave up explaining what it was all about), others made disparaging remarks about non grads in the guise of offering unsolicited "advice" about university courses (have access to better qualified advisors, thank you). It was great to purge one's life of such characters.

Mr Nathan's willingness to look beyond conventional notions of academic pathways is precisely the societal mindset change needed as Singapore examines career opportunities for people without degrees. Beyond the recent burst of media stories of non graduates made good, Singapore Inc needs to walk the talk.

Our education system needs to reorientate itself quickly because the openness the British university admission system displayed 20 years ago when they were willing to consider work experience as a criteria for a Masters course is, alas, relatively unheard of in Singapore even today. British varsities are apparently not unique in their approach to assessing candidates. The US system is similarly inclined.

One can only wonder at the untold number of Singaporeans who have had their educational aspirations dashed by a system that needs to check the boxes so rigidly that individuals who do not conform to current concepts of talent management fall through the cracks.

The good news is this: Success stories of individuals who made it invariably have some common themes woven into their narrative. These include an innate stubborn belief in their ability to succeed no matter what, passion/drive in pursuing their course of action and a sense of realism in what can be done.

While some elements are within an individual's control, there is an added element of luck and in meeting the right people at the right time.

For me, the turning point emerged during that interview by Mr Nathan. And for that, I remain forever grateful.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Admin note: Blog postings

Hi everyone,
The month of August was a busy one and this resulted in the drop in attention paid to this blog.

The launch of an info management campaign for a Facebook page, drafting of corporate responses to a recent talking point all sapped opportunities for addressing defence-themed issues at the tempo seen months earlier.

However, these real world taskings provided invaluable opportunities for seeing info-management and corporate reputation management at work in addressing hearts-and-minds issues and in shaping perceptions.

Was reappointed to the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) for a two-year term beginning this month. Will also contribute to ACCORD's newly-established Educational Institutions Council (click here for more). Aim to enhance outreach with NS stakeholders in due course.

Cheers :-)


Singapore's "stealth fighters"

For something as large, noisy and closely watched as F-15SG Strike Eagle warplanes, one would think it would be difficult tweaking the headcount without someone noticing.

Alas, if one goes by recent reports in the defence press, Singapore's military has apparently "quietly" expanded its fleet of F-15SGs by adding between eight to 16 additional Strike Eagles to the 24 warplanes it said it purchased.

If it indeed true, such a stunt development is not without its costs in two key areas:
1) Transparency
2) Applying common sense in protecting our operational security.

The trend was outed by aircraft spotters whose meticulously kept notes on Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines signaled that aircraft tail numbers - these are unique alpha-numeric identities assigned to individual aircraft - do not seem to tally. When plane spotters noted masking tape used to cover such codes, this further stoked their curiosity as to why the RSAF had taken such measures for its F-15SGs.

And so plane spotters collaborated with and between one another, across borders and over several years, to join the dots. Such sense-making resulted in the reports that surfaced recently.

According to the reports, Singapore could have between eight to 16 more F-15SGs than the 24 it is said to have purchased from United States warplane maker, The Boeing Company. Despite the somewhat pedantic discussion of aircraft numbering protocols, the jury is still out on the exact number of platforms fielded by the RSAF. Such ambiguity does wonders for deterrence because potential adversaries will have to hedge against the possibility that the RSAF warplane fleet is larger than orginally thought.

The cryptic statement from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) did little to clarify the issue. A MINDEF statement to Jane's Information Group said:"The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) bases our procurement on the assessed long-term defence needs, and the RSAF has purchased sufficient F-15SGs to meet our defence requirements."

Make no mistake: News that Singapore's war machine may pack a heftier punch is indeed reassuring.

However, there is something to be said about applying common sense and logic to military secrets that can be protected, and order of battle developments that are best declared openly.

In the case of our F-15SGs, all the masking tape and new registrations in the world has not hidden the additional assets from plane spotters who have the curiosity to discover, the energy to pursue and the contacts to verify. This lesson, if lost on MINDEF/SAF staff officers who engineered the masking tape thingy, could have potentially damaging ramifications to Singapore's security posture in the areas of transparency and credibility, as well as opsec management.

One would hope the recent news flows solidly debunk the idea that no one would notice new registrations on SAF assets. Indeed, there are people who count not just  RSAF tail numbers but the number plates of SAF vehicles too. [Please click here for a guide to SAF number plates.]

So if the desired end state of obscuring the true size of the RSAF's F-15SG cannot be achieved by hiding aircraft identities, why do so when it raises questions on the level of transparency that comes out from Gombak Drive?

It's also worth pondering the kind of logic that applies to opsec guidelines. Surely someone must have recognised the futility of the exercise (new numbers, masking tape, obscure media statements) before the new aircraft hit the ramp and took to the skies?

What if the same tactic was applied to a war machine that MINDEF/SAF really needs to keep under wraps because such assets represent a combat edge? What if the trend is outed in the same manner, thus blowing the cover for something that should not have seen the light of day.

We may sound schizoid in saying this after venting about the issue, but MINDEF/SAF has a proven track record (pun intended...) for keeping its real secrets watertight. Not just large war machines, mind you, but entire units staffed over decades by a sizeable number of servicemen and servicewomen, with not a squeak revealed to those who do not need to know.[Click here for an expose on the RSAF's 200 SQN]

Perhaps other considerations swung into play when the RSAF upsized its F-15SG fleet without telling the whole world about it.

One consideration could have centred on the request by the United States not to be seen as stoking an arms race in the region by pumping more high-value assets into Asian skies. The F-15SG is, afterall, the most advanced variant of the United States Air Force's most lethal and combat-proven warplane in service and an infusion of more Strike Eagles to the RSAF - which in effect bolsters regional tie-ups such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the ASEAN family's air defence shield - may ruffle feathers farther up north.

When all is said and done, Singapore has adopted the adage of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Those who know would realise the RSAF's ability and mission readiness to pack a punch just got deadlier thanks to its new "stealth fighters".