Thursday, January 23, 2020

Confirmed imported case of Novel Coronavirus in Singapore

Same but different: SARS 2003 versus Singapore's preparations against coronavirus 2020

This week's news of the flu-like illness caused by the coronavirus has rekindled memories of the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, which was also caused by a pathogen from the coronavirus family.

Many things have changed in Singapore since 2003 that make this island better prepared if we have to endure another SARS-like fight. Here are five key changes:

1. Social media
Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and more. These social media platforms didn't exist in March 2003 when Singapore reported its first SARS case. In an emergency, such platforms can be used to spread information in an instant across the community in near realtime. Remember how call tree reporting was done in 2003 and how you would do it today? An app like WhatsApp can hook up an entire office or school or community, allowing people to stay in touch in ways never imagined during our first fight against SARS.

2. Information access
We had handphones in 2003. But back in the day, state-of-the-art meant being able to SMS on your Nokia without looking at the key pad. Today's touch screen mobile devices are not only smarter and more capable. Hooked to the internet, your smart phone gives you access to a lot of information should you need it.

Knowing what we're up against is an important first step in conquering one's fear of the unknown. But social media plus smart devices is a double-edged sword. One should expect false alarms with fake news spread either unwittingly or maliciously, which brings to mind why Digital Defence was added as the sixth pillar of Total Defence.

3. Seasoned population
People over the age of 20 are likely to remember their personal experience during the SARS crisis 17 years ago. Whether it is something simple like temperature checks in primary school, it doesn't matter. What is valuable is Singapore's collective experience having been through a pandemic and learning hard lessons from the episode, which killed 33 people in 2003. While it was hard to Keep Calm and Carry On when we first met SARS, Singaporeans should be more assured now that we have had the collective experience and SOPs for dealing with epidemics.

4. Tested SOPs
The SARS-like scenarios tested during business continuity exercises may sound like preparations to fight the last war. They are indeed scripted for the possible re-emergence of SARS-like situations. Precisely such a scenario looms near. Compared to 2003 when we were caught off guard, Singapore is better prepared thanks to years spent testing, refining and investing in drawer plans for nation-wide medical emergencies.

5. WOG
As a system, the whole of government resources (WOG) are more tightly integrated and well-oiled compared to 2003. Remember that we didn't even have the Cabinet post of Coordinating Minister, which was relatively new in 2003. It started (after the SARS crisis) with the Coordinating Minister for National Security post in August 2003 to spearhead counter terrorism efforts and has since matured and evolved.

Singapore now has three Coordinating Minister posts to improve the way civil service and national resources are harnessed - for National Security, for Infrastructure, and for Economic and Social Policies. Incidentally, the Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, played a key role in the SARS fight as Health Minister in 2003.

The WOG machinery has been set in motion, so let's see how this coronavirus episode plays out.

You  may also like:
Singapore's defence innovations during the 2003 SARS crisis. Click here

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and DSTA defence innovations during the 2003 SARS crisis

A respiratory illness in Wuhan, China, has raised concerns that it might spark another worldwide pandemic like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003.

SARS killed 33 people in Singapore in 2003. The crisis, which lasted from March to July 2003, forced upon Singaporeans behavioral changes like temperature taking in schools and work places, decentralised work arrangements and saw shopping centres emptied out as people stayed home and tourists stayed away.

Senang Diri recalls three homegrown defence innovations that made an impact in Singapore during the SARS crisis.

Innovation 1: Infrared Fever Scanning System (IFss)
Asked for a sensor that money couldn't buy, defence engineers from the Sensor Systems Division, Defence Science  & Technology Agency (DSTA) and Singapore Technologies Electronics (ST Elec) created a fever scanner from scratch. One week after the request by Singapore's Ministry of Health, the DSTA and ST Elec team had their prototype fever scanner ready. It was the world's first infrared-based system for screening large groups of people.

DSTA engineers designed this unique sensor, which was developed and made in Singapore, using radar principles.

A DSTA paper on the IFss said: "Screening a large group of people for fever is similar to the radar detection problem. In the case of the radar, it has to scan a large surveillance space for very few targets. The radar must be able to distinguish RF echoes of real targets from clutter noise. One way is to narrow down probable targets in two steps. Like the Radar Double Threshold Detection Scheme, the IFss uses a two-tier detection concept to screen a large group of people for fever. The first decision point is the detection of individuals with high skin temperatures and the second decision point is the confirmation that the subject has an elevated body temperature using conventional clinical thermometers."

Pressed for time as the SARS crisis was a national emergency, the sensor lacked a sexy name and was simply called the Infrared Fever Scanning System (IFss).

Innovation 2: Unique test material

Speaking of sex... when I received a tipoff about a feel good story for National Day 2003, I thought it was a hoax. A normally reliable source who telephoned yours truly claimed that defence engineers at Singapore Technologies Electronics were using condoms to test and calibrate microchips for use in temperature sensors. Apparently, plastic coverings were not as effective as thin, skin-like latex condoms that were better at allowing heat transfer to fever monitoring microchips during the testing process.

After extensive lab trials, ST Elec engineers chose a particular brand of condom from among dozens for their thermal and tactile properties. The sheaths also had to be non-lubricated. This was all true (see story above) and the defence engineers reduced testing time of the fever monitoring "Glowcard" chips by months. I hope they earned official recognition from MINDEF/SAF for all that hard work testing condom after condom in the name of national defence. Any volunteers for intensive condom testing in 2020 if needed?

Innovation 3: Contact tracing centre
The Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH), Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and DSTA worked jointly to set up and run a contact tracing centre from scratch with no mission rehearsal. MOH could handle the task of tracking down people who might have been in close contact with suspected SARS cases when the numbers involved were in the hundreds. This process is called contact tracing. But when the problem involved more than 2,000 people who were at a SARS hot spot, the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market, the ministry needed more firepower.

Former Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General (NS) Neo Kian Hong, who was then a colonel who was Commander 9 Singapore Division, helped set up the contact tracing centre using division scouts. DSTA built the computer systems and rapidly set up process for what evolved into the National Contact Tracing Centre.

Writing in an MOH journal on SARs, Professor Chee Yam Cheng, recalled the Singapore Army's contributions: "They worked in shifts from 7 am to 11 pm, and their sole objective was to trace within 24 hours (and this is vitally important) of receiving the name of a SARS patient, everyone who had been in close contact with him. This meant every name (and address – in order to serve the Home Quarantine Order) of every person that the SARS patient (be he highly suspect or probable) could remember having met from the time he took ill (and maybe even while he was incubating the illness the previous 10 days, unless we can be very sure when the infectious period started in each case).

"The army came to the rescue when MOH realised its battle against time to trace the 2,000 people affected by the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre closure could not be won without reinforcements. For once SARS spreads through the community, we risk losing control of it, and will not be able to isolate and contain it."

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Probing the David Boey enigma: Love-hate relationship with the defence ecosystem

Many men and women in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and NSmen have heard of me but have never met me in person. You may be one of them.

Over in Malaysia, many warga Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) do not know my name or face as I'm no celebrity. But curiously enough, my blog seems to be a useful calling card as many ATM officers have read it. On more than a few occasions up north, I'd mention Senang Diri to an ATM officer and see the Malaysian's face light up with recognition, glad to match a face to a name. Interestingly enough, some ATM officers continue calling me Senang Diri even after being properly introduced, which I find quite charming but in a good way.

My wife told me recently that a former BG finds me "okay" and that his personal impressions of my recent newspaper op-eds do not match the Gombak canteen gossip. Am unsure if I should feel flattered or concerned.

Truth be told, in situations where there is no right of reply or chance to clarify or provide context, the enigma that is me can take many forms. Sentiments run the full spectrum of human emotions. Over the years, yours truly has been shouted at, admonished, obstructed, tailed (as in followed) and investigated while at the same time praised, treated, congratulated, befriended and engaged (in a positive way). It is indeed an enigmatic love-hate relationship.

Admittedly, many negative episodes took place during my younger, gung-ho days. But impressions linger in the ever thickening P-file and gossip circuit. It does not help that security awareness talks in years long past mentioned yours truly's notorious exploits (if staking out air base flight paths counts as notorious. But plane spotters were rare in the early 1990s) and the junior officers who attended those talks have risen up the chain of command.

Over decades, one learns to live with it because people who genuinely want to know you better for a balanced world view will make that effort.

On several occasions at business meetings that have nothing to do with defence, small talk with complete strangers has led to surprising outcomes. They start with the usual Singaporean business protocol. Hand shake, exchange of name cards then light conversation on safe topics.

A number of you caught me by surprise when midway in the conversation, with completely no relevance to whatever was being discussed, you'd bring up the blog.

This has happened at a number of Singapore Armed Forces events too. The host of whatever weapon platform or exhibit would deliver his/her briefing completely poker faced. Then when nobody is looking, the officer would come over and whisper almost conspiratorially, "I read your blog", which is always sweet to hear because the effort writing stuff meant something to somebody.

A number of ministers and MPs drop by occasionally too.

It's always nice to meet readers firsthand. It's great to hear your feedback and listen to your opinions. It beats staring at dashboard analytics wondering who is behind all the numbers. So thank you all.

This blog, now past its tenth year, also serves as a platform for me to engage you directly, typing my thoughts on my side of the screen and having you read and scroll on your side.

And I guess the engagements with curious SAF and ATM personnel who make the effort to unveil the enigma have worked well, despite occasional atmospherics.

Among the successful engagements is my wife. Like some of you, she heard of me before she met me. Not all the stuff was flattering though I must say it speeded up the get-to-know-you process when we dated and both had our IFF interrogators on and ESM antennae finely tuned.

Am happy that despite the 15-year age gap, it has worked out. So as much as I have an aversion to military security minders, I have them to thank for life's surprising turn. [Confession: A small, teeny weeny paranoid part of my brain did ask if she was a MINDEF/SAF plant as it was too good to be true. Anyway she now has the free run of my library, files etc.]

The Wife says I never write about her, which should be the case because I firewall family privacy closely. But am making an exception today because today marks our fifth wedding anniversary.

So happy anniversary sweety if you're reading this  =)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Some defence & security highlights in Singapore 2020

The year 2020 will be a banner year in Singapore for several defence and security-related fields. Here's Senang Diri's list of highlights for the year.

30th year of People's Republic of China and Singapore diplomatic ties 
Last October, China and Singapore signed the Agreement on Defence Cooperation and Security Exchanges. As both countries mark three decades of diplomatic ties, it is likely that defence cooperation will feature in activities to toast this important anniversary year. Port calls by PLAN warships to Singapore this year will obviously take on added significance. Stay tuned for more from Senang Diri (

55th year of Singapore's independence
Singapore will celebrate its 55th birthday on 9 August 2020. The National Day Parade returns to the Float@Marina Bay, with men and women from the 3rd Singapore Division leading the planning and execution of the event. We wish 3 Div a safe, successful and joyous journey as NDP EXCO.

55th anniversary of the People's Defence Force (PDF)
Formed in 1965, the People's Defence Force turns 55 in 2020. The formation commands  2 PDF/Island Defence Task Force, which is the domain expert for island-wide military security operations.

Fighter 50
This year is the Golden Jubilee for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) fighter community. In 1970, Singapore received her first Hawker Hunter fighter/ground attack planes from the United Kingdom. The Hunters served with 140 Squadron. The Hunterians set the groundwork for the expansion of, and enhancements to, the Republic's fighter community.

Hunters flew for more than three decades, eventually standing down in the early 1990s. This this day, the Hunter holds the RSAF record for the heaviest gun armament among RSAF fast jets - four 30mm ADEN cannon. 

30th year of F-16 operations
The Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 community will mark 30 years of F-16 operations. The F-16A/Bs acquired under Peace Carvin I are long gone but their legacy lives on with RSAF F-16C/D/D+s forming the backbone of Singapore's fighter force as the most numerous fighter type.

10th year of  S-70B Seahawk operations
Introduced in 2010 under the Peace Triton programme, our Seahawk community commemorates 10 years of Seahawk operations. Time flies doesn't it?

Singapore Airshow 2020
The Asia-Pacific's largest aviation and defence event will take place from 11 to 16 February 2020. The flying display by the United States Air Force F-22  Raptor demonstration team, which is due to fly at the airshow for the first time, will be one of the highlights.

18th Feb 2020
On 18 Feb 2020, Singapore will unveil its Budget Statement for Financial Year 2020/21, which begins on 1 April 2020. Last year, Singapore's Ministry of Defence was allocated a S$15.47 billion budget, a 4.8% increase. It will probably top S$16 billion this year.

Pukul Habis - Total Wipeout
And finally, we'll release this book this year by 16 September. Stay tuned for more. I enjoyed this project and walk away with a healthy respect for the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia and am grateful for the friendships forged. Please visit my Twitter account @SenangDiri to up vote the video pinned to the Profile if you'd like to see the Prologue in full. Thank you.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Six Singapore Armed Forces and ST Engineeringg project to ponder at the Singapore Airshow 2020

The biennial Singapore Airshow, held every even-numbered year, offers a fascinating shop window for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) watchers keen to know what platforms the SAF might acquire. Exhibits at the pavilion for homegrown defence company, Singapore Technologies Engineering, have traditionally proven a crowd magnet for military nuts.

With the Singapore Airshow 2020 a month away (11 to 16  Feb 2020), here's a list of projects (not in order of importance) you might want to have in mind as you walk through ST Engg's exhibits. Happy crystal ball gazing.

1. Endurance 160
ST Engg's LHD proposal, the Endurance 160, was unveiled 10 years ago at the Sing Airshow 2010. Yes, it's been in the works for more than a decade! The 14,500 tonne warship is the first one designed by ST Engineering Marine with a full length flight deck. Specifications for the 2010 version gave the ship an overall length of 163.7m, with the flight deck estimated at around 146m long by 25.6m wide with five helicopter deck landing spots. 

Following the US announcement this week that Singapore wants to buy four F-35B STOVL fighters with another eight options, people naturally want to know what's going on with the Joint Multi-Mission Ship (see image below, SEA assets, top row right). We look forward to seeing if the Endurance 160 design will be updated or will ST Engineering simply blow the dust off the decade-old Endurance 160 model for public display yet again? 

2. Multi-Role Combat Vessel (MRCV)
A new class of Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) warship called the Multi-Role Combat Vessel (MRCV, see top image, SEA assets, bottom row right ) is due to be delivered by ST Engg Marine from 2025 with full delivery around 2030. The MRCVs are due to replace sixVictory-class Missile Corvettes (MCVs), which entered service in 1989 and are the oldest RSN surface combatants (the oldest RSN boats are the former Royal Swedish Navy Sjöormen-class SSKs). We've yet to see definitive specifications on the MRCV and eagerly await her vital statistics. Ship models on display may provide telling signs of the MRCV's design evolution.

3. MBT-capable landing craft
To many people, landing craft aren't sexy. But a naval asset that doesn't grab people's attention is still worth tracking. There's been a requirement for a fast landing craft that can ferry MBT-type assets for some time. A water-jet propelled, enlarged Fast Craft Utility with a drive-thru design and offset wheelhouse said to be based on ST Engg Marine's Brave series, could fit this requirement. Scale models on display are worth checking out.

4. Self-propelled 155mm gun
The Singapore Artillery is due to unveil a replacement for its FH-2000 52-cal 155mm howitzers this year. Dubbed the Next Generation Howtizer (please see SAF 2030 graphic, LAND assets, second row second from left), this mobile gun is said to consist of a fully automated, unmanned 155mm turret mated with a self-propelled chassis, quite possibly from the German-made MAN 8x8 High Mobility Truck System family.

5. Hunter Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV)
This edition of the Singapore Airshow will be the first since the Hunter AFV was officially named and commissioned by Singapore's Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, last June. At previous air shows, the AFV was simply called the Next Generation AFV. It will be nice to see if the Hunter will be shown with all the bells and whistles, or will it remain in the "fitted for but not with" configuration?  Hrmmm....

6. Singapore-made 5.56mm assault rifle
Every edition of the Singapore Airshow has seen ST Engineering Land Systems (previously ST Kinetics) unveil a new 5.56mm assault rifle. In 2018, we saw the BR18 bullpup rifle - Bullpup Rifle 2018 - make its public debut. This weapon was developed from STK's Bullpup Multirole Combat Rifle (BMCR), which first appeared at the 2014 airshow. Will there be a "BR20"? Stay tuned for more.

You may also like:
Singapore's BR18 5.56mm bullpup assault rifle.[From the Sing Airshow 2018] Click here
A look at the world's shortest bullpup rifle. [From the Sing Airshow 2014] Click here

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Commentary on Singapore's F-35B deal

My commentary on the F-35B announcement, What the F-35B fighter jet deal says about Singapore's defence purchase planning, appears in The Straits Times today. Click here for the full commentary.

The extract above discusses the Joint Multi Mission Ship and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles.