Thursday, September 10, 2015

Action needed, not just words

In recent days, much ado has been made about the need for, and importance of, alternative voices to speak out for you.

The minority in the House have indeed spent their tenure productively. They have taken to the floor during every opportune topic that serves their interests while electing to remain silent on awkward issues where their arguments or logic prove weak.

Let us be clear that while alternative voices can speak out, their scattered presence in the House makes them utterly irrelevant when the time comes to vote on matters that truly matter to you and I.

They do make their voice heard. Often vociferously, sometimes logically, always futilely because that handful of dissent doesn't matter.

Alternative voices do not necessarily translate to alternative action. Know the difference.

The point to be made is that Singaporeans need to filter out the lofty, empty promises from candidates claiming to be change agents for all things unpopular, untimely or unrealistic that the G wants to shove down our throats.

By all means choose the better candidate or team. Slick slogans aside, do so with your eyes wide open on what those alternative voices can realistically do for you beyond hollow rhetoric.

Debate over $1 billion price tag for E-2C Hawkeyes
Back in 1984, the then MP for Anson, J.B. Jeyaretnam, made clear his reservations about Singapore's plans to buy four Grumman E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft for $1 billion. It was then our most expensive defence purchase.

The flying radar stations were deemed necessary as eyes in the sky to give the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) early warning of airborne intruders and the time needed to get Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes up in the air.

The SAF requirement for AEW pre-dated the combat record of such assets in hot-wars fought by overseas air forces that validated the value of such assets in air combat.

Still, at $1 billion a pop, it was a political hot potato.

A spirited debate ensued in the Singapore Parliament over the need for, timing and wisdom of this purchase.

To be sure, the late JBJ gave a good account of himself. He maximised his airtime in Parliament, even though his arguments against and knowledge of air operations were not particularly illuminating.

Hot air
All that hot air counted for nothing because the RSAF still got its E-2Cs.

So while the Hansard attests to the intensity and ferocity of the debate, it did absolutely nothing to change the RSAF's growth trajectory. Those Hawkeyes still came home to roost.

Along the way, there was an earnest attempt to ensure a balanced budget and people-friendly programmes. A year after that budget debate, Singapore fell into recession (scrimping on the E-2Cs would have done absolutely nothing to steer us clear of that slump) - highlighting Singapore's exposure to the global market economy.

Helplines were extended to Singaporeans and our economic posture adjusted along the way. Beyond the rhetoric, who was there to spearhead all of that?

Survive and thrive
After the Asian financial crisis, after the dot.com bust, after the 9/11 attacks rattled the world, during and after the deadly SARS crisis, who led, who assured and who helped this tiny city-state navigate dangerous episodes?

When our national budget is adjusted every year, such tweaks are made independent of, and not because of, the clarion call for change from alternative voices in and outside the House.

Yes, there have been fruitless trips up blind alleys with botched policies. Admittedly, there have been foot in mouth moments. The hue and cry such issues raise among thinking Singaporeans - and there are many outside the orbit of political circles - often serves as the trigger for the G to stop, take stock and modify its stance where necessary.

It is this ability to adjust and adapt to changing conditions that has helped our accidental nation, ejected from the Federation 50 years ago, to survive far longer than expected.

Separate the wheat from the chaff.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cut the defence budget? Freedom is not free.

All eyes will be on Singapore on Polling Day next Friday. 

As Singaporeans assess the future leaders for their country, the world will assess the country’s future with these leaders.

Who we elect into Parliament will shape world opinion on the Little Red Dot’s ability to thrive and survive and the risks we face as a city-state – the smallest of the ASEAN 10. And world opinion matters greatly.

We vote with our hearts and with our minds.

World opinion votes with its feet.

Any signs of uncertainty for businesses in Singapore, any whiffs of insecurity or indications that the new leadership is weak or incompetent will prompt investors to relook their stakes in our sunny isle. 

And with alternatives aplenty not just in our immediate neighbourhood but beyond, this will spell trouble for Singapore. This is a hard truth you cannot run away from.

Larger neighbours blessed with abundant natural resources, bigger populations and a distinguished ancient history have borne the brunt of the economic realities once world opinion takes a dim view of the country’s security, survival and success.

Look north. A net exporter of oil and gas, huge hinterland and sizeable population compared to Singapore, bursting with natural resources and with sea and air ports that are no less strategically located than the Little Red Dot. Ponder the pitiful decline in their currency, the steady erosion in foreign direct investment – money that is unlikely to return to the Federation anytime soon – and ask yourself what gives your precious Singapore dollars the value it deserves? 

It is confidence, both locally and abroad, that the Lion City led by able leaders will continue to be a safe, stable and secure place for homemakers and businesses alike. Such confidence doesn’t spring forth out of thin air. 

Friends and frenemies know this place will be resolutely defended by its citizen soldiers. 

This is why investors will put their money where their mouth is by setting up companies in Singapore even when opportunities beckon from far larger neighbours. Even as we score, the economic game doesn't swing our way all the time. Remember Seagate? Once one of the largest employers here, it has since moved abroad to a more competitive business address.

The system isn't perfect (which one ever is?) but we are adaptable, pragmatic and never shy away from ditching unworkable plans, programmes and processes when planning parameters are proven wrong. 

The sense of security stems from a track record of more hits than misses and a determination to prove that our collective journey to nationhood wasn't a fluke.

Rob observers of that sense of security and an unsettled world opinion will rethink Singapore’s place in world affairs.

Why?


Because nobody owes us a living and freedom is not free.

Choose wisely.


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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Cut Singapore's defence budget?

Seven years after the essay below was penned, the fundamentals that underpin Singapore's stability, growth and prosperity remain unchanged.

We can chart our own destiny - progressive, retrogressive or destructive, whichever way you really fancy - because the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) buys us the time and space that allows Singaporeans to decide our own course(s) of action. 

Think things through carefully.




A strong and silent keeper of the peace
Tue, Jul 01, 2008
The Straits Times

EVEN as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) marks SAF Day this evening with a parade, a sizeable number of military personnel will remain on guard - the vigilant lions protecting the Lion City.
David Boey

EVEN as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) marks SAF Day this evening with a parade, a sizeable number of military personnel will remain on guard - the vigilant lions protecting the Lion City.

But many Singaporeans may be unaware of this, believing all's well. Apart from the threat transnational terrorists pose, the lack of a clear and present danger from a hostile nation might seduce them into viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses. Such naivety would not only be wrong, it 
would also be dangerous.

During a study visit I made to Malaysia last year, a senior Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) officer shared with me an episode in Singapore-Malaysia relations that he said occurred during a period of tension.

According to the officer, the MAF was put on alert in late 1998 as politicians on both sides of the Causeway argued over the status of the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) checkpoint at Malaysia's railway station in Tanjong Pagar.

News articles from the period chronicle the public exchanges, but say nothing of the defence postures that the SAF and MAF adopted during this period.

Kuala Lumpur's unwillingness to acknowledge its heightened military preparedness - which military officials on both sides privately acknowledge did occur - was an astute move.

It indicated a tacit acknowledgement on the part of Malaysia's defence officials that they could not allow the CIQ issue to flare into a casus belli. The full force potential of the SAF when mobilised renders it a formidable opponent.

There were other telling signs that bilateral ties were not well during that period. These included Singapore's decision to conduct two open mobilisation exercises in September and October 1998. Records indicate that the SAF rarely calls up its manpower in successive months.

It should be noted that such open mobilisation exercises - overt call-ups of defence manpower broadcast over television, radio and in cinemas - are probably complemented by silent mobilisations. 

Few beyond Singapore's defence establishment would be aware of this.

The CIQ episode resembles an earlier episode in Singapore-Malaysia relations when military power was flexed in a show of force, apparently to intimidate the tiny island nation.

Operationally Ready National Servicemen who served in 1991 would recall the joint Malaysian-Indonesian military exercise, codenamed Malindo Darsasa 3AB, that occurred that year. It involved an airborne assault by paratroopers in southern Johor.

If the name of the airborne assault, codenamed Pukul Habis (Malay for 'Total Wipeout'), as well as the choice of a drop zone just 18km from Singapore, were not sufficiently provocative, the scheduling of the airdrop on Aug 9th - Singapore's 26th National Day - most certainly was.

The SAF's response was measured and confident. It triggered an Open Mobilisation on the eve of National Day, a fact that was reported extensively in the local media.

The move was calculated not to escalate tensions. But it signalled also Singapore's determination not to welcome a Trojan horse on its doorstep.

Such episodes cannot be kept secret from NSmen, of course. But because they were deliberately kept low key, many Singaporeans were probably unaware of the full picture. Consequently, they may have failed to see the relevance of a strong military.

Singapore has warm and friendly ties with its neighbours. It will often go the extra mile to keep things on an even keel with them. But Singaporeans should understand and accept that there are always undercurrents in bilateral relations.

Those who wonder about the relevance of the SAF should ponder how these past episodes might have panned out if Singapore had yielded to military pressure.

A strong and vigilant SAF is Singapore's hedge against trouble. Singapore's formidable military arsenal - and, more crucially, the fighting spirit of its citizen soldiers - are guarantors of peace.
The writer is this newspaper's former defence correspondent.


Dare we let down our guard?

By David Boey
For the Straits Times
Feb 2009
Defence Spending
When Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel are called upon to defend their country, there would be few - if any - Singaporeans who would question the relevance of Singapore's military strength.

But the SAF's readiness and the commitment of its soldiers, sailors and airmen should not be taken for granted. The combat capabilities currently deployed took years of steady investments to raise, train and sustain.
Consider the Commando Special Operations Force (SOF) that stormed Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 at Changi Airport on March 26, 1991 and saved 123 passengers and crew. Four Pakistani hijackers had threatened to kill one hostage every 10 minutes unless their demands were met. They gave the Singapore authorities five minutes to decide what to do. Three minutes into the countdown, the SOF settled the issue by killing all four hijackers.
The operation, codenamed Thunderbolt, marked the first time the SAF resolved a hijacking with deadly force. The operation also marked the first occasion when an SAF unit was deployed for operations even before its existence was publicly acknowledged. The veil of secrecy over the SOF was lifted only on Feb 20, 1997, nearly six years after the SQ117 rescue and some 13 years after the SOF was formed in April 1984.
Among the Singapore Army's fighters, SOF troopers are probably the most expensive soldiers to train, organise, equip and support. Yet the Ministry of Defence argued that they were a necessary investment.
A year after the elite unit was formed in 1984, independent Singapore endured its first economic recession. But the unit's development continued unabated, nevertheless. Had Mindef opted for was financially expedient rather than what was operationally prudent, the SQ117 rescue - executed years later - might have had a very different outcome.
Two operations flown by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) further demonstrate how defence capabilities can be called upon decades after they were first established.
The RSAF set up 122 Squadron to fly C-130 Hercules medium-lift tactical airlifters in 1977. The squadron's years of experience in flight operations, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief flights around the region, paid off in October 1990 during Operation Nightingale, when two C-130s flew medical supplies to Jordan. Iraq had invaded Kuwait that August and 122 Squadron was tasked to deliver 23 tonnes of medical supplies to the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation in Jordan.
The second operation occurred in July 1997, when 122 Squadron evacuated more than 400 Singaporeans from Phnom Penh when the security situation in the Cambodian capital deteriorated. Two waves of air evacuations were carried out during Operation Crimson Angel using C-130s protected by commandos.
As these examples show, it may take decades for people to appreciate the value of defence investments. However, the lack fo such investment can become apparent in a much shorter tie. This is because hostile elements can be quick to exploit gaps or shortcomings in Singapore's defences.
Take the piracy problem which plagued Singapore's defence planners in the 1980s. Attacks by sea raiders at places like East Coast Park, West Coast Park and Tuas made the headlines in the 1980s, showing that sea robbers had found loopholes in Singapore's seaward defences. Singapore paid the price for an ill-defined maritime strategy.
The situation today is markedly different. Round-the-clock surveillance of Singapore's territorial waters by naval patrols ans sensors like radars, air surveillance by shore-based Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft and cooperation with regional navies send a signal of Singapore's determination to safeguard its shores. But attacks recorded in nearby sea lanes prove that pirates continue to prowl regional seas. Strip away the assets of the Republic of Singapore Navy and the sea robbers will surely return to our shores. Dare we take that chance?

A balanced budget
The operations cited above do not mean that Mindef should command an unlimited budget. Neither should one expect our nation's elected representatives to be mute witnesses to the SAF's transformation into a 3rd Generation fighting force.
Questions on financial stewardship will ensure that Singapore gets the maximum bang for every defence dollar that is spent. Defence planners should indeed explain how the 6 per cent of GDP that Mindef spends is spent wisely.
However, it is important to ensure that long-term defence capabiities are protected, no matter what the short-term economic conditions. Capability erosion could easily come about through cyclical variations in defence spending.
One must appreciate that combat capabilities for the SAF's land, sea and air units take years to attain full battle readiness from the time new hardware is introduced. Indecisive defence funding would onot only send a weak deterrent message, it could also hamper Singapore's defence posture through less realistic training or less capable defence equipment
******
The writer was Straits Times defence correspondent.

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