Thursday, August 26, 2010

The best customers

Spend some time with people who sell home alarms and you will learn that people whose homes were just burgled are their best customers.

My friend who is in the security business says he doesn’t even have to make a sales pitch. He just stands and waits for two questions: How much do I owe you? When can it be installed?

Spend some time with insurance agents and you will learn that their best customers are those who had a recent brush with death. Stage 1 cancer detected in the nick of time. Wanderlust brought to a halt by a near-death experience. A small home fire that nearly became a newspaper page lead. These are all it takes to convince skeptics that insurance is worth paying for. And they’ll pay till it hurts.

Spend some time with a friend of mine and you’ll realise why he says a prayer of thanks after every work day. He is with the Home Team.

I’m not sure what sort of paperwork he is privy to, neither do I want to know too much, but I do know he spends a great deal of time with threat assessments.

He says the threats to this island nation are real. And I believe him.

The security threats this country faces will hurt people using a macabre and cruel interpretation of the words of our pledge. They will hit us regardless of race, language or religion.

Sadly, the success of our security agencies working behind the scenes is also the source of their greatest bugbear. Success breeds complacency. It stokes a sense of smug security bordering on stupidity, a kind of blasé stupor that will not be shrugged off short of seeing the worst effects of a terror attack, blood and mayhem on our streets. This is the wake-up call our society is waiting for.

When it comes, are you ready for it?

Conventional threats, too, loom real in our neighbourhood.

Our neighbours know that sabre-rattling achieves little because of the round-the-clock vigilance by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Home Team agencies.

Back in 1991, the combined might of Malaysian and Indonesian armies staged a parachute drop just 20km from Woodlands. The exercise was codenamed Pukul Habis (Malay for "Total Wipeout"), which was a wonderfully chosen moniker. Indeed, some SAF war game codenames and targets on the simulated hit list would send a chill down our neighbours’ spines too. When Mal-Indo forces announced they would stage the Pukul Habis airdrop on 9 Aug 1991 - Singapore's 26th National Day - the war games resulted in an unprecedented open mobilisation of SAF armour battalions on the eve of National Day. The unzipping of SM1 light tanks from dri-clad wraps and engine start by the NSman armour battalion was widely covered by the Singaporean media.

In years that followed, such posturing was also played out in numerous incidents-at-sea in the waters around Horsburgh Lighthouse. The lighthouse is sited on Pedra Branca, an islet disputed by Singapore and Malaysia until its ownership was resolved by the International Court of Justice in Singapore’s favour (a day after my best friend’s birthday, I might add).

It is fortunate that the Malaysian military showed tact and restraint. Had the standoff flared into a shooting match, they would have quickly discovered that Horsburgh can unleash a lot more energy than the lighthouse's revolving lights. At the frontline were SAF warfighters who were deployed under operations that have never been publicised so as not to antagonise sentiments on both sides of the border.

As military provocations proved futile - indeed counterproductive as they only help thicken the Lion City’s national education syllabus – new tricks have been added to the bag.

Our island nation endured a virtual blockade of sand and granite in the past couple of years. This was enforced in the name of environmental concerns but was really primed to hit Singapore’s construction boom. Sand barges were intercepted and detained within sight of Singapore harbour. The sea blockade was later extended to granite shipments. Fallout from this blockade resulted in higher prices for home renovations and construction work and delayed the opening of the massive Marina Bay Sands integrated resort too.

It is perhaps fortunate that the blockade was confined to sand and granite. Had it encompassed food shipments, Singapore would have acted decisively as this counts as one of our vital interests. Ready at the frontline, the SAF.

The SAF and the demands of National Service (NS) are natural lightning rods for Singaporean critics - and there are many of them. We love to poke fun at the SAF. This includes everything from cookhouse food to scholar officers and war machines that are always several rungs down from what armchair generals claim we should buy.

But when push comes to shove, like the occasion in March 1991 when Singapore Airlines Flight SQ117 was hijacked by Pakistani radicals, everyone trusts and believes the SAF will magically appear and do the "'right" thing. The battle streamer that hangs on the flag of HQ Commando marks the successful conclusion of Operation Thunderbolt - the hostage-rescue mission spearheaded by Commandos. [In recent days, we've all seen how such missions can go belly up with tragic results.]

And in December 2004 and January 2005, when Singapore served as a regional coordination centre for relief supplies sent to tsunami and earthquake-hit areas, SAF logisticians and Combat Service Support units quite literally delivered the goods. The mission readiness and professionalism of CSS units, their ability to coordinate the sudden surge in flights, cargo volume and foreign rescue personnel isn't happenstance (look at how Haitian authorities were overwhelmed). Years of investments that built-up CSS capabilities and the Republic of Singapore Air Force's Air Movement Centre positioned Singapore well as a hub for regional relief efforts.

That said, all it takes is one ill-fitting sock bought from an SAF eMart to trigger a torrent of jokes about how farked up the SAF is. Haven't we all contributed to this stock of jokes at one time or other?

While it's now blue skies and sunny weather, one can expect the antics to continue in this neighbourhood despite the smiles and handshakes among politicians.

What’s next is anybody’s guess.

What's certain is this: Remove the reassuring presence of the SAF and the schemers will almost certainly exploit that imbalance of power.


FinalFive said...

“We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
- George Orwell

Anonymous said...

We are beyond that in Singapore; we ourselves stand ready.

Anonymous said...

I called those blockade legalised pirates!

Anonymous said...

The time when you are in most need of something is when you don't have it...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful write-up as usual, Mr. Boey.

If I may be so bold to request, I hope you will devote at least one article to the Aug 9 1991 open mob, perhaps interviewing some "old birds" (NSF, NSmen, and regulars) who were involved.

It will be insightful to understand the mood and their psychological preparedness.

In fact, if my memory doesn't fail me, the 1997-1998 period also elicited some conspicuous defence posturing from SG and our neighbours. Hope you'll consider that too.


David Boey said...

Hi Eric,
Reader feedback is valuable. Feel free to email if you feel it's more discrete. Many do.

I believe the 1998 period of tension was caused by the CIQ issue. I heard this from the Malaysian side. Pse see

Being part of Malaysia Inc means I've got a thin line to tread when commenting on Sing-M'sia issues. I'm also persona non grata with PAFF, so it's delicate on this side too. :)

The two episodes are worth reviewing. Will see how this can be done without compromising opsec or sounding like a mouthpiece for either side.


Piper said...

David, I love this article. What a reminder!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking article, David!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, my friend.


The said...

Yes, I remembered that incident vividly. I was in armour and happened to be on reservist duty at that time. We had a brigade exercise with live ammo fully loaded.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, I was told by a commando officer whos unit was deployed in Pedra Branca island that the standing order was: Fire on sight.

Anonymous said...

My teacher say he is invovled in the 90s National Day mobilisation and hijack. He is serving his HS then. They need to return to camp to take their gun & deploy.

arn2012 said...

A great wake up call to all who take what we have for granted. Even at NDP, whilst proud of our soldiers, sailors and airmen on parade and in the air, we forget the hundreds of troops supporting in the background. Though not in the same scale of missions and operations, their discipline shines through. Thanks David for this poignant article. MAJULAH SINGAPURA!

Unknown said...

I remembered when I was serving my NS in year 2001, at certain weeks of the year my unit are part of the Standby Forces which on standby 24 by 7 with live ammo prepared with us even in sleep. News came when OC brought news that we are to be very alert as during that week standby there are US warship equipped with nuclear warhead missiles docked at our Singapore Naval base. This may mean nothing when we read it now but during that time.... that situation can be really serious if terrorists try to hijack or sabotage that nukes. People may said it impossible and etc.... but ask again before 911 occurred... who would believe a super power country like US got strike at 911? Never take our defense and peace for granted.
Like what our forefather LKY had said, we may be small and may not win the war.. but we sting hard and better think twice before doing anything offensive towards us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks and appreciate your article. Also thanks to those who commented remembering those incidents. No one will ever know unless you all speak up.

Unknown said...

The job that SAF has to do is never simple nor easy. It will be good that more people are appreciative of SAF and those that are called upon to serve when the time comes.

For the new citizens, this is the way of life here in the Little Red Dot.

Welcome to Singapore.