Sunday, May 1, 2011

Election Watch: Singapore's National Solidarity Party (NSP) manifesto for GE2011 proposes alternative defence strategy

With seductive logic words, Singaporean opposition group the National Solidarity Party (NSP) has called for a cut in National Service (NS) to 15 months - down from the current 24 months.

This line from the NSP's manifesto is a likely crowd pleaser as few full-time NSmen or Operationally Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists) would argue with that. It is a dangerous line to argue because a botched approach to defending Singapore poisons whatever the NSP intends to roll out in terms of education, healthcare, economic affairs and so on.

Indonesian and Malaysian defence watchers are also likely to give it a hearty thumbs up, as the NSP's populist view will weaken Singapore's defence posture.

The ones who will suffer from the NSP's nonsensical policies are Singaporeans who will be left with no insurance the day the NSP's approach to defence planning strips Singapore of its deterrent edge.

NSP = No Sensible Policies... but who is the Enemy?
Paragraphs 23 to 26 of the NSP's manifesto state that the NSP would downsize the Singapore Army and "restructure the Army to conduct counter terrorism operations during peacetime".

With terrorism the threat du jour, this line addresses a present day danger to Singaporean lives and property while leaving the 40km long by 20km wide Lion City vulnerable to diplomatic pressure.

Such pressure was applied during the visit by Israeli President Chaim Herzog during his state visit to the Lion City in 1986. His visit infuriated Malaysians even though the Israeli head of state did not step foot in Malaysia. Some Malaysians staged demonstrations (more lively than NSP election rallies) with chants of "Potong! Potong!" - nothing to do with opposition stronghold Potong Pasir but more to do with cutting the water supply pipelines from Johor to Singapore. Potong is the Malay word for cut. The city state relied on raw water from the Johor river for about 60 per cent of its fresh water supply and has since reduced its dependency on Malaysian water by sourcing water incountry.

We felt this in August 1991 during an exercise called Malindo Darsasa 3AB when Indonesian and Malaysian warfighters practised a scenario that keeps Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) planners awake at night. The war games that year saw Indonesian and Malaysian military joining forces for operations against Singapore.

During the exercise, airborne troops from both countries staged an airdrop on 9 August 1991 - Singapore's National Day - with the drop zone some 20km away from Woodlands. If the timing of this airdrop wasn't provocative enough, the codename for the exercise left little to the imagination of the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF. It was called Pukul Habis, a Malay phrase for Total Wipe Out.

In more recent times, disagreements between Singapore and Malaysia over the status of the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) facility on land owned by Malaysia's KTM contributed to a period of tension (POT) between the SAF and Malaysian Armed Forces in late 1998. This POT was related to me by a MAF officer during a discussion on Singapore's security posture, who mentioned the episode as an example of how defence relations between the two countries must be carefully calibrated to prevent misunderstandings.

And prior to the settlement of the dispute over Pedra Branca (a rock outcrop called Pulau Batu Putih by Malaysia) in May 2008, the rock on which Horsburgh Lighthouse sits was the area of operations for numerous brushes between Singaporean and Malaysian warfighters. At one point in time, SAF Commandos armed with ATGMs were deployed to Horsburgh to protect Singaporean installations there should Malaysian special forces attempt to land on the island.

NSP = Nicole Seah Politiking
NSP candidate Ms Nicole Seah's politiking for the Marine Parade GRC seat is unlikely to mention these episodes. She was too young to experience and remember the tension of the period. What's more, rally time is designed to whip up sentiments so voters will support one's party. People are there for political entertainment, not a lecture on defence policy planning and capability development in the SAF.

Let us be clear that Indonesia and Malaysia are not about to invade Singapore, nor are these countries our enemy. To be sure, the physical and historical links with Malaysia can be seen on Singapore's state crest which features both the Malayan Tiger and Singapore Lion together.

But the military might of neighbouring countries, coupled with the tendency of some political leaders to wield military muscle to force down their argument, makes it sensible that Singapore retain a strong, balanced and integrated SAF. Past Indonesian Presidents, Gus Dur and Habibie (who coined the catchphrase Little Red Dot) are striking examples of the real politik in Singapore's neighbourhood. And need one even mention Malaysia's Dr Mahathir Mohamad?

Few NSP supporters would sleep behind an unlocked main door though statistically speaking, the likelihood of a burglar hitting one's home is small. And yet, we are being persuaded to strip down the Army for an upsized Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). The absence of any apparent conventional threats to our national security has persuaded the NSP that the SAF's combat capabilities can be whittled down.

Such incredible naivette ignores the military necessity that air and naval bases have to be protected. Warplanes and helicopters, however lethal, are merely targets when on the ground. They become weapons only when they are in the air, armed and fuelled for action with competent pilots in command and a superiority in electronic warfare that puts enemy aircrew at risk even before RSAF warplanes come within visual range.

The NSP's call to "build up" the RSAF and RSN is welcome as it acknowledges that Singapore's continued and free access to air and sea lanes is vital to our nation's survival. Without such access, the supply of food, fuel and raw materials needed to keep Singaporeans gainfully employed will be choked off.

Without the SAF, it is likely that political games by neighouring countries to withhold supplies of sand to Singapore may have been extended to other seaborne supplies so vital to Singapore's economy. Sand supplies were withheld on the pretext of preventing environmental damage, which was a politically expedient way of masking economic warfare by other means.

It is the proposal to streamline the Army that is deeply disturbing. The NSP's proposal says: "Normally a defender is a third the size of the attackers. Downsize the Army and restructure it to be deployed in Singapore to defend against conventional attack during wartime."

The NSP is foolish to assume any attacking force would settle for such odds. This statement is a self-serving intepretation of military thinking that recommends an attacker should have 3:1 numerical superiority against a defender. This means that the attack plan would take the size of the defending force and multiply it by three for the baseline size of its attack force. This is not an easy option because attacks against the SAF have to guess how far and how much MINDEF/SAF will mobilise during a POT.

The NSP does not say who these "attackers" could be, but one assumes their idea of a "conventional attack" entails a landward thrust from Malaysia or perhaps an amphibious landing from the Singapore Strait. In any case, their leap of logic about the attacker:defender ratio is ill-informed.

It is foolhardy to assume Singapore can be defended with the Army "deployed in Singapore".
* Where would heartlanders evacuate to?
* Why endanger Singaporean homes by turning urbanised areas into battle grounds?
* How and where would the SAF deployed on home ground manoeuvre?
* How would the NSP respond should "the attackers" decide to bombard Singapore with rocket artillery munitions and destroy its air and naval bases before mounting a "conventional attack"?

Would Nicole Seah's politiking be wielded as Singapore's secret weapon to sweet talk and dazzle malignant Malaysians in Jalan Padang Tembak with her net appeal and tens of thousands of Facebook "likes" the next time we come under military pressure?

Though voters may have a beef with some PAP policies, defence-aware Singaporeans would probably feel safer with a strong national security posture instead of NSP's dreamland alternative.

Singapore's deterrent edge comes from a forward defence strategy which calls for detecting, engaging and destroying aggressor forces as far away from heartlanders as possible should diplomacy fail. Hostile elements know that their way of life will forever change with SAF manoeuvre forces unleashed on their territory. It is a tricky balance of diplomacy and military power than has kept Singapore steady despite open as well as unpublicised attempts at military coercion.

Mind you, from the time Singapore formed its then Top Secret Special Operations Force in 1984 till the day they shot and killed four Pakistani terrorists on 26 March 1991, any idiot could have blamed Singapore for spending too much on counter terrorist training. This was the pre-9/11 era. There were no terror threats to the island and no airliner had been hijacked in Singapore since Vietnam Airlines Flight C589 in 1977.

The Commandos who put their lives on the line when they stormed Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 117 in March 1991 against terrorists could not have done the job without strong and sustained support over the years which ensured HQ Commando was provided the tactics, techniques and procedures for a decisive takedown.

The NSP's manifesto writer may also have forgotten that piracy to Singapore in the 1980s meant attacks on mainland Singapore from Tuas to East Coast Park. Strong investments in the RSN and coastal surveillance network crimped pirate attacks. That their rudimentary understanding of defence matters embraces a strong navy is welcome as our sea borders are routinely tested, though no sea robbers/pirates have successfully breached the maritime security screen.

It is disingenuous to assume that terror threats are all the SAF has to deal with. To gain political mileage at the expense of a balanced and integrated SAF with a high level of defence readiness to deal with a range of defence scenarios puts Singaporeans at risk from future shocks. It is political opportunism that we can do without.

Singapore is not some South Pacific paradise, lonely and isolated from potential threats. One only needs to think about how Chinese Indonesians were treated in 1998 during race riots in Jakarta to realise how much of an oddball this Chinese majority city state is perceived smack in the midst of a Malay sea.

No Sound/Picture in Marine Parade GRC
It is strange how the NSP is prepared to peddle its election manifesto with big picture issues (albeit poorly considered) when concrete plans for things that matter to heartlanders are patently absent.

In particular, the NSP's team contesting the Marine Parade GRC seems some way behind in sharing with voters there how picking the team would enhance their lives.

Without a plan for estate management - let's not even talk about estate renewal - the NSP's lack of a plan for Marine Parade GRC only adds to election wags who say that NSP stands for No Sound/Picture.


Anonymous said...

Why do you put up the strawman of there being no terror threats prior to SQ117 ? Just a few days ago you reminded readers of the Laju incident and the Confrontation bombings. Pre-1991, there was certainly awareness of the threats, what was not known was the fact that we were able to do something about it.

I'm one of the old-timers who served 2.5 years, so I shake my head at those who complain about 2 years (or less for the fit ones). I disagree on the need to buy submarines and frigates and other expensive toys. Why does the Mindef budget go up year after year ? Are they really able to spend it properly, or they just spending for the sake of spending ? Why do the same old shortcuts keep coming up year after year in the auditor's reports ?

So long as keep voting back in the same people, we'll never get answers to those questions.

David Boey said...

The 1984-1991 window was cited as there were no hijackings during the period. There were five known bombings from 1985-87 but nothing of the scale of the Madrid/London bombings, Bali Blast or Jakarta Marriott bombing.

People could thus make a convincing case against spending on CT capabilities when there was no special need to call out the men in black from 1984 onwards. As there were no hijackings and no one was hurt in the small scale bombings, the extreme of having nil CT capabilities would not have hurt S'pore until Mar'91. Bottomline: defence needs are long-term.

re: Defence budget Q&A. The point you make is spot on. If you read reports from 1984 on the debate on the E-2C Hawkeye purchase, you will find a level of questioning and quality of replies absent when we bought the Gulfstream 550s, SSKs and Leopard 2 MBTs.

I am unsure if additional Opposition members is the answer. They won four seats in the early 1990s but did not contribute substantially to better transparency.

If MINDEF/SAF practised better accountability, I believe tax payers like you and I will gain a deeper appreciation of the SAF's challenges and job scope.

We may not always walk away with a positive NS experience and may disagree with the government but having better informed Singaporeans would at least spare the blase or complacent from that dreaded wake-up call when something dire happens.

I do not think MINDEF/SAF spends for the sake of doing so. There have been a number of weapon systems and plaforms axed on cost grounds.

Thanks for writing,

Anonymous said...

The defense budget is never used completely each year. I'm sure the stats r somewhere. If the reason for buying each weapon is stated so clearly, 1. would the transparency give away our capabilities thus surprise and also a great deal of deterrence? 2. If u think hard enough and have done your research of the weapons acquired, u would know their roles in war. Or read the white paper?

Anonymous said...

I can sympathize with people when they lack appreciation about why we spent so much on the navy's submarines, frigates, naval helicopters. Sounds like buying an expensive yacht only to be parked at an expensive marina doesn't it?

The short answer is naval forces have a direct impact on your trips to the supermarket. Why? Long answer. Hint - Its got to do with the maritime geography of southeast asia, the sea as a strategic medium and strategic resource, the maritime threat matrix, the strategic functions of naval forces, and the inherent operational flexibility of individual warships. And no, the navy is not just about pirates or defending east coast and west coast...

To relegate the Army to merely CT duties is to become on par with Hong Kong, but we don't have the PLA or the British Army behind us in case big wars come our way. Our neighbors have at least the equipment to export that violence on us. And no, once they get stuck into CT, they can't return to conventional warfare overnight.

On NS liability - is 2 years, or 2.5 years a waste of time, even if you thought you were doing 'nothing'? Was it really 'doing nothing'? Good news for NSFs with self-esteem problems, you are of great importance to defence planners. Go read up on Israel's wars to know more.

I'd rather see MG Chan Chun Sing, BG Tan Chuan Jin, BG George Yeo, RADM Teo Chee Hean, RADM Lui Tuck Yew form the next cabinet. They are less likely to play punk with something as important as defence.

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous (2 May'11 3:40 AM),
MINDEF's White Paper on Defence is, sadly, long overdue :(

re: Deterrence, how much to reveal and which war machines should remain under wraps? There's no textbook answer to this one. But I hold the view that our opsec can be done better and "open secrets" better calibrated and shrewdly managed.

Looking at how the blockade on sand barges was handled, I hold the opinion that the blockade would have been more extensive (oil tankers, LNG carriers, container ships, livestock carriers) and robustly enforced if not for the SAF's full spectrum (i.e. pau kah liao, or cover everything) arsenal of capabilities.

Our neighbours know that some lines should not be crossed as it would trigger a response. Sadly, defence planners in Jakarta and KL seem to know more about such scenarios than Singaporeans, hence the National Solidarity Party's misguided view on defence.

If Ms Nicole Seah made it to Parliament and quizzed Teo Chee Hean with the NSP's defence arguments, the weight of unclassified historical examples that DPM Teo can bring to bear will tear the NSP's manifesto apart.

I am guessing that if DPM Teo could reveal the classified episodes that people do not know about - because there are certain defence matters our neighbours deem should be discussed behind closed doors, and things we know about why they bought a certain piece of kit we should keep to ourselves - DPM Teo would really show the NSP is out of its league.

Best Regards,

Ben Choong said...

Hi David,

Sorry I couldn't make it that day. Would have loved to speak to Nicole - she's my age, yet taking the bold step to fight on the opposition front.

I've actually advocated for National Education to not only be taught to students, but even at the ministerial level as well. ( see portion on 'Military Leadership') Fact is that practically all opposition parties have asked for a reduction in NS duration. All though the reduction varies from party to party, we cannot doubt their commitment to see Singapore being able to defend herself militarily.

It is a bold, audacious move, but I feel MINDEF and parliament should have some sort of regular arrangement for MPs (including the NCMP sort) and opposition leaders to interact so that they can better formulate policies on national defense. IIRC, there are one-off camp visits hosted by the Army, Navy and Air Force for MPs, but besides that there really isn't much else.

Like the opposition parties, I don't have a concrete plan to present for such an arrangement :P BUT I feel that if that can be done, I don't know, once in a few months so that MPs are kept up to speed with military matters, then we might just see less of such calls that are popular but might just hurt our defenses in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Ben Choong, that perhaps what is needed is an enlarged engagement plan to educate within opsec limits, politicans from all parties Singapore's strategic situation.

I don't blame the Opposition parties for coming out with their plans, because I seriously doubt if everyone is clued in to our strategic situation as defence watchers, military folks, or students of international relations.

Good if they are able to take public feedback and calibrate their proposals accordingly.

David Boey said...

It will take a mindset change from the political elite and MINDEF/SAF to achieve this sharing process.

The GPC-DFA was set up partly for this purpose but does not embrace non-elected political representatives.

Whether the system will see better informed political opponents as an asset to Singapore, rather than a threat to the PAP's dominance, remains to be seen. I suspect some may not be ready for this as it would allow the opposition to polish their respective party positions and make their manifesto sound more credible.

Anonymous said...

The reason why the Opposition parties are so clueless about defence policy and matters may be simply that they have no idea what is going on (as you say, the GPC-DFA only involves ruling party MPs).

Even if a candidate may have NS appointments as staff officers, he may have only been privy to very small pieces of the overall picture...

How do the Shadow Defence ministers in other countries (UK, Australia, NZ, etc.) get information on defence matters?

- K

Anonymous said...

Thanks David, good point about the mindset.

However, if the other political parties do take feedback from the ground seriously and polish their manifestos up, there will be a marked difference in the perception they give off.

I reckon the importance of our national defence is one issue most Singaporeans regardless of party affiliation don't disagree much from each other in.

(I discount internet chatter and unhappiness about NS as they could all just be the ventings of job stress)

Anonymous said...


Shadow Defence Ministers are made up of elected Opposition members in their Parliaments.

I suspect if we have more elected Opposition members, then they would be eligible for GPC-DFA fora interactions.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever sat in on a GPC-DFA session to say that anything useful gets discussed ? My experience as a civil servant was that we never told GPCs anything more than was already in public domain. I would be surprised if Mindef were any better.

Singapore WebDesign said...

Good analyze every points clearly and meaningfully are given. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Points to consider:
1) The SAF is so much a part (or perceived) of the PAP, see the generals in PAP's ranks. This is a killer about who the SAF belongs to. Party, nation, or people?
2) People are told they MUST serve NS and we get non-NS FTs running as MPs in the PAPs colours. While LKY ask CSM (an officer) to return to China. (WTF???)
3) People are told they must serve NS, but if they vote "wrongly" they will need to "repent" and be denied national funds for their estates. So what systems and values are they defending???
4) Despite being lawfully elected, are non-PAP MPs even briefed about our SAF?

Is it any surprise at all that some people are actually turned off by the SAF and its needs?
This is a combination of ignorance and political conditioning.

Anonymous said...

"I'd rather see MG Chan Chun Sing, BG Tan Chuan Jin, BG George Yeo, RADM Teo Chee Hean, RADM Lui Tuck Yew form the next cabinet. They are less likely to play punk with something as important as defence"

Have any of these Gens/Adms ever explained to soldiers/residents in Hougand Potong Pasir why they are expected to die protecting the system that punishes them for voting their choice? Or is the SAF a PAP vehicle?

None of these people have had the guts to stand up and speak up, thats speaks a lot about the moral backbone of these "fearless warriors".

There is no use talking about the finer points of ops planning and platform capabilities if the basics of why people must serve is not addressed.

Do not forget that LKY mentioned the SAF is to lauch a coup in the event of a "freak election". Its a matter of politics, the SAF is paying for being so closely identified with the PAP.

Anonymous said...

More defense spending does not equal more defense.

The military in most countries (esp in USA where I currently live) conjure up shining images of stoic-looking men in remarkably clean uniforms charging gloriously into battle. Unfortunately, unlike them most Singaporeans have had their taste of the military. And it is not sitting well in our mouths.

Singapore has one of the highest defense spending per capita in the world, right after Israel and North Korea, and well ahead of USA. This is perfectly justifiable given our precarious geographic location and the obvious size disadvantage compared to our potential aggressors. We also have mandatory military service, but again that is not unusual --- Taiwan, South Korea, and Israel --- all these countries in equally precarious political and geographical positions have the same. Sadly, higher defense spending and longer national service doesn't always translate to improved security.

I personally served my 2.5 years in uniform, then worked another 4 yrs as a civilian defense contractor. Given the number of NSFs, NSmen, and regulars I know and its wide cross-section, I think I can confidently speak for them. The bitter truth is, most of them simply cannot see our daily trainings, participating in exercises, planning, or going overseas as helping to bolster national security in any way. But it is not because we are short-sighted sloths. It is because to them, it is just a job. To the regulars, their career; to the NSFs, a burden; to the NSmen, a complete waste of time. Exercises are wayang to help your CO secure his promotion. And we go overseas simply because ironically, we need to spend the money allocated to us. At end ex, the CO comes on to declare a resounding success (who would disagree?) and gives everyone 2 wks off.

The real reason why we don't see improvements in nation security is because, quite frankly, there is no benchmark. Against all odds, every exercise concludes successfully with every mission accomplished. Who is to say we are more secure? Who is to say we are more resistant to foreign pressure? Remember that all the provocation POTs you listed happened despite our world-class defense spending. On what grounds do you claim to have an effective military?

The people of Singapore (of which I am not sure you are a part) want accountability. I am all for more defense, but more spending does not equal more defense. What have you done with our tax dollars and what has it achieved? Given the world-class price tag we better get a world-class explanation. If it were only money, I suspect we will not care as much. But it is also lives --- 2.5 years of the best time of our youth --- the blood of an entire generation. No mother wants to spill her son's life blood buying another crab on some old guy's shoulder.

Anonymous said...

Foreign Special forces's training period is less than 2 years, yet they produce far better soldiers, unlike our NS boys who cannot fight off 8 teenagers wielding rocks

vojska specialnogo naznačenija said...

well, milnuts are entitled to their opinion but that doesn't mean that opinions that originate from fundamentally different positions and assumptions are necessarily naïve or erroneous. i would have to agree that higher defense spending or a longer conscription period will not always translate to improved security. it all depends on how you want to spend the taxpayer's money more smartly and efficently. in any case, the security situation in our immediate and extended neighborhood isn't quite as acute as countries such as Israel or RoC or RoK. since the bulk of the defense effort (at least when it comes to manpower) is shouldered by conscripts (whether we're talking about full-time national servicemen or the reserves), there should be frequent studies on the evolving manpower needs of the armed forces and how the services can be restructured to meet changing doctrinal requirements as well as the considerations and wants of a changing society. as a male singaporean, i gave up two and a half years of my life as an NSF and many more months and weeks thereafter as a reservist and my personal experience, which you may agree or disagree with, is that there is a lot of wastage, largesse and fat out there in the SAF, all of which can be addressed if only the will to do so exists. is it wrong then that as a tax-paying citizen and an individual concerned with government and politics to ask that our defense dollar be better accounted for and more wisely spent? i think not.