Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Malaysia and Singapore at odds over airspace intrusion claims

With Malaysia claiming Singaporean warplanes encroached into the Federation’s airspace and Singapore denying such talk, one side is clearly being economical with the truth.

Whichever side you choose to believe, the winners are hardliners in both countries who will use this episode as yet another excuse to arm themselves to the teeth. The hawks may also paint the other side as an unworthy neighbour.

The episode is a sobering reminder of how quickly defence relations between Malaysia and Singapore can spiral into a standoff between the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) if policy makers on both sides of the Causeway miscalculate.

Unless debunked decisively, such allegations could poison ties between the two neighbours by fuelling suspicions of sinister intent by the other side.

At a time when arsenals in both countries are amply stocked with lethal weapons, one hopes cool heads will prevail.

Malaysia and Singapore need to take stock of how the air intrusion census was done.

Figures cited by Kementerian Pertahanan (KEMENTAH), the Malaysian Defence Ministry, speak of repeated encroachments of Federation airspace since 2008.

The denial by Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) suggests otherwise. Who is right?

Both countries have put their credibility at stake with their respective positions on the matter of air intrusions. To break the impasse, both sides should sift through air movement data together to sort out the matter like good neighbours.

If, for example, airspace intrusions alleged by the Malaysians stem from a misinterpretation by Singapore over air routes around Federation airspace, then a clinical appraisal of air traffic data would sort out the issue.

The issue must be put to rest quickly, trust reclaimed and confidence restored.

If both sides stick resolutely to their guns and match claim with counter-claim, suspicions between the two sides will fester over this nasty business.

More troubling for defence observers is the possibility that one side is boldly hatching an enormous lie to discredit its neighbor. If one side is willing to advance a hidden agenda during peacetime, defence watchers may rightly ask what sort of sinister plots may be hatched in a lead-up to a period of tension (POT).

This sort of folly is the game of fools.

If airspace instrusion numbers can be dreamed up or denials manufactured to suit one’s agenda, one wonders what sort of creative storylines could someday surface to hurt relations between Malaysia and Singapore.

KEMENTAH’s defence planners must realize that certain unilateral acts will be regarded as a prelude to casus belli by tiny Singapore – even if such acts are executed on home ground. These include moving MAF tube or rocket artillery, armoured forces or troops south of a certain latitude. The POT could get very hot, very fast if the Lion City is pushed to the wall.

What keeps Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war machines muzzled is the knowledge that Malaysia’s word can be trusted and assurances are credible. But if MINDEF is baffled by the air encroachment claims, do you think they would take MAF's word that it would not initiate hostilities during a POT?

For MINDEF Singapore, it too must realize that Malaysia’s most populous state is sitting on the door step of a city-state armed to the teeth. Malaysians have to endure weekly live-fire manoeuvres across the Johor Strait by an armed force primed to mobilise and deploy at a moment’s notice – but against whom?

War games staged by the city-state convincingly demonstrate the Third Generation SAF’s combat readiness, reach and endurance, and such shows of armed force can be worrisome to Singapore’s neighbours.

The episode also points to the infowar that could ensue if deterrence fails and Astros missile batteries roar to life and JDAMs start to drop like hail.

Would stories of "civilian casualties" be similarly invented to reinforce one’s international position, with the other side issuing predictable (but less believable) denials which, in the fog of war, no one really believes?

The air intrusion stories also underline the importance of an intelligence apparatus that is one up against the other side. During ambiguous situations, the side that can substantiate and prove its point will shrug off any claims the other side may level against it.

The side that wins the infowar will be the one staffed, structured and committed to engage and defend the truth vigorously. The side hardwired to slink into no comment mode when challenged or is philosophically against an open, consultative culture, will not be up to this sort of gamesmanship.

Truth is afterall the first casualty of war.


Anonymous said...

A timely reminder that despite the improvement in bilateral ties as demonstrated by the signing of the POA, neighbours will still step on each other toes, either intentionally or accidentally.

One might notice that the timing of the press release is near to the closure of KTM Tanjong Pagar.

The argument that the RSAF seems quick to act against air intruder could be argued that the locations of the airbases (ie TAB) are nearer to the Malaysian airspace and Singapore's relatively smaller airspace may result in accidental incursions by RSAF planes

anonym said...

David, I hope you are able to speak to some of our highest policymakers on this vital lesson (bypassing the careerist pigs at PAFF). Put your faith (and your chain of command and your tax dollars) in pigs who will oppress and propagandize and do almost anything else for the sake of advancement, and you will get poll results like these. MINDEF "grassroots" are not working.

ben sungib said...

Mr Boey,

Do you think the recent claim (by Malaysia) and denial ( by Singapore) will end up in a stand-off between both countries? I doubt so.

The issue was highlighted by the Malaysian Defence Minister when asked for by an MP in the Parliament. Otherwise, the issue would be silenced although, I believe, notes of (diplomatic) protests are occasionally sent to Singapore MFA by its Malaysian counterpart over claims of airspace intrusions.

The figure 2058 may appear to be alarming.Lets assume that it is overly exaggerated and just work on 1% truth. It is still considered as an intrusion of the Malaysian airspace.

Although the airspace intrusion is an "irritant" in our bilateral relations, there are ways and means to resolve it. Leave the politicians apart, we still have other experts in the MAF/SAF and both the MFAs to work out solutions to this problem.