Friday, August 9, 2013

Book review: 2263 Days Operation Blue Ridge The SAF's Six-year Mission in Afghanistan

Two Thousand Two Hundred And Sixty-Three Days
Operation Blue Ridge The SAF's Six-year Mission in Afghanistan
Ministry of Defence, Singapore, 2013, 165 pages, hardcover.
Price: Unavailable

As the only coffee table book on Operation Blue Ridge (OBR), the six-year Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) mission in Afghanistan, Two Thousand Two Hundred And Sixty-three Days deserves a place on the bookshelf of every SAF watcher.

It is one-of-a-kind, so the review's conclusion is straightforward: This is a must-have.

The book's default status as go-to guide on the SAF's longest and most complex mission is well-earned. Facts and figures outline the full scope of the SAF's work in-theatre while pictures - many published for the first time - give readers a comprehensive tableau of OBR's many facets.

SAF officers and students tasked to write about OBR will find it a handy, one-stop starter kit that will get them up to speed on Singapore's involvement in Afghanistan (this ended last month).

The 26cms by 26cms (10.25 inch by 10.25 inch) book comes in 13 chapters. These are:

Forewords and Messages

Closer Than We Think

5,221 km from Home

Doing Our Part

Leaning Forward, Reaching Out
- Genesis of Operation Blue Ridge

Making a Difference
- Bringing Smiles
- Bridging People
- Every Drop Counts
- Sharing Warmth
- Providing Healthcare

Working Hand in Hand
- The Golden Hour
- Steady Hands
- Shield Of Safety
- Eye In The Sky
- Patterns Of Life

Shona Ba Shona (Note: "Shoulder to Shoulder")
- Guns Ready!
- Mine!

Leading from the front
- Forward Leadership
- Embedded To Support
- Making It Happen

Force Preparation
- Enabling The Mission
- R.S.O.I (Receive, Staging, Onward-Movement & Integration)

Family and Friends
- Pillar Of Strength
- Forging Ties
- Flying Our Flag

Mission Accomplished

The Flag Bearers

While the pictures and bite-sized quotes from OBR participants make for easy reading, perhaps more ink could have been expended outlining why the SAF embarked on its OBR journey. The forewords by Defence Ministers past and present, and SAF Chief of Defence Force and Chief of Army serve as useful thought drivers.

Further, albeit brief, discussion is found in the chapter, Closer Than We Think. This talks about global security challenges after 9/11 and delves into how the international community closed ranks to act against elements which exploited Afghanistan's wide ungoverned (or ungovernable?) expanses to hatch terror plots against countries such as Singapore.

"Terrorism know no borders," the book states."The international community therefore has a stake in rebuilding Afghanistan, so that transnational terrorists cannot hijack the country to conduct its militant activities."

Attempts by the regional terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), to stage attacks in Singapore form the lead in to describe why OBR was initiated, where SAF forces were deployed, when various phases of OBR were executed, what the SAF did there, how it trained for and supported the mission and who were the men and women who accomplished the mission.

The economy of words used by OBR's author(s) makes 2263 Days read like jottings from a journal, which makes six years of operational achievements easy to digest. This book nonetheless serves as a valuable start point for anyone who wants to engage in a balanced debate on OBR.

Not for nothing does MINDEF describe the mission as the SAF's most complex overseas deployment. About a third of the book is devoted to putting on record the work needed to sustain the mission all those years and the acronym, RSOI, tells that getting there involved more than booking a seat on an aeroplane.

Rough field: Many interesting pictures are found in MINDEF's commemorative book on the SAF mission in Afghanistan, such as this one of C-130H 735 from 122 Squadron on an austere looking airfield. Note what appears to be an astro dome atop her cockpit and bumps on the nose for defense electronics.

As there are no indications the book will be found in bookstores here, it would be to MINDEF/SAF's benefit if netizens could read its contents on its website perhaps as a downloadable PDF file.

It is a pity that MINDEF/SAF's effort in acknowledging the good work done by OBR participants does not seem to have been extended to the unknown hand(s) responsible for this book. There is no author mentioned. No departments have been credited for their part in the book, which is not the way you want to motivate future book committees tasked to record some SAF milestone.

Even with 2263 Days out of reach, you can get a good idea of its message from a roving exhibition on OBR. A large part of the book's contents have apparently been grafted as material for this exhibition. This kicks off tomorrow at Toa Payoh HDB Hub at 10am and will remain open till 8pm.

You may also like:
A national necessity: Operation Blue Ridge. Click here


Anonymous said...

Why do they use the term R.S.O.I?

That term is used to describe moving a few corps to reinforce Western Europe or South Korea.

Chew said...

Just had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition at the Toa Payoh HDB Hub today. Interesting and informative exhibition, staffed by officers and NCO's who clearly enjoyed their posting in Afghanistan.

What we used to call the "Hearts and Minds" program clearly brought benefits to the Afghan people and honed the operational capability of the Singapore armed forces, albeit in a non-combatant role.

Perhaps in the near future, there might be a possible change to the rules to enable Singaporean regulars and perhaps NS to serve in a combatant role in UN peacekeeping missions. Nothing beats experience, especially experience in a combatant situation which some UN peacekeeping missions become entangle in.

Although the Malaysian military are always envious of the modern and professional armed forces of Singapore, especially their hi-tech and cutting edge military infra structure, when it comes to the professional expertise and experience of the individual soldier, I don't think that the Singaporean soldier would have had the same combatant experience that the Malaysian regulars have had serving under the UN.

From the heat and sand of the Middle East and Africa, jungles of South East Asia and cold of Bosnia, the Malaysian infantry soldier has had operational experience in a combatant role under the UN in those regions and around the world.

An army may depend on force multipliers to win a war. However, as General Patton used to say: "You can keep your atom bombs, your tanks and your airplanes; you'll still have to have some little guy with a rifle and a bayonet who winkles the other bastard out of his foxhole and gets him to sign the Peace Treaty".!

What The Fish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Area51 said...

Had a opportunity to stop by the Toa Payoh Exhibition this evening and Yes..the officers and NCO's who deployed there do provide an very interesting insights to their challenges they faces over there which you cannot find in publication or reports.

Worth a visit.

Anonymous said...

David, are you aware that they did not deploy Muslims to Afghanistan? Only the non-Muslim members of the Gds unit for example were allowed to go.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon on Aug 12, that is totally not true. I know muslim SAF soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan. One just has to look through the photos of OBR to realise this.

David Boey said...

Dear Anon 12 Aug 11:16 AM,
Your observation is inaccurate.

Incidentally, the media liaison for the bloggers' preview of the OBR exhibition was a Malay Muslim and OBR alumni.

The opportunity to furnish clarification is appreciated.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Anon 12 Aug 11:16 AM here,

David: May I ask in which capacity or unit the Muslims participated in OBR?

Anon 9:42 PM: Are you able to show these photos?

Thank you.

David Boey said...

Dear Anon 12 Aug 11:16 AM,
Hi again.

Their names and pictures are in the section titled The Flag Bearers. I've not gone through the names in detail, so I don't have the answer as yet. But Malay Muslims were deployed in-theatre.

Out of curiosity, how did you get the impression Muslims weren't part of OBR?

Are you in Singapore? If you are, make time for the other three instalments of the OBR exhibition?

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

David: As I heard it "from the horse's mouth", I will try to find more details on the capacity in which Muslims served.

I'll try to attend this exhibition.

KL Chew said...

LKY has recently said that 40% of migrants into Singapore are Malaysians. I think it would be fair to say that they are mainly ethnically Chinese and because of that migration since independence, many Singaporeans have relatives or family ties across the causeway.

I always have this problem in trying to understand LKY and his son as to why they are so reluctant to have Malays in the armed forces. LKY said in 1999 "If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that's a very tricky business.

"We've got to know his background. I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I didn't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy."

"So, these are problems which, as poly students, you're colour-blind to, but when you face life in reality, it's a different proposition."

Is he saying that a Chinese soldier with family ties in Malaysia, finds it easier to be ruthless than a Malay soldier with family ties in Malaysia? Looking at the population and ethnicity statistics, I would presume to believe that there are probably more Chinese in Singapore with family ties in Malaysia compared to Malays in Singapore with family ties in Malaysia.

I believe Singapore is running the same risk as Malaysia in alienating certain races due to political reasons. In Singapore, its the Malays. In Malaysia, its the non-Malays.

Anonymous said...

It's me who was asking about the MIR earlier.

LKY's recent remarks likely meant 40% of the total resident and non-resident population are of Malaysian origin, and not 40% of new citizens and PRs. Most Malaysians in Singapore are work permit and employment pass holders who do not serve in the military. Regardless of the two possibilities I believe his 1999 remarks referred to ethnic Malay Singapore citizens serving in the SAF.

I agree with your opinion on race dynamics in Singapore. Our two countries probably differ in the extent to which minorities are alienated. But I personally believe the two Singaporean PM's words and actions are indicative of their trust in various racial communities. LHL said something similar about Malays in the SAF in 1987. His government has also said that its population goals intend to maintain "stability" in race ratios. I note that (for form's sake I will not say consequently) immigration of PRs and citizens has been predominantly Indian and Chinese.

I also personally believe that political alienation in Singapore today is not along racial lines. The government's immigration and other policies have created a unity of sorts among the "established" races in Singapore. I believe the government's actions show it views the entire population as resources to be used towards private/state goals, in a manner similar to Malaysia's.

Loyalty to the state in a war would come not from love for the state but from the image of an enemy that we popularly believe will commit many excesses. Singapore can count on the support of all its "established" races, including the Malays.

K L Chew said...

Interesting analysis and I would agree in general with it. As they say, in an actual shooting war, you fight not for King or Country but for your comrade-in-arms next to you, be he Ah Kow, Ali or Mutu.

I think that in a multi-racial country, it is important that its armed forces reflect that multi-racial makeup. Not only for military and political purposes but for practical purposes.

For instance, during the May 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, it was obvious from many observers that the Malay Regiment was not as impartial as they should have been compared to the Sarawak Rangers or Federal Reserve Unit which were more multi-racial in its make up.

Dr Kua Kia Soong in his book "May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969", noted that on May 17: "The BHC (British High Commission) also noted the Federal Reserve Unit, which at the time was multiracial in composition, was the more impartial of the security forces while the Malay troops were discriminatory in enforcing the curfew."

“Discriminatory takes the form, for example, of not, repeat not, enforcing the curfew in one of the most violently disposed of the Malay areas in Kuala Lumpur (Kampung Baru) where Malays armed with parangs, etc continue to circulate freely; with the inevitable result that gangs slip through the cordon round the area and attack Chinese outside it. In Chinese areas, the curfew is strictly enforced.”

The Sarawak Rangers were initially brought in to enforce a curfew during its initial period in KL. As a multi-racial regiment, they managed to keep the peace without fear or favour. However, due to political agitation by the Malays, they were withdrawn and replaced by the Malay Regiment who were not as impartial as the Rangers, to the detriment of the Chinese in KL.

Those Rangers officers who were active during the May 1969 race riots, used to pointedly point out to the Malay Regiment officers in the aftermath, that the latter had lost control of their troops, or worse, were biased in their duty.

Unfortunately, such mentality still persists. In the early 2000s, I was at a friendly football match between some Malay Regiment regulars against a team consisting of Chinese recruits from the Territorial Army. The Malay Regiment OIC pep talk to his players, which could be heard clearly over the field, consisted of racist comments which were basically "you better not loose to the Chinese"!

The OIC in charge of the Chinese recruits, who coincidentally was a Chinese Major from Arty, was quite shocked and taken aback by such unwarranted remarks but kept his cool. But to be fair, the Malay NCOs in charge of the Chinese recruits' training got right behind their charges and were cheering them on with shouts of "Jia Yu" too.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy talking with you because I'm interested in the history and military history of Malaysia.

I was saying that we are often told in NS that the enemy would commit the most frightful excesses. Questionably, the most cited enemy in popular minds is... your country. Not many Singaporeans even consider any other country, and I would say few have any deep exposure to your country.

It does show that like in the RMR officers, one's siege mentality can be shaped by the company he keeps or lack of it.

I suspect that Umno keeps its light infantry mostly racially exclusive for emotional reasons as much as for leadership security. Umno learned from May 13 and draws on the bias. Incidentally I read a journal on coups which said that outcomes rest on the actions of small units supported by intelligence and command structures, more than on the aggregate weight of the opposing sides. In Malaysia these RMR battalions are light but highly mobile, politically reliable and have few matching ones to oppose them. I have also noticed that all Malaysian special forces are also de facto racially exclusive.

Over here, we have a well-equipped force that is not drawn from citizens (LHL called them "absolutely neutral") and is not officially part of the military.

KL CHew said...

The pleasure is all mine. Its always interesting to discuss military matters with a fellow enthusiast.

Regarding Malaysia as Singapore's enemy, its an open secret that Singaporeans have always considered Malaysia as its natural enemy. It probably dates back to LKY's dealings with the Malays in both Singapore and Malaysia, and also Malaysia's sabre rattling.

However, from the Malaysian point of view, Singapore has never been really considered an enemy. Most of the Malaysian military thinking until the late 1990s was geared towards Vietnam as the enemy. The expansion of Malaysia's armed forces and switch from Counter Insurgency Warfare (CIW) to Conventional Warfare was based on the very real fear at that time that Vietnam could easily sweep down the Peninsular, knocking aside anybody that dared to oppose it. Vietnam's military success against the French, Americans, Chinese and Khmer Rouge bolstered that fear.

However, with Vietnam's increasing capitalist economy and integration into ASEAN, that fear dissipated. It was Singapore's adoption of both foreign and home grown high tech military hardware, with Singapore's ability to field infantry numbers in excess of Malaysia's infantry that made Malaysia look as Singapore as an enemy after the threat of Vietnam died down. The threat of Singapore's forward defense strategy probably also contributed to that.

Its no secret that the in general, the Malaysian armed forces look at envy and longing at the military hardware that the SAF has. Malaysia could have probably obtained the same if only their politicians had not looked at the Defence budget as a cash cow to be milk for their own purposes. I know for a fact that in the early 1990s, the Navy wanted a Helicopter Carrier as it was something that suited their scope of duties well and was multi-functional in application.

However, the politicians fostered the submarines on the Navy. Of course, the ongoing US$500 million corruption scandal linked to the submarine purchase probably helped a lot in those politicians' decision!

There's an old joke within the Malaysian military as to how fast Singapore could invade and takeover KL. The black humour answer is as fast as the Singapore drivers can press the accelerator of their tanks to the floor! The other part of that joke is the North South Highway facilitate the Singapore drivers with a first class highway suitable for high speed tank driving all the way up to KL!

Anonymous said...

The SAF has a better appreciation of its likely enemies. But we in Singapore have a concept of "Total Defence". There must be urgency in the people's minds and the state is happy to let perceptions stand that a friendly country is potentially hostile. We can avoid directly naming and provoking a country such as Indonesia whose reaction would be immeasurably worse.

Talk of the threat posed by Malaysia and our ability to reach KL in three days is never discouraged within the lower ranks. But I'm sure anyone who says it loudly enough will be publicly disciplined.

Sometimes I wonder if all our aggravating slowness at the causeway (this used to be particularly bad in the 1990s) were an assault on the cited "family ties" that Singaporeans have in Malaysia. I presented the idea to a few who were outraged- unfortunately at me, and deemed that it served legitimate interests.

I do not see Malaysian acquisitions as being reactive to Singapore's. Considering Malaysia's military budget is a third of Singapore's and despite all the cronyism, Malaysia has generally spent prudently and achieved a balanced force. The problem is that a few large programmes will take the lion's share of the budget for years to come.

That said, in Singapore much of the budget pays for services of state owned companies who return the profits to the state coffers.

Anonymous said...

Furthermore I read that part of the latest Malaysian military budget went to construction for the education ministry. If you ask me, such diversion is really not needed.

Have you seen this article a long while back? It has an opinion about the Malaysian jungle warfare school.

The rest of it is on Goh Keng Swee and the Israeli advisors. I know an officer who served under GKS and gave some insight beyond the biographical article that was published in the last years of his life. The Israelis really had GKS's ear. Sometimes Singaporean soldiers would channel their training suggestions through the advisors because because GKS tended to be more receptive to them. He said he did live up to the image of a little Patton, lots of swagger.

KL Chew said...

Thank you for your comments and the article. I had read LKY's book but not that particular article. I'm a bit curious as to why Golan thought the Singapore officers had been taught British methods from WW2? I have a feeling that there may have been a miscommunication or he may have been plain wrong. How would he have known anything about jungle warfare then considering he admitted not knowing anything about the jungle?

To be accurate, there has been persistent complaints up to now that the Malaysian Army still relies on mainly British training methods that dates back to WW2. I would have to say that may be true. The Malaysian Army tend to have the attitude that if its not broken, why fix it. However, that is slowly but surely changing.

However, I think that those officers probably did not got to the Jungle Warfare School but to the Staff Academy in Sungai Besi at that time. With all due respect to Golan, the Americans learned most of their jungle warfare craft from the British and Malaysians, and only later started to develop their own jungle warfare craft based on their own experience in Vietnam.

Up to now, the Malaysian jungle warfare school still sends a cadre over to Hawaii on an annual basis to train the Marines on jungle tracking and warfare. There's great competition amongst the members of the school to go on the training trip as the Marines pay them an allowance which exceeds their normal pay from the Malaysian Army, which still pays them on the training trip! Double Pay.

The only thing that the Malaysian Armed Forces can say with some certainty is that they believe that their military training is probably more tougher and grueling than that of the Singaporeans. Sweat saves lives and blood. In terms of combat experience, international combatant exposure under the UN peace keeping forces and CIW (and perhaps FIBUA), we like to think that we are better. As a comparison, Singaporean NS and regulars from the 1970s would probably recognise the BMT that Malaysian infantry undergo up to now.

As to how the Malaysian army conducts itself under fire, well, I think is best summed up by General Thomas Montgomery who was US Forces Commander in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down), 20 years ago now. He said: "And I made it a point to write a letter to the Chief of Defense of the Malaysian Forces, because there was some accusation in I think Time Magazine-- and nothing could have been further from the truth, in fact as a soldier, I have to tell you that I would go anywhere, under any circumstances with the Malaysian soldiers...."

Mark Bowden in his book "Black Hawk Down" which was later turned into a film, had this to say about the Malaysian soldiers during that battle: "There will be more about the Malaysian soldiers in the book, the drivers and gunners on the APCs in the final rescue column, and a mention or two of the Pakistani tanks that went out with that column. I know many of the American soldiers remain deeply grateful for the selfless heroism of the Malaysians who risked their lives when "they didn't have a dog in the fight," as one officer put it. There have been stories about Malaysians being threatened with pistols to drive on (Tom Wolfe's fictional "Ambush and Ft. Bragg" includes such an account) but my research shows nearly all the Malaysians performed professionally, and what problems developed had to do with language barriers and conflicts between orders the drivers had received from their own commanders and what American commanders wanted them to do on the ground, not reluctance or cowardice."

Anonymous said...

Thank you in turn. The Malaysian army jungle warfare school, is it PULADA in Johor Baru? I know PULADA is a popular destination for many Pacific militaries.

What I fear is that the Malaysian army's collective experience is very impressive, but some individual leaders do not think for themselves. It is not simply fixed by allocating more funds for training, which is difficult because of the size of some acquisition programmes. There are rumblings of this in the Navy in particular, since Navy munitions are expensive.

I think it shows in the army as well, having seen questionable practices in its training videos. It is not that the army suffered casualties at Grik and Lahad Datu, but the way in which they were suffered.

KL Chew said...

Regarding the RMR, I think that due to tradition, loyalty and just plain self interest, it has remained Malay to ensue the interest of the Malays in Malaysia.

Surprisingly, although the Ranger Regiment (RR) is no longer mainly Iban as it used to be, being a multiracial regiment consisting mainly of Malays, it still is more multiracial in outlook. A Ranger always considers himself a Ranger first before he considers himself to be of any particular race.

The rivalry between the RR and RMR is quite intense and in many ways, helps to provide some balance within the Army. Rangers are usually sent to UN Missions in non Muslim countries such as Cambodia whilst RMR are sent to mainly Muslim countries such as Bosnia.

Such regimental rivalry is part of the British tradition that the Malaysian Army still maintains. Not only between regiments but between the army and police.

Years ago, I was in the UK when I met an English lawyer who served as a Police Superintendent in charge of the Police Field Force (PFF) in Balakong (a notorious CT area north of KL) during the height of the Emergency. His task was to search and destroy CTs. He complained that he probably had more police (mainly Malays) shot by the British Army than by CTs. As he explained, British soldiers patrolling used to shoot at any non-white faces they saw first and ask questions later!

Some years later when I related this story to a retired Malaysian Army officer who had served during the Emergency, I expected him to rail against the British for such racist action. To my surprise, he did the opposite. He put all the blame on the police and said that it served the police right as they were probably intruding into the Army's area and that the Police should have learnt to stay out of the way!

I later heard similar stories about how during the 2nd Emergency, whenever a soldier wanted to escape the attention of the police, he would get himself transferred to a security zone which was only open to military forces. As the police were non military, they were never allowed access to these areas at all!

Another anecdote involved some British soldiers stationed in Wardieburn Camp in KL during the 1950s. They got into a fight with some police and were put up on charge on parade the following day. The CO said "For fighting the police, you are all detained for the next 2 weeks in camp. For loosing the fight to the police, you are all further detained for another 2 weeks in camp!"

I must admit of being somewhat biased about the British army in Malaya. As one retired Malaysian officer who served during the 1st Emergency said to me, he found it difficult and tiring in operating in the jungles of Malaya and he was born and bred in Malaya. What must it have been like for a British soldier who was born and bred in a cold dry climate, suddenly thrown into the hot humid jungles of Malaya, to hunt down and kill an enemy who viewed the jungle as Home! Yet, these British soldiers, a large number of whom were National Servicemen on 2 years national service, did just that.

Malaysian Army veterans who trained and served with the British Army have always held themselves to be a breed apart from those that came later. And in many ways, that mentality has held on into their old age.

During the late 1990s, I met an old Malay man who chatted with me in Central Market in KL. I found out that he had trained and served with the British, and in fact, had been one of the first commandos trained by the British Royal Marines Commandos in the late 1960s. They way he talked to me, the way he held himself, spoke of an old British soldier. When we parted, he suddenly stood to attention and gave me a clean crisp parade salute, British Army style (ie, palm facing outwards not downwards). You could really see the pride he had of being a soldier.

KL Chew said...

Yup, the Jungle Warfare School is located in PULADA now. Sadly, since the end of the 2nd Emergency in 1989, the Malaysian Army has lost its edge. Maybe a consequence of peace time soldiering instead of war time soldiering.

In many ways, where the Malaysian Army is involved in operations where no Malaysian politicians are involved, such as UN Missions, they do great. Where Malaysian politicians are involved, such as operations in Malaysia, well, the results speak for themselves.

Even before the Sabah fiasco, the results could be seen during the Al Maunah arms heist in 2000. Veterans that I spoke to said that it was inconceivable that military cordon against Al Maunah hideout was so bad that a commando no less was actually caught! Casualties were suffered which should not have been.

Anonymous said...

You have served the Malaysian army for 14 years more than me, so I hope my comments are not too forward. I can only gather what I have from soldiers that I speak to.

My personal impression is that all the problems come from junior leaders not thinking for themselves. I find this even among commandos and such personnel who are expected to have initiative. I really fault the education system and not the army for not teaching leaders to emphasize the reasons and initiative behind the training programme.

I suggest the UN missions are successful partly because of advance planning, whereas Grik and Lahad Datu were unexpected contingencies. It struck me that news footage at the Grik arms heist showed a very relaxed posture among troops involved (much different from Sabah).

Nonetheless it is also plain that Malaysian soldiers do the best with what they have. I often hear they have a culture of commitment which surpasses that of other security services, but I have yet to come into contact with these.

I was wondering if you know of an incident during the first emergency that was related to me. A convoy of British soldiers ran over and killed a Malay boy in a kampong in Kedah. The villagers were intent on killing the soldiers, and the soldiers only escaped by leveling their arms at the villagers.

PS Which region of Malaya was the centre of mass of the first emergency? My only clue is that most residual "new villages" on today's map are in west-central peninsular Malaysia. Btw I believe Balakong is south of KL and not to the north.

KL Chew said...

I would agree with your comments about the junior level officer corps in the present Malaysian Army. Unfortunately, the education system that we used to have both at the national level and for the military armed forces was dumbed down in favour of obedience to central authority. Initiative is not encouraged as it used to be in the old days and everything is strictly by the book.

However, you are also right that Malaysian soldiers still try to do their best with what they have. Actually, its a trait that we inherited from the British. In the dying days of Empire, their military were stretched world wide trying to retain order on a shoestring budget. They emphasized training over equipment to compensate.

That is why I shake my head in disbelief sometimes at the conditions that NS have nowadays. I actually corresponded with an American Vietnam war veteran who was a helicopter pilot. He is a Singaporean citizen now and his 2 sons went through NS here. He basically couldn't believe the training environment of NS and said that it was more like a holiday camp.

Grik and Lahad Datu incidents were local and unfortunately, the military operations against them interfered with by politicians. The Grik incident was a real fiasco in that all we had learned during our CIW with CTs went out of the window. After that, there was a real tightening up of SOP and increased training.

That is why Malaysian army veterans of the 2nd Emergency and those who trained with the British hold themselves different, probably superior to those who came later. The other reason is probably the increased Islaminisation of the armed forces. That has not gone down well with the non-Malays.

One of the most contentious issues was when all military camps went dry in the late 1990s. Although non-Malays are still able to buy duty free alcohol from the military shops (NAAFI Style), they are not allowed to drink anymore in camps. As you can imagine, the Rangers were pissed off with that and also a surprising large numbers of RMR members too, as alcohol had always been a mainstay of camp life, be they RR or RMR.

It was especially important during times of action as it helped soldiers to come to terms with death. As a veteran told me, we used to get blind stinking drunk after operations to celebrate being alive, remember the dead and bond with your comrades as you never knew if you see them again alive or in a body bag. As these veterans used to pointedly tell latter day officers (all Malays) who were dry and claimed moral if not religious superiority, they were the ones who got the kills and won the war, the rest who followed rested on their laurels. I was told that following enforcement of dry camps, the incident of drug addiction and drunk whilst off camp has increased.

I would believe the incident about the British soldiers and the kampung boy rings true. Kampung people are quite insular and they treat all outsiders, be they Malays or non-Malays, suspiciously. We used to be told that if you ever involved in an accident in a Kampung, to immediately drive away to the nearest police station and not to hang around.

My apologies for Balakong, always thought it was in the north of KL. The 1st Emergency started in Perak, and then spread to Selangor, Johor and Pahang. Following Maoist military doctrine, it concentrated on areas with industries such as plantations, mines and industrial areas. They would attack them and melt back into the surrounding jungle.

Perak, Selangor and Johor had large populations of Chinese whom the CTs looked to for support. That was why the New Villages program came about, denial of support for CTs, and that's why the most New Villages are concentrated in those states.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this one. Singaporean NS is indeed easy and very survivable by the average person. I suggest the SAF is relying on areas it has dominance to shape the battle so there are not too many instances when tough training becomes the decisive factor.

I know this leaves a lot to chance, but we have enough men finishing their two years with injuries at the current level of training. Whether it is enough or not, in training Singaporean NSFs are pushed to the limit. As was recently commented elsewhere, NS cannot be so punishing that it is evaded by prospective citizens. At last govenrment report, one third of them choose to avoid NS at the age of 18, so much that this blog noted that we have a growing population but a shrinking army.

We also have a much longer NS term than every other country practicing conscription, currently the second longest in the world after Israel. I know the likely adversaries are all professional armies, but I personally feel that neither a longer NS term nor tough training can reduce the SAF's losses in battle. Only the test of battle can achieve that.

KL Chew said...

I am a great believer in the adage "If you want to do something, do it properly or don't do it at all". Or as General Patton famously said "You can keep your atom bombs, your tanks and your airplanes; you'll still have to have some little guy with a rifle and a bayonet who winkles the other bastard out of his foxhole and gets him to sign the Peace Treaty"!

Tough training is always the decisive factor in any battle or any war. Once you loose sight of that, you set yourself up for defeat. Nothing can ever replace exhaustive tough military training to make a soldier and that is exactly what a NS is suppose to be, a soldier! The British NS who also served 2 years, had such training that they could operate search and destroy jungle missions in Malaya, in an environment totally different from home. They won.

Take the Americans. They are probably the most modern and sophisticated army in the world. They have always been an advocate of force multipliers, dating back to the Vietnam War. Yet, all the best military equipment in the world is only there to support the infantry, who has to fight the battles on the ground, face to face with the enemy. You only have to see their FIBUA battles in Iraq and CIW battles in Afghanistan to judge that it was the individual soldier, on the ground, who had to fight it out, supported by assorted hardware.

Jungle warfare and FIBUA are some of the toughest conditions to fight in. If Singapore and Malaysia were ever to come to blows, and a drag out war ensured, Singapore NS would have to fight FIBUA battles in the cities and towns, and jungle warfare battles in the jungle. Even the best soldiers have problems with that unless you are used to it.

A regular Rangers Captain told me of a jungle warfare exercise that he did with some US Marines. He and his Rangers were in awe of the physique and equipment that they carried, each Marine easily carried almost the same weight as one of his Rangers. They were tough, muscular, well disciplined. Incredible stamina and strength as they could carry heavy weights long distances.

However, that was all on flat ground. Malaysia is mainly mountainous with steep terrains in many areas, coupled with dense jungle. Within a few days of such terrains, the US Marines were dropping away like flies, dragged down by the heavy backpacks they had to carry, unused to climbing up and down hills, day in and day out. They only managed to complete the exercise by jettisoning most of their hardware, keeping on their rifles, ammo, food and water. All the fancy equipment like bullet proof vests, googles, and other such stuff were left behind at base camp. Vietnam war vets will know exactly what that meant.

Anonymous said...

I wish there was a solution. So many men are getting injuries during NS. If severe, they get medically downgraded to other vocations and the regular unit and its reservist successor loses a man forever (except in a war, when all these medical excuses are suspended). Some men, myself included, were very physically fit but downgraded into a combat service support unit. And over a decade ago, we started to pick men with borderline medical downgrade conditions to be various combat vehicle operators. Not ideal but better than having them as infantry.

Singapore's is a conscript military. It can't pick only men in top physical condition unlike say India which might be the most choosy army in the world because it has a wealth of volunteers. It's a numbers game, but even having a 20 million population in Singapore is not going to help.

The Americans bypassed most Iraqi towns, hit troop concentrations, got to the capital and installed a puppet government. The street fighting came later, during the occupation. We'll have to avoid that. Even with the best soldiers, we have too few to police a population that is armed, hostile and has backbone, and hopefully it will not be. Israel must have ways around the same problem, and so must we. If our enemy is more distant, we'll likely destroy its air force and navy and sit it out. Israel has never set out to occupy Egypt, Iraq or Syria.

The Marines have long ago learned not to carry heavy equipment in the jungle. They train in Malaysia and Thailand all the time. I think the officers let the troops do it so they could learn by experience.

Anonymous said...

What I mean is that Israeli soldiers are well trained in urban warfare, but it is a commander's last resort. Israel accepts that it rather change its aims in a war, than fight for urban terrain.

I agree that in a Malaysia-Singapore fight, cities are Malaysia's best defence. Any Malaysian troop concentration in open, plantation or semi-rural terrain is vulnerable to attack from the air. I believe that taking to the jungle is not an option for Malaysia. The jungle degrades the fighting potential and mobility of any infantry, and if discovered they are still very vulnerable to air attack. Their situation would be unlike the Vietcong who enjoyed good reserves of supplies and a dispersed, resilient network to move them. Malaysia's extensive road network also allows static jungle forces to be swiftly bypassed. Jungle warfare expertise is vital in East Malaysia but in the peninsular, it is necessary for Malaysia to follow Singapore's lead in conventional warfare.

In contrast, a city offers many places for infantry and light vehicles to hide. Aerial reconnaissance of their positions challenged by expanse and the ability of defenders to mask their movements among civilian traffic. It is also of limited value because they are highly mobile. The probability of having to face a substantially intact defending force is high. Therefore if Malaysia is prepared to fight in its own cities, it is the next best option to fighting outside of them.

KL Chew said...

The problem with a NS army or an army where the bulk consists of NS soldiers, is that for every NS killed, there is an impact on the economy as potentially, a vital cog of a complicated machinery goes missing, as a NS soldier might be a blue collar or white collar worker, both vital to any country's economy.

With a professional army, when a regular soldier is killed, nothing happens to the country's economy because his full time job is soldiering. To be blunt, the Malaysian Army Reserves also consists mainly of Malays, the majority of whom are civil servants in a bloated civil service. I would dearly like to say that the death of an Army Reserve would equal to that of a NS but that would not be true.

Basically, any war that goes the distance between Malaysia and Singapore would probably become a war of attrition. Bluntly, Malaysia can afford to loose many soldiers and grind out a result. Singapore cannot afford to loose its NS soldiers.

Why doesn't Singapore abolish its NS and form a foreign legion? Along the lines of the French Foreign Legion? It already has the Gurkha Contingent of the Police Force and it probably would not be difficult to scale something similar up to be Singapore's Foreign Legion. 5 years of service and you get citizenship.

Brunei has its Gurkha Reserve Unit, whilst the UK and India has its Gurkha Regiments. The French Foreign Legions and Gurkhas have proven themselves to be tough able soldiers, fighting in battles and wars in far flung countries from their homelands, yet still winning them. Technically, they may be mercenaries but they do prove the old adage that in the trenches of war, a soldier does not fight for King and Country but for his brothers in arms.

At a stroke, Singapore solves its problem of a dwindling pool of NS soldiers and acquires a Foreign Legion, which if it consists of Gurkhas or Legionnaires similar to the French Foreign Legion, would prove invaluable in securing Singapore's defence. Singapore would also concentrate on developing a fully professional regular armed forces concurrently with the Singapore Foreign Legion.

Singapore has shown that it has no qualms on showering money on foreign sportsmen to become instant Singaporean sportsmen, for instance, the Singapore table tennis team and others. Why don't they seriously consider a Foreign Legion which would probably bring in more concrete and permanent results to Singapore, than that of foreign sportsmen?

Anonymous said...

Such a war may not necessarily be a war of attrition. Suppose Malaysia's weapons stocks are exhausted or destroyed and an effective quarantine enforced. With Singapore holding a line in Malaysian territory and either bypassing or disarming the limited number of towns within, it would be hard for Malaysia to dislodge the invaders. The front is not extremely long. If the war is short, Singapore's human losses would not be insufferable, even at a high estimate of hundreds per month for a year. Most people would not care that enemy losses are higher, they would rather leave but there would be a penalty for that, possibly be a firing squad. And where could a soldier at the front go, even if he could? He would be caught in the jungle and shot by either side. The economic penalty is severe but the country can survive such an improbable and infrequent event, a few times over.

A Foreign Legion is a strategy proven effective time and again. There is a belief high up that NS builds loyalty, I'm sure it would remain instituted even if we became New Zealand. Evidence or not, someone deliberately wants the burden of NS to be borne by Singaporeans.

There are many things over which the Singapore government has complete control but chooses not to do for no ostensible reason. In response to the 2011 general election, the government undertook several belated measures in areas central to the people's livelihood. We're a tightly run country and most people have no alternative to the sanctioned path in most major functions of life. Given its population agenda the government would have had to sooner or later, but it incurred the electorate's wrath because a few had earlier made the subjective decision that whatever in place was "sufficient".

racingtips said...
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KL Chew said...

There's been quite a number of topics debated and expounded in here. Been very interesting. Think it has went way beyond what the original blog was about.

I wonder if our host here, David, would care to try and organise a get together on one of this weekends in order for the readers and military buffs to meet each other and basically yak over a teh tarik and food. Would be nice and something definitely different from work.

So, how about it David and readers?

Anonymous said...

That's a very good idea. Perhaps the gathering can involve a trip to military events.

By the way, going back to Grik, it was not only a commando captured and killed but also the Panglima Medan who escaped death. I think he should never have risked his life on the scene. Later, he and the young Police UTK officer who persuaded the militant group to surrender were honored with a medal.

KL Chew said...

Good. Great to hear that there's a possibility of a get together. Hope that we can have it soon.

The Field Commander, General Zaini who was negotiating the surrender, is very old school and an ex-Special Forces commander. Not surprising that he was personally involved as he always believed in leading from the front. I believe the Israeli Army has a tradition of their leaders in leading from the front too.

Oh, he told a friend of mine that he was actually quite pissed off that the Maunah leader was pointing a M16 at him during the course of the negotiations and had actually flicked it aside a few times before the trigger was pulled. He had a good laugh when the bullets struck one of the militants.

General Zaini is a really down to earth commander and general. I understand from my friend that although he was happy to receive the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa (Malaysia's highest bravery award), he felt that he did not deserve it. He also received a number of Datukship titles from various states. But the one Datukship title he treasured the most was from the Johor Sultan.

That's because traditionally, Johor gives only a handful of Johor Datukships every year, sometimes even none. And the Johor Sultan personally vets each person for the Datukship. So, a Johor Datukship tends to trump other Datukships from other states because of its rarity.

Anonymous said...

I could tell that much about General Zaini from his interview on Grik for History Channel Asia. The whole episode has been uploaded on Youtube, although we may remember the incident more accurately than depicted. I'm surprised to know General Zaini was from the Special Forces. I remember he wore the maroon beret of the paras unlike other senior commanders who wear the green beret.

You really have impressive military and historical knowledge. Are there other forums on which you share it with those eager to learn?

I was wondering if you recall a small explosion in Jurong, perhaps at a bus stop, in the 1990s which killed a person, I believe a cleaner? I have no details other than that it was from inside a dust bin. I remember suspecting it was a grenade that someone got sick of keeping at home.

KL Chew said...

Thank you for your kind words. I'm afraid that I not very active in other forums. I think that most of the readers here are military buffs who appreciate some of the military stories I have to tell.

I don't know about the Jurong explosion. Did they ever catch the person responsible for it?

As for my stories, well, if you have the interest and keep your ears open, you would tend to hear the most interesting military stories. I was probably luckier than most people in that when I was in the UK from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, I somehow or another, met people who were involved in various military actions.

The earliest I can remember was this old Sargent Major in my school. He was a school groundsman, in charge of maintaining the school grounds. On weekends, he became the Sargent Major of my school's Combined Cadet Force, military cadets aged 14 onwards.

This particular Sargent was very old school. In fact, he had been a regular soldier and had served in the big war, WW2. A very nice chap out of uniform but in uniform, he drilled his cadets the old fashioned way. I can still remember my friends putting their puttees on just right and polishing their boots so much that he had to see his face reflected off them.

He drilled his cadets the way he drilled his regular soldiers. No compromise. Trust me when I tell you that Singaporean NS and Malaysian Army regulars could learn a lot from him! His cadets expected nothing less from him but he was a combat veteran, not from one of the small wars that the British were involved in during the end of Empire but the big one, where thousands died in a single action. He used sometimes to regale his cadets with stories from those days but somehow, those stories always seem to those about friends and funny incidents. He never really talked about the actions that he had been in. Think was too painful.

Another time, I got to know this plumber who became good friends with me. When he found out that I was interesting in military matters, he opened up to me and told me about this stint as a Red Beret paras during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956. The Red Devils parachute into Port Said, Egypt and took it after fierce fighting, especially against armoured Egyptian support.

The funny thing was that he spend most of the time complaining about his Sten gun, for being so unreliable in the dusty sandy conditions that it used to jam regularly. He would gloss over the gory bits but used to enjoy telling me about the funny parts like when he was caught in the open in a crossfire and found cover only to realise his bum was sticking up in the air and worrying whether it would be shot off!

Oh, I had the pleasure of shooting on occasions, the Lee Enfield rifle converted to .22 bore. It is probably the slickest bore action rifle ever and the smoothness and sound when you pull and push in the bolt has to be heard to be believe. It was easy to do the Mad Minute shoot with a Lee Enfield. 10 shots in 1 min. And still achieve a tight grouping. And the build, well, it makes all modern rifles feel plasticky.

KL Chew said...

A few years later, I had a landlord who was a British regular soldier stationed in West Berlin during the late 1940s. He married a German girl. They were quite middle aged by the time I knew them but they were very kind to me.

One day, I remember talking to her about her life in Berlin during WW2, and she said that life actually went on, right up to the end. When I asked her about the concentration camps, she told me that nobody knew about what was happening there. They were told and they believe that it was just a prison camp. They only found out the truth when they were forced to walk through the concentration camp at the end of the war. I can still remember her face when she told me how she felt seeing the truth.

Some years later, I met a German jew who had lost her family in the camps. Surprisingly, she was the girlfriend of this Malaysian nurse I knew. I asked her one day about her relatives and she told me that she only had her father, and he had died recently. When I asked her if she other relatives, she said she had none. I said why?

She told me that she was a German Jew and that she and her father were the only in her family who had just managed to escape Germany to Britain when all the Jews were rounded up. Her mother, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles had all been rounded up and gassed. She and her father were the only survivors of an extended family. No relatives living at all. An orphan. It gave me a startling feeling, imagining, that you were the only left in the world because everyone you knew had been killed.

Speaking of WW2, I really should tell this story about my father. He was a boy when the Japs captured Malaya. He used to live in a house next door to Bukit Mertajam train station. That station a very strategic location because it was the crossroads where rails led to the east to Kota Bahru, west to Penang, North to Bangkok and south to KL and Singapore.

During the war, he used to see large numbers of Jap soldiers at the station as they took trains up north or down south. He said the Jap soldiers were kind to children, sharing their rations with them and showing their photos of their children to them. He also learned to swear in Japanese from the soldiers and in fact, the few Japanese words that I learned from my Dad seemed to consists of swear words, Baka Yaro being a favourite.

But he also saw the dark side of them. Before the war, he and many Asians were in awe of the British, their claimed superiority. During the war, he saw on many occasions, train wagons which were used to carry cattle, being used to transport British POWs from Changi to Thailand. Presumably to work on the Death Railway (River Kwai) up north. These wagons were uncovered and let in wind and rain from all sides.

The British POWs were skeletal, burnt brown and almost naked. What struck him then and which he told me, was that they never seemed to beg him or the kids there for food. They would only stretch out their arms and beg for water from him and his friends. Their thirst overrode any hunger pangs they had. If they were lucky, some Jap guards would throw some water on them. Most did not.

Oh, my Dad also said that they had Korean guards too on the railway. He hated them because he said that the Koreans were much more cruel than the Japs. They really seemed to enjoy torturing and showing off their power that the Japs did. And that's saying a lot! Even the Jap soldiers looked down at them as the Koreans were used only as prison guards and considered not worthy of being soldiers!

KL Chew said...

He also told me of witnessing executions by the Japs in Penang and Bukit Mertajam. You had to be very polite to the Japs, especially those carrying a sword. They were free in carrying out public beheadments.

In fact, they became so common that they almost became a public show. He described how the prisoner would be forced to kneel down in a public place, market, and then a soldier would cut off his head with a single stroke of a samurai sword. The thing that struck him the most was not the actual beheadment but the aftermath.

Blood would spurt out from the neck almost a yard or more in distance. And the head would move about on the floor as the jaw open and shut in muscle reflex.

My maternal grandmother in KL saw similar executions and basically suffered a lot because of little food being available at that time. She hated the Japs with a passion and used to swear about the Japs every time we talked about them.

Surprisingly, in the 1970s, she visited Japan and was very taken by the Japanese politeness and cleanliness. She came back from the trip, vowing only to hate and despised the Japanese of her generation but not those of the modern generation, on the principle that those of her generation were the ones who had actually caused the devastation in Malaya during WW2.

Anonymous said...

This is indeed a refreshing break from hearing non-stop about Japanese atrocities where I am! It might sound cynical but it is the only kind of 'military' account not in shortage in Singapore, and the presentation is often jingoistic. Of course, it all evolves from being politically motivated.

I noted that an old comment on this blog had some truth about how Singapore recently changed the way it presents one aspect of the Malayan campaign, in that we no longer teach the role of certain ill-motivated and ill-trained colonial troops. When I was in secondary school, textbook accounts of their retreats were legion.

Without justifying their aggression, I believe in the school of thought that the Japanese were a reluctant aggressor in WW2. Among the Japanese ultra-nationalists were military professionals who rose up through merit, unlike the key Nazi leaders. They must have been aware of the balance of military potential. More importantly, they had always had good relations with the Western powers up to the 1930s.

The Japanese were undoubtedly very cruel and I heard, particularly cruel to the Chinese because many were veterans of the China campaigns. Of course the Chinese acted exactly the same towards their captives. I am also exploring a view that China didn't make it easy to get along for centuries and helped Japan to not view it as the equal of Western countries. The way China treated Japan in the Taiwan incident would have prompted any other country to wrest Taiwan from it, similarly the way China treated foreigners would have invited retaliation from any principled nation. Can you imagine if a large neighbour decided to thus bully a smaller Singapore? Even though thoroughly disadvantaged in size, Singapore would not be able to hold its patience for long. Such treatment would encourage either the smaller country to exercise its stronger military, or the growth of militarist factions within it.

My grandparents lived in both Singapore and Malaya but in rural areas, so they had few encounters with the Japanese and were more able to sustain themselves. I've read about the Japanese freely slapping people and tying them up for not being polite, but that beheading was reserved for thieves and cheats. Although I'm sure enough Japanese were so violently short tempered.

About the bus stop blast. I remember it was reported in the ST that the unfortunate cleaner was killed in the early morning (perhaps a weekend) when no one else was at the bus stop. The blast was from the dust bin and I assume he was emptying it. My suspicion was that an NSF had taken one home and then realized the danger it posed. I don't think any item of household rubbish could cause such a violent explosion and no one would have maliciously set off a small blast at an odd hour. I don't remember any follow up report being made
and so the case might have gone unsolved at least to public knowledge. In my NS, the issuance of live grenades was a strict affair and only for the supervised throw in BMT. Then again, this was after the incident and perhaps procedures have changed.