Saturday, December 31, 2022

Ponder the imponderable? It’s much harder than you think...

I'm sure someone out there is convinced that our guys (American military forces) will never lose, or a carrier can't be sunk, but is that good storytelling? A hero only shines when they're up against a powerful, capable, even dangerous opponent... If the Good Guys win in every encounter, where's the conflict? That isn't a story - that's wish fulfillment. - Larry Bond, American war fiction author, co-authored Red Storm Rising with the late Tom Clancy, wargame designer and creator of the strategy games Harpoon and Command at Sea.

War fiction allows us to ponder the imponderable, such as nightmare scenarios that one hopes will never unfold in real life.

Ponder the imponderable? It’s much harder than you think, especially for a place like Singapore. 

Despite the city-state's high literacy rate and high standard of living, people here have not been exposed to war fiction about the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to the extent that people elsewhere - even in Malaysia - have experienced in film, literature and the creative arts. 

Consider these examples:

In the Malaysian movie, PASKAL, a Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) officer goes rogue and joins a pirate gang. In the movie’s explosive finale, the officer fights against, and manages to kill, team members from the RMN special forces unit whose name inspired the movie. 

In the award-winning television series, Money Heist (La casa de papel), Spanish thieves outfox authorities in Madrid when they storm the Royal Mint of Spain and start printing their own money. The series was so popular it gave rise to a story of a more ambitious heist where the Bank of Spain was robbed of tonnes of gold. The gang gets away and gets the loot by outthinking and outrunning the Spanish police and military. Enjoyed the story where underdogs win? I did. 

The late Tom Clancy’s bestseller, Red Storm Rising, contains a number of battle scenes where US forces are beaten by their enemy. The US Navy aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, is hit by Russian missiles after the carrier battle group’s sophisticated multi-layered defences fail to stop an attack by Russian bombers. Back in the 1980s, when the novel was published, the battle scene in the chapter, Dance of the Vampires, raised eyebrows as you had American authors writing about the sinking of American warships by the Soviet Union.

In war fiction, the Good Guys do not always win.

Robert Harris' novel, Fatherland, explores a world where the Nazis win and rule Europe after the Second World War. The book's cover asks the provocative question: What if Hitler had won the war? It is a bold plot, written by a British author, of a dystopian world. 

Fatherland is just one example of historical fiction that builds upon the theme of a German victory after the Second World War. Another novel is Philip K. Dick's alternative history, The Man in the High Castle, whose storyline advances the idea of an Axis victory after the Second World War, with America partitioned by the war's victors: Germany and Japan.

Just imagine if Pukul Habis ended with a chapter where the SAF is destroyed and the Jalur Gemilang (Malaysian flag) was raised at the Padang. Too bold for your comfort? I thought so too...

On the other hand, if Pukul Habis was written in a way that trumpeted a swift and decisive SAF victory, this storyline would probably have earned five-star appeal with many readers - at least those from Singapore. But had the book taken that route (Note: Just to be clear for those who have yet to read the story, it was not written in this way), how do you think Malaysians would have responded?

As I have noted before, a self-congratulatory novel would have been much simpler to write. Spicing it up with secret-edge capabilities would probably have given some people a wargasm (assuming the security agencies didn't get provoked first, which was a risk I did not want to chance). Never forget: We live in a place where even plastic model makers are afraid of painting models of certain weapons like MBTs and missile systems green for fear of triggering the security agencies. 

But pondering the impossible, asking what might happen if plans somehow DO NOT survive first contact in a fictional world is something that I have thought about on many occasions. Shouldn't the fictional world afford us some latitude in thinking the unimaginable?

Since the novel was published a month ago, I have received feedback from professionals in Singapore who are involved with defence matters. This includes several face to face meetings (which I enjoyed and found intellectually stimulating) that tell me that the novel has made such individuals think about certain circumstances and issues mentioned in the book.

So it gives me some confidence that suspicions abroad that Singaporeans are thin-skinned, hyper sensitive, soft and casualty-averse city boys, intolerant of any world view that does not conform to their own, is unfounded - for the moment. One would hope such confidence isn't misplaced. But time will tell as more and more readers share their thoughts.

I have read all the feedback on Amazon. I have also kept screenshots of the feedback posted, especially the negative ones for future reference. Reading such feedback and hearing your thoughts on the story whenever we get a chance to meet has been a good learning experience. 

Indeed, my first principle when writing this story is that no book is beyond reproach.

I have to share, however, that what I find more worrisome than negative feedback is the mentality that the story may have been less objectionable if there was some sort of parity in the loss exchange ratio, a kind of balance with battle losses sustained by both sides in more or less equal measure, a storyline where the hurt that both sides endure rests in a kind of equilibrium.

My study of war at school, all my readings on warfare have made me acknowledge that the business of war is brutal, messy and unpredictable. 

When the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, were sunk off Kuantan in December 1941, the loss ratio was hardly a balanced one. Two major Royal Navy surface units sunk, more than 800 British sailors killed in action in exchange for three Japanese bombers shot down (one more crashed on landing). Where is the parity, the balance and the sense that all is fair in war?

The Fall of Singapore saw the Japanese capture Fortress Singapore, even when outnumbered 3:1 by British Imperial forces. These are real battle statistics - not something made up in a hyperactive mind and typed out as a story.

Even Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising made NATO's defence of western Europe a close run thing.

The book's chapter, A Walk in the Woods, relates the conversation between NATO Supreme Commander, General Robinson, and Russian General Alekseyev who believed the USSR would have been dictating terms if Warsaw Pact forces smashed "three or four more of your convoys". Make that one or two convoys, Robinson reminded himself. It was that close.

While some individuals in Singapore may chafe at the descriptions of SAF losses in Pukul Habis, there may well be elements in Malaysia who do not take kindly to descriptions of a two division SAF breakout after a weakly contested crossing of the Johor Strait, followed by a march north about 100 km in three days. An incompetent SAF would fail to achieve that sort of battle performance, and I hope the hat tip was not so subtle and too implied for readers to pick up.

I am fairly certain reactions to the novel are now being monitored by foreign military professionals whose job is to make sense of Singapore's commitment to defence and resilience.

In mature societies and in armed forces prepared to ponder the impossible, war fiction has served as a catalyst for discussions on unthinkable scenarios. 

War fiction has also acted as a handy platform for raising situations that the directing staff for war games may find difficult articulating in their situation injects. Through such discourse, organisations improve through clear and thoughtful realisation that should the worst happen, their organisations would have the mindset and tenacity to adapt and adjust to whatever the fog of war throws at them. You don't get there by desperately clinging to hopium. 

Larry Bond, the American author who partnered the late Tom Clancy years ago to write Red Storm Rising, shared with me how the United States military reacted to their scenarios which described losses among US forces, including the NATO-Warsaw Pact clashes that nearly ended catastrophically for NATO forces, as Gen Robinson himself conceded in the story.  

"I've never had a problem or received any negative feedback about showing US forces losing a fight," said Larry. 
"I'm sure someone out there is convinced that our guys will never lose, or a carrier can't be sunk, but is that good storytelling? A hero only shines when they're up against a powerful, capable, even dangerous opponent... If the Good Guys win in every encounter, where's the conflict? That isn't a story - that's wish fulfillment."

Related posts:
Why Pukul Habis was not written from a Singaporean perspective. Click here
Pukul Habis: Author's Note. Click here
Pukul Habis: Full text of Prologue. Click here
Why does the English language novel, Pukul Habis, have a Malay title? Click here

Pukul Habis: Total Wipeout
11 March 2023 update: Books Kinokuniya in Singapore has stocked Pukul Habis. Please visit its main store in Ngee Ann City or Bugis Junction, or check the Kinokuniya online store here. The title should be available via Kinokuniya Malaysia soon. Please enquire with the KL store.
For readers elsewhere, please check the Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside. When ordering from Singapore, please click on the "Shipping to Singapore?" button. Ignore the "Temporarily out of stock" notice on the page.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Remembering the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean earthquake & tsunami

The Republic of Singapore Navy tank landing ship (LST), RSS Endurance, seen from the mass grave in Meulaboh, Sumatra. I joined the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Operations Flying Eagle team and the TNI for a joint memorial ceremony on the last day of the SAF HADR mission in the coastal town. It was a very moving ceremony. At one point during the operation, the LSTs were designated as "helicopter landing platforms". This non-standard nomenclature arose because the SAF wanted to indicate to United Nations agencies coordinating international relief efforts that the LSTs were capable of embarking helicopters from their decks.
Singapore Army commanders and officers from RSS Endurance salute Meulaboh as the LST raised anchor and set course for Singapore on the last day of Operation Flying Eagle. The SAF sent three Endurance-class LSTs to Meulaboh. A fourth ship of that class was deployed for operations in the Persian Gulf during that same operational window. 

For me, Boxing Day will forever be remembered for the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that struck countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka on the morning of 26 December 2004.

I would imagine that those of us who were sent for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions to countries affected by what became known as the Boxing Day tsunami will never forget that experience.

The Singapore Armed Forces HADR mission, codenamed Operation Flying Eagle, marked my longest embed with the SAF - about 3.5 weeks with the Ops Flying Eagle team.

Today marks the 18th year since that natural disaster. Will spend a moment of quiet reflection in memory of those who died during the 2004 calamity, and pray that the survivors are coping well.

Here is a selection of pictures from my album. I have always wondered where the kids who played in the downwash of the departing helicopters are now, and how they are doing. Must be all grown up by now.

I wrote a book on the SAF's tsunami relief mission, titled Reaching Out: Operation Flying Eagle. Download your copy of the book here:

Monday, December 19, 2022

We're on Facebook: SenangdiriHQ

I have a new Facebook page with the username, SenangdiriHQ, which all of you are welcome to visit. 

I will use Facebook to update you with spoiler-free, behind-the-scenes stories that tell more about how I wrote my first novel, Pukul Habis, and the sequel planned. Please follow if you are keen to learn more, or if you just want to stay in touch.

I started the Facebook page recently in case Twitter goes offline, or in case Twitter proves untenable under current management practices. I heard that not all of you are on that social channel, hence the (belated?) decision to join Facebook. 

For those who got the book on Amazon, please do consider leaving a review on that site. I am trying to convince publishers that there is interest for war fiction set in this part of the world. They’re not convinced anyone would want to read about Malaysia, Singapore as compared to the usual menu of war stories set in places like Europe, the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula etc. Malay peninsula “too niche”. Much appreciate your time sharing feedback 🙏🏼

For readers in 🇲🇾Malaysia: Do check if there's a Free Shipping option for orders above S$40, as indicated on the Amazon Singapore page: 

For readers in 🇸🇬Singapore: Do remember that you can get the book from Amazon Singapore with Free Shipping for orders above S$40, or with Amazon Prime. I think you can try this service on a trial basis too, if you're not already using it.

Happy holidays!

If you are in Malaysia, get the book from Books Kinokuniya's store at Suria KLCC. Kino will also mail it to any location in Malaysia. Please click here for details.

Books Kinokuniya Singapore has stocked Pukul Habis (ISBN 9789811861499). Please visit its main store in Ngee Ann City or Bugis Junction, or check the Kinokuniya online store here.

For readers elsewhere, please check the Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside. When ordering from Singapore, please click on the "Shipping to Singapore?" button. Ignore the "Temporarily out of stock" notice on the page.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

6 things to note about the RSN Invincible-class submarines, Impeccable and Illustrious

On Tuesday (13 December 2022), Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong officiated at the launch ceremony for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN)'s second and third Type 218SG Invincible-class submarines, Impeccable and Illustrious, at thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (tkMS) shipyard in Kiel, Germany.

The ceremony marked a rare occasion when observers could take a close look at the 70-metre long, 2,000-ton boats, which look set to be the largest and most advanced diesel-electric, AIP-capable hunter-killer submarines in Southeast Asia.

The Type 218SGs, the largest submarines designed and built by the German yard, had been photographed on many occasions while on sea trials. But the images and videos were all taken from a distance. 

The launch ceremony for the name ship of the class, Invincible, in February 2019, had the boat hoisted out of the water, with her upper hull and deck features not visible to guests.

While the sight of two submarines side by side was visually appealing, there's a lot left unsaid about what these boats can do. 

Here are six things that caught our attention (

Number 1: Hull features
The decorative, wrap-around bunting that was painstakingly tied by hand made one think about why so much effort went into dressing the boat. Naval observers would prefer a clean, naked hull with all protuberances visible. It was interesting to note that the level at which the bunting was secured could correspond to the parts of the boat's hull where one would normally find tubes for torpedo countermeasures.

Number 2: Screw
Just as Type 219SG's hull was on show - yet not shown fully thanks to the bunting - neither was the boat's screw. The blade count and shape of blades are normally points of interest for ship watchers. At Tuesday's ceremony, the screws for both boats were not visible as the water level in the dock kept their design features out of sight.

Number 3: Combat management system
Seventy metres of steel shark is a lot to behold. What you do not see is the heart of the fighting machine - the combat management system (CMS) that makes the boat a man-of-war. If Singapore's Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA), the national authority on weapon systems, takes a leaf from the Formidable-class stealth frigate project, then the software for the CMS is likely to be bespoke. 

This milestone is significant. The Formidable-class CMS benefitted from years of experience developing and fielding similar systems for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). The frigate's abovewater sensor suite, which tracks surface and aerial contacts, is essentially a mobile and seaborne version of radars and other sensors used by the RSAF.

A submarine's CMS suite, however, demands rather different skillsets. It is more challenging than applying the know-how needed to display and interprete data from a ground-based radar to a shipborne radar. 

The expertise needed to master underwater sensors is in a class of its own. These include sensors like active and passive sonar technology. Operating conditions beneath the waves are also different and engineers must develop an appreciation of water conditions - temperature, salinity, prevailing currents and tidal flows - and things like the seabed profile and acoustic conditions in the area of operations for the CMS to make sense of what is around the submarine. Otherwise, the sub fights blind.

So watch closely for any signs of the degree of local involvement in the submarine CMS, as this would telegraph a noteworthy step up in Singapore's defence engineering expertise.

Number 4: Mast
In some navies, every mast and device on the conning tower is raised to demonstrate the sub's mast-mounted sensor suite. One guesses that the time isn't quite right for the Invicible-class. But take note of the mast configuration when they do.

Number 5: Number of bunks
It was interesting to read that all 28 crew members on the Type 218SG would have their own bunks. On subs, the bunks are usually shared by crew members on different watches - a practice known as hot bunking - in order to save space aboard the sub. If you read between the lines, this could mean that the Type 218SG could, theoretically, embark up to 14 personnel who are not part of the boat's crew. This assumes the boat practices hot bunking, with the empty sleeping spaces allowing more warm bodies aboard. Food would be an operational limitation, but with dry rations and ample space on the boat, will not be a weighty hinderance to ops planning. Rather interesting fictional scenarios one could write about with half a platoon of special forces types onboard for insertion by sub.

Number 6: Operational tempo
Four boats on call suggest that the RSN could maintain a high operational tempo with the Invincible-class boats, once all are commissioned into active service around the end of the decade. Four boats means you could have one for training, one undergoing maintenance or refit, with a balance of two for operational taskings.

In summary, interesting times ahead for the RSN's unerwater warfare community.

If you like submarines, do note that my new book, Pukul Habis - Total Wipeout, has several chapters on the exploits of the Royal Malaysian Navy submarine, KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, as the boat embarks on her first war patrol with Exocets, Black Shark torpedoes and the boat's SUBTICS combat management system.

Pukul Habis: Total Wipeout: Now available from Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



Canada: Look Inside

France: Look Inside

Germany: Look Inside

Japan: Look Inside



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside

Monday, December 12, 2022

Hi Mr David, In Pukul Habis, why didn't you write the story from Singapore's perspective?

An early rendering of Pukul Habis' cover, showing a Royal Malaysian Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum flying away from the reader. Gino, the Brazilian artist who worked on the cover art, and I decided to have the MiG flying towards the reader instead. Sadly, Gino died of COVID before the book could be launched. The book cover is believed to have been his last book project. 

Short answer:
It would have been much easier to write Pukul Habis from the Singaporean perspective. But the short answer - and I say this after very careful consideration over past years - is that I felt we weren't ready for war fiction written this way. Long answer below, please.

Long answer: Why didn't you write the war story from Singapore's perspective?
One of the first questions I got from Gino, the late Brazilian artist who drew the book's cover several years ago, was: "What would you like on the cover?"

At the time, I had two concepts in mind. Option one was to have Gino draw a F-15SG Strike Eagle, wall to wall bombs and missiles, flying at night with the dark gray fighter and its Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) lion head roundel lit by a flaming landscape. That was option one. Please note: Option one means precisely that. It was one of two choices, and not necessarily the first choice.

Option two was a MiG-29 Fulcrum. At the time, Royal Malaysian Air Force MiG-29s had been withdrawn from frontline service but were sitting idle under shelters at Kuantan Air Base. In theory, these fighters could be reactivated. I did not want a Sukhoi Su-30 fighter as I wanted the book cover to suggest that the war story was fictional, imaginary, make belief, an alternate reality. So I went with the MiG - those of you who read the book would know why, and what part these interceptors and their plantation airfield played in the war.

Choosing the F-15 would have set Pukul Habis on a completely different narrative. Had an RSAF asset graced the cover, the book's contents would have matched the tone set by the cover art. The story would have been written from a Singapore-centric point of view, with Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers and WOSEs playing central roles, and with more aspects on the republic's defence ecosystem stepping into the limelight (think: the secretive defence science capabilities).

Some of you would probably have gotten a wargasm if it was written this way.

But I picked the MiG. 

Gino and I went through a few iterations of the cover. We discussed which direction should the fighter face, what armament it should carry, tail number, squadron markings, weathering (notice the gun smoke on the cannon port, the mud on the wheels?). I set some ground rules: the Malaysian MiG should not be shown shooting at anything, and there must not be anything shot down in the background. We decided that showing the MiG taking off from a dirt runway would be suitably dynamic as the fighter, fully armed for an air intercept mission, would be depicted while retracting its undercarriage with afterburners blazing and a banner of dust in its wake. 

As some of you have noted, I have been writing about the SAF for a long time. As a war fiction fan myself, I would have liked - just like many of  you - to see the story recounted from a Singaporean lens, with an SAF asset on the cover. While I had been hoping to pen a story with a Singaporean narrative, I felt the time was not right for such a book (apologies, I am unable to go into details). 

Writing it from the Malaysian perspective forced me out of my comfort zone. 

It was a lot more difficult by several orders of magnitude.

Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) units mentioned in the story had to sound plausible. But what was their order of battle? And the nuances had to suit the organisations and characters portrayed. Even the racial mix among the MAF characters was carefully considered. I had heard the executive officer of the launch crew of the Royal Malaysian Navy's first submarine was a non-Malay -  and modelled the submarine's XO in the book after this officer. A commanding officer of the F/A-18D squadron was a Malaysian Chinese - so I reflected this in the story too. And the list goes on.

Perceptive readers would probably lament the absence of Singapore's defence ecosystem. Let me tell you why.

There was a risk that my hyperactive sense of imagination, creative energy and, ahem, educated guesses on Singapore's secret edge capabilities, the so-called black diamonds, would cut too close to reality. Even if this risk was infinitesimally small, it was a chance I was not willing to take. Several Singaporean authors had published books with a Singapore-Malaysian war theme before. But I think Pukul Habis builds on this legacy and takes the wartime scenarios a step further. 

If you have followed my blog and past writings on the SAF, I leave you to judge how close to reality the alternate narrative could be if I took that path.

On the other hand, if I deliberately chose to describe the black diamonds in the most plain, uninspiring and unimaginative way, where these capabilities were (yawn) no different from what you can find off-the-shelf, then would the story do justice to all those scientists and engineers who toil in the shadows? It would not.

Describe them too creatively and the security watchers might be aroused. Describe them with so-so capabilities and readers would probably criticise the story for lack of punch.

So, in keeping with the theme of recounting the story from a Malaysian perspective, I left out any mention of black diamonds.

For the same reason, I deliberately avoided highlighting SAF decision-making processes. SAF units are mentioned as a supporting cast. When I do go into detail, it is to highlight the length of time required to do certain things -  like assembling M3G rafts - as this length of time has a bearing on how the story unfolds because it shows what the MAF does during that window of opportunity. [Note: Not to reveal spoilers but this is essentially the back story to the chapter - The Crossing. Having the M3Gs preassembled and already in the water before H-hour was one scenario I played with during the war game phase while planning the book. But having scores of two-bay rafts waiting in the strait during a period of tension would have been a red line from Malaysia's perspective and I didn't want to complicate the story further. Since the story appeared, I have had a few people tell me they can finally tell their family and friends what they might do during operations. But we'll save such anecdotes for another time.]

I am glad even the 3-star review on Amazon acknowledged the effort that went into this book. Because it was quite extensive and at times, exhausting physically (like the time I did an overnighter in a palm oil plantation just to see how dark it could get) and mentally.

The fight scenes that you read about are intended to portray the brutal, uncompromising nature of war. As mentioned in the Author's Note (please click here to read it), the element of chance plays a big part in success or failure during operations. Isn't this the same in real life combat?

Military history is filled with examples where commanders or units that come to grief meet disaster not because of their incompetence or lack of elan, but because circumstances conspired against them to rob them of victory. The book's narrative could have quite easily been written with easy victories by the SAF. But how then does one realise and gird onself for the possibility that tactical situations do not always unfold the way you have planned? 

Japanese general Yamashita, who conquered Singapore 80 years ago, noted in after-action reports that his stance during surrender negotiations with British general Percival at the Ford Factory was a bluff. Yamashita knew his army was running out of ammunition at the end of a long and tenuous supply chain. Had the British held firm, if the crated Hurricane fighters had time to be reassembled, if another convoy fought its way into Singapore, if the Royal Navy kept its submarine flotilla in Singapore to interdict Japanese reinforcements, if the gun monitor HMS Terror stayed in the Johor Strait to provide shore bombardment capabilities to British Imperial forces, the Japanese general's gamble might have failed spectacularly. So many "what ifs" could have turned the course of history.

The Royal Navy admiral who led Force Z comprising the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, for its sortie off the east coast of the Malay peninsula was no less gutsy. But lacking a submarine screen as a tripwire (RN submarines were withdrawn to the Mediterranean) and proper air cover (the aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle, previously based in the Far East was also redeployed to the Med, and HMS Indomitable had run aground, leaving Force Z with no organic air cover), Japanese bombers sent both ships to the bottom of the South China Sea. The Prince of Wales was the RN's first battleship lost to aircraft. She was also last RN battleship lost in combat, with Repulse the last British battlecruiser lost in battle. An inglorious episode. But the RN bounced back, showed its resilience and achieved mission success, including sinking the Japanese heavy cruiser, Haguro, in a night action by destroyers off Penang late in the war that redeemed the RN's battle reputation. 

Seen from a Malaysian perspective, readers from across the Causeway would have to contend with a storyline where the SAF successfully stages an assault crossing of a one kilometre wide water body and pushes deep inland. I won't give away spoilers but readers would know the crossing wasn't left uncontested. Even fighting with less than its full bench strength, the RSAF manages to control the air. This is an imponderable scenario that the book explored. 

In situations where MAF responses are described, parallels were drawn with actual combat elsewhere. For instance, the performance of a certain counter-rocket, artillery and mortar system against massed rocket barrages was assessed when it was fielded in combat in Israel. We also factored in the likely behaviour of civilians, as seen in numerous YouTube videos. I think the same would happen here, if the fictional C-RAMs ever go into action.

The challenge of finding dispersed, small units under forest cover, even with FOPEN sensors and hyperspectral technology, cannot be understated. And Pukul Habis pulls no punches when highlighting this challenge.

The account of the selfie-taking commander pre-dated the Ukraine war by 2.5 years. Just look at the images and videos taken by combatants from both sides in that theatre - it's something that warfighters are known to do in combat zones.

With Malaysians as protagonists, many of  the action scenes are naturally initiated by MAF officers and other ranks. As such, the Malaysians do most of the firing and pressing of buttons to launch various munitions.

Many of you who have been following defence news from Russia and places like North Korea would probably chuckle at descriptions when they try too hard to describe or upsell the capabilities or performance of their armed forces. The word "copium" crops up frequently when people try to dismiss or explain away battle setbacks.

In Pukul Habis, SAF successes are implied. SAF action on the battlefield is understated in terms of distances covered, and with phase lines achieved under tight operational timescales and while under fire. Please remember that when writing this story, I had to consider Malaysian sensitivities too.

And still, the red wave (as depicted in the MAF command post) creeps north. Hopefully, observers who read about the unfolding battle would be able to discern and acknowledge the success factors, even without the text crowing it out loud.

If the button is pressed, I have every confidence that the SAF can do what it is trained to do. And our armed forces don't need a ringing endorsement from a story book to accomplish mission success.

See Pukul Habis for what it is: a recounting of nightmare scenarios in an unthinkable war. 

In the book's dedication is a line that goes out to all members of the MAF and SAF. That line puts on record my deepest respect for warfighters from both armed forces. 

Do enjoy the story!  

If you are in Malaysia, get the book from Books Kinokuniya's store at Suria KLCC. Kino will also mail it to any location in Malaysia. Please click here for details.

Books Kinokuniya Singapore has stocked Pukul Habis (ISBN 9789811861499). Please visit its main store in Ngee Ann City or Bugis Junction, or check the Kinokuniya online store here.

For readers elsewhere, please check the Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



Canada: Look Inside

France: Look Inside

Germany: Look Inside

Japan: Look Inside



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside. When ordering from Singapore, please click on the "Shipping to Singapore?" button. Ignore the "Temporarily out of stock" notice on the page.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Pukul Habis - Total Wipeout: Prologue

11 March 2023 update: Books Kinokuniya in Singapore has stocked Pukul Habis. Please visit its main store in Ngee Ann City or Bugis Junction, or check the Kinokuniya online store here. The title should be available via Kinokuniya Malaysia soon. Please enquire with the KL store.

Because of the extensive front matter in Pukul Habis, the Look Inside function on Amazon shows you only part of the Prologue. Here's the full Prologue for those of you wondering what the rest of it looks like.

Of the four vignettes in the Prologue, two were inspired by real events. One was a contingency plan that was never implemented, as far as I can ascertain, and one is entirely imaginary. Click to the end of this post to see which Amazon pages show you other page samples.


The Eve of War

Gong Kedak Air Base, MALAYSIA

Fighter pilots from 12 Skuadron Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (TUDM, Royal Malaysian Air Force) called their reconnaissance missions to Singapore the “flights to nowhere”.

At midnight, precisely 24 hours before Malaysia and Singapore went to war, 12 Skuadron launched a Sukhoi Su-30MKM Super Flanker, callsign Jengking 04, from Gong Kedak Air Base for one such mission.

The Russian-made fighter soared into the inky black sky after a deafening takeoff run. Cones of blue-orange flames from the jet exhausts of the twin-engine fighter pierced the night. A thunderous roar rattled zinc-roofed kampungs and shook the farmland for miles around as Jengking 04, the squadron’s final flight to nowhere, began its solo mission. The Sukhoi climbed to 10,000 feet at 400 knots from its base on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, its nose pointed southwest towards Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Federation of Malaysia. The fighter would fly its 1,000-kilometre round trip at a slow, easy pace when it could hit more than twice the speed of sound and fly three times that distance.

Fast, capable and headed towards Singapore unannounced, Cik Su (Miss Su), which was the nickname Malaysians gave the Sukhoi fighter jet, was on the fifth night recon flight launched by the squadron in the past two weeks – a pace that Markas Angkatan Tentera Malaysia stepped up during the period of tension with neighbouring Singapore.

Kapten Sulaiman Taufiq Abdul Bakar, a 31-year-old BAE Systems Hawk 208 fighter pilot who recently transferred to the squadron, piloted the Sukhoi from the front seat with Leftenan Kolonel Jarod Jonep, Pegawai Staf (Gerak) (operations officer) at 12 Skuadron, in the back as the Weapon Systems Officer or whizzo.

Their target was the Republic of Singapore, a small city-state some 500 kilometres away at the southernmost tip of the Asian continent. With just 40 hours on the Su-30, Sulaiman was a squadron newbie. The 42-year-old whizzo from Sabah was more seasoned, with more than 420 hours on the Su-30MKM. Jarod was an exemplary mentor who gave the nugget his fullest attention. Cik Su was unarmed and travelled light. Her only external stores were wingtip pods for electronic intelligence gathering. Sukhois outfitted in this configuration were nicknamed the Growlerski.

Flying over Malaysian territory in peacetime inside an air corridor monitored by military and civilian ATC, Jengking 04 had several nearby Malaysian airports which the Su-30 could use in an emergency. The night recon flights were safe, routine and undemanding. There were no medals to be won. But pilots from 12 Skuadron enjoyed such missions as it was an easy way to clock flying hours.

Danger came from the risk of collisions with airliners from numerous red eye flights bound for Australia, Europe, North Asia or the Americas in the congested airways above Malaysia, their strobes twinkling silently in the distance like so many fireflies. A vigilant crew and excellent visibility from the cockpit lessened this danger.

When Jengking 04 reached Kuala Lumpur, Sulaiman banked the fighter south to follow waypoints on an electronic map. The Su-30 was on course and right on schedule. The fighter traced the Malacca Strait and aimed for the tip of the vase-shaped peninsula where the slender landform ended with the island of Singapore like a dot at the end of an exclamation mark.

Jengking 04 maintained strict radio silence though her crew tuned in to the business-like chatter between airliners and air traffic controllers. Cik Su had her strobes and wingtip lights switched on in accordance with peacetime safety regulations. There was no need for stealth as allowing the Singaporeans to see the approaching Su-30 was all part of the game. Singapore was not told beforehand of this flight. There was no need to. This was a Malaysian military flight operating within sovereign airspace. The Su-30 needed less than 30 minutes to reach Singapore from Kuala Lumpur. So her crew stayed alert. The goal was to probe Singapore’s defences, not trigger the Singapore Armed Forces into all-out retaliation.

Malaysia’s “flights to nowhere” tested how Singapore might react to unidentified aircraft that approached the city-state. All were launched without prior notification, giving tiny Singapore mere minutes to react.

Puzzlingly, previous sorties drew no apparent reaction from the Singaporeans although SAF ground-based air defence radars must have detected the inbound flights.

Jengking 04 experienced the same lack of response that night.

Now came Jarod’s favourite part of the routine flight when he could enjoy the night view of Peninsular Malaysia from the Sukhoi’s roomy cockpit. Much of the flying was done straight and level with no complicated manoeuvres. And with no need to monitor the threat warning receivers during the peacetime mission, Jarod had time to marvel at the splendid view around the Sukhoi. A blanket of stars crowned the black sky above the streamlined cockpit canopy. Looking beyond the rim of the cockpit, the night glow from the dazzling light show beneath the cruising fighter never failed to fascinate Jarod. There was little need for navigational aids as the Sukhoi pilots knew their way across the peninsula. And the best guide came from brightly lit landmarks. City lights from Kuala Lumpur and big towns like Malacca, Muar and Johor Bahru sparkled like prominent beacons, while traffic along the federation’s major expressways stretched like golden veins across the dark landscape, tracing the shape of the peninsula as the Su-30 closed in on Singapore.

The view from 10,000 feet may have been tranquil and stunning. But the serenity was deceptive as Malaysia and Singapore were then locked in their most serious period of tension. 

Approaching the Malaysia-Singapore border, the Su-30’s last waypoint lay seven nautical miles from Singapore – less than a minute’s flying time to the city-state at its current speed. When the Su-30 reached the waypoint, the fighter turned eastward to overfly the coast of Johor. Looking over to their right, the Su-30 crew saw a carpet of lights from the diamond-shaped island shimmering from one end of the horizon to the other. Sulaiman knew Singapore well as he studied at one of its universities where he met his future wife. He regarded the night reconnaissance as a homecoming of sorts as he had family on both sides of the border. At a personal level, the Sukhoi pilot was relieved that the flight was incident-free and he was happy to fly an easy mission.

Now came the time for the Growlerski to work its magic. From the whizzo’s station, Jarod activated the ELINT devices in the wingtip pods to scan the air for electronic emissions. Almost immediately, the Sukhoi detected Malaysian ATC radars at Senai International Airport and the surveillance radar from Skuadron 323, Malaysia’s southernmost air defence radar unit at Bukit Lunchu in Johor. The fighter also picked up radar signals from the Republic of Singapore Air Force radar aerostat tethered at Pasir Laba, an FPS-117 long-range air search radar at Bukit Gombak and the usual activity from Changi Airport’s ATC radars. Even with the ongoing period of tension, there were no signs of a heightened state of alert or unusual military activities from Singapore.

The Su-30 soared high over Johor Bahru, its flight barely noticed by the city’s night owls. The fighter followed the silvery ribbon that was the Johor Strait and flew towards the band of darkness at the eastern side of the peninsula where the coastal plain met the South China Sea. Staying over Johor, the Su-30 then turned north to follow the Malaysian coast back to Gong Kedak. The flight to nowhere was back to where it began. From wheels up to touchdown, Jengking 04 was airborne for less than two hours.

Intense activity inside Gong Kedak’s hardened aircraft shelters made up for the lack of drama in the air. The squadron’s ground crew did not sleep that night. They worked purposefully to prepare the Sukhois for flight. All 18 Su-30MKM Super Flankers were to fly and 12 Skuadron was proud of its (rarely achieved) ability to generate 100 per cent aircraft availability.

On paper, Singapore’s F-15 and F-16 fighter jets outnumbered Malaysian warplanes three to one.

Even with these odds, 12 Skuadron looked forward to sending its Super Flankers airborne. The fighter squadron had a trick up its sleeve because Markas TUDM was about to make the 25-tonne fighters disappear.


Sungai Petani, Kedah

Even by Malaysian standards, the town of Sungai Petani in Kedah was a sleepy backwater that most Malaysians would probably never visit. The riverside town, known fondly by its quarter million residents as SP, was not without its attractions. These included Malaysia’s second largest coastal mangrove reserve, picturesque rice fields and traditional cuisine found only in Malaysia’s northern states.

Ignored by domestic tourists, Kedah’s largest town was very much on the radar – literally and figuratively – of SAF units assigned the round-the-clock task of monitoring Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) as war clouds loomed.

Based in Sungai Petani, Rejimen ke-52 Artileri Diraja (52 RAD, 52nd Royal Artillery Regiment) was Tentera Darat’s (Malaysian Army) northernmost rocket artillery unit on the peninsula. Despite its distance from Singapore, Regiment 52 was high on the SAF’s watch list.

Out of reach of RSAF F-16 reconnaissance flights and unmanned aerial vehicles in peacetime, when the sanctity of international borders had to be respected, the SAF used its constellation of TeLEOS reconnaissance satellites to watch Regiment 52’s every move. Singapore’s eyes in the skies roamed high over Southeast Asia several times a day. TeLEOS satellites were overhead rain or shine. They operated unchallenged and untouchable, as Malaysia had nothing that could stop overflights by the reconnaissance satellites.

Regiment 52 was a high priority target for the TeLEOS constellation because the Avibras Astros II multiple launch rocket artillery system that armed this unit and her sister battalion, the Gemas-based Regiment 51, had the longest range among MLRS systems in Southeast Asia. Mounted on 6x6 cross-country trucks, the Brazilian-made MLRS was capable of deploying by road to any point in the peninsula within hours.

Astros rockets launched from the Thai border could hit targets some 90 kilometres inside the kingdom. But the presence of Astros rocket launchers on the Thai-Malaysian border hardly constituted a danger to Thailand’s national security as Bangkok, the kingdom’s capital, and high-value economic and military targets were well beyond the reach of the Astros.

It was a different story if Astros launchers faced Singapore. If these rockets were fired from Johor, Astros rockets had the range to soar across the mile-wide (1.6 kilometre) Johor Strait, cross the island’s 22-kilometre width and could reach Indonesia’s Riau islands at maximum range. If Singapore ever came within an Astros regiment’s range rings, the tactical rocket artillery weapon could exert a strategic influence over the entire island.

But as long as Regiment 52 stayed where it was, Malaysia’s Astros rockets threatened no one. Orders that sent Regiment 52 to Johor would change the delicate military balance in a matter of hours as Malaysia and Singapore stood on the brink of war.

Artillery, King of the Battlefield, was about to make its presence felt.

It was a nightmare scenario Singaporean defence planners had long dreaded – the presence of two Astros rocket artillery regiments within striking range of Singapore that threatened to overwhelm the republic’s defences before her citizen army could fully mobilise.

Malaysia knew it had the right to move its rockets anywhere within the federation. If Singapore viewed this as a provocation, then so be it.

Malaysia was prepared to test its smaller neighbour. Scenario planners from Markas ATM calculated that Malaysia’s robust military posture would not cross the threshold to war as Singapore did not have the will to fight, and Singaporeans would be rational enough to see the movement of the rocket regiment for what it was – nothing more than a diplomatic irritant, a political sideshow during the period of tension. 

Markas ATM would soon see results of this opening gambit.


Kem Lapangan Terbang, Kedah

It was time for the King’s gunners to prove their worth.

Determined to demonstrate strength and resolve during the period of tension, Regiment 52 had orders to drive to Johor overnight at best speed. Regiment 52’s rapid deployment was familiar to all gunners in the unit as they had practiced the 600-kilometre trans-peninsula movement many times during Eksesais Jengking Selatan (Exercise Southern Scorpion).

Confident of executing this show of force, the gunners were eager to get moving.

In Sungai Petani, deserted streets around the iconic clock tower in the town centre showed why the place was seen as a sleepy backwater. As the hands on the clock ticked towards midnight, Jengking Selatan swung into action.

At Block 16 Kem Lapangan Terbang, Koperal Adam Aziz, a 28-year-old driver with “A” Bateri Regiment 52, waited inside the Bateri Alpha garage in the armoured cab of his Astros rocket launcher after the gunners completed a group prayer for a safe deployment. He shared the cabin with his vehicle commander and two other gunners. A little tense yet excited, Adam clutched the steering wheel with both hands as he waited for the order to start the engine, and hoped that the reliable Mercedes-Benz truck would not let him down.

Follow orders and drive. Keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front. The vehicle commander will do the rest. It was that simple, thought Adam as he prepared himself for the long drive to Johor.

Adam’s parking bay at Block 16 was the first in the row of 18 covered bays assigned to Bateri Alpha. Behind the windowless red doors of the MT line lay the sharp end of Regiment 52: six Astros rocket launchers, the battery’s self-propelled command post, a fire control vehicle, a mobile workshop and ammunition resupply vehicles. The entire battery was manned, fuelled and ready to move.

Outside the MT line, blue strobes on the motorcycles of the military police escort from 6 Kompeni Kor Polis Tentera Diraja (Royal Military Police Corps) cast a pulsating light show on the beige garage walls as the MPs waited with bike engines purring.

The departure was coordinated so that doors to the MT lines for batteries A, B and C and Markas Bateri (Headquarters Battery) cranked open at the same time. Electric motors whirred, cables strained, and the heavy garage doors for the various batteries creaked as they were hoisted up simultaneously to reveal the regiment’s full vehicle strength.

Ordered to execute the Jengking Selatan deployment, gunners from Regiment 52 were eager to live up to their motto, Tangkas Gempur (Agile Strike).

The regiment expected an easy overnight drive to Johor. The weather was good. The gunners knew the way and did not need maps or GPS. They had MPs who would help clear the traffic. One thing that was different from practice runs was the issue of live ammunition for their M-4 carbines. But the battery commander said there was no cause for alarm. It was simply a precaution and orders were passed down to keep the bullets sealed in their cardboard boxes. No one admitted it, but the whole regiment from CO down suspected that the deployment was just political wayang (theatre). To the gunners, the period of tension with Singapore would soon go away. It always did in the past.

First out of camp were the MPs on their powerful Honda motorcycles. Bunched tightly like racers at the Sepang track, eight motorcycles roared out of the camp as pathfinders. The MPs made themselves seen and heard. Blue strobes on their white Hondas flashed with blinding intensity. As the MPs sped through Sungai Petani, wailing sirens woke up many residents as the artillery convoy rolled through the sleeping town.

The MPs stopped traffic for Regiment 52 to move unimpeded as the regiment had orders to reach Johor as soon as possible. The MPs did their job with gusto. Shrill blasts from whistles and waving light wands brought traffic to a standstill at junctions leading to the North-South Expressway, allowing the convoy to carry on without stopping.

Many Malaysian gunners recalled that the deployment felt like an exercise. Regiment 52 brimmed with confidence as the gunners had trained for this moment during numerous Jengking Selatan war games. The geographical reference was easy to understand with Johor’s location at the southern end of the peninsula. The Scorpion signified the link with Briged ke-Tujuh Infantri Tentera Darat (7 Briged), which was the army brigade closest to Singapore.

As the regiment whisked past the camp gates, two sergeants scribbled the time of departure in their notebooks. They watched silently as the tail lights of the convoy and the wails from the sirens faded in the distance. Regiment 52’s operations diary showed that this was the fastest ever exit by the gunners.

The sergeants were not gunners. They came from a secretive ATM unit called Bahagian Aplikasi Perisikan Pertahanan or BAPP – the department for defence intelligence applications. They were at the camp to verify that an additional task was carried out exactly as Markas ATM had ordered. Regiment 52 received specific instructions to keep the doors of the MT lines wide open. The gunners were puzzled, but did as they were told.

The Risik sergeants noted with quiet satisfaction that empty parking bays at Block 16 and the other MT lines remained exposed for Singaporean reconnaissance satellites passing overhead to see that the Astros regiment was no longer at Sungai Petani.

With Regiment 52 unleashed, the ATM’s drawer plans moved quickly into play.


The South China Sea

As Regiment 52 began its drive south, a Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Navy) asset in the South China Sea also headed for its deployment area off Johor. Under a clear night studded with twinkling stars, the 42,000-tonne semi-submersible transport ship, MV Triumph, carried a Malaysian navy asset to Johor at 11 knots, which was the best speed the ship’s ageing diesel engine could sustain without overstraining itself. Triumph took a week to sail from Semporna, off the eastern coast of Sabah, to the South China Sea. Such was the urgency of the deployment that the mothership sailed non-stop. Her voyage was smooth and incident-free. The 65-strong crew of the TLDM asset who joined the rust-streaked heavy-lift ship as passengers saw the trip as an easy, routine voyage.

The TLDM asset, fleet pennant number 15, was a floating paradox. She came under the Malaysian navy order of battle. But she was not a warship and could not move on her own. Her war paint was the same shade of grey as Malaysian warships. But the floating structure might have passed as just another oil rig. The 4,500-tonne, 50-metre long oddball was what the Malaysians termed a Sea Base. In the Asia-Pacific, she was one of a kind.

Her full name was Pangkalan Laut Tun Sharifah Rodziah – Sea Base Tun Sharifah Rodziah – and she was named in honour of the consort to a former Malaysian prime minister. The floating sentinel sailed towards a grid codenamed Daerah Maritim ke-Tujuh or Delta Mike Seven, which was off the east coast of Johor.

Tun Sharifah Rodziah was part of a TLDM sensor-shooter combination. Her mission was to monitor the sea lanes that led from Singapore to the South China Sea. Contacts detected by the sea base would be passed to the shooter – a Malaysian navy Scorpène-class diesel-electric attack submarine – which would then persecute hostile contacts using torpedoes and Exocet anti-ship missiles.

You could not find a more fitting counterpart for Tun Sharifah Rodziah. The submarine, KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, was named after Malaysia’s first prime minister who was Tun Sharifah Rodziah’s husband. Befitting their namesakes, the TLDM assets would forge a powerful and productive partnership in the South China Sea – and supported one another admirably in the upcoming sea battles as Singaporean warships broke out of the Singapore Strait.


Confederate Estate PALM OIL plantation, Pahang

A typical work day at the Confederate Estate palm oil plantation began several hours before sunrise.

Some of the first staff to start work at the sprawling plantation in Pahang were the bakers. This morning was special as the plantation’s 86-year-old Chairman came tottering in with his walking stick to personally inspect the bakery. This was no ordinary bakery. It was a patisserie par excellence that was renowned for making the finest Danish pastries and best bread in Malaysia.

The Chairman was a Dane and a proud expatriate resident of Malaysia. He had spent his entire working life in the federation and dedicated his life to building up Malaysia’s palm oil industry. Along the way, the tall blond European decided to make Malaysia his home. He learned Malay and local dialects and spoke these fluently. The Dane raised a family with four children on the estate, lived like the locals and treated the estate’s workers as his extended family. The Chairman’s love for his workers was returned in kind. For many years, its dedicated workers helped the plantation achieve one of the highest yields among Malaysian palm oil estates.

The Chairman was up early as the estate had special guests that morning, with more on the way. An advance party of elite PASKAU (Pasukan Khas Udara, air force special forces) troopers from a TUDM air base security unit called Skuadron Kawalan Medan (Field Protection Squadron) arrived overnight. The PASKAU platoon was assigned to protect TUDM fighter aircraft that were due to land at the estate’s airstrip that morning.

The Chairman was a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Royal Danish Army and he was always happy to welcome Malaysian military personnel to the estate.

Markas ATM activated Confederate Estate’s primitive crop duster airstrip as part of its Rancangan Kontinjensi (RANKON) contingency plan to disperse Malaysian fighter aircraft away from their usual air bases. The TUDM advance party would help transform the airstrip into a Forward Operating Base for supersonic fighter jets that were designed for rough field operations. The RANKON dispersal plan was a precaution. It was conceived to reduce the vulnerability of TUDM fighters in case the SAF launched pre-emptive air strikes or artillery attacks on Malaysian air bases.

Tucked away on a fertile coastal plain in Pahang, the plantation’s grass runway was strategically located between Singapore and TUDM fighter bases in the centre of the peninsula.

The old army officer sensed that the period of tension must be quite serious for TUDM to activate the plantation airstrip for use by its fighter aircraft.

The Chairman was right.

RANKON was not a measure that Malaysian defence planners initiated lightly because of the costs involved to move around the manpower, ATM assets and live ammunition. RANKON called for the activation of more than 60 specially designated airstrips for fixed wing assets and landing zones for helicopters in plantations and in the jungle. Because substantial resources were needed to prepare an austere strip for military operations, this RANKON was triggered only under imminent threat of a full-scale war with an aggressor.

A fierce political storm was brewing.

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