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Should S'pore's military bear open arms?
Publication Date : 16-01-2014
Militaries worldwide are increasingly helping out in disasters or with peacekeeping. The Singapore Armed Forces is no exception. But does this compromise its core role of keeping Singapore secure?
Hunkered in front their computers and television screens, Singapore's senior military commanders and defence planners keep a keen eye on a threat unfolding more than 2,000km away.
Orders to move out have not been issued but pilots at Paya Lebar Air Base, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's C-130 aircraft base, have already mapped out their flight path and primed themselves for action.
Their target is not an enemy bristling with guns and missiles - but a ferocious storm packing winds in excess of 300kmh and heading towards the Philippines.
Such was the scene in Singapore when Typhoon Haiyan swept across the Philippines on Nov8, killing over 6,000 people and displacing four million.
Militaries worldwide rushed to help deliver relief aid, including the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Five days after the typhoon hit, two Singaporean C-130 transport planes flew to the devastated coastal cities of Tacloban and Capiz with supplies and to help victims.
Increasingly, armed forces around the world, including Singapore's, are mobilised, not to fight wars, but to render humanitarian assistance and to help keep or build the peace in conflict zones.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted last November that it is "not the exception" that militaries will be called upon to respond with help. "Increasingly our militaries will be called upon. So I think (humanitarian assistance) is a significant (and) important capability to build up."
However, as a largely conscript army set up to defend a tiny island state, the SAF's challenge is to ensure that doing good overseas does not compromise its ability to keep Singapore secure.
It also has to win public support for involving young full-time national servicemen (NSFs) in such missions, given the risk to life and limb, and the difficulty in explaining to parents why their boys should be sent overseas to sort out other people's problems.
The risks of doing good
Singapore soldiers, sailors and airmen have taken part in more than 50 overseas peace support or humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) missions, from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Aden and Christchurch in New Zealand.
The first was to East Pakistan - now Bangladesh - in 1970 to help victims of a deadly cyclone. The biggest was helping out in the aftermath of the Dec26, 2004, tsunami. More than 1,500 personnel were deployed to Indonesia and Thailand over 31/2 weeks.
Naturally, there is an acronym for such missions - Operations Other Than War (OOTW). The SAF often uses another acronym for them, too - humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR).
Tackling such non-war security threats presents an additional, quite different challenge to the servicemen taking part, who comprise regulars, as well as conscripts such as NSFs and operationally-ready NSmen, who volunteer for such missions.
OOTW expert Dr Ong Wei Chong notes there is a blurring of lines between soldiering and humanitarian-policeman-type roles.
Ong, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, says: "Missions have become more complex, where a lot of functions are not just shooting to kill, but also handing out aid, policing and working with civilian agencies."
While they may involve lending a helping hand, they are still fraught with risk.
Ng admitted last year that when Singaporean soldiers were peacekeeping in Afghanistan he feared the worst, amid reports of exploding roadside bombs and rockets directed at their camps.
"I had mentally prepared myself for the outcome where our SAF soldiers would be injured, or even worse, killed in action," he said in a tribute to those who were part of the United Nations-led reconstruction efforts.
But all has gone well so far, with not a single SAF soldier's life lost in such missions.
Yet, defence planners are well aware of issues such as whether they are overstretching an already lean SAF by putting citizen soldiers in harm's way to carry out roles that civilian non-governmental organisations and emergency services are set up to perform.
Brigadier-General Chia Choon Hoong, the SAF's joint operations director, says: "It is something we are realistic about, and will only throw resources we can afford."
Another who appreciates such concerns is deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Defence and Foreign Affairs Ellen Lee. "As with how national service is not accepted by everyone, there will be a minority who think it is unnecessary to expose our servicemen to danger to take care of other nations' problems," she says.
All this comes amid an increasingly vocal electorate, with an appetite for more discussion and scrutiny of Singapore's defence policy and spending, which represents a not inconsiderable 23 per cent of the total Budget. The multi-million-dollar question, too, is whether the unknown cost of OOTW missions - the defence ministry does not provide cost breakdowns - is too much of a burden when weighed against the intangible benefits of doing good overseas.
While militaries nowadays are often the first to offer help to save lives in disaster zones - indeed, there is even a United Nations guide, "The Oslo Guidelines", advising on the use of the military in disaster relief - the fact is that they are armed forces entering another's sovereign territory.
This comes with its own issues of being careful not to become unwitting pawns in complicated local or regional politics, and steering clear of tensions between other military aid-givers from countries which are in dispute.
And, of course, the stricken country itself may not welcome foreign militaries. This is especially the case of countries that are tightly controlled and highly suspicious of outside intervention. They might prefer to reject or delay any goodwill gestures, to protect their sovereignty. This was evident when Myanmar's junta ignored visa requests and flight approvals from countries like the United States after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, hampering international aid from reaching tens of thousands killed or displaced by the disaster.
And even as the men-in-green distribute aid, they have to ensure their endeavours do not create tension among locals and civilian NGOs, which can escalate into violence. Such an unintended consequence was seen in Haiti, as international aid workers faced growing resentment from the impoverished class, who thought pledges of billions in aid were benefiting the rich elite.
Military men who lack an understanding of local, cultural sensitivities can also make gaffes and be seen as taking sides, resulting in unintentional harm.
On the plus side
Despite the risks, there are many benefits in the SAF taking part in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. The exposure to real-life operations is invaluable, points out defence observer David Boey. The former Straits Times defence correspondent covered the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Meulaboh, Sumatra, and also quake-hit Taiwan in 1999.
"People broke out of the silos and saw with their own eyes what modern integrated operations are all about," he says.
Indeed, no amount of training and exercises can simulate the battle-mode, 24-hour frame of mind servicemen must be in.
The post-tsunami relief operation, for example, involved the army, navy and air force working together as one, showcasing how the three forces can give the SAF a potent punch to tackle threats.
Says BG Chia: "You are doing it for real - you fly the aircraft and do the things according to plan. But when things change, you need to find out how to read your plans for real."
Major Benjamin Heok, who was involved in the post-tsunami relief effort, notes the operations attest to the SAF's training.
"The logistical preparation, the planning - what we were conditioned to do in terms of planning and execution during a conventional war - was also applicable in a humanitarian context because it was still a mission," he says.
Boey, a member of the Advisory Council for Community Relations in Defence, also says other-than-war missions provide "growing up moments" for NSFs aged 18 or 19. He recalls a few weary and homesick young soldiers doing post-tsunami relief work who broke down because they missed home and the New Year and Hari Raya festivities: "They cried, but still soldiered on and accomplished all their tasks."
Such "soft" missions may lead some to dismiss the SAF as a peacetime army dealing with no real imminent threat. But doing good overseas, say others, does not compromise the SAF's ability to keep Singapore secure.
Tough drills in realistic scenarios, along with building friendly ties with neighbours, have allowed Singapore to deter potential aggressors in a volatile region, say military experts.
Military analyst Collin Koh Swee Lean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, views other-than-war missions as a plus for the SAF: "They need 'battlefield-like' achievements for something to show for all the investment."
Lee puts a different spin on it: "If citizens expect our soldiers to defend us, then we will need to spend the money to better prepare them and expose them to real-life situations."
Fly flag, spread goodwill
Such missions have also become diplomacy tools where Singapore and its neighbours can generate goodwill in the region.
With different countries rallying together to respond to natural disasters, they are a good platform to promote cooperation and advance diplomacy.
Ong describes the shared HADR experience as a "convergence of common interests" of different militaries.
For instance, American and Chinese troops had never trained alongside each other until the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting's HADR exercise in Brunei last year. The four-day drill also involved the 10 Asean countries, as well as Australia, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand and Russia.
By training together, militaries translate rhetoric to practical cooperation - they become more open with each other, reducing the risk of misunderstandings or mishaps, says Dr Ong.
Another example is the Malacca Strait Patrol, in which the navies of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand keep a look out for pirates.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, a former defence minister, has said such operations "help to maintain regional and international peace and stability".
Also invaluable is the goodwill that can be engendered.
Because of good relations between the SAF and its Indonesian counterpart, tsunami relief in 2005 proved easier. This was because the Indonesian Armed Forces could make the SAF the primary foreign military contingent present in Meulaboh without stoking security concerns linked to Free Aceh Movement insurgents.
In addition, Singapore's servicemen gained kudos arising from the multi-country aid efforts there. Apart from being conversant in the Indonesian language and culture, SAF personnel understood "western ways", notes Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Deep Singh, a former branch head in the SAF Joint Operations Department.
In his essay Insights From Operation Flying Eagle - Four Key Success Factors, he says this advantage allowed the SAF to play an "interlocutory role" among the Indonesians, UN agencies, NGOs and foreign military forces.
The SAF helped establish coordination frameworks for affected areas in Aceh, Phuket and Sri Lanka.
Singapore's soldier-diplomats also fly the national flag at an individual level.
BG Chia says SAF personnel carry themselves "very well" on the ground and "know how to behave".
"Our people listen more than they talk, they do more than they talk, whereas some other countries with different cultures may operate in a different way that could irk the local people."
First Sergeant Mohamad Alif Asyraf Mohamad, a Guardsman in the 7th Singapore Infantry Brigade, says it involves winning the hearts and minds of locals, noting pragmatically: "You don't want any backlash."
Making a difference
Singapore's armed forces have also made an impression by their ability to respond quickly to disasters - particularly in Aceh. The SAF contingent was the first to reach the town of Meulaboh, which was running low on water, food and medicine.
An outpouring of resources, including from Singapore, of troops, helicopters, trucks, water purification plants, and field hospitals, was particularly useful in the large-scale disaster, where civilian agencies where overstretched.
Singapore Red Cross deputy secretary-general (administration) Lim Theam Poh says: "In the broadest sense, the military has greater resource capacity than most, if not all, aid agencies. It also has logistical sustainability."
The early response makes Singapore stand out against the fact that in most peacekeeping and HADR missions, the country's modest military assets are dwarfed by those of others.
For the post-tsunami relief effort, Singapore sent 1,500 personnel, three supply ships, 12 helicopters and eight transport aircraft.
The Americans, by contrast, sent 16,000 military personnel, 26 large ships, 58 helicopters and 43 fixed-wing aircraft.
No turning back
In March, a Singapore Navy warship will leave for the Gulf of Aden on a three-month tour, joining a Danish-led anti-piracy taskforce patrolling waters off Somalia. It will be Singapore's ninth deployment to the hotspot since 2009.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sivaraman Rajan, who heads the OOTW branch in the RSAF's Air Defence Operations Command, says the exposure will allow succeeding generations of servicemen to "better appreciate the complexities" of such missions and to respond quickly when needed.
And the experience is not just confined to boots on the ground overseas in emergency situations. Infantrymen now are getting trained in OOTW duties such as setting up road cordons and patrolling key installations in Singapore.
Since 2011, all NSmen in their ninth and 10th year of the NS training cycle get to patrol key installations in Singapore, including Changi Airport, Jurong Island and Sembawang wharves.
Still, amid the success of Singapore's participation as a global citizen when military muscle is needed to make peace, not war, defending Singapore's shores remains the raison d'etre of the SAF, stresses BG Chia. "There is still a minimum force structure we need to maintain to protect our own shores."
DPM Teo has previously assured that the SAF's primary mission remains "to deter any threats and to defend Singapore". His successor, Dr Ng Eng Hen, has also said that a strong SAF remains the "most dependable guarantee" of Singapore's independence.
However, natural disasters are increasing in scale. UN data shows that from 2001 to 2011, the annual average number of people affected by natural disasters rose 232 per cent, compared to the years from 1990 to 2000. Calls for the likes of the SAF to act in its additional role as a helping hand in disaster relief look set to increase.
Says BG Chia: "It is impossible for a single country in the region to have the resources, ability and capacity to deal with a natural disaster. That is something that the SAF has to think about a bit harder and also plan for."