Motive behind misreading of book on SAF
by David Boey @ Feb 14, 2003 Friday
BILATERAL ties between Singapore and Malaysia have gone through a bad patch
lately, with verbal spats turning distinctly belligerent. Malaysian Foreign
Minister Syed Hamid Albar said on Dec 31 last year: 'Singapore has two choices:
If it refuses to compromise, go to war.'
Adding to the strain were reports in Malaysian newspapers that used extracts
from a book by British academic Tim Huxley, titled Defending The Lion City: The
Armed Forces Of Singapore, out of context.
Dr Huxley supervised my master's dissertation on Singapore's defence policy
when I studied at the University of Hull in England several years ago. The
preface of his contentious book cites a Singaporean journalist who 'contributed
substantially to my knowledge of the subject'.
I am the journalist mentioned. I will point out later how his book has been
misread. But first, some comments on Singapore-Malaysia political brinkmanship.
A similarly tense period occurred in 1991 when Malaysia and Indonesia staged
joint military manoeuvres, code-named Exercise Malindo Darsasa 3AB, on
peninsular Malaysia from July to August. This was then the largest military
exercise between Malaysia and Indonesia.
The highlight of the exercise involved dropping paratroops in southern Johor,
just 18 km from Singapore's border. The airborne landing site was just minutes
away by car from the Causeway.
From Singapore's perspective, the exercise was seen as a deliberate ploy to
test how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would react to a large-scale military
exercise on its doorstep.
And lest Singapore's defence planners missed the message, the airdrop was
codenamed Pukul Habis (Malay for 'Total Wipeout'). It was also executed with
unprecedented proximity to Singapore on Aug 9 - Singapore's National Day.
SINGAPORE responded by launching an Open Mobilisation Exercise at 5.30 pm on
National Day eve. In those pre-Internet days, the exercise was widely
publicised on Singapore's television and radio news on Aug 8 and received Page
One treatment in local newspapers on Aug 9 - the day on which the Pukul Habis
airdrop took place.
Fast forward to Sunday, Jan 26, 2003. The SAF conducts its second Open Mobex
for 2003. This was barely a fortnight after the year's first Open Mobex on Jan
Since Singapore's first Open Mobex was held on July 8, 1985, there have been
only two instances when Mindef held such exercises twice in the same month - in
June 1987 and in May 1988.
The latest mobilisation was notable as it was held one day after Foreign
Minister S. Jayakumar made his landmark parliamentary speech on Singapore-Malaysia relations.
The drill also coincided with Malaysia's apparent bid that same weekend to hike
up military activity in Johor. After weeks of provocative talk, the Malaysians
used a Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) career expo in Johor to display some of the
The SAF rarely mobilises troops on a Sunday. And when it accords full media
coverage for the exercise, one can sense that Singapore's Ministry of Defence
(Mindef) wants its deterrent message heard loud and clear.
The Open Mobex publicity, when augmented with moves to quietly enhance the
SAF's defence readiness, represents a carefully-controlled, measured approach
to warn outsiders of Singapore's readiness to deal with military contingencies.
Singapore cannot allow itself to be desensitised to bellicose talk or hyped-up
military activity close to its border. If it chooses not to respond to such
unneighbourly activity, Singapore risks sending a signal that war-like remarks
will be tolerated - or worse, that the city-state has been cowed into silence -
everytime the tone of language used breaches accepted behaviour among erstwhile
Now back to Dr Huxley's contentious book.
The book is not new. It was published in early 2000 and has since gone through
five print runs of 2,000 copies each. When it first hit the bookshelves, it
attracted hardly any attention in the Malaysian media or academic community.
Defence watchers should also note that the Johor scenario - that the SAF would
invade Johor and defeat the MAF in a matter of hours - is not new either. Dr
Huxley first published his thoughts on this scenario way back in 1991 in an
article in The Pacific Review titled 'Singapore and Malaysia: A Precarious Balance?'.
IT'S fine to trawl up a two-year-old book to give a fresh spin to articles on
Singapore-Malaysia defence relations. But when a critical point in the analysis
is glossed over, one cannot help but start to doubt the motives of the writers.
That critical point concerns the SAF's strategy of deterrence.
At no point in the book did Dr Huxley conclude that the SAF would be used as an
occupation force in a war of conquest.
To suggest what the author has not intended, or to perceive something that the
text clearly does not say, is mischievous and intellectually dishonest.
If this is the way Malaysian commentators react to what I and others think is
an impartial study on the SAF, then Singaporeans should brace themselves for
more fiery, yet lop-sided diatribes when new additions like AH-64D Apache
attack choppers, 155mm self-propelled heavy artillery and stealth frigates are
added to the SAF's arsenal in due course.
In his book, Dr Huxley spells out the strategy of deterrence clearly. He says:
'The key to understanding Singapore's strategy, though, is that the SAF's clear
capability to inflict severe damage on Malaysia (by implication, creating
serious political and economic repercussions for Singapore) is not intended to
be used. The capability is a deterrent - a sort of regional 'doomsday machine'
intended to manipulate Singapore's regional threat environment by forcing
neighbouring states to treat the city-state with a degree of respect and
caution which might otherwise be absent.'
It is ironic that the kinship Singapore values with Malaysia, which is perhaps
best underscored by the Malayan Tiger sharing pride of place with the Singapore
Lion on Singapore's Coat of Arms, has been so taken for granted in the frequent
games of political brinkmanship.
The writer is a Business Times correspondent. He contributed this article to The
What does a Southeast Asian country do when it is small but has a big air force? In Singapore's case, it disperses its planes and, indeed, some of its ground forces as well, to many different places around the world for training.
Singapore has by far the largest and most potent air force in Southeast Asia. It is part of the government's longstanding 'poison shrimp' defence strategy, which is intended to warn any larger country that trying to swallow the island state would be painful.
Singapore carries a big stick, but chooses not to flaunt it. One reason the government keeps a substantial part of its military force abroad is to avoid alarming or provoking its neighbours, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet in a crisis, the aircraft could be ferried home within days.
As a prosperous island state in the middle of an increasingly turbulent region, Singapore has long maintained a strong defence force. But keeping it well-trained and combat-ready is a constant challenge.
With a total land area of just 660 sq km, Singapore has correspondingly small airspace, making it impossible to give air force pilots any extensive training or flying experience within national boundaries. The pilots must turn into a narrow transit corridor that takes them to one of only two relatively extensive training areas available.
One, over the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is the result of an agreement with the Indonesian government. The other, over international airspace in the South China Sea, is jointly administered with Malaysia. But in 1998 - in one of a series of spats between the two countries - Malaysia alleged that low-flying Singapore military planes were spying and banned them from its airspace.
Singapore's airspace is also congested because it is a busy civilian aviation hub. Such factors, combined with erratic tropical weather conditions, are severe constraints.
As a result, at least one quarter of Singapore's force of about 150 planes and helicopters is stationed abroad at any one time, mainly in the United States, France and Australia.
Short-term training for its military pilots is done in Indonesia, South Africa, Bangladesh, Brunei, New Zealand and Canada.
Faced with competing demands for land for industry, business, housing and recreation in Singapore, the 50,000-man army and 300,000 reservists are also being squeezed out. They, too, have to train and exercise overseas regularly, mainly in Australia, Brunei, Taiwan, Thailand and New Zealand. Singapore is developing closer military ties with India and is expected to seek an agreement this year for its forces to train there.
The costs involved in transporting troops and equipment over such long distances, and of paying for the foreign training rights, are a significant part of Singapore's annual defence spending of some S$8.3 billion (HK$38.1 billion), or about 5 per cent of gross domestic product.
The need to move the army and air force regularly over long distances has also been cited by officials as one of the main reasons for getting new equipment, including four locally built, missile-armed naval transport craft, and four long-range KC-135 tanker aircraft from the US. They can refuel all types of fighter jets in the Singapore air force while they are flying.
Military ties with the US are especially close. The Singapore air force has five separate training detachments at different American bases.
Two are for its F-16 fighters, and once each for its CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, its Apache Longbow attack helicopters, and its KC-135 tankers.
Stationing forces abroad is designed to improve their training and enhance their ability to operate with partner nations. In a crisis, of course, they could be flown back to Singapore. This was shown for the first time in October 2002, when five of Singapore's F-16's and two KC-135 tankers stationed in the US flew home, via Hawaii and Guam, for a joint exercise with the US in the South China Sea.
To take advantage of better weather and extensive flying space, Singapore some years ago shifted its entire basic jet training unit to the Australian air force base at Pearce, near Perth in Western Australia.
Around the same time, it reached a separate agreement with Australia to station 12 of Singapore's Super Puma helicopters for 15 years at the Australian army base of Oakey in Queensland.
'Increasingly close defence relations with the US, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and France have helped to anchor these friendly powers' regional security presence in Singapore, improving the city state's security by complicating the calculations of likely aggressors,' said Tim Huxley, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and author of a book on the Singapore military.
Eighteen of Singapore's 50 upgraded A4-SU Super Skyhawk fighter-bombers, along with nearly 400 Singapore air force personnel and family members, are stationed at the Cazaux air base in southwest France. The planes and crew rotate every two years.
The deployment, which the French government has agreed to continue at least until 2018, was first agreed in 1998. Singapore is the only non-member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to be allowed to undertake long-term military training in France.
Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author