I thought it was interesting that TODAY decided to report as their lead story West Point graduate Sean Walsh’s commentary about the SAF (“The Roar of the Lion City”, published in Armed Forces and Society), given the sensitive issues he raised, particularly about the “policy to keep Malays out of sensitive areas”.
His title for the article sounds very similar to the that of the most comprehensive book about the SAF written by British academic Tim Huxley, “Defending the Lion City” (2001). I wonder if this sums up the lack of originality in Walsh’s article. Although I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of the full article, based on what was reported in TODAY, little of what he raised was not already mentioned by Huxley in his book. [Afternote: Thank you to the two readers who shared the original article with me.]
On the issue of Malays and the SAF, I tend to think that the SAF is being overly conservative about the feared “security risk” posed by Malays. Perhaps it is based on an incorrect assumption that all Malays are ideologues who see the world only in terms of “My Race vs the Rest”.
During a forum with students back in 1999, then-SM Lee Kuan Yew said that “If 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.”
I don’t think anyone is expecting the SAF to put anyone who has close family ties in a foreign state in charge of a front-line combat unit. But is this a reason to keep Malays out of sensitive units? Col Benedict Lim, MINDEF’s public affairs director, pointed out that the SAF has “Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel”. This is certainly news to me. Since I completed my infantry training, I have been deployed to so-called “sensitive units”, and I have yet to see any Malays there — even the drivers are Chinese and Indian. In fact, I once even had a Chinese platoon mate in one of those units who is Malaysian citizen / Singapore PR! (Second generation permanent residents are required to serve NS.)
Given today’s high-tech warfare, it is unlikely that soldiers in the offensive combat units — air force, navy, armour and artillery — will see their enemies’ faces or know which race they belong to before blasting them to smithereens. So the dilemma about “I-won’t-pull-the-trigger-because-my-enemy-is-Malay” will factor in less. If anything, it is in the infantry where face-to-face combat will take place, and ironically, that is where a larger proportion of Malay soldiers are deployed.
By perpetuating the widely-held view in neighbouring countries that Singapore is a Chinese-dominated country, the SAF is making itself (and Singapore) an even easier target for potential adversaries use racial politics to stir up negative sentiments among their populace against Singapore. Already, neighbouring country politicians frequently take gratuitous pot-shots at Singapore because of the SAF’s policies on Malays. While I am certainly not calling on the SAF to change its policies just to please our neighbours, the Government should be aware that policies like these make it harder to win the all-important propaganda war that accompanies any conflict.
In any case, the SAF and the Government would do well to uphold — to the last letter — their commitment to meritocracy. Background checks should be done thoroughly before deploying soldiers in sensitive units, but I hope it is not done in an arbitrary fashion that excludes capable soldiers simply on the basis of their race.