Training real “thinking soldiers”

The SAF’s idea for current affairs discussions between commanders and soldiers is something along the lines of what I suggested three years ago in an article written for Singapore Angle (reproduced on my blog) titled “Israel’s unprepared reservists: Could the thing happen to Singapore?”.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has planned a revamp of the Basic Military Training (BMT) programme. Apart from adjusting the length of BMT for several categories of less-fit recruits, the revamped BMT will also “teach military customs and traditions, and will set aside time for commanders and soldiers to discuss current affairs”.

According to TODAY, for the past two to three years, recruits have been encouraged to keep journals on their training and urged to write letters to their loved ones during “mail runs” on field training. This is part of the SAF’s efforts to engage the troops “intellectually and emotionally”, according to Chief of Army, Maj-Gen Neo Kian Hong.

MG Neo said that “rather than just teaching them, we are also telling them the reason behind it.”

The idea for current affairs discussions between commanders and soldiers is something along the lines of what I suggested three years ago in an article written for Singapore Angle (reproduced on my blog) titled “Israel’s unprepared reservists: Could the thing happen to Singapore?”.

Continue reading “Training real “thinking soldiers””

Defence spending as a deterrent?

It was surely a question his aides had prepared him for. The Defence Minister, Teo Chee Hean, was on Thursday yet again justifying to Parliament why there was a need to increase defence spending to $11.45 billion despite the economic downturn. This makes up a quarter of government spending.

Irene Ng (PAP-Tampines) asked: “Should the Defence Ministry be having a feast, while the other ministries, and indeed the entire economy suffer from famine?”

The current policy is to spend up to 6% of GDP on defence, come what may.

In answering the MPs, the Minister gave a negative example of Canada, which cut back on defence drastically after the Cold War only to find themselves lacking tanks when their troops were deployed to the Afghan war.

However the crux of his argument was this: “A steady budget through both good and difficult economic times sends a strong signal of our resolve to defend ourselves.”

This is not the first time the government has made this argument. So I take it that this is the main reason why defence spending keeps increasing even when the country is suffering economically. It is not because the threat level has gone up, or they are revamping their “3G” army. It is purely to send a signal.

A very expensive signal indeed.

Just for the record, I am a strong supporter of a robust self-defence capability. I accept that the Defence Ministry will always take up the lion’s share of the government budget because military hardware is expensive.

But I think we should drop this policy of using our defence budget to send signals to potential adversaries. It is imprudent, untargeted and unlikely to achieve its desired results. (No, I’m not talking about the Jobs Credit Scheme.)

In fact, if we can demonstrate to our potential adversaries that even if the defence budget is cut, the SAF can still maintain the same or higher level of operational readiness, that would send an even stronger signal to them. They would know that even if they impose trade sanctions or a naval blockade on us, we are still a poison shrimp that they would not attempt to swallow.

Latest "terrorist" detentions: Some questions

On June 9, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) made a shock announcement that it had detained a young lawyer, Abdul Basheer s/o Abdul Karim, and 4 alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operatives under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in February. Information from the press release is scant, and raises many questions. DPYadav has asked his questions on his blog. Here are mine:

1. According to MHA, in Oct 2006, Abdul Basheer “left Singapore for a Middle-East country” where he had made plans to fly to Pakistan, contact the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), train for “militant jihad” and the cross over to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But before he could do that, he was arrested there and repatriated to Singapore.

Which Middle East country was Abdul Basheer arrested in? This has revealed a very close state of cooperation between Singapore and that country for the latter to be willing to arrest someone who had legally committed no crime, and “render” him to Singapore. Do we have an extradition agreement with this country? If not, did Singapore and the Middle East country act within international law in executing this rendition? (Recall the scandal that the US was embroiled in with its CIA renditions of terrorism suspects from Eastern Europe to Guantanamo Bay.)

2. There has been much emphasis by the Government that these latest arrests must not be allowed to harm race relations in Singapore. The implicit concern is that the Chinese majority may suspect their Malay neighbours (including the educated ones) of being extremists too. Several Malay community leaders and academics were quoted in the press condemning Abdul Basheer for his actions so as to ally any fears felt by the other communities. However, it was never mentioned that Abdul Basheer is not Malay. He is an Indian Muslim.

Even Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng seems to have missed this fact, when during a grassroots event on June 9, he was quoted as saying, “We must not over-react…Our Malay-Muslim community in general are moderate people.”

An article in TODAY on June 9 stated that “the arrest took the Malay community by surprise”. Unwittingly, an Asia Sentinel article wrongly referred to Abdul Basheer as a “Malay lecturer”.

Why was there no effort by the Government and the media to point out that he is not Malay? The numerous articles written about how this well-educated lawyer could turn out to be a radical is has probably reinforced in many people’s minds that even the Malay community’s best and brightest are not spared from problems of radicalisation. These are the kind of things stick in people’s minds, whether consciously or sub-consciously. It is therefore quite unfair to the Malay community that Abdul Basheer isn’t Malay but has been widely assumed to be so.

3. From a legal perspective, Abdul Basheer has not broken any law, a point that Brother Michael Broughton of the Singapore Inter-Religious Organisation raised. He was legally in that Middle Eastern country studying Arabic and he had bought an air ticket to Pakistan. Based on MHA’s statement, he had not contacted the militant LeT yet, and even if he had, that in itself would not be a criminal offence.

So why the rush to arrest him without any evidence of criminal wrongdoing? Was it just to save Internal Security Department (ISD) officers (and their external spy counterparts) the trouble of tracking him and gathering evidence on his alleged planned militant activities? Or was there a genuine reason to believe that was the last chance they had to apprehend him? Would they have arrested him so soon if the Government didn’t have the ISA, which gives the Home Affairs Minister almost absolute power to detain someone indefinitely, even without evidence that can stand up to scrutiny in an open court?

I don’t disagree with DPM Wong’s argument that someone who has gone on a jihad in Afghanistan poses a threat when he comes back home. Neither do I think it is ok “if a Singaporean kills or plans to kill others in terrorist acts abroad, so long as those who die are not Singaporeans”. But the intention to “make contact” with LeT does not automatically mean that he will become an Afghan jihadi. Would LeT have even accepted some unknown Singaporean with no jihadi credentials into their fold in the first place?

4. There is much speculation about how the Internet played a significant role in radicalising Abdul Basheer. Yes, there is a lot of extremist stuff out there which can be quite mesmerizing — scenes of “martyrs” blowing up US troops in Iraq with Arabic music playing in the background, compelling essays (in English) of how the “Zionists” (i.e., Israelis) are killing Palestinian women and children, online communities of radicals feeding off each others’ hate, etc. But is this really what can turn an intelligent, educated Singaporean into a terrorist? According to a New Paper article, a former classmate said she bumped into him sometime in 2005 and he had grown a beard and was clad in a religious outfit. He also had a bruise on his forehead which he said was caused by pressing his head hard to the ground while praying. That speaks of a deeply spiritual experience that he had gone through — something that does not simply happen by surfing the Net in your bedroom. There must have been someone or several people who were closely “discipling” him through his spiritual transition. Have these mentors been identified and are the authorities monitoring them to ensure they do not produce more disciples like Abdul Basheer?

5. The Straits Times article “” (June 16) pointed out that psychologists believe the transition of a Netizen from terrorist sympathiser to terrorist stems from the state of mind of the individual even before he enters Cyberspace. An expert said that it was likely that an episode in his life caused him to “lose faith in the innate rightness of the status quo”.

I recall a dorm-mate in my freshman year in university in the US who was an Iranian born Briton. He spoke with a crisp English accent, but had nothing but expletives to describe the Brits. He told us how in boarding school he was ragged and abused on the basis of his national origin. This experience was evidently the cause of his intense anger against the Brits, whom he said were “all f****** racist”. Could Abdul Basheer have gone through something like this growing up as a minority in Singapore, that personally hurt him and caused him to want to take up arms to fight against “infidels”?

I don’t expect that there would be ready answers to any of these questions. But I hope readers can share their views on this issue.


Related reading:

Lack of Critical Thinking Not Internet is the Problem by Bernard Leong

Indonesia playing punk with us again

MFA Spokesman’s Comments on remarks by Indonesian Minister of Defence Prof Juwono Sudarsono

In response to media queries on remarks by Indonesian Minister of Defence Prof Juwono Sudarsono, who was quoted as saying that Indonesia’s ratification of the Defence Cooperation Agreement was held up because Singapore had rejected Indonesia’s proposal for training arrangements to be determined jointly by the two sides, the MFA Spokesman said:

“We are puzzled by Prof Juwono’s statement that Singapore wants to decide by itself the military training arrangements in Indonesia.

Indonesia and Singapore had negotiated the Extradition Treaty (ET), and the Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and four associated Implementing Arrangements (IAs) as one package. This package of agreements was agreed to and completed at a meeting of their Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, and their armed forces chiefs on 23 April 2007. It was on this basis that the ET, DCA and Military Training Area IA were signed on 27 April 2007 in Bali in the presence of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. At Indonesia’s request, however, the date for the signing of the three remaining IAs was deferred to 7 May 2007, purely for administrative and logistical reasons. The TNI explained that it could not get all three Indonesian Service Chiefs to be present on 27 April. Unfortunately, the signing on 7 May 2007 did not materialise, because just before it was due to take place Indonesia requested changes to the IAs which Singapore could not agree to.

The package of agreements was settled after comprehensive negotiations between the relevant agencies on both sides, including the defence ministries and armed forces of Indonesia and Singapore. Since the time negotiations commenced in October 2005, both sides had ample opportunity to raise any matter of concern for discussion, prior to the conclusion of the carefully balanced set of agreements on 23 April 2007. Indonesia did not raise these issues then. But after the conclusion of the package, Indonesia asked for substantive changes and new conditions to what had already been agreed upon in the DCA and IAs, as reflected in Prof Juwono’s remarks.

Singapore’s position is that the agreements are already settled, and the terms cannot be changed casually or piecemeal, without risking the whole package of ET and DCA unravelling. Nevertheless, in the interests of good relations between the two countries, Singapore had earlier conveyed to Indonesia our proposal on how we can move forward on this issue, and we are waiting for Indonesia’s response to our proposal.”

13 JUNE 2007

This is a worrying escalation of “megaphone diplomacy”, whereby Singapore and Indonesia are now negotiating through the mass media, instead of through more discreet diplomatic channels.

Let me hazard a guess as to what’s going on behind the scenes (the following may or may not be true, but it’s my assessment of what I think is most likely):

1. Singapore made an earlier than expected announcement that it was ready to sign the ET and DCA, and Indonesia got rushed into signing even though they didn’t want to sign the DCA, because there is much domestic expectation that the ET should be signed asap.

2. Now we learn that the Indons tried to play punk by claiming their military chiefs couldn’t make it to the 27 April signing. That is absolute rubbish! You mean the president, defence minister and foreign minister can make it, but the generals can’t? I mean, how big shot can a general possibly be? So why can’t the defence minister sign on their behalf. They must think the Singapore officials were stupid not to call their bluff in the first place. Singapore probably knew it, but just swallowed it.

3. Juwono alleged that Indonesia “proposed that training arrangements be determined jointly by the TNI (Indonesian military) and Singapore. Singapore rejected it, saying they should decide for themselves, despite the fact that the exercises will be conducted on our territory” — that is ludicrous! I know Singapore officials are often pushy and arrogant, but they would never insist on something outrageous like conducting military training in another country without the host country’s 100% concurrence.

4. After 27 April, Indonesia probably proposed some vague clause that could effectively invalidate the whole DCA because they can just use it to delay the DCA’s execution indefinitely. Naturally Singapore rejected the change. Also there’s a principle to stick to. If they agreed to it before, why should we allow them to suka suka make a change like that?

5. “Puzzled” in Singapore diplomatic speak means more like “the fella is trying to shift goal posts and go back on what we previously agreed on”.

SAF overly conservative about Malays

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.