EVEN as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) marks SAF Day this evening with a parade, a sizeable number of military personnel will remain on guard – the vigilant lions protecting the Lion City.
But many Singaporeans may be unaware of this, believing all’s well. Apart from the threat transnational terrorists pose, the lack of a clear and present danger from a hostile nation might seduce them into viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses. Such naivety would not only be wrong, it would also be dangerous.
During a study visit I made to Malaysia last year, a senior Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) officer shared with me an episode in Singapore-Malaysia relations that he said occurred during a period of tension.
According to the officer, the MAF was put on alert in late 1998 as politicians on both sides of the Causeway argued over the status of the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) checkpoint at Malaysia’s railway station in Tanjong Pagar.
News articles from the period chronicle the public exchanges, but say nothing of the defence postures that the SAF and MAF adopted during this period.
Kuala Lumpur’s unwillingness to acknowledge its heightened military preparedness – which military officials on both sides privately acknowledge did occur – was an astute move.
It indicated a tacit acknowledgement on the part of Malaysia’s defence officials that they could not allow the CIQ issue to flare into a casus belli. The full force potential of the SAF when mobilised renders it a formidable opponent.
There were other telling signs that bilateral ties were not well during that period. These included Singapore’s decision to conduct two open mobilisation exercises in September and October 1998. Records indicate that the SAF rarely calls up its manpower in successive months.
It should be noted that such open mobilisation exercises – overt call-ups of defence manpower broadcast over television, radio and in cinemas – are probably complemented by silent mobilisations. Few beyond Singapore’s defence establishment would be aware of this.
The CIQ episode resembles an earlier episode in Singapore-Malaysia relations when military power was flexed in a show of force, apparently to intimidate the tiny island nation.
Operationally Ready National Servicemen who served in 1991 would recall the joint Malaysian-Indonesian military exercise, codenamed Malindo Darsasa 3AB, that occurred that year. It involved an airborne assault by paratroopers in southern Johor.
If the name of the airborne assault, codenamed Pukul Habis (Malay for ‘Total Wipeout’), as well as the choice of a drop zone just 18km from Singapore, were not sufficiently provocative, the scheduling of the airdrop on Aug 9th – Singapore’s 26th National Day – most certainly was.
The SAF’s response was measured and confident. It triggered an Open Mobilisation on the eve of National Day, a fact that was reported extensively in the local media.
The move was calculated not to escalate tensions. But it signalled also Singapore’s determination not to welcome a Trojan horse on its doorstep.
Such episodes cannot be kept secret from NSmen, of course. But because they were deliberately kept low key, many Singaporeans were probably unaware of the full picture. Consequently, they may have failed to see the relevance of a strong military.
Singapore has warm and friendly ties with its neighbours. It will often go the extra mile to keep things on an even keel with them. But Singaporeans should understand and accept that there are always undercurrents in bilateral relations.
Those who wonder about the relevance of the SAF should ponder how these past episodes might have panned out if Singapore had yielded to military pressure.
A strong and vigilant SAF is Singapore’s hedge against trouble. Singapore’s formidable military arsenal – and, more crucially, the fighting spirit of its citizen soldiers – are guarantors of peace.