US soldier takes potshots at SAFI can't help laughing. It's so funny, the way these questions are being asked - as if everyone didn't already know the answers.
Mindef responds to criticism over inexperienced scholars, soft soldiers, status of Malays
Monday • March 12, 2007
Loh Chee Kong
ARE Singapore's top military commanders too young and inexperienced?
Are they fast-tracked to the upper echelons because of their scholar credentials, while more experienced non-scholars or "farmers" — as they have been unceremoniously labelled — toil in vain?
Are soldiers here soft because of the emphasis on safety during training at the expense of realism?
And do officers lack professionalism and commitment because mandatory retirement at 45 means many see their time in uniform "as a stepping stone" to a second career in politics or business.
These questions, and several others, are the subject of a critique of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) published in United States-based journal Armed Forces & Society. The quarterly circulates some 2000 copies worldwide.
Regarding Question 4, I was just accosted by an ex-SAF major two months ago who wanted to sell me insurance. I ended up giving him some advice on how to structure his own investments.
The article, which has made its rounds in Singapore and created a stir among the uniformed ranks, was written by an American soldier Sean Walsh, who was stationed at the United States Embassy in Singapore for several weeks in 2004, during his summer break from the US Military Academy.
In the article, The Roar of the Lion City, the writer also claimed that women have been held back from holding high posts in the SAF, and that there is a policy to keep Malays out of sensitive areas.
Despite his criticism of the SAF, Mr Walsh, who graduated from the US Army Ranger School, concluded his article by saying "there can be no doubt that the SAF is the most competent, well-equipped and best trained force in the whole of South-east Asia" — a claim the SAF itself has not made.
He also admitted that the SAF was "more than capable" of defending Singapore's borders, conducting peacekeeping missions and dealing with asymmetric threats in the wake of 911. It possessed a "world-class" special operations force which would not require outside assistance, he noted.
So, why the paradoxical praise and criticism of the SAF?
Umm, because the angmo was being fair, reasonable and truthful?
But once again, let's not get confused. The man wasn't actually saying anything new. For many years, Jane's Defence has consistently held the view that the SAF is the top military force in South-east Asia.
I wonder if this is even surprising. Singapore is the richest country in South-east Asia; it spends the most money on defence, and it is the only country with conscription.
(Malaysia doesn't count. They started only in December 2003, and only called up 85,000 youths, out of the roughly 450,000 youths born in 1986).
Mr Walsh, who is deployed in Germany, could not be contacted, but in his article he pointed to the age of SAF's top commanders — such as Brigadier-General Desmond Quek, who was 39 when he was promoted to the post of Army Chief — and concluded that "youth naturally corresponds to inexperience" and this "casts obvious doubts on their ability to lead in a conflict against battle-hardened troops".
However, responding to queries from Today, Col Benedict Lim, director of public affairs at the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), said: "The SAF does not seek out wars but will not flinch from putting its soldiers into harm's way to fulfil its primary mission of protecting the vital interests of our country."
He also pointed out that the SAF carries out about 70 exercises annually with other countries' armed forces, some of which have considerable combat experience, and has been praised for its professionalism. The SAF has also carried out humanitarian missions, for example during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Defence analyst Dr Alvin Chew told Today that the debate centred on Singapore's defence policy, which is based on diplomacy and deterrence. As such, the relative youthfulness of SAF officers, who are groomed in building bilateral or multi-lateral relationships with foreign militaries, was not a major drawback.
Watch the next few valiant attempts to defend the status quo:
Also, given that fighting a war is not the Republic's most pressing concern, defence analyst Dr Bernard Loo said that early retirement meant that the SAF's best and brightest could be deployed for "broader or higher national purposes — whether it is in running the economy, or running the Government".
Where the SAF's best and brightest will no doubt do a great job, since they have highly relevant experience. After all, operating a submarine is exactly the same as managing a bank or running a statutory board.
I skip to the next interesting part, about the Malays in the military.
Perhaps the most controversial claim by the US soldier was that "official discrimination against the Malay population remains an open secret" and those of the race are "systematically kept out" of sensitive areas.
I don't see why this is a "controversial" claim. It isn't even an "open secret" - it's not a secret at all. If I recall correctly, years ago, Lee Kuan Yew himself had publicly spoken about this matter; I'll try to dig that up. The rationale is that there are concerns about where the allegiance of Malay SAF men would lie, in the event of any conflict with our Muslim neighbours.
Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, is a different question from whether the policy exists. I think it is quite clear that the policy exists (or had existed). However, the extent and degree to which it has been implemented may have changed. During my time, it was rather obvious that a disproportionately high percentage of Malays were sent to the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and not to the SAF at all.
Notice that Col Lim, as quoted below, also refers to "the challenges of building ethnic and religious harmony in Singapore" and says that "integration in the SAF would proceed in tandem with nation-building".
Mr Walsh claims that this has two major consequences: It "limits the involvement of the ethnic group most inclined to join the military" and it feeds the "perception of a second-class status among Malays, a fact which terrorist recruiters have taken advantage of before, and they may do so again" — referring to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members arrested in Singapore for plotting terrorist attacks.
Addressing this charge, Col Lim said: "The writer's prescription for ethnic integration in the SAF seriously underestimates the challenges of building ethnic and religious harmony in Singapore.
"Singapore has made much progress in ethnic and religious integration. Singapore does not gloss over the fact that there is yet more to be done and addresses these challenges directly and openly."
Stressing that integration in the SAF would proceed in tandem with nation-building, Col Lim added that there are a good number of Malay SAF officers, some with higher degrees, whose studies were sponsored by the SAF, and whether a Malay SAF officer makes it to a higher appointment depends solely on merit.
In fact, Malay officers have risen through the ranks and held senior appointments.
"We have Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel. Those who have shown the potential to take on higher appointments in the SAF are given every opportunity to do so. Malay officers in the SAF hold key appointments such as Commanding Officer," said Col Lim.
"In fact, the proportion of eligible Malays selected for specialist and officer training is similar to the proportion for eligible non-Malays."
Personally, I have always felt that the discrimination issue is not such a big deal. The simple reason is that the Singapore Armed Forces is a conscript army. The vast majority of people in the SAF are not there by choice. They are forced to be there.
Most NSmen just want to serve their time and get out, in the least painful way possible. If the colour of your skin excludes you from the "siong" (tough) vocations in the SAF, then this is not necessarily a bad thing. Personally (and I stress that this is my personal view), if I were Malay, I would be quite pleased if there were an official policy that kept me out of places like Hendon Camp, or Guards or Singapore Combat Engineers.
Also, remember this - SAF officers have 10 extra years of reservist duties! I'd rather not, thank you very much.