Sunday, June 24, 2007

Post No. 112a: The SAF: A Review – Part I

In consideration of the fact that this year marks the 40th anniversary of National Service (NS) in Singapore, which, is my opinion, is tantamount to the 40th anniversary of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and bearing in mind the key role occupied by the SAF, I suppose that it is appropriate for us to perhaps to critically, yet objectively, review the SAF, its history & development and the various issues revolving around it.

However, in view of the wide scope of such a review of the SAF, I decided that, and I suppose that most of you all would agree with me, it would perhaps be better for me to split this review into 2 parts, instead of having just one very long-winded essay.

Thus, this review would be split into 2 parts. Part I (i.e. this post) would concentrate on the origins and general historical development of the SAF while Part II, which would hopefully be finished and published by the end of next week, would look at the whole gamut of issues & questions related to the SAF.

And, lest I forgot, allow me to acknowledge my intellectual debt for most of the contents of this essay to Associate Professor Albert Lau, who teaches history at the National University of Singapore and is the author of the seminal “A Moment of Anguish”, as I am making use of his lecture notes for “HY2229/SSA2204: Nation-building in Singapore” on the topic of “Securing The Nation” in the writing of this essay.

Okay, enough of the preamble and on with the first part of this review…

Starting from scratch

Without a doubt, after having gained independence in 1965, one key imperative for Singapore was to establish a credible defence force of its own. This is considering that the presence of such a defence force was necessary to reassure the outside world and the Singaporean population at that time that Singapore would be able to maintain order, security & stability within its own borders and survive on its own. Also, though it has not been formally announced by that time, it was perhaps common insider knowledge that the British would soon be pulling out their forces stationed in Singapore. In addition, the newly-independent Singapore found itself sandwiched between 2 less-than-friendly, if not hostile, neighbours, with pre-Separation tensions still simmering with Malaysia and Indonesia still embarking on a policy of Confrontation against it.

However, the task of building up a credible defence force was not an easy one, considering that Singapore had to virtually start this enterprise from scratch.

If I’m not wrong, Singapore, in 1965, only had these forces at its disposal (excluding the British forces stationed in Singapore):

i) 2 infantry regiments (of which each consisted of 1000 men and were still under Malaysian command)

ii) A 5000 men strong police force

iii) An aging gunboat

In fact, as recounted by MM Lee, in his second volume of memoirs (“Third World to First”) on the chapter of “building an army from scratch”, he was “escorted” by Malaysian army outriders from his office at City Hall to Parliament House when the Singapore Parliament was due to open in December 1965.

In face of such daunting odds, Dr. Goh Keng Swee was quick to take up the mantle of Minister of Defence. This appointment of Dr. Goh as Defence Minister was perhaps significant in 2 ways. One, it was widely acknowledged that Dr. Goh was perhaps one of the most capable ministers in the Old Guard Cabinet and bearing in mind MM Lee’s oft-emphasised policy of placing his best men in the most important jobs, Dr. Goh’s taking up of the position of Defence Minister perhaps signalled the resolve of Singapore to build up its own armed forces and the crucial importance of doing so. And, two, if I’m not wrong, it has been said that there lingered a certain sense of animosity between Dr. Goh and some of his Cabinet colleagues, who were against Separation, over his role in negotiating for Separation and his appointment as Defence Minister was perhaps a way to minimise interaction & conflict with these colleagues of his.

3 proposals on what sort of armed forces to build up in Singapore quickly emerged. One, the hiring of foreign mercenaries and/or depending on foreign troops. This proposal was quickly rejected, considering that though it may be a cost-effective measure, it would not be a popular option as it would have detrimental effects on local morale and remembering the WWII experiences of Singaporeans.

The second option proposed was that Singapore establishes a large regular military force. This option, however, was rejected due to it being too cost-intensive and manpower-intensive an option.

And, last but not least, the third option proposed was to establish a conscription army which also consisted of a small regular force. As it can be clearly seen by you all, this option was accepted and in 1967, Singapore passed the NS Act which stipulated that all eligible male Singaporeans, having reached 18 years of age, have to serve a mandatory 2 year plus term of uniformed service.

It should be noted that the idea of NS, in 1967, was not something entirely new, considering that the British colonial government had implemented a similar policy in 1952 through its NS Ordinance. This 1952 ordinance, however, met a significant amount of public resistance and thus, concerned that the 1967 NS Act could face a repeat of such public resistance, the Singapore Government, as it shall be elaborated upon in the following section of this essay, took steps to lessen negative public sentiments towards conscription.

Overcoming public resistance

As stated above, the idea of conscription and/or soldiering was not very popular amongst Singaporeans of that time. Soldiers, and sometimes also the police, were regarded as a force of oppression and not as a benign force of protection. A career in the military was also viewed with public disdain as one with rather poor prospects. Such less-than-positive attitudes towards the military was perhaps especially pronounced in the local ethnic Chinese population, as can be seen from this oft-quoted Chinese saying of: “好铁不成钉,好汉不当兵” (literal translation: “Good iron do not become nails, good men do not become soldiers”).

Thus, in order to overcome such negative public attitudes and to change them for the better, the Singapore Government put in place several measures to promote a better image of conscription and the military.

Examples of such measures would include the creating of better career prospects in the military through guaranteeing those who have enlisted in the SAF as regulars jobs in the public and/or private sector when they leave full-time service, holding sending-off ceremonies of new enlistees at community centres which were attended by community leaders, Members of Parliament (MPs) and sometimes even ministers, the setting up of National Cadet Corps (NCC) units in secondary schools and allowing parents of enlistees & community leaders to make guided visits to SAF camps & bases, especially the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC), to allay their fears & concerns.

Another 2 key measures which were implemented to improve the public image of the military in Singapore were, one, the inclusion of MPs and ministers, as officers and commanders, in the first batch of soldiers in the People’s Defence Force (PDF) in 1966 and, two, the induction of Singapore’s top students into the SAF through the offering of prestigious scholarships. The second measure was, in part, also implemented as a means of attracting talented and capable people into the SAF leadership.

From First Generation to Third Generation

After having decided on what model of military to build up and reducing the public negativity towards the military, Singapore then focused its attention on the actual building up of the SAF and this process of building up the SAF could perhaps be divided into 3 phases or “generations”.

The first phase, termed as the “quantitative” phase, took place over the first 10 years of the SAF’s establishment i.e. 1965-1975. This phase, as its name suggests, focused on the quantitative building up of the SAF.

During this first phase, the first branch of the armed forces that was built up was the army and within the army, the first combat arm which was established was the infantry due to the relatively low level of technical training required for infantry forces. Then, as time passed, other combat arms of the army and other branches of the armed forces i.e. the air force and the navy, was built up.

This “quantitative” phase also saw the SAF purchasing weaponry & equipment from other countries. An example of this includes the buying of French made AMX-13 tanks from Israel.

The second phase of the SAF’s build up, termed as the “qualitative” phase, which took place over the decades following the first phase, saw the SAF restructuring its organisational structure and revamping its training methods to increase its efficiency and effectiveness.

During this “qualitative” phase, the SAF also began to upgrade the equipment that it had previously bought from other countries and to design & manufacture its own weaponry & equipment.

Moving on, the most recent phase, touted as being the “quantum” phase which will advance the SA into its third generation, saw the SAF increase its use of the latest technology and again making changes to its organisational structure to better meet the new challenges in a post-911 world and uncertain era of globalisation.

From “poisonous shrimp” to “Total Defence”

And, in tandem with its transformation from a first generation military to a third generation military, Singapore also underwent changes in its defence policy.

In the beginning, Singapore adopted a defence policy which is popularly termed as the “poisonous shrimp” strategy. This strategy, to put it in simple terms, acknowledged that though Singapore may not be able to successfully defeat any foreign forces that invade it, it will make sure that the invaders will pay a high price, in that they will face strong military retaliation from the SAF. It was hoped that this potential high cost of invading Singapore will thus deter any possible foreign aggressors.

However, as the SAF acquired greater strength over the years, Singapore’s defence strategy began to shed its fatalistic undertone and took on a more positive tone. Instead of a “poisonous shrimp” strategy, Singapore adopted a strategy in which the SAF would be able to obtain a swift & decisive victory over any aggressors.

Also, as acknowledged by many observers, in view of Singapore’s lack of strategic territorial depth to fight an entrenched war, Singapore most likely have to place emphasis on a “forward defence” policy which is pre-emptive in nature. Though, of course, such a policy of pre-emptive “forward defence” has never been officially declared by the Singapore Government. Instead, the Singapore Government has repeatedly emphasised that its defence policy is one of capacity building and not built on the premise of any specific external threat.

On top of all this, Singapore has put in place a policy of “Total Defence” in which it is planned that every Singaporean would be involved in the defence of Singapore in one way or another. Under this strategy of “Total Defence”, 5 areas of defence were picked out: military defence, civil defence, economic defence, social defence and psychological defence.

Furthermore, other key tenets of Singapore’s defence policy would include its efforts at fostering harmonious cooperative relations with other countries and their armed forces, participation in international & regional security organisations & forums and the maintaining of a regional security architecture.


Thus, as can be seen, the SAF has undergone a long process of building up & change since its inception after Singapore gained independence in 1965. And with all this building up & change, it is perhaps inevitable that various issues related to the SAF will emerge as the years pass by. What these issues are and what possible challenges the SAF could face in the future will, as stated in the preamble of this essay, be discussed in the second part of this review.

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