Sunday, July 08, 2007

Post No. 112b: The SAF: A Review – Part II

Okay, as promised, here is Part II of my review of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and as I have stated in the in the preamble of Part I of this review, this part of the review would look at & examine the various issues revolving around the SAF.

An untested SAF?

As you all would clearly know, the SAF has yet to be involved in any war or major battle. Thus, if we are totally honest, we would recognise that the SAF, having not fought a war or major battle before, remains an untested military.

Yes, it has been argued that the long state of peace enjoyed by Singapore is in itself already an indication of the SAF’s credibility as a deterrence force against potential aggressors. Yet, while this argument does have its merits, one cannot help but doubt whether the peace enjoyed by Singapore is really something made possible only by the SAF. I mean, just think about it, though it is true that the deterrence factor posed by the SAF could have contributed to peace in Singapore, one cannot forget to look at other factors, such as wise diplomacy and increasing international economic independence, which could also have contributed to the peace in Singapore.

And, yes, it has also been argued that the SAF has proved its mettle through its laudable performance during relief operations, training exercises and mobilisation exercises. However, as much as we may not like to admit it, the SAF’s performance during such peacetime operations remains only as proxy indicators to the SAF’s capability to fight a war and win it.

Hence, recognising that the SAF has never fought a war since its inception, it is inevitable that people would ask this question: “If war comes, would the SAF really win?”

Don’t be mistaken. I am not saying that the SAF should get itself into a war just to prove its mettle. I am just saying that until it fights a war (and hopefully win it), doubts would remain about its actual capability in a wartime situation.

In the end, no matter how we look at it, the fact remains that a war remains the ultimate test of a military’s capability.

Inequality within the SAF: “All are equal but some are more equal”?

The SAF, if one looks at official statements and/or declarations about it, is touted as an organisation in which differences in ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, family background and educational level do not matter. In other words, the SAF is supposed to be a meritocratic & egalitarian (excluding the rank structure for the moment) organisation.

However, if I am not wrong, there have been the occasional complaints that signs of possible inequalities within the SAF do indeed exist.

For example, it has been argued that there exist divisions between the more educated and the less educated in the SAF, with the former being in a more favourable position. It has been suggested that amongst the enlistees in the SAF, those who have graduated from local junior colleges and polytechnics enjoy greater chances of being selected for command positions (i.e. specialists/sergeants and officers) than those who have not. As for those in the regular corps, it has been suggested that scholar-soldiers (i.e. those who have been awarded government scholarships) enjoy greater chances of promotion and more career opportunities than those who are euphemistically called “farmer” soldiers. In fact, it has been suggested that for scholar-soldiers, unless they make some sort of big mistake, they will continue to rise in the ranks.

Yes, in face of such suggestions & speculation, the SAF and/or the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) have repeatedly clarified that promotion & selection for command positions are based on a soldier’s capability. But, despite official clarifications, there remain sentiments that within the SAF, the more educated are in a more advantageous position. In the end, I suppose that this perception of inequality in the SAF between the more educated and less educated would remain, as Karl Popper would put it, an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Another example of possible inequality, if not possible discrimination, within the SAF would be its policy to exclude Malay-Muslim soldiers from sensitive key positions in the SAF e.g. the air force and armoured units. This policy is, as stated by the Singapore Government in 1987 (by no less than our current PM Lee Hsien Loong who was then a minister for trade & industry and second minister for defence), based on the premise of that in the event of an armed conflict, the SAF did not want to place any of its soldiers in a difficult position in which they may face a conflict between loyalty to nation and loyalty to religion.

This policy of excluding local Malay-Muslims from sensitive key positions in the SAF has, for obvious reasons, drawn quite a bit of flak, not only from neighbouring countries which perceive it as an implicit suggestion that they, being of a Malay-Muslim majority, would be the enemies of Singapore but also from members of the local Malay-Muslim community who perceive it as an act of implicit discrimination and suggestion that they may be disloyal to Singapore.

Also, this policy has recently been put again under the spotlight when it was called into question in a critique of the SAF written by a U.S. soldier. According to local media reports (“US soldier take potshots at SAF”, Today, 12/3/2007), Mr. Walsh, author of the abovementioned critique, wrote that “official discrimination against the Malay population remains an open secret” and that those belonging to this ethnicity are “systematically kept out of” sensitive areas in the SAF.

In response to such criticism, the SAF/Mindef has, in effect, stated that such a policy was implemented in consideration of “the challenges of building ethic and religious harmony in Singapore” and that any change in this policy would have to “proceed in tandem with nation-building” (ibid). Also, the SAF/Mindef has clarified that it does have Malay-Muslim officers who are in key sensitive positions within the SAF.

Well, while I cannot blame the SAF for having such a policy, I also cannot endorse it either. Yes, on one hand, the SAF perhaps cannot be faulted for making its plans with a worst case scenario in mind but on the other hand, it seems to me that by having such a policy, the SAF is perhaps creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean, this seemingly lack of total trust by the SAF towards its Malay-Muslim soldiers could perhaps unintentionally result in them not being fully committed. Just think about it, if someone shows signs of not trusting you completely, you can perhaps only have 2 responses: i) work harder to gain that person’s trust and ii) become less friendly towards that person since he/she does not trust you. Hmm… I suppose there is perhaps a limit to how long one can adopt the first response before giving up and taking up the second form of response. In the end, this Chinese adage comes to mind: “用人不疑,疑人不用” (literal translation: “If you employ someone, do not distrust him; if you distrust someone, do not employ him”).

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that MM Lee, in the second volume of his memoirs, wrote that in a meeting with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, ex-Pm of Malaysia, the latter suggested that Singapore should have a few Malay pilots in the SAF to demonstrate that it trusted Singaporean Malays and that it does not regard Malaysia as an enemy. Even more interestingly, it was not revealed whether this suggestion by Dr. Mahathir was taken up or not.

And, last but not least, we have the issue of “white horses” in the SAF. For the uninitiated, “white horse” is the epithet given to those who are from special family background (i.e. relatives of senior civil servants, senior government official and military personnel) and supposedly given preferential treatment in the SAF. Of course, the Singapore Government has clarified that while the “white horse” categorisation did exist before it got scrapped in 2000, it was a categorisation to make sure that those from special family background are not give preferential treatment.

Yet, despite, if not in spite of, this official clarification, it is still perhaps a perception by quite a number of people that “white horses” still exist in the SAF and that they receive preferential treatment.

In the end, all I can say is that perceptions of possible inequalities within the SAF will perhaps persist, regardless of what the official statements & clarifications say.

SAF = Serve And Forget? / Serve And F*** off?

Moving on, I suppose that most of those who have gone through National Service (NS) would have heard of this joke about how the acronym “SAF” refers to “Serve And Forget” or, more vulgarly, “Serve And F*** off”, alluding to how those in NS just have to bear through their term of national service (or, to some, national “slavery”) and then they can be rid of it & forget about it.

Well, perhaps I am thinking too much but this “Serve And Forget” joke, along with other similar cynical jokes and songs, seem to suggest to me that to quite a number of Singaporean males, NS is more of a bane than a boon.

It suggests to me that to these Singaporean males who find NS more of a bane than a boon, they would rather not go through NS if they have a choice in the matter. However, since, for most of the time, they have no choice, they reluctantly have to go through NS which is, in the end, mandatory by law for all eligible Singaporean males.

Such sentiments are perhaps best reflected in the following lines of this “edited” army song which, I suppose, most NS guys would be familiar with.

“Training to be soldiers
To fight for our land
Once in our lives
Two years of our time

Have you ever wondered?
Why must we serve?
Because we have no choice
And we ‘lan lan’ have to serve
Have to serve (ya!)”

Then, having no choice but to do NS, these “less than enthusiastic” national servicemen (NS men) are most likely to adopt a “do the minimum and, if possible, do even less than the minimum” attitude during their NS term, preferring to get into “slack” vocations and, if possible, “chao keng” (i.e. malingering) to get a downgrading of their PES (Physical Employability Status) status. I, for one, know of an ex-platoon mate who faked a leg injury (he walked with crutches when in camp but abandoned them and walked with ease without them once out of camp) to obtain a long-term MC (medical certificate) and subsequently downgraded.

Well, I am not certain how prevalent such “less than enthusiastic” attitudes are within the SAF’s enlistees but from my own limited observations during my NS term, such attitudes would appear to be quite prevalent.

Of course, I am also not certain whether such cynicism and “less than enthusiastic” attitudes towards NS are perhaps just inevitable coping mechanisms or that they perhaps hint at a greater sense of malaise within the ranks of NS men. Hopefully, it is the former.

In the end, allow me to propose one thought experiment and ask one question.

Thought experiment: if NS was not compulsory, how many eligible Singaporean males would still voluntary go through NS?

Question: if and when war comes to Singapore, would the cynicism and “less than enthusiastic” attitudes in NS men towards NS disappear and be replaced by a commitment to defend Singapore or would they persist?

Overpaid generals, undercompensated soldiers?

Recently, the issue of whether generals in the SAF are overpaid while rank & file soldiers, who are injured and/or dead due to training accidents, are undercompensated was one hotly discussed, especially by local netizens.

The first part of the issue, that is the question of whether generals in the SAF are overpaid, emerged, in part, as part of the heated discussion over the increase in public sector salaries. Also, it is my opinion that this issue of overpaid generals is perhaps somewhat intertwined with the age old issue of whether Singapore is spending too much on defence matters.

If I am not wrong, Mindef has and continues to receive the largest portion of the Government’s annual Budget and that in the region of Southeast Asia, Singapore is one of the biggest spenders on military defence.

Inevitably, many people, looking at the small size of Singapore and the state of peace it enjoys, have come to question Singapore’s high spending on defence; they question if the amount spent can be perhaps better used in some other area e.g. social aid.

And, in response, Mindef/SAF has said that the current amount spent on Singapore’s military defence is a justified amount in view of the importance of it. It is claimed that it is necessary to spend such a significant amount on defence, considering that Singapore now finds itself in a post-911 threat environment and the role that a strong defence plays in ensuring peace & stability – factors which attract foreign investors to Singapore.

Well, for this issue on defence spending, I am of mixed opinion. On one hand, I do agree that Singapore need to spend a certain amount on defence. On the other hand, since it is not really possible for Mindef/SAF to be transparent about how and where it is spending its budget, it is my hope that they would ensure that they are reducing costs/spending whenever & wherever possible, considering that it is taxpayers’ money they are using.

As for the issue of whether servicemen, who suffered injuries and/or death in the course of duty, are undercompensated, it recently came into the spotlight following reports of how 2 full-time national servicemen died while another 2 were badly injured (one of who also later died) due to an accident when they were training in the Republic of China (a.k.a Taiwan).

Critics argued that servicemen, who are injured and/or dies during course of duty, are not adequately compensated, in contrast to how much generals are paid and how much money Mindef/SAF is allocated annually. And they used the example of Lawrence Leow in their criticism of the undercompensation of servicemen.

Of course, responding to such criticism, Mindef/SAF has claimed that it does provide adequate and enough compensation to its servicemen. And, of course, few critics are satisfied with the response.

Having not really studied this issue of compensation for NS men in much detail, I am afraid that I cannot really say much about it, except that I suppose that perhaps no matter what amount is offered as compensation, Mindef/SAF would find it adequate while there would be those who will disagree.

Not enough boots on the ground?

Allow me to now move on to what, in my opinion, would perhaps be one of the key challenges that the SAF may face in the future: the challenge of having a lack of manpower due to the low fertility rate in Singapore.

As we are all aware, Singapore, despite efforts by the government to reverse the situation, has quite a low fertility rate. And this would in turn mean that the numbers of male Singaporeans would most likely decrease in the future.

Bearing in mind that the SAF remains a conscription army which draws its manpower from male Singaporeans, a decrease in the numbers of male Singaporeans would most likely not bode well for the SAF as it would mean a much smaller fighting force in the long run.

There are, in my opinion, perhaps 3 possible solutions to this possible challenge.

One, extend the reservist term of NS men so that they would serve longer and thus perhaps boost the numerical strength of the SAF. Yet, understandably so, this option would not be popular and it seems that with recent reductions made to both the full-time and reservist NS terms, the SAF is most likely not going to embark in the opposite direction.

Two, extend NS to female Singaporeans also. However, I suppose this proposal would bring along with it a whole new set of complications; complications that the SAF would perhaps not desire to face.

And, three, the utilising of technology as a “force multiplier”. Already, we see the SAF embarking on such a policy with its plans to transform itself into a third generation military force which focuses more on the quality of its soldiers than on the quantity.

Yet, while the utilising of technology as a “force multiplier” is a viable solution, it would seems to me that there is perhaps a limit to how much we can “multiply” our fighting force. As the U.S.’s recent experience in Iraq has shown, while superior technology may boost a military’s combat prowess, a significant amount of manpower on the ground is perhaps still necessary to ensure long term victory.

Of course, perhaps mine is a needless worry, considering that Singapore, having a small population base, never really counted numerical superiority as one of its military strengths.


Okay now, having nothing else much that I can write about the SAF, I hereby conclude my review of the SAF. Hopefully, you all have found it informative and perhaps even insightful at certain parts.

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