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We Spend More Than Indonesia on Defence. Why Then Is the PAP Government Acquiescing in What Appears To Be an Indonesian Shakedown?


Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee introduced NS ostensibly as a means of nation building and deterring potential aggressors (but really as a means of brainwashing and inculcating in Singaporean males a deferential attitude towards their leaders). As part of the campaign to instill a military style obedience in Singaporeans it was announced that your rank in civilian life would be determined by your military rank. This will explain why I got no further than the rank of Corporal and had the lowest security clearance, as I was the son of a traitor whom LHL in his obituary letter had described as having “sought at all costs to destroy the PAP and our system of government.” In contrast Lee Hsien Loong, through his outstanding natural ability, was made the youngest Brigadier General in his dad’s army and therefore clearly fitted to become Singapore’s paramount leader, even if his First from Cambridge in Maths, gained while sitting in a separate room from the other students, had not also marked him out for greatness.

After I did NS, I remember my brother enthusing about how Singapore could conduct blitzkrieg warfare against Malaysia, destroying the Malaysian army and occupying Kuala Lumpur in a matter of days while Jakarta was only a short hop in a helicopter away, preferably with Ride of the Valkyries playing as in Apocalypse Now. I also recall BG George Yeo, LHL’s contemporary and liegeman from Cambridge, talking about the Cabinet as being like the Prussian Officer Corps, with all members having to have the same Weltanschaung, or views on life. Today the PAP Government, the Civil Service and Temasek-owned or-affiliated GLCs are top heavy with former generals and military men. Chan Chun Sing, who if you take LHL at face value may be first in line to succeed him, was a Major General and former Chief of Army.

Our military spending matches the macho rhetoric that our paper generals employ. Parliament approved a Defence Budget for 2021 of $15.4 (US$11.3) billion which is more than most of the countries in the region. For example Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, spends slightly less but faces imminent invasion from China. Malaysia spends about one-third as much as Singapore and Vietnam and Thailand about half. We spend more than half as much as Israel and Australia. Indonesia, a country with approximately 50 times the population spends about US$4 billion less.

Such spending should result in some impressive military capabilities and at the very least should make our neighbours quiet and respectful, even if our leaders often seem to do the opposite of what Teddy Roosevelt, a famous US President who initiated the Spanish American war and took Cuba and the Philippines for America, said, “Talk softly and carry a big stick”. Therefore imagine my surprise when I read a Reuters article a few days ago which said:

More than a dozen shipowners have made payments of about $300,000 apiece to release vessels detained by the Indonesian navy, which said they were anchored illegally in Indonesian waters near Singapore, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

The dozen sources include shipowners, crew and maritime security sources all involved in the detentions and payments, which they say were either made in cash to naval officers or via bank transfer to intermediaries who told them they represented the Indonesian navy.

The article went on to say that:

Ships have for years anchored in waters to the east of the Strait while they wait to port, believing they are in international waters and therefore not responsible for any port fees, two maritime analysts and two shipowners said.

The Indonesian navy says this area comes within its territorial waters and it intends to crack down harder on vessels anchoring there without a licence.

The Singapore Strait which divides Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam is only ten miles wide which is less than the twelve mile limit allowed for a country’s territorial waters. The midway point would define where Indonesian and Singaporean territorial waters begin and end. But under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) freedom of navigation should be granted to all ships of all kinds transiting the Singapore Strait between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.

The article mentions that the ships were anchored to the east of the Strait where the channel widens out further. The waters here would be divided between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore holds the Pedra Blanca rock at the eastern end of the Strait which gives it a useful claim to the waters surrounding it up to a twelve mile radius or at least to the halfway point between it and another country.

It is not clear whether the Indonesians are exerting a new territorial claim or whether ships anchored there before without the Indonesians enforcing the limit. The Indonesian navy has denied that it took any payments from shipowners which suggests that this is a local revenue enhancement exercise by local Indonesian naval commanders looking to entrepreneurially supplement their incomes rather like robber barons who built castles along the Rhine in the Middle Ages so they could charge tolls on passing barges.

Given the importance of freedom of navigation through the Straits to Singapore’s economy our Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan needs to clarify whether this took place in what is accepted as Indonesian waters or whether it is a new land grab. If the Indonesian Navy is denying knowledge of the new levies then it appears to be pure and simple piracy. We need Vivian Balakrishnan to tell us whether the ships should have been protected by freedom of navigation under the 1982 UNCLOS. On paper our navy should easily be the match of the Indonesian navy since the Government has spent billions building up its capabilities with shiny new German ocean going diesel submarines (unfortunately not nuclear hunter killers like the Australians have been promised!) and stealthy missile-armed frigates built by Temasek’s ST Engineering. We are entitled to ask why we are spending far more on defence than other countries in the region, forcing young men to do two years NS (while exempting foreigners and PAP Ministers like Janil Puthucherry) and have so many highly paid paper generals and admirals (who transition seamlessly into becoming million-dollar Ministers or running GLCs when they retire) if they are incapable of defending our sovereignty and economic interests.

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