Sunday, September 28, 2014

Innovations in defence: Malaysia Boleh

When the Royal Malaysian Navy was tasked to conduct anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, it cranked into action plans to convert civilian-flagged vessels into naval auxiliaries.

The two ships, Bunga Mas Lima and Bunga Mas Enam, exemplify the British concept of Ships Taken Up From Trade or STUFT, a concept for harnessing civil resources as military assets that was demonstrated with decisive effect by the British Royal Navy during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

This gem of an idea by the Malaysians is but one of many examples of the innovative spirit in defence science and engineering north of the Causeway. The speed with which the MISC ships were role-changed for a naval role, given a fresh coat of haze gray warpaint and teeth in the form of naval helicopters tells us something about the level of the ops-tech integration in Malaysia's defence eco-system.

More recently, Malaysian Minister of Defence, Hishammuddin Hussein has said abandoned Petronas oil rigs off Sabah are to be given a new lease of life as forward operating bases. The converted rigs will be gifted to the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) as floating lily pads that can be used to generate and sustain the Malaysian military's presence and authority in the seas south of the Philippines that have been used by lawless elements to test Malaysian resolve.

Malaysia's plans for Petronas oil rigs hark back to the British idea of building platforms to defend the mouth of the River Thames against German air and seaborne intruders during World War Two. They also mirror the Iranian practice of using oil rigs to exert a military presence at sea.

When ESSCOM's assets are in place, Malaysian authorities are likely to welcome opportunities to square off the challenge. Knowing the level of training and motivation of Malaysian forces, such engagements are likely to be embarrassingly one-sided.

Closer to home, the raising of two battalions of Keris (Brazilian ASTROS II) multiple rocket launchers by the Malaysian Army shows that its defence strategists understand and appreciate the decisive impact that MRLs have in the confined battespace of peninsular Malaysia.

So while an MRL - a tactical level artillery asset - would hardly caused ripples when fielded by a European army (so vast are distances there), the weapon system is a tactical asset with strategic effect in the Malaysian Army's theatre of operations. In Europe, strategic weapon systems are subject to close monitoring and arms control protocols. But not so in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, someone in the Malaysian defence ecosystem must  have recognised the advantage that a mobile weapon system with a long reach can have during an Auto Strike situation when drawer plans must kick into action quickly to beat the reaction time of a hostile force as it mobilises from peace to war.

The addition of Metis M anti-tank missiles to Malaysia's war chest some years ago is noteworthy on two counts. Firstly, from an operational standpoint, the Metis missiles pack a punch as they have been designed to destroy modern main battle tanks like the Merkava. Secondly, from a force development standpoint, the in-service date for these hard-hitting missiles is indeed interesting to ponder over. Isn't it?

Alas, the Malaysians may not be masters of maximising public relations value from their defence innovations. They lack an annual Defence Technology Prize ceremony which lauds innovation, creativity and best practices in military technology. And while in Singapore, the Singapore Combat Engineers' idea for building a Floating Platform as an interim venue for our National Day Parades has been widely publicised, we have yet to see the Petronas oil rigs enjoy similar PR traction.

But just because you don't hear about their innovations, doesn't mean they have none to celebrate. Give credit where it is due. Well done Malaysia.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unfinished business? Should the Singapore Armed Forces deploy to fight IS?

As the Americans scour the globe for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), it is only a matter of time before Gombak Drive receives a call to arms.

Singapore should be wary of any request(s) to commit the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against IS forces, until and unless the United States demonstrates it is aware of the nature and complexity of the threat it faces in the theatre of operations.

At present, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has defied the slew of life-changing, post-9/11 counter terrorism measures devised to deter, detect and defeat the sort of nemesis that IS has come to represent.

The fact that IS has grown in stature and battlefield effectiveness to a sort of Foreign Legion for like-minded individuals indicates this is no self-radicalised group that somehow attained strength in numbers.

As yet, we do not know who their backers are. And these entities must have deep pockets, perhaps sustained by protection money from oil-rich Arab states in exchange for (temporary) immunity from the problems that have wracked some of their neighbours.

From a logistics standpoint, IS strategists must have mulled over and implemented plans, processes and procedures to rearm, refuel and resupply an estimated 31,000 combatants in a battlespace that spans the now none existent border between Iraq and Syria. In any language, this is a sizeable army, not some rag tag militia with no form or structure. They represent a credible army in the field with an unknown order of battle, funded in the face of heightened financial stringency that monitors everything from the Hawala system to the global financial system.

Until we unmask the threat, the strategy to exploit air supremacy over Syria and Iraq to hit IS positions doesn't have legs to stand on. If it succeeds, it will be one of the few case studies in the profession of arms where air power alone wins the fight.

No country seems willing to put skin in the game with boots on the ground.

Ground forces have taken the form of advisors tasked to train, organise and equip anti-IS forces. This game plan is fraught with folly principally because known one can tell for sure who will ultimately benefit from the training and arms infusion.

This is why Singapore should sit things out before joining the posse.

This is no Operation Blue Ridge redux. The downside risk of having SAF train and arm combatants who are not what they seem is uncomfortably high. We should not place our people in this ambiguous situation which, truth be told, can be traced  back to the US decision to invade Iraq years ago on unsubstantiated claims the then regime was dabbling in weapons of massed destruction.

If anything, the deployment could take the form of a single KC-135R aerial refuelling tanker or C-130 airlifter sent to help the anti-IS coalition sustain the aerial bombardment of hostile positions. But until we know who the warplanes are being deployed against, and that airpower isn't being used by an astute enemy (which has no air force) to bomb their rivals into oblivion, should we even do so blindly?

Singapore's contributions to past international peace support missions indicate we will not shy from adversity, from combat situations or from doing the "right thing" when it matters.

There's a time, place and purpose to everything. And the time is not right for Singapore to join the anti-IS coalition with the deployment of SAF ground forces.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Prospects for non grads in S'pore: Societal shift needed to accept unconventional pathways

When I left the Singapore school system more than 25 years ago with qualifications that earned me a rejection letter from a local university, that development was the best jump start to self-development and lifelong learning I could ask for.

Thanks to a Singaporean who made his own way up the career ladder without a degree, my unconventional academic journey was eventually recognised when he gave me a chance to prove myself in corporate life.

That individual, Mr S.R. Nathan, embodies the societal shift needed as we ponder the value and potential of non graduates versus graduates.

The year was 1996. The place: An office at Raffles City which Mr Nathan used as ambassador-at-large.

He looked through my job application for his then-new strategic studies institute without a word before raising his head and asking a single question: You have A Levels and then you went on to Masters. So you don't have a first degree?

Mr Nathan's perceptiveness saw the past five years of my life compressed into mere minutes, with the expectation that as far as job prospects were concerned, I would soon be shown the door. 

Had it been any other public servant, the show would probably be over. But Mr Nathan bade me to continue.

He listened intently as I described how A level results failed to book me a place at a local university.

He seemed intrigued with the decision to head to work after my full-time National Service, starting at the age of 22 as the Singapore correspondent for a UK-based defence weekly. I was then the youngest freelancer engaged by the magazine and learned what I could from seasoned defence journalists.

The years of freelance work for defence publications, an invitation to present a paper at a defence forum at the age of 23 eventually led to a British academic sketching out options for furthering one's studies overseas. Back in the United Kingdom, that academic shared my dream with colleagues who taught defence/strategic studies. Three were approached. Three wrote back. They hailed from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, King's College in London and the University of Hull. All were prepared to assess the application for a Masters programme.

And so, the paper chase moved into high gear.

The British publisher of the defence magazine -  then and now an influential voice in the British defence scene - supported the application. As did the Naval Attache from an embassy in Singapore. Their endorsements underscored the value not just of networking (which anyone can do), but of proving oneself to an international audience who can be discerning.  

And so, off I went to the UK for a course of study that leverage on what I assessed to be two strengths: in language and in military history/defence matters. In the early 1990s, Singapore's education system did not offer any courses in strategic studies to students outside the Singapore Armed Forces. This meant that the net had to be cast wide to countries that did offer such courses to civilians. Help came from unexpected quarters. At the time, when the National Defense University in the United States was downsizing its National Security Management courses due to budget cuts, a contact there mailed the entire series of Blue Book textbooks to me. This series of about a dozen books proved of immense value in laying the academic foundation so necessary for the Masters in Strategic Studies that I embarked on from September 1995.

Thanks to that piece of paper and with Mr Nathan's advice, I eventually joined Singapore Press Holdings as a daily-rated temp, converting to full-time employment six months later. I have not looked back since.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. The five years in the academic wilderness as a non graduate taught me who my real friends were. Some made scornful remarks about freelance work (try telling people you work from home), others were dismissive about strategic studies/war studies as they'd never heard of it (honestly, their views didn't matter and I gave up explaining what it was all about), others made disparaging remarks about non grads in the guise of offering unsolicited "advice" about university courses (have access to better qualified advisors, thank you). It was great to purge one's life of such characters.

Mr Nathan's willingness to look beyond conventional notions of academic pathways is precisely the societal mindset change needed as Singapore examines career opportunities for people without degrees. Beyond the recent burst of media stories of non graduates made good, Singapore Inc needs to walk the talk.

Our education system needs to reorientate itself quickly because the openness the British university admission system displayed 20 years ago when they were willing to consider work experience as a criteria for a Masters course is, alas, relatively unheard of in Singapore even today. British varsities are apparently not unique in their approach to assessing candidates. The US system is similarly inclined.

One can only wonder at the untold number of Singaporeans who have had their educational aspirations dashed by a system that needs to check the boxes so rigidly that individuals who do not conform to current concepts of talent management fall through the cracks.

The good news is this: Success stories of individuals who made it invariably have some common themes woven into their narrative. These include an innate stubborn belief in their ability to succeed no matter what, passion/drive in pursuing their course of action and a sense of realism in what can be done.

While some elements are within an individual's control, there is an added element of luck and in meeting the right people at the right time.

For me, the turning point emerged during that interview by Mr Nathan. And for that, I remain forever grateful.