Li Huiwen, 26, pretty much sums up what modern warfare could look like in the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). She’s petite, just 150cm tall and speaks with a child-like voice, but she’s got one of the world’s most advanced military ships at her dexterous fingertips. Li is a helmsman and one of eight female personnel on the RSS Stalwart – the RSN’s fifth warship in the line of six new Formidable-class stealth frigates that became fully operational in January 2009 – and she’s steering the 114m long, 3,200 tonnes steel colossus at the touch of a joystick.
Li belongs to Southeast Asia’s most advanced military force – the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Backed up by Singapore’s 300,000 national servicemen, this tiny 687sq km island-state can mobilise itself for war in just six hours. Codewords would be sent out through TV and radio for call-up, while the Changi expressway would be transformed into a fighter-jet take-off strip. Rapid mobilisation of the whole nation is an integral part of the Total Defence model, which was originally developed by the Swedes. Such sophistication comes at a price, though: Singapore spends between 4.5 to 5 per cent of GDP on defence – S$12.08bn (€6.96bn) for 2011. Its neighbour Indonesia spent 0.8 per cent of GDP on defence last year.
Spending such vast sums on defence, while far less is devoted to education and health, could cause problems for a government in a more democratic state. Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has few such worries. It has had a tight grip on power since independence in 1965 and at the last election won 82 out of 84 seats.
Sitting in his office at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence HQ, in the lush hills of Singapore’s Gombak Drive, deputy prime minister and minister for defence Teo Chee Hean is unapologetic about the government putting its security at the top of the political agenda. “If we want to maintain our independence and sovereignty, then we need to be able to defend ourselves,” he argues. “The world is not very kind to small states – especially those who are unprepared. Look at Kuwait in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein invaded and basically took over the country in less than 24 hours. There are lessons there for small countries all over the world.”
Singapore has always been a small fish in a big pond, but when the SAF was formed in the 1960s, the pond was far more turbulent. An escalating war in Vietnam, political turmoil in Indonesia and fraught relations with Malaysia emphasised the importance of a strong defence force. While the threat level may have dramatically receded since then, Teo argues that Singapore still needs to flex its muscles.
“We sit on a very strategic spot between China and India – the two most populous and rapidly growing countries in the world. Singapore is also sitting on one of the key sea-lanes of the world. This is a resource-hungry world, so we think that there are good reasons to make sure we continue to invest in peace and stability for the region,” he continues. “And that must include providing enough for defence.”
That means running more than a dozen military exercises a year alongside allies. “A lot of ships pass through here and, being friends with many of them, we conduct exercises together,” explains Colonel Giam Hock Koon, commanding officer of the frigate fleet, from his chair on the steering bridge of the Stalwart. “It’s mutually beneficial.”
The current drill is a five-day submarine-and-simulated-warfare assessment exercise, part of which is done with a detachment of the US Pacific Fleet (which has a maintenance facility at Singapore’s Sembawang Wharves). The ship slips off from dock at Changi Naval Base where the nuclear submarine USS Hawaii bobs in the calm waters and vies for space with tugboats, sand-bargers, super-tankers and merchant ships in the shallow Singapore Straits. We head off at 20 knots on a 150 nautical mile journey into the South China Sea, towards a point halfway to Vietnam.
After a pep-talk over breakfast, the recruits are called to drill. In 82 per cent humidity, the crew simulate everything from preventing Stalwart from sinking when it has been hit, to fuel-replenishment with the US oiler Rappahannock.
Around 20 RSN servicemen stand on the bridge, many of them chewing on gummy-bears while monitoring navigation, throttle, the radar and the training going on below deck. The atmosphere is relaxed; rank is put aside in the face of pulling off the exercises with precision.
The exercises serve a purpose. The RSN was deployed to command an anti-piracy fleet in the Gulf of Aden last year and was also involved in reconstruction work in Iraq in 2008. In local waters, RSN plays a leading role in the Malacca Straits Patrol’s anti-piracy measures together with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – as a result incidents have dropped from 21 in 2004 to four in 2010. “If there’s a need for us to defend our country, we won’t hesitate,” says military expert and navigation cluster chief Sabrina Goh, 32, who has served in the Navy for 15 years. “I’m proud to be Singaporean and I think it’s important that we know how we can defend Singapore.”
“No matter how much money you put into buying good ships, if you don’t have good people, you won’t have a good ship,” says Lt Colonel Chew Chun Liang, 34, Stalwart’s commanding officer. There is no shortage of recruits hoping to become the next generation of “good people”. Finding himself a quiet spot in the medic centre, 22-year-old Jeremy Thong, who’s been in the Navy as a marine systems operator and firefighter for the past five years, is reading up on the latest speeches from the deputy prime minister. “I became independent from my parents from an early age. I don’t want them to work so hard because they also have to support my two other siblings,” says Thong. The Navy paid for Thong’s marine engineering course at Singapore Polytechnic and gives him a S$1,000 (€575) monthly allowance.
Now he has been shortlisted for an interview for an officer position. He’s stressed about pulling it off: the Navy will pay for his university fees if he does. “The ship is huge and I find myself overwhelmed with the things I have to catch up with. I’m kept on my toes all the time,” he says.
Many recruits have gone through basic military training on Singapore’s second-biggest island, Pulau Tekong, a 15-minute ferry ride across from Changi Airport. The 18-year-olds who come here stay in neat yellow dormitories that are surrounded by pink bougainvillea, white beaches and have everything from rifle and grenade ranges to Olympic-sized swimming pools to tennis courts and running tracks to keep them busy. “It’s been fun but sometimes training is tough and I think it’ll get tougher,” says 21-year-old recruit Muhammad Noh Bin Zainuddin.
That training comes in handy on the frigates where each crew member has to take on several roles to make up for the fact that there are just 71 personnel onboard (other navies run ships such as these with 200 people but Singapore’s frigates were customised for small crews). Work is a relentless cycle of six hours on, six off, alternated between two teams.
“The challenges that face us as a ship and a squadron, are challenges that face us as a nation,” says Giam. “Forty-five years ago, people were saying ‘you don’t have enough people, you can’t survive as a country’. The true Singaporean will tell you, ‘we’ll design a system that allows us to survive’,” he adds.
It’s a system that analysts believe protects Singapore from its larger neighbours. “Singapore’s strategic posture is built on a high-level of intelligence about developments in neighbouring countries and the region. If there were any indication that Singapore was under threat, there is no doubt that Singapore would take necessary military action,” says Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia’s Singapore office. “Even if there were adverse regime-change in the region, countries with any rational government would not even think of taking armed action against Singapore,” he adds.
Li and her colleagues are unlikely to hear their codewords over the airwaves any time soon. Being part of the most sophisticated armed forces in Southeast Asia certainly helps, but the lack of any real enemies is perhaps more important. Either way, in the words of defence minister Teo Chee Hean, Singapore will always be ready: “If you aren’t prepared to defend yourself, you can’t expect others to come and do it for you.”