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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lesson from Kursk

Lesson From Kursk

While the world was riveted to the fate of the 118 submariners in the sunken Russian sub, Kursk, there might be a lesson for Singapore here.

Because, very simply, Singapore, too, has submarines and is buying more. Without first having a rescue capability for the submariners if our subs should go down. And subs have gone down for a variety of reasons, the simplest being someone forgetting to secure an open hatch before diving.

Worse, the first few of our subs are refurbished second-hand subs whose fitness for the rigours of sea is unknown.

In the desire to develop an overwhelming offensive capability, as opposed to a strictly defensive one, we have bought all manner of such toys to satisfy our geopolitical ambitions, which include stationing NSmen to 'protect' Brunei, presumably from Malaysia and Indonesia, under the guise of 'training' the NSmen there, in the festering jungles of Brunei.

Throughout history, dictators, even "tinpot dictators", have relied on huge militaries to keep their people under control, placed their children in General positions of command over critical sections of the armies and engaged in geopolitical games. We only have to open our venerable Straits Times to read of such.

The zero rescue capability of Singapore's navy if our subs should sink also raises larger questions over our overall rescue capabilities for airmen and other seamen. How would our much-vaunted airforce and navy react should an airplane go down or a warship sink in the South China Sea? Will our men suffer the same lack of rescue capability and fate as the Russian submariners?

Then there are the even larger issues of "What are we preparing for?" A defence of Singapore or geopolitical games like the 'defence of Brunei' that could draw us into a war with our much larger neighbours?

An Associated Press-CNN Report says, "By any measure, its (Singapore's) defense capabilities are huge for a country that is one-15,000th the size of the United States" and " our military "is quite substantial and out of proportion to the military threat" in the region".

Dictators throughout history have always felt the need for large armed forces, partly because large armed forces translate into power against their own people and over neighbours. This is because dictators exercise direct power using fear whereas democratically-elected leaders must gather consensus and yes, even popularity, to gain office in the first place.

That is why in the entire course of history, no two democratic countries have ever gone to war with each other. The opposite is also true. While democratically-elected leaders must always keep close to the people's wishes, dictators do pretty much as they like or think is 'best'.

We know that in the course of training and readiness for war, accidents have happened. One widely-publicised case was the explosion of an artillery gun that killed several NSmen. As that happened overseas and foreign instructors were also injured, there was no suppressing that news. But are there other instances of deaths and injuries that we do not know about?

Most of us do not begrudge the 2 to 2 1/2 years of the prime years of our lives being spent this way. Nor the continuing years of follow-up service. But for what? If it is to allow our leaders to play geopolitical games, then our sacrifices are not worth it.

Then, there is also the consideration of opportunity cost. The money spent on buying toys for the generals to play with could be better spent on education, the poor, the old, cheaper housing, better and cheaper healthcare, better childcare and nurseries and better social infrastructure. Yet, we are told that we would not have enough money in our CPF when we retire. We are told that there will always be a rich-poor divide. As if we don't already know that. The opposition has been highlighting that for decades.

Maybe we should ask if Singapore really needs subs? To ask ourselves if being nicer to our neighbours isn't better than to brandish nuclear weapons at them to force concessions out of them. To ask if diplomacy isn't better than the threat of war -- didn't someone say that "War is the failure of diplomacy"?

Robert HO
25 Aug 00