On the 9th of August 1991, the armed forces of Malaysia and Indonesia conducted a joint military exercise in Johore Bahru. They executed an airborne insertion a mere 20km from Singapore.
If you’re thinking “What’s the big deal? They conduct such exercises all the time!”, then you are terribly naive.
When it comes to the military, no event, no deployment, no act of volunteerism is coincidence, neither is it always out of goodwill. The operation conducted by our neighbours is designed to send a message.
The joint exercise was named “Pukul Habis”, in English it means “Total Wipeout”. It was done a few months after leadership changed from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong.
Still think it was a harmless coincidence? Think about it:
It was conducted on our National Day, when our armed forces and military equipment are supposed to be all tied up
It was conducted shortly after a change of leadership
They named the exercise a “total wipeout”. What are they trying to wipe out?
Oh yeah, the drop zone of the paratroopers was so very much near Singapore. An unforecasted change in wind direction could have landed the paratroopers on our shores, that would have been a disaster.
The exercise isn’t the only stunt our neighbours have been pulling.
In 2014, Indonesia named two of their warships after two marines convicted of terrorism in Singapore in the 1960s. We aired our displeasure and reminded them that the bombing in Orchard Road in 1965 was a wrongful and grevious attack on civilians, both marines were hanged to a robust protest in Jarkata. Diplomatic relations took time and effort to heal. Then out of the blue, the Indonesian navy decided to pay homage to “their country’s heroes”.
We are also at constant odds over airspace intrusion over Malaysia. 2,508 times in 2011 to be precise. It was reported there had been an occasion the RSAF did deviate from their approved flightpaths due to bad weather causing temporary disorientation among the pilots. But as for the claims of incessant intrusions, this was disputed by Singapore, no proof was offered by Malaysia over the claim.
Then there is the famed issue of water. Today we may have weaned ourselves substantially off a complete reliance on Malaysia for water, so our relations over water are not as tense. But a short two decades ago, Malaysia did threaten to shut off our water supply…on more than one occasion. Back then, Singapore was so dependant on water from Malaysia that a deliberate cut in the supply would amount to an act of war, a reason to deploy our armed forces.
When we purchased our first submarines, our neighbours expressed unhappiness about it. Eventually it pushed the entire region into an arms race to compare who has the more submarines and whose was bigger and badder.
Late last year in 2015, Indonesia went public with an expression of interest to take over control of the airspace above the Riau Islands from us. Foreign Affairs Minister Shunmugam said the current airspace agreements were sanctioned by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). “Today, under an agreement with the Indonesian government, our air traffic controllers handle the flight information region beyond our borders and over Sumatra, but the fees collected for that are handed over to the Indonesian government. This is something that is sanctioned by ICAO,” said Shanmuggam.
Any changes to these agreements would have negative impact on Singapore as an aviation hub and for the jobs that rely on this industry here.
Time and time again, our neighbours have pulled stunts like this on us. Each time, we scratch our heads and wonder why? We have been peaceful neighbours, we render assistance without being asked for, we contribute to the region and we keep up our end of the bargain. On the front, it appears that our diplomatic relations are healthy – and indeed they are, but every now and again we are prone to being “reminded” of our position: that we are a small, Chinese dominated country in a Malay region. We may be performing well economically but every now and again, there’s a tap on the shoulder to remind us that all this can evaporate if our bigger brothers do not allow for it.
What is Singapore to do? Well, we hold our heads up high, we become even more firm on the rule of law and we perform to the best we can all over the globe.