No reason for S'pore to stop military training in Taiwan

Six of the nine armoured troop carriers belonging to Singapore, from a shipment detained at a container terminal, are seen in Hong Kong, on Nov 24, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

A letter bearing the headline "Exercise Starlight should be terminated" and published in Malaysian Chinese-language daily Nanyang Siang Pau on Jan 7 made some points related to Singapore's military training in Taiwan.

The first point was that with the issue of the seizure of Singapore's nine armoured vehicles in Hong Kong still hanging in the balance, there has again been noise over Starlight troops' use of training grounds in Taiwan.

The second point was a criticism of the Singapore Government's handling of the armoured vehicles issue as being grounded in "groupthink".

According to the forum letter writer, since Australia is providing more land for Singapore troops to train on, it is time to terminate Exercise Starlight as a good way to thaw chilly relations with China.

On the surface, this analysis may seem sound, but in fact, it is subjective thinking and reflects a unilateral understanding of the situation. The training by Singa- pore troops in Taiwan, dubbed Exercise Starlight, began in 1967 after Singapore's independence and has carried on for almost 50 years. This is no secret but a choice made by Singapore to seek foreign third-party assistance because of land constraints at home.


Singapore has always been very clear about its position on "one China". It is a known fact that Singapore recognises only the People's Republic of China, evident from the stand taken by the Government, and there is no grey area.

Singapore's overseas training grounds also include the United States and Australia. Government ministers, even the President, make frequent visits to inspect its soldiers at these training bases. There is also no shortage of media coverage of these visits.

But did the forum letter writer notice any reports about Exercise Starlight in the media? Obviously not, because Exercise Starlight is extremely low-key in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

The seizure of Singapore's armoured vehicles at Hong Kong Customs has yet to be resolved.

As this is a commercial shipping issue, clarification should be made by the Hong Kong authorities.

But two months have passed and they have yet to come up with an explanation for the seizure. Is the Hong Kong government inefficient? Or is the delay involuntary on its part? We have no way of knowing.

If China is unhappy with Singapore and used Hong Kong to exercise detention rights, then China is being unreasonable for escalating a commercial issue into a political one. Since Hong Kong has remained silent, is the ball now in China's court?


The Singapore Government has been straightforward in attempts to resolve the Terrex incident, unlike the "groupthink" the letter writer described in his letter.

Be it in terms of international or maritime shipping law, the arguments are tenable.

Singapore's handling of this affair has been considerate of both Hong Kong and China. Not once has Singapore criticised them, hoping to de-escalate and resolve the issue in an appropriate manner. Before establishing diplomatic ties with mainland China, Singapore was already good friends with Taiwan.

In comparison with China, Singapore enjoyed better and stronger relations with Taiwan after independence in 1965.

In the early days of independence, not a single country in the world was willing to help Singapore train its armed forces.

Israel and Taiwan were the only places which offered help.

Exercise Starlight was clearly communicated between Singapore and China before bilateral ties were established on Oct 3, 1990.

Moreover, Singapore had nothing to hide from the Chinese government and its people. Singapore is a sovereign nation and should not bend to the will of others.

If China is using the Terrex incident to pressure Singapore into scrapping Exercise Starlight, that would be considered bullying and disregarding the existing realities that Singapore faces.


The prosperity of the Chinese people must be built on foundations of respect, inclusiveness, friendly cooperation as well as mutual benefit and trust.

Singapore will be able to stand firm regardless of China exerting pressure using the Terrex incident.

This will ensure small countries like Singapore can command respect in matters of international diplomacy. The international community is watching Hong Kong's next move: Will it follow the law or allow a weakening of the regulatory system?

All eyes are also on China: It will be a test of its promise to adhere to a "one country, two systems" principle.

In conclusion, Exercise Starlight will continue and will not be terminated just like that - unless Taiwan is reluctant to extend the agreement but that will be another matter for another day.

•This commentary was first published in the opinion section of Malaysian Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau yesterday. The writer is a current affairs commentator for the paper.

•Translated by Kua Yu-Lin

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline No reason for S'pore to stop military training in Taiwan. Subscribe