Navy chief: Singapore must guard against 'sea blindness'

Outreach event aims to remind Singaporeans of importance of navy and the sea, he says

Rear-Admiral Lew Chuen Hong says people's connection to the sea was very strong in the 19th century, but that has somewhat waned today, with economic activity shifting inland.
Rear-Admiral Lew Chuen Hong says people's connection to the sea was very strong in the 19th century, but that has somewhat waned today, with economic activity shifting inland.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Singapore having access to the sea is akin to residents in a Housing Board flat enjoying free and shared use of the common corridor, said navy chief Lew Chuen Hong.

But he cautioned that Singaporeans have grown increasingly oblivious to the sea's importance, with the easy availability of goods in Singapore and the shift of its economic activities and residential areas inland.

This "sea blindness" is among the biggest challenges facing the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) today, Rear-Admiral Lew said in an interview ahead of the Navy@Vivo public outreach, which starts today.

It was his first interview since he took command in June 2017.

RADM Lew, 43, spoke to reporters on board the stealth frigate RSS Supreme, which will be open to the public for tours during the six-day event at VivoCity mall.

Navy@Vivo is one of the RSN's efforts to bring the navy and the sea to Singaporeans as a reminder of their importance, said RADM Lew.

When asked about last December's maritime intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into Singapore waters that led to bilateral tensions, RADM Lew said the facts of the case were clear. He said the 1979 boundary off Tuas that Malaysia claimed was never accepted by Singapore, and in December last year, Malaysia extended its claims beyond even that 1979 line.

The navy, along with other security agencies, was deployed during that period to assert the Republic's sovereignty in its territorial waters off Tuas, including issuing verbal warnings to encroaching vessels.

RADM Lew said the navy was ready to respond to any contingencies then, and it executed its task with restraint and professionalism to allow negotiations to take place.


"Today, the Malaysian ships are no longer (anchored) in the area, and we look forward to the continued discussions between both sides."

To explain territorial sea disputes, he used the analogy of one person who decides to occupy an entire space in an HDB common corridor, impeding the passage of all the residents.

Worse, if each neighbour then decides to stake claim to the common corridor space as his own, "then the real issue is that nobody can use that common corridor", he added.

As the Republic is a maritime nation, there would not be a Singapore or a Singaporean way of life without the sea, said RADM Lew.

The maritime industry contributes about 7 per cent to Singapore's gross domestic product, and employs more than 170,000 people.

Singapore is also one of the world's busiest trans-shipment hubs, with an average of 140,000 vessels calling at its ports annually.

RADM Lew pointed out that people's connection to the sea was very strong in the 19th century. Singapore was a trading port, and economic activity was concentrated along the Singapore River.


"But today, that direction has waned somewhat. Economic activity has shifted inland, and I think that direct connection of Singaporeans understanding that criticality - it's not that strong," he said.

"There is this sense of what we call 'sea blindness' - an inability to appreciate how important the sea is, even though it is critical to our day-to-day lives," he added.

For instance, 99 per cent of Singapore's rice comes via the sea, he said. And undersea fibre-optic cables enable high-speed Internet connectivity around the world.

There is a need to lean against that tinge of sea blindness, with critical interests at stake, RADM Lew emphasised.

"The navy needs to continue to be at the forefront to be relevant, to be sharp, but at the same time, our people must have that mindset to push boundaries and to be pioneers of our generation," he said. "Only then can we secure Singapore and our Singaporean way of life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2019, with the headline 'Navy chief: S'pore must guard against 'sea blindness''. Print Edition | Subscribe