Singapore soldiers on the front line

Singapore's contributions in international fight against terrorism

Three SAF medics (at left) attending training on how to read X-ray films under the watchful eye of a member of the Australian Defence Force.
Three SAF medics (at left) attending training on how to read X-ray films under the watchful eye of a member of the Australian Defence Force. ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN

Two years ago, the multinational coalition force set up to smash the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was looking for a specific target.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) team based in Kuwait was given the job. Its officers are experts at analysing satellite images and they found the target. Coalition forces subsequently destroyed it.

Details of the successful hit are "operational classified information", said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. But he added: "It was a significant ISIS asset."

Dr Ng said that then US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter thanked him personally for Singapore's contribution to the operations, and the coalition forces have asked for more imagery analysts from Singapore.

"We are making an impact, we are making a difference," said Dr Ng in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times last week after he visited the SAF medical team based in Iraq to support the coalition forces.

Besides the medical team in Iraq and satellite imagery analysts in Kuwait, the SAF also has a KC-135R air-to-air refuelling plane, and intelligence and planning officers based in Kuwait.

These are Singapore's contributions and long-term commitment to the international efforts to counter extremism and terrorism, Dr Ng noted.


On whether Singapore's involvement put it in the cross hairs of terror attacks, Dr Ng said: "The unfortunate truth is that everybody is in its cross hairs. Malaysia and Indonesia were never part of the coalition forces, but you have attacks in Puchong, you have attacks in Jakarta. So the terrorists attack them, and they are Muslim countries."

He added: "The leaders of countries I've spoken to, Muslim or all Asean countries plus our partners, all recognise that if we did nothing, it's not as if these ISIS elements will say, 'Well, I'll leave you alone'.

"So there's no escaping this reality that you are targets from the word 'go', not because of what you've done, but because of what you are."

Singapore is not seeking to be "everywhere" in the fight against terror, but it will deploy its resources in meaningful ways, Dr Ng said.

But he acknowledged that the deployment of soldiers on the ground puts them in harm's way.

"This is a dangerous terrain, whether it's Afghanistan or Iraq or previously in the Gulf of Aden," he said. "You're always happy when nothing happens and you're not wishing for things to happen, but you have to always be alert."

He also addressed the perception that Singapore's soldiers are typically deployed in safer roles behind the front lines. He said that the layman's definition of fighting and non-fighting soldiers is "very wrong". "It is not correct (in the) military context," he noted.

Soldiers like medics may be behind walled cities and army camps, but it does not mean that they are not at the front lines, not involved in combat or in any less danger, he pointed out.

The dangers can come from improvised explosive devices or people turning onsoldiers in camp, he added.

Dr Ng's visit to Iraq last week came after Singapore leaders noted that the terror threat is at its highest in years and after ISIS released its first propaganda video featuring a Singaporean, Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad, 39.

The video does not surprise Dr Ng, who said that "we know of individuals who are in Iraq and Syria".

"Even with ISIS being reduced in strength, you still have Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians being radicalised," he noted, adding that it showed the importance of Singapore's contributions to international efforts in combating terrorism "at its source".

Singaporeans are more psychologically prepared for the eventuality of a terror attack than two years ago, Dr Ng said, but any attack will "always come as a shock".

"But I think we can overcome it, and... prepare ourselves to regroup, not to allow it to fragment our society," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's contributions in international fight against terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe