Li Huiwen, 26, pretty much sums up what modern warfare could look like in the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). She’s petite, just 150cm tall and speaks with a child-like voice, but she’s got one of the world’s most advanced military ships at her dexterous fingertips. Li is a helmsman and one of eight female personnel on the RSS Stalwart – the RSN’s fifth warship in the line of six new Formidable-class stealth frigates that became fully operational in January 2009 – and she’s steering the 114m long, 3,200 tonnes steel colossus at the touch of a…
01Basic military training at Palau Tekong
02Basic military training at Palau Tekong
03Super Puma lands on 'Stalwart'
04Serviceman assistant helicopter landing
05Frigate at dock in Changi naval base
06A recruit readies his rifle
07Captain Leong Heen Choong, 30, operations officer
08Crew co-ordinate test drills
09Life on the bridge
10Muhammad Noh Bin Zainuddin and Timothy Lee Wen Qiang
11Senior Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Tan, Commanding Officer 123 Squadron, the frigates’ Seahawk helicopter detachment
12Li Huiwen, helmsman RSS ‘Stalwart’
13Replenishment exercise with the US oiler ‘Rappahannock’
14Manning a machine-gun on the heli-deck
15Deputy prime minister and minister for defence Teo Chee Hean
16A view over frigates docked at the Changi naval base
The “Doctrine of the Poison Shrimp”, as Singapore’s defence strategy is known, is a plan to protect the island nation from being gobbled up by the bigger Asian beasts that stalk its neighbourhood. The message to any potential aggressor is straightforward: swallow the Singaporean shrimp, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.
The poison with which Singapore has laced itself is a military arsenal unrivalled in Southeast Asia. Though dwarfed by the likes of Indonesia and Malaysia – the likeliest threats to Singapore’s security – the island state wants these larger powers to blink first, should conflict ever appear likely. Singapore’s ultimate weapon is its wealth, but there are potential weaknesses to this position of strength. Some Singaporeans grumble about the fact that more is spent on defence than goes into education.
A drop-off in the country’s economic growth rate could see defence spending dwindle. And the position of the US, Singapore’s friend in the Asia-Pacific, is becoming unclear as Chinese power expands. However, for the foreseeable future the same old warning will apply to any would-be devourer of the Singaporean shrimp: dangerous to eat.
Republic of Singapore
Navy in numbers
Servicemen: 5,000 regulars and full-time national servicemen
Squadrons: 10, including two Air Force squadrons for helicopter operations and maritime patrol aircraft
Missile corvettes: 6
Landing ship tanks: 4
Patrol vessels: 11
Mine-counter vessels: 4
Naval bases: 2 – Changi and Tuas
Brothers in arms
French naval defence company DCNS built the RSN’s first stealth-frigate in France; the other five were put together at home by ST Marine, part of Singapore’s largest defence group ST Engineering, under a technology-transfer programme with France.
Being the main supplier of defence technology to the SAF, it also sells its gear to another 24 countries such as Botswana and Sweden. Its extensive range of cutting-edge systems includes everything from Unmanned Areal Vehicles to ergonomic gear for soldiers in the field.
“We have grown alongside the SAF, serving their needs in air, land and sea,” says ST Engineering’s president and CEO Tan Pheng Hock. “Meeting the needs of the SAF remains our top priority where national defence is concerned.”
Israel and Singapore
The technological expertise of Singapore’s armed forces should be used by smaller European countries as an example of how to punch above your weight, says Siemon Wezeman, Asia expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“It’s very advanced compared to European countries,” he says. “The Singaporeans would give the Germans a hard time if they were the same size.”
With its focus on cutting-edge technology, dependence on conscription and its relatively small size compared with its neighbours, Singapore is similar to Israel, argues Wezeman. “There are very clear links between the two countries, both historically and in the terms of the equipment they use. They cooperate on equipment development, such as electronic warfare systems, much of which they don’t want to talk about. Look at the Israeli systems that Singapore buys – Israel doesn’t sell those to anybody just like that.”