It is very warm. It is also humid, but what else would you expect? Singapore is roughly 60 miles North of the Equator and essentially has no seasons.

The young National Servicemen are in formation. Only a couple of days into their training, but today’s events will confirm the change in their lives. In a special ceremony the lads will be issued their rifles and will swear a special oath to their country.

Rifle issue ceremony | Singapore archives

An American with an opportunity to have been present the past couple of days will have noticed several things that make this Asian army sui generis [of its kind; in a class by itself; unique.] The young soldiers themselves are descendants of ancestors from many countries and many religions. Chinese, Vietnamese, Malay, Indian, Thai, with some Europeans and Japanese thrown into the mix. Hindu, Muslim, Christian and many Asian beliefs.

A fair number have English or Irish first names. Oh, and all the signs on the base and all the training that these soldiers go through and all the commands and communication in the Singapore Armed Forces are in English.

Singapore National Servicemen | SAF

There is little point in writing an article about the military of Singapore without at least a thumbnail history of the small island nation. It is remarkable in a great many ways. In my lifetime alone, it has gone from a destitute Third World spot on the map to a First World nation.

Singapore dollar

As I delved into the history, politics and especially the makeup of the country’s people; I was reminded of Robert Heinlein’s Luna in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” Two similarities immediately stood out: Luna and Singapore lack resources (most critically water) and at the end of the day all that they had going for them when they set out to become nations was amazing location (Luna at the top of a gravity well and Singapore at an extremely strategic trade crossroad with a critical deep-water port) and they had amazing populations once violent and chaotic later incredibly productive. Yet in both cases, prior to trying to forge a nation their populations identified themselves mostly with far places once their homelands or those of their parents or grandparents.

“If you had mentioned “patriotism” to a Loonie, he would have stared, or thought you were talking about his homeland (or his parents’ homeland.) Were transported Frenchmen whose hearts belonged to “La Belle Patrie” ex-Germans loyal to the Vaterland, Russians who still loved Holy Mother Russia. Luna? Luna was “the Rock,” place of exile not a thing to love.”

For most of history Singapore was only a piece of land an island with less than a thousand people on it. Film has Jack Sparrow and his pirates involved with Singapore in the 18th Century but it did not exist as anything more than a speck of land until 1819 when the British East India Company set up a port facility there. Asians and Europeans from that point gathered there because that’s where the action was re trade. Practically nobody thought of it as being “home”, let alone a nation.

Since the British built on mostly unoccupied land, Malays were never the majority of Asians living on the island. The British brought many workers (later to be joined by families) from India and Chinese merchants from around Asia gravitated to the port. By 1858 the East India Company out of business and Singapore became a Crown Colony ruled directly by the British government.

English language Japanese paper printed in Singapore.

In early 1942 the Japanese overran Malaya and a lackluster British command surrendered the fortress city of Singapore at the southern tip of the peninsula to what was later shown to be an inferior and under-supplied Japanese force. The Japanese troops ran riot starting by slaughtering the doctors and nurses and patients at the city’s largest hospital. Japanese propaganda claimed that locals being “freed from colonialism” when in fact they were now slaves of the Japanese Empire. Ethnic Chinese in for even worse treatment. Thousands of men of Chinese extraction marched to various sites around the island and shot.

The British had lost face in Asia by their poor showing, retreats and surrenders. The circumstances of their “taking the reins” at the end of the war in Singapore didn’t help their image much either. While the Japanese forces in Singapore surrendered without incident to senior British officers who showed up (except for a couple of hundred Japanese officers who committed suicide in the Raffles hotel after a long party and a Japanese platoon that blew itself up with grenades.) the British simply didn’t have the troops available to take over from the Japanese.

The British military administration used surrendered Japanese troops as “police” to control the island until March of 1946. While the days of Japanese wild excesses over as might be imagined, this went over like a lead balloon. When significant British forces at last arrived more than five months after the surrender, the population cheered not just because the Japanese were being removed but because Singapore had gone to hell in a handbasket during the time of the minimal Japanese “policing.”

Riots, looting, and countless incidents of revenge killings. Various racial and religious groups at each other’s throats and nobody’s life or property secure. The five months had largely been wasted. Little repaired and much remaining trashed. During the last year of the war the infrastructure had been largely destroyed electricity, water supply (always the Achilles heel of the island), telephones and the lifeblood of the city the docks and other harbor facilities. It would take close to five years to get the island back up and running at something like normal levels.

Postwar Malaya had its own problems including the “Malayan Emergency” (1948-60). The bulk of the problem Chinese “squatters” in agricultural lands in Malaya. Many had fought the Japanese, but treated poorly by Malays While some Malays and Indians in Malayan Communist Party mostly Chinese movement.

Singapore was caught up in some of this. In the early 1950s sabotage, murders, arson, assassinations British companies attacked while Communist hit squads carried out many assassinations including an attempt on the life of the British Governor of Singapore. None of this contributed to post-war recovery and stability.

Singapore: A (former) Rabble In Arms

Read Next: Singapore: A (former) Rabble In Arms

The British eventually took positive steps subordinating the military to the police treating the insurgency as a political problem not simply a military one and promising full independence. In any event, in Malaya proper, the Chinese were in the minority.

In 1956 prior to later independence, Singapore was given “Responsible Government” by Britain. Boiled down this meant that they ran their own affairs in everything except defense and foreign policy.

Well hell. This was great. Politicians in Singapore all for this but the unanswered question was what happens with independence? Malaysia itself would become independent in 1957, but Singapore not keen to be absorbed by that country not a lot in common. Malaysia was Muslim, with Malays as the dominant population. Only 13% of Singapore is Malay — its largest group ethnic Chinese.

Map of Malaysia

In 1963 Singapore’s leaders thought that they had the answer. The British arranged a federation. Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore. On the September 16, Singapore found a home in the new Federation of Malaysia.

In 1965 Malaya led a movement to well “kick Singapore off the island.” out of the Federation. Various reasons for that large Chinese majority in Singapore for one not Muslim for another different view on economics and much else. In any event Singapore was considered largely a basket case and of no value.

Singapore was suddenly alone in a big bad world. For the time being its military security guaranteed by Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The last significant British forces left in 1971. Token British, Australian and New Zealand forces all that remained. Last British left in 1976, soon followed by the Australians. The tiny New Zealand detachment left in 1989.

Singapore’s military in 1965 consisted of two infantry regiments organized on the British model commanded by British officers and mostly consisted of foreigners but for the moment, security was the least of their problems.

Tourist map of Singapore

Singapore is one relatively large island with some smaller ones within its territory. Its total land area is roughly a quarter the size of Rhode Island or to look at it another way four times the size of Washington, D.C. Some 280 square miles.

A hodge-podge of various races and religions. Water supply has to come from a sometimes unfriendly country to the North. An “unfortunate” history of elements of the population trying (and failing) to get along. No resources worth speaking of a strategic location with a deep-water port that was taken in 1942 from far more British troops than present in 1965.

What Singapore did have was a relatively young politician of brilliance, toughness and vision. Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) would become the father of his country (Not to be confused with “Lee Kuan” legendary Star Trek dictator.)

Lee Kuan Yew

His father a shopkeeper, Lee grew up speaking no Chinese (not uncommon in Singapore.) He learned to speak, read and write Mandarin. He was addressed by his closest friends as “Harry Lee” many Singapore ethnic Chinese parents even then giving an English first name to male children.

Surviving the Japanese occupation, he was graduated at the top of his class at law school at Cambridge in England — he practiced law until 1959. While willing to cooperate with British authorities in Singapore, his political activities geared towards independence.

 … In 1954 he co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954 and was its first secretary-general until 1992, leading the party to eight consecutive victories. After Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, he served as Senior Minister until 2004 and then as Minister Mentor (an advisory post) until 2011 … “

By 1965 he had the Chinese population of Singapore solidly behind him. Since they made up 3/4 of the population, that guaranteed him political support but the 25% Indians and Malays other groups had learned to trust him. Like George Washington at the start of the Constitutional Convention, the cast-off citizens of Singapore looked to him for a way out of their predicament.

He reacted to the problem by locking himself in his house for some weeks. At first probably (as he later said) in shock and grief but then later perhaps as a political move. Singapore’s politicos proved helpless to accomplish anything and by the time they sent a delegation to implore him to rejoin them the clear majority were quite prepared to follow his lead without giving him any grief.

The Chinese of Singapore even in 1965 were very different from most Chinese communities scattered around Asia. Part of that of course is that they are the majority on the island but living in such a “singular” community quite a few years under the British and with relatively little input from Mainland China has given them a different view of themselves. Most Chinese communities scattered about Asia refer to themselves as “overseas Chinese” while in Singapore they called themselves “Ethnic Chinese” By the 1990s their outlook was definitely “Western.”

In 1965 that did not prevent many Singapore Chinese politicos from having visions of the new Singapore that ranged from a Marxist dictatorship to something like “Tongs” running the place. Brilliance, patriotism, and knowledge of the law were not enough for Lee and his vision of Singapore to come to life. Surviving the Japanese occupation made Lee Kuan Yew tough and ruthless when the chips were down.

Referring to that time, Lee Kuan Yew calmly commented:

My posture, my response has been such that nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul de sac … Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters. If you think that you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way that you can govern a Chinese society …”

Bill Hickok might have said the same about being a lawman in Abilene, Kansas in the early 1870s. The Communists and the would-be “bosses” of Singapore found their paths blocked. Singapore would eventually develop institutions to protect itself as the years passed but in the early days it sometimes got “interesting”

Lee’s legacy was based upon his positive actions. He did not try to be a “populist” leader in the Sukarno mold, but rather was known for pragmatic long-term social and economic measures. While he initially had some industrial plants built, he decided that Singapore would become something far more modern and relevant to a population that rapidly was becoming educated and productive. International commerce and banking. Singapore’s banking reputation not only extremely good but Singapore’s currency highly respected as Singapore’s government does not indulge in deficit spending it has the eighth largest surplus in the world and its government is one of the most un-corrupt and stable out there.

Singapore not only became a “Tiger economy” but became a meritocracy. To help encourage an environment that discouraged corruption, government officials were paid salaries comparable with the same level positions in the private sector.

The U.S. based World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for 2014 ranked Singapore second out of 99 countries in terms of order and security. Japan topped the list.

Lee understood that all of Singapore’s people had to feel part of the nation. Multi-racialism was a hallmark of his work. A common language always helpful to a country and Lee Kuan chose English already spoken as a first language by quite a few and as a second language by the vast majority. The official government language is English and is also the language used by the Singapore Armed Forces. English conveniently happens to be a major language of international trade.

At the same time Lee insisted that schools be bilingual to preserve the native languages of Singapore’s various ethnic groups. All public officials, from bureaucrats to military instructors strictly required to show respect to all citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Remembering when he was a young man when religious violence was common, Lee Kuan strictly mandated freedom of religion for all faiths but drew some clear lines. All religions guaranteed freedom and protection so long as they were good citizens and stayed out of the face of other religions. At one point a fanatical Christian sect was preparing to print up thousands of Christian Bibles in Malay (Malays are Muslim) and go into Muslim neighborhoods passing them out. In those early days, arson and death would have been the result. Result: Countless Christian Bibles printed in Singapore but none in Malay.

At the end of the day, everybody learned to live in peace and by the late 1990s, the Muslim community became comfortable with their sons being conscripted into the Singapore Armed Forces — even though if war came troops would most likely be fighting a Muslim nation. 

​Singapore Police with new and more comfortable uniforms | SAF

Some nations and many groups condemn Singapore for its tough laws. (Many of these groups silent about countries like Vietnam and Myanmar which are far less free and far less safe than Singapore.) One book called Singapore “Disneyland with the death penalty” Most executions for (very rare instances of) murder or drug trafficking No one was executed in 2012 or 2013 and only two in 2014.

Law and order is not only enforced from the top down but enforcement supported from the citizenry up. Street crime as experienced in at least parts of many American cities largely unknown. An 18-year-old American (victim of “affluenza” named Michael Fay) residing in Singapore with his mother and stepfather was convicted of vandalizing more than 50 vehicles Cars at apartment blocks damaged ” … with hot tar, paint remover, red spray paint, and hatchets. Taxi drivers complained that their tires were slashed. In the city center, cars were found with deep scratches and dents. One vehicle damaged six times in as many months.”

Michael Fay

The 18-year-old American and a 16-year-old from Hong Kong found to be responsible. He was sentenced in 1994 to four months in jail, a fine (equal to U.S. $2,214 at the time) and six strokes of the cane. Much of the Western world went berserk including the U.K. (the British were the ones who introduced caning to Singapore) President Clinton asked for clemency. To avoid totally blowing him off, the caning was reduced from six strokes to four.

The 18-year-old returned to the States where he reputedly struck his father soon after his return and indulged in various drugs. Treated years later for butane burns and butane abuse, he claimed that the butane destroyed his memory of whatever happened in Singapore. Meanwhile, the wave of vandalism in Singapore stopped once he was off the streets.

In “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” a U.N. type committee member from Denver threatening delegation from Luna. Says that in Denver they would ” … be taught a thing or two … ” The senior delegate from Luna replies:

​​… Luna herself is a stern school mistress; those who have lived through her harsh lessons have no cause to feel ashamed. In Luna City a man may leave his purse unguarded or home unlocked and feel no fear … I wonder if this is true in Denver … As may be, I have no wish to visit Colorado to “learn a thing or two …”

Gurkha members of Singapore Police | SAF

Singapore’s Police in addition to regulars, reservists, and National Service police officers also employ 2000 Gurkhas (recruited at British recruiting station in Nepal) They serve in paramilitary police formation, have special security assignments and function as an anti-terrorism force.

Lee Kuan moved Singapore into a five-power defensive arrangement. Australia, New Zealand, U.K., Singapore and Malaysia. This arrangement helps keep Malaysia in line because in later years they have regretted kicking out Singapore and might well like to fantasize about doing a “Crimea” on it now that it is wealthy. Sometimes they have even threatened to cut off its water but Singapore is not the Crimea and in later years is far too powerful though “incidents” are always possible. So being in the five-power arrangement acts as a further damper on Malaysia. Indonesia (backed by the Soviet Union and Red China) engaged in a clandestine war against Malaysia in 1963 as it coveted some parts of that Federation. British, (including Gurkhas), Australians, and New Zealanders fought in many small actions along the jungle borders.

In 1966 Indonesia threw in the towel. While Singapore has decent enough relations with Indonesia these days, it has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world its current government may not always remain in office and Indonesia, even under “moderate” governments has, at times, made “unpleasant” noises about “control over trade routes near its shores” to many countries including Japan.Singapore found its two regiments of British style “square bashing” troops commanded by British officers not appropriate to its needs. It respected the British military and before WWII Singapore residents (especially of mixed race) had volunteered for British officered militia but just as Rhodesia (initially organized along British military lines) faced something new so too Singapore.

They decided to get heavy-duty advice and training from another force that started out with British Army traditions and morphed into something entirely different the Israelis (clandestinely at first) The relationship has been close from 1966 when the modern Singapore Armed Forces organized to today. Many state of the art Israeli weapons systems in the country’s arsenal.

Lee Kuan saw the dangers in an ever richer Singapore being protected by an entirely professional military organization. National Service (conscription) would keep a major part of the country’s defense in the hands of its citizens. Just as important; the Israelis showed him how after 1948 conscription of Israel’s young people helped poor uneducated Jews from Third World countries and European Jews “stitch a new country together”

Essentially, all males in Singapore who are citizens or “permanent residents” who turn 18 are liable for conscription for two years of active service followed by reserve duty in the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force, or the Singapore Civil Defense Force up to age 40 or 50 depending on their ranks It is “Universal Military Service”, not “Selective Service” such as was practiced in the U.S.

While there are some in Singapore who would prefer no conscription, in general it is popular with the citizenry. All ethnic groups and all religions serve and almost all get along splendidly.

National Service members of different ethnicities and religions | SAF

As with Israel and Switzerland young men who train and serve together often form bonds that follow them into their civilian careers. Parents from all ethnicities involved in the process and community pride is high re these young men. Most lads showing up for training these days have fathers who served before them increasing the community ties even more.

Singapore is very pro-Western and encourages the presence of the United States in the region. U.S. Naval forces by treaty entitled to use docking and repair facilities in Singapore and Singapore Air Force units often have lengthy deployments in Australia and the U.S.

By 1990 Singapore built up a good trade and diplomatic relationship with mainland China. China admires Singapore and has even been willing to overlook its pro-American policies and relationship. Many Chinese citizens were permitted to immigrate to Singapore (those older than 18 before gaining citizenship or permanent resident status not subject to, nor eligible for conscription preventing “issues.)

Recently China is very much annoyed because Singapore (which is outside the zone of Chinese high-handed territorial actions in the China Sea) came down publicly against the Chinese “island construction/militarizing” policy.

By the late 1960s Lee Kuan Yew had developed a reputation in Asia and beyond as a statesman. During the Vietnam war he came to believe that the best that his country and others could hope for was that South Vietnam’s fall would be delayed long enough for his country and others in the region to strengthen their own position. Comment that he made in 1969 has proved very prescient.

Lee was not without his faults, and Singapore is not perfect but when one looks at where it was in 1945 and where it is now it has traveled light years. Taking the population mix and making it into a nation was only slightly less difficult than making a snowball out of marbles. A brilliant legal mind leadership and vision and knuckle-dusters “Harry Lee” left quite a legacy.

Singapore’s national flag and emblem.


Yankee Papa

​Suggested Reading:

Growing up with Lee Kuan Yew

From third world to first

Singapore: unlikely power

The Moon is a harsh mistress

Featured image: Soldiers assigned to the 9th Infantry Brigade, 6th Division, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), stand alongside their U.S. Army partners during the opening ceremony of Tiger Balm 16 at the 298th Regiment, Multi-Functional Training Unit (MFTU), Regional Training Institute (RTI), Waimanalo, Hawaii, on July 18, 2016. U.S. Army and SAF troops are participating in the two-week long bilateral exercise on Oahu and Hawaii islands. By: Staff Sgt. Armando Limon/USINDOPACOM