Sunday, September 17, 2017

Contemporary National Education: Former Singapore Armed Forces SAF Chief of Defence Force CDF, Lieutenant General (Ret'd) Desmond Kuek, reflects on Indonesia-Singapore defence relations

Note: This essay by LG (Ret'd) Desmond Kuek was contributed to the commemorative book published by the Embassy of The Republic of Indonesia in Singapore (KBRI Singapura) to mark 50 years of Indonesia-Singapore diplomatic relations.


This year, Singapore and Indonesia celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. Our ties today are longstanding, strong and extensive, underpinned by a defence relationship that is founded on mutual trust and respect. 

I witnessed the closeness of our defence relations when as a young Captain in 1989, I accompanied the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Mr Goh Chok Tong, who led a senior Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) delegation which included the Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Winston Choo, to visit Bandung.  We were received personally, and with great warmth and hospitality, by MENHAN General Benny Moerdani and PANGAB General Try Sutrisno.  It set the tone and standard for our bilateral ties that have been upheld and strengthened through the years. In recounting the depth and extent of our ties, I am reminded of the chorus in our bilateral Exercise SAFKAR INDOPURA song:

“Persahabatan kita, rekan seangkatan walau diseberang lautan”
[A friendship that lasts, that’s how it must be, comrades in arms across the sea]

Indeed, over the years, the SAF and the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) have worked purposefully together, in true spirit of cooperation and friendship, to ensure peace and stability in our region. The depth of our bilateral military ties is evident from the wide range of exercises and professional exchanges between our armies, naval and air forces. Exercise EAGLE INDOPURA, a bilateral naval exercise, was first established in 1974 and is the SAF’s longest-running bilateral exercise with any foreign armed forces.  Our naval divers regularly train together during Exercise PANDU. From time to time, we conduct joint socio-civic engagements with coastal communities in the Indonesian archipelago under the banner of SURYA BHASKARA JAYA. From 1980, our military exchanges expanded to include Exercise ELANG INDOPURA, an air combat exercise; and further deepened with the establishment of the Siabu Air Weapons Range in Pekanbaru. As for our Armies, we conduct Exercise SAFKAR INDOPURA annually, alternating between training areas in Indonesia and Singapore, while the SAF’s Commandos and TNI’s KOPASSUS hold annual engagements as part of Exercise CHANDRAPURA.

Exercise SAFKAR INDOPURA, in particular, is an exercise close to my heart.  As Commander of the 3rd Singapore Division from 1998-2000, I worked closely with Lieutenant-General Soegiono, then Panglima KOSTRAD to organise the annual exercises. As Co-Chair for the Indonesia-Singapore Joint Training Committee from 2000-2003, I supervised its development; and as Army Chief from 2003-2007, I had the honour of co-officiating the exercise with my KASAD counterparts General Ryamizard Ryacudu and General Djoko Santoso.  The exercise progressed from its humble beginnings as a mapping exercise to the full troop Brigade-level exercise it is today. I am pleased to note that next year, our Armies will be marking the 30th year of this flagship Army bilateral exercise.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that thousands of our SAF and TNI personnel have interacted through these years. Since 1969, the SAF has sent Officers to attend the TNI’s Army Command and Staff College (SESKOAD). Today, they attend all four Command and Staff Colleges in Indonesia.  Many of the graduates now hold senior positions in the SAF and also in Government.  Likewise, TNI Officers have been attending Singapore’s Command and Staff College and other training courses.  There are regular visits on both sides from junior levels through to senior leadership echelons. These exchanges have allowed us to grow lasting friendships, and give us the comfort and confidence to be able to pick up the telephone and converse with our counterparts with the view to resolving issues that occur from time to time, as might be expected even with the closest of neighbours.

 “Apapun terjadi pelihara, Ikatan teguh sepanjang waktu”
[Through thick and thin we’ll strive to keep, the bond that stands the test of time]

Many personal and professional ties have been forged through these opportunities for our people to spend meaningful time exploring options and solutions for complex operational scenarios, coordinating live-fire drills, and enjoying social and sports activities. It is most heart-warming to see our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women train and operate alongside one another, working hand in hand to accomplish a common mission. The mutual understanding and interoperability fostered between TNI and SAF units were especially crucial when we were called at short notice to operations in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

When the SilkAir MI185 crashed in 1997 in the Musi River near Palembang, the TNI led extensive search-and-rescue efforts, and TNI-AL divers recovered the flight data and voice recorders after more than a week of working tirelessly in extremely difficult conditions. The TNI also provided troops to search the crash site. It was a national tragedy for Singapore, and we will always appreciate how the TNI so readily assisted us in times of need.

When the Boxing Day tsunami struck Aceh in 2004, we mourned with our friends in Indonesia over the loss of lives in the disaster. We spared no effort to assist in the relief operations in Medan, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, deploying landing ship tanks, helicopters, medical teams and combat engineers. SAF personnel worked alongside the TNI to assist in search and locate operations, as well as with the evacuation of victims, delivery of medical aid and emergency relief, provision of logistical support and in engineering reconstruction works.

“Persahabatan kita terus berlanjutan”
[This friendship will last for all to see]

Our defence cooperation is multi-faceted, and we worked collectively toward a Defence Cooperation Agreement between our two armed forces that I signed in 2007, as Chief of Defence Force, with PANGTNI Air Chief Marshal Djoko Suyanto.  The regional security environment we face today continues to be complex and unpredictable, and the need for cooperation against sea piracy and regional terrorism is ever more compelling. In our desire to work together to overcome common threats, we forged an ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Informal Meeting (ACDFIM) from the existing web of bilateral linkages among regional countries, and subsequently constructed a multilateral format for the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM).  The strong bilateral defence ties between Indonesia and Singapore have served as a key pillar in this vital regional security structure.

Reflecting on our military ties, in our commemoration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Singapore, has brought back many fond memories of my friendships with TNI Officers, and it is my sincere hope that future generations of Officers, men and women of the SAF and TNI will continue to uphold this legacy and build on our excellent, longstanding relations.