Friday, July 31, 2009

Food Allergies get curiouser and curiouser

WE WERE just settling down for our flight when the captain's voice came over the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to disturb you, but we have a passenger on board who has a severe nut allergy. Could I ask you please not to open or eat any food that contains nuts for the duration of the flight? I am sorry for any inconvenience. We hope you enjoy your flight."

It was no coincidence that at the time I was on my way to a conference on food allergy in Vienna, Austria. Hazel Gowland, food adviser to the The Anaphylaxis Campaign in the UK, was travelling for the same reason, and it was for her benefit that the captain made his request.

While such an announcement may not be an everyday occurrence, most of us are familiar with the idea that peanuts can trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction. But peanuts aren't the biggest concern in every country. Passengers from Greece, where peanut allergy is rather rare, might have been more concerned about the melon in the fruit salad. A passenger from the south of Italy might have pushed the in-flight apple juice to one side for fear that it might trigger a skin rash and stomach pains, a reaction that would puzzle a compatriot from northern Italy.

Why such regional differences exist is just one of the many mysteries surrounding food allergies. Why, for example, do some migrants from east Asia develop an allergy to jackfruit when they move to northern Europe? Then there's the question of what constitutes an allergic reaction in the first place, whether there's ever a "safe" level of an allergen, and what should be done to label foods to warn people that an allergen may be present.

The Vienna conference, which took place in May this year, is part of an effort to get to the bottom of some of these mysteries. An international task force dubbed EuroPrevall, headed by biochemist Clare Mills at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, UK, is measuring the prevalence and variation in food allergies across Europe and also in Ghana, Australia, India and China. The results are now rolling in, highlighting some of the regional anomalies and even shedding light on the basis of some of the food allergies.

One obstacle in interpreting previous research has been that different teams used different methods to test for food allergies, and much of the available data comes from subjects self-reporting their allergies without any medical tests. In 2007, a meta-analysis of more than 900 studies, led by toxicologist Charlotte Madsen of the Technical University of Denmark in Søborg and Roberto Rona, an epidemiologist at King's College London, concluded that proven food allergy affects somewhere between 1 person in 100, and 1 in 20. For the self-reported surveys, results varied even more widely, from fewer than 1 in 30 to more than 1 in 3 (The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol 120, p 638). That variation may have been due in part to differences between the methods used by different studies, but as studies were conducted in many different situations across Europe it could also have due to regional differences in the prevalence of food allergies.

The EuroPrevall researchers set out to study the regional differences more closely. If links could be found between the prevalence of particular allergies and local eating habits and environmental conditions, this might shed light on what gives rise to some food allergies in the first place.

At the Vienna meeting, researchers discussed the patterns emerging from their research. For adults and children over 3 years old, hazelnuts and apples turn out to be the most common triggers of food allergies in Europeans reporting to clinics - not peanut allergy, as many people might expect. These reports from clinics have also thrown up a surprising new player: sunflower-seed allergy. Although something of a rarity, it may become more common as sunflower seeds are increasingly appearing in food. To make matters worse, the allergen involved seems to be particularly potent. "The proportion of severe reactions is higher than for peanut," says Montserrat Fernández Rivas, an allergologist from the San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Madrid, Spain.

Perhaps most striking are the regional differences. "Peach and melon allergy is particularly common in the Mediterranean - in Spain and Greece," says Fernández Rivas. Reports from clinics suggest that Iceland is a hotspot for fish allergy and Switzerland has a higher rate of celeriac allergy than elsewhere.

These regional variations are likely to be due in part to differences in eating habits, causing people to be exposed to different allergens. But that alone cannot explain a pronounced north-south divide in the type of apple allergy people experience. In northern Europe, people react to the uncooked flesh of apples, whereas in the south it's the skin that sets them off, whether it's cooked or not. What could be the cause of this strange invisible dividing line that skims across south-west France, cuts through Italy close to Florence, and continues eastwards through the middle of the Black Sea?

Significantly, this line marks the southern limit of the birch tree, a plant whose pollen is one of the causes of hay fever in northern Europe. Clues for this link lie in the different proteins found in various parts of the fruit: the flesh harbours an allergenic protein called Mal d 1, while the skin is relatively rich in Mal d 3. The structure and composition of the Mal d 1 protein strongly resembles the allergenic protein Bet v 1 found in birch pollen. This means that people who suffer from birch pollen allergy may be primed to overreact to Mal d 1 - explaining the prevalence of the allergy to apple flesh in this region.

A similar cross-reaction explains the allergy to apple skin found in southern Europe. In this case, a prior sensitisation to the Pru p 3 protein in peaches, which bears a strong similarity to Mal d 3, seems to be the culprit. What's more, Mal d 1 breaks down when heated while Mal d 3 is heat resistant, which neatly explains why northern Europeans are fine with cooked apples and pasteurised apple juice but apple-allergic people in the south cannot cope with these fruit in any form (see map).

Other reported cross-reactions include a link between house-dust-mite faeces and shrimp allergy, and another between mugwort pollen and an allergy to carrots, celery and sunflower seeds. There are likely to be many others, since many allergens seem to share similarities in their amino acid sequences that might confuse the immune system.

In fact, between 2005 and 2008 Mills and Heimo Breiteneder, a molecular allergist at the Medical University of Vienna, and their colleagues completed a series of studies showing the majority of allergens originating in fruit and vegetables belong to just four of the 10,000 or so recognised families of proteins, and most of the animal-food allergens to just three families (The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol 115, p 163 and vol 121, p 847). Bet v 1, for example, causes cross-reactions with several other members of its protein family, and as a result people who have birch pollen allergy stand a good chance of being allergic to apple, celery, plums and several other common foods.

This also explains why some migrants from east Asia to northern Europe suddenly develop an allergic reaction to jackfruit once they have come into contact with birch pollen. The allergen in jackfruit does not on its own sensitize the immune system, but once birch pollen has done the job, the immune system may react to jackfruit too.

Get involved: Tell us your food allergies

Lookalike allergens
These numerous examples of cross-reactions raise another question: why does Bet v 1 cause an allergy to the Mal d 1 protein but not the other way around? Researchers believe it's because Bet v 1 enters the body via the lungs, so it is not broken down by digestion and can reach the bloodstream intact, where it activates the immune system. Mal d 1, on the other hand, is broken down during digestion, so it loses its capacity to prime the immune system. Once the immune system has been stimulated by the Bet v 1, it may then become sensitive to similar looking proteins like Mal d 1 - sensitive enough to trigger a reaction when it comes into contact with the mouth.

Cross-reactions are not the end of the story, however. Other environmental factors probably play a role: for instance, cigarette smoking has recently been shown to aggravate allergies. Genetics are also thought to be important.

If the pattern of the various allergies across the world is a confusing story, the practices and regulations designed to protect vulnerable people from potentially fatal allergic reactions are no clearer. Even the apparently sensible precaution of printing warnings on food labels is fraught with complications.

A study in 2005 by allergy researcher Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln showed that of the 200 food products that he examined labelled "May contain nuts", only 10 per cent actually did, and many of those contained only minute amounts (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol 120, p 171). Nor does the absence of a warning label guarantee that the food is safe for people who are allergic. In Europe, for example, an examination of various types of chocolate showed that half of those without a warning contained hazelnut (Food Additives and Contaminants, vol 24, p 1334).

In a recent study, only 10 per cent of foods labelled with 'May contain nuts' actually did
Part of the problem with labelling goes back to the practicalities of industrial production. Since the same machinery may be used to make many different products, it is often difficult to guarantee that the foods will not become cross-contaminated. As a result companies play it safe and put warning labels on products that may not in fact contain high enough levels of allergen to have any effect. This raises the danger that people will start ignoring the message, putting themselves at risk of consuming food that does contain a dangerous level of the allergen. "The 'may contain' labelling is becoming so devalued," says Sue Hattersley of the UK's Food Standards Agency.

So what should companies be doing to inform consumers? Individuals are so diverse that it's hard to define a level that guarantees no one will have an adverse reaction, so instead they must just try to minimise the risk. "What level of risk can be considered tolerable?" asks René Crevel, a toxicologist at food manufacturer Unilever's labs in Colworth, UK. The threshold level at which some kind of reaction can occur may be less than a thousandth of a potentially fatal dose, so where do you draw the line?

There is progress, at least for people who are allergic to gluten in wheat. A new European guideline, which comes into force in 2012, means that foods containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten can be labelled 'gluten free'. And many allergists reckon there is now enough data to start giving serious thought to a specific limit below which foods can be deemed free of peanut allergens.

Even if the food industry does find a better way to label foods, there will always be the danger of an accidental exposure to high concentrations of an allergen. "The main risk is from caterers and restaurants," says Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands Anaphylaxis Network. "In the UK most deaths are from curries, weddings, parties, and not knowing what satay and pesto are," says Gowland, my fellow passenger on the Vienna flight. "Otherwise, it's often down to not knowing in the first place that they were allergic."

Some people with a severe food allergy are afraid of even a passing exposure to an allergen, and this has led some to ask for bans of potentially dangerous foods in public areas such as schools, to reduce the risk. Some American high schools, for example, are now banning food products containing peanuts. In one instance, a school bus was evacuated and then taken out of service to be decontaminated after a single peanut escaped from its wrapper. "People in favour of various bans feel it is just easier to have the food eliminated," says Scott Sicherer, an allergist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Others believe that such measures are out of proportion to the real danger. Writing in the medical journal BMJ last year, medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School in Boston observed that efforts by US schools to prevent students being exposed to peanuts "represent a gross overreaction to the magnitude of the threat" (BMJ, vol 337, p 1384). According to Timmermans, parents can sometimes become so worried about the possible threat to their children that they cause the children themselves psychological distress.

But what of my flight: was the captain right to ask that no nut products be consumed on the plane? Timmermans says he is surprised by the request. His daughter, who is also highly allergic to peanuts, would be able to sit next to someone eating a peanut dish without experiencing a reaction, he says, though he admits it would make her uneasy.

Others are more sympathetic. "I have no problem with pilots making this announcement," says Taylor. "Nut-allergic passengers can be at risk of rather scary and uncomfortable reactions from the food of others." It may seem extreme and inconvenient to fellow passengers but, for Gowland and her fellow sufferers, the risk is too real to ignore.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dons, varsities and copyright

July 28, 2009

By Andy Ho

WHO owns course material?

Because online education promises to be a money spinner, this issue will emerge in our institutions of higher learning sooner rather than later: Does the instructor-as-employee who created the material own copyright to it or does it belong to the school-as-employer, whether a public university or a private college?

Professors tend to move from one university to another. Also, private schools here employ many 'nomadic' part-time instructors. As such, a course can begin to take shape at one institution and be improved upon at another.

If a university were to own the course material that an instructor develops while teaching there, then he would not be able to use that material when he moved to teach at a different institution.

Since professors are likely to be teaching much the same courses and thus use much the same material, this would mean that a new hire who has taught elsewhere would be using course material (he developed but is) owned by his ex-employer.

In practice, such a policy would lock professors down to the first school that ever employed them. This is a policy consideration that has led to the customary practice accepted in common law that instructors own their course material.

Statutory law itself provides that, if he is a citizen of or resident in any signatory country of the Berne Convention or the World Trade Organisation (Singapore included) at the time he first created the work, then the author owns copyright.

The exception to this rule involves people employed to write for their employer. In that case, the employer owns copyright because the work was created for the employer in the course of employment. (Also, a valid contract of employment could explicitly state that the employee hands copyright on any work created in his job over to his employer.)

So, the general rule is that copyright is vested in the original author to provide an economic incentive for creativity and innovation. Therefore, for employers of writers to be given copyright appears to be an exception to this rule, experts say.

In fact, the very order of the two clauses in our Copyright Act suggests that the latter is indeed meant as an exception. The exception promotes investments that provide the work contexts in which a writer like me can write for a living, so my columns can be packaged with other stories to be sold in the form of a newspaper, magazine or periodical.

Still, our law provides this exception specifically only to 'the proprietor of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical under a contract of service or apprenticeship'. Institutions of higher learning are not expressly included in the exception. By law, then, they do not own course materials their instructors create.

Why? One reason might be that the teaching in such institutions does not serve the interests of individual instructors, experts say. Rather, instruction in these institutions, seen as the unencumbered search for and free exposition of the truth in the classroom - or academic freedom - conduces to the common good.

So copyright in teaching material is vested in instructors who prepare them, though they be employees of universities and colleges, because doing so promotes academic freedom. This freedom to explore ideas is something that society values because it leads to advancements in knowledge and technology, experts say.

When professors can express their ideas fully and freely, students are stimulated to think - and together, new insights may emerge. However, the precise form in which such ideas are expressed - whether in reproducible written or video-taped form, or ex tempore, for example - is of no consequence to the university as employer.

That is, instructors have no duty to make notes. When they do prepare such notes, they are for their own use as guides during the delivery of lectures.

Thus, course material such as lecture notes, syllabi, exams, PowerPoint slides, essays and monographs are not prepared for the employer. This is why it is customarily theirs, not the university's property.

Of course, the mere mention of academic freedom assumes the university to be something like a guild of autonomous craftsmen-stewards of knowledge engaged in disinterested inquiry and exchange, with no formal quid pro quo.

Today, however, in the university, commercially tractable knowledge is arguably more sought after than the pursuit of 'usefully useless' truth for its own sake. The university is already sometimes like a for-profit corporation of knowledge workers that managerial bureaucracies steer to ensure profitability. Such managers may soon be looking to acquire the copyrights to course materials instructors create.

In fact, to even defend academic freedom in terms of property rights is already an acquiescence to the already commercially remodelled university-faculty relationship. But Corynne McSherry argues in Who Owns Academic Work? (Harvard University Press, 2001) this is not new.

The university has always been 'the servant of capital, legitimating the commodification of knowledge', she argues. One proof lies in its success in becoming the sole conduit into the most prestigious professions, membership in which translates into affluence and status.

In McSherry's anti-romantic account, the university was 'freed from the short-term profit needs of capital (to be) free to serve capital's long-term needs, including its need for basic research'. Indeed, in recent times, capital has infiltrated its research function. But now, even its core instructional function is game.

With money to be made from online learning, course material could be mined for profit. In a live classroom setting, the professor's mode of expressing his ideas had no fungible value. But in the asynchronous online classroom, it is eminently monetisable. Ominously, one university - Stanford - already asserts ownership 'of all Stanford course materials'.

In due course, US law, which tends to conform to capital's needs, will presumably be amended to make all this explicitly legal. Through its free trade agreement with Singapore, our copyright law will likely have to follow suit. Therefore, it looks like, everywhere and in good time, the professoriate will lose its copyrights.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Warning: Machines may outsmart man

July 27, 2009

Relying on technology may lead to dire results or danger, say scientists

NEW YORK: A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously.

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society's workload, from waging war to handling customers on the phone.

Their concern is that further advances could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.

'Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years,' said Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz. He was part of a group of researchers - including computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists - who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California on Feb 25 this year to discuss the issue.

'My sense was that sooner or later we would have to make some sort of statement or assessment, given the rising voice of the technorati and people very concerned about the rise of intelligent machines,' Mr Horvitz said.

The group discounted the possibility of highly centralised superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet.

However, they did cite examples of dangerous consequences of advanced technology, such as computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and could be said to have reached a 'cockroach' stage of machine intelligence. They also agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

The scientists noted that there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the workforce by destroying a widening range of jobs. Possible threats to human jobs could include self-driving cars, software-based personal assistants and service robots in the home. Just last month, a service robot developed by Willow Garage in Silicon Valley proved it could navigate the real world.

The researchers also focused particular attention on the spectre that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smartphones?

At the conference, organised by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), Mr Horvitz said he believed computer scientists must respond to the notions of superintelligent machines and artificial intelligence systems run amok.

The AAAI report, to be out soon, will try to assess the possibility of 'the loss of human control of computer-based intelligences'. It will also grapple, Mr Horvitz said, with socioeconomic, legal and ethical issues, as well as probable changes in human-computer relationships. How would it be, for example, to relate to a machine as intelligent as your spouse?

Mr Horvitz said the panel was looking for ways to guide research so that technology improved society rather than move it towards a technological catastrophe.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Foolhardy to take harmony for granted

July 25, 2009

Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security S. Jayakumar was Home Affairs as well as Law Minister in the late 1980s, when the Government introduced legislation to maintain religious harmony. In an exclusive interview with Insight, he looks back on the tumultuous period - and issues a warning that the tumult can return.

As Minister for Home Affairs from 1985 to 1994, and Minister for Law from 1988 to 2008, you were directly and closely involved in the crafting of the White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony and the subsequent legislation, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA). What was the experience like?

It was personally a challenging experience to work on the White Paper and the Bill with then PM Lee Kuan Yew and other ministers. How to bring out the problems in a way that would not be misunderstood by religious leaders and groups.

I have taken many Bills through second and third readings in Parliament, but the MRHA was one of the two most unique pieces of legislation I had worked on. (The other was the Constitutional Amendments for the Elected President.)

In drafting the MRHA, I worked very closely with PM Lee Kuan Yew and former attorney-general Tan Boon Teik. It was a challenge because we really could not find a model anywhere else in the world for the kind of law we had in mind.

However, it was not the White Paper and the MRHA per se, but the entire process of debate and discussion surrounding them that helped to raise public awareness and sensitised Singaporeans to potential pitfalls always lurking in a society like ours.

In fact, the process started back in 1987 when PM Lee Kuan Yew spoke at length on the dangers of religious extremism and mixing politics and religion in his National Day Rally address on Aug 16. The discussions over the next two years helped raise public consciousness of how fragile our religious harmony was. In 1989 - on Nov 22 - Mr Lee had a frank closed-door discussion with 51 leaders of religious groups.

The MRHA came into being against a backdrop of rising religiosity, not just in Singapore but worldwide. Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech to a Buddhist gathering in December 1988, a year before the MRHA was tabled in Parliament: 'The present phase in Singapore tends more towards intensely held beliefs than towards tolerant co-existence. At a time when Islam is resurgent and thrusting, Christians, especially Charismatics, are in a dynamic, evangelical phase. This has sometimes led to friction, and requires sensitive handling.'

In recent years, do you see evidence of a similar situation building up? The recent leadership tussle at Aware, with one faction coming from a common church background, could, for example, be seen as one manifestation of the resurgence of the Christian right - if it ever subsided. From the Government's point of view, what other indications are there of rising religiosity in Singapore? Is this rising religiosity to be found among all religions?

All religions are becoming more active. But then, this is a worldwide trend. There is greater religiosity across nearly all religions. We cannot be immune from these trends.

Increased religiosity in itself is not a problem. I see no harm in religious groups being active and trying to get more followers to increase their numbers. But it is what they do and how they go about it in our multiracial and multi-religious society that is extremely important.

Assuming there is again rising religiosity, have the lessons from the 1980s put the Government in a good position to deal with the current situation? What things would the Government do differently this time compared to the 1980s?

The question implies that it is the Government's job. It cannot be the Government's job alone. All parties have a role.

The Government can set certain rules, principles and sanctions. But laws and law enforcement alone are not enough. It is foolish to think that racial and religious harmony can be decreed by legislative fiat.

The Government can set ground rules and OB markers, including by legislation, to ensure that religious freedom is exercised within the context of a multiracial and multi-religious society. It also sets the tone by taking a firm, no-nonsense, impartial approach with anyone bent on creating mischief.

The Government also ensures that the State is secular and even-handed. The Government is not pro-any religion. Nor is it anti-any religion. It believes religion should be a positive factor for our society. We want all religions to co-exist peacefully and continue to do their good work in the community - running schools, doing social work and helping the aged and handicapped.

Religious leaders and followers have a critical role to play. They have the capacity to influence and mobilise their followers. Their activities must not polarise society. They have to be mindful of the sensitivities of other religious groups, and the need for moderation in their activities.

We are fortunate that in Singapore, the religious leaders and majority of their followers are sensible and rational and appreciate Singapore's vulnerabilities. Most Singaporeans are generally tolerant of religious rituals and practices insofar as they do not impinge on their private space.

Individuals and groups, whether they are religious or not, also have roles in fostering inter-racial and religious harmony and social cohesion. They must conduct themselves with restraint and moderation and not impose their beliefs and values on others.

The media too has an important role to play. A responsible media can help to inculcate the right values and messages, and avoid sensationalising or whipping up emotive issues that touch on race and religion.

When the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill was tabled in 1989 and subsequently sent to a Select Committee for further deliberation, religious groups raised many concerns related to the meaning and interpretation of certain terms.

One common fear was that it would curb missionary activity. Some even argued that the Act could breach their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

With the passage of time and the accumulation of more experience on the ground, has more clarity been achieved on this issue? Dare we even hope that a consensus of sorts has been attained on what is permissible and what is not under the MRHA? If yes, how has it been achieved?

Many of those questions and concerns were taken into account when the Bill was revised by the Select Committee.

Do we need more finely calibrated rules and sub-rules? No. What we need is a common-sense approach on the part of everyone, individuals and groups. As a member of a religious group, of course one will want to worship, promote his religion.

At the end of the day, what kind of country and society are we? We are not a country with a single dominant religion. We have many religions. We are one of the world's most densely populated countries, with people of different religions living in close proximity to one another.

How we go about promoting and practising our religion in this multi-religious society is very important - whether we show tolerance, accommodation and a live-and-let-live approach.

If everyone insists on doing things on the basis of entitlement and rights, without regard to the nature of our society and the interests of others, we will have big problems.

So it is important that we must go on a common-sense approach, rather than one of insisting on absolute rights argued from divine authority or first principles. We need to ask: What will work in Singapore, and what will cause trouble in Singapore?

In the United States, both sides have taken hardline extreme positions, arguing on the basis of constitutional rights (to abortion, to gay partnerships, etc) or on absolute scriptural proscriptions. The result is unending culture wars. Why do we want to import them to Singapore? Here, it will not be conflicts and tensions between Christians with different views, but between different religions, and that would be disastrous.

I believe that the way in which the Government has handled the various issues, which have cropped up from to time over the past 20 years, will have shown that (a) the Government is secular; (b) it is not pro- or anti-any religion; (c) we try to nip problems in the bud; and (d) where we resort to laws, this is done only when really necessary.

Another contentious issue concerning the MRHA was that it sought to draw a line between religion and politics - to erect a wall between them, in fact. Mr Goh Chok Tong conceded the difficulty of separating the two halves, but said: 'We must try...for the common good of all Singaporeans.' Christians and Muslims are among those who would argue that separating the two is impossible and indeed contrary to the teachings of their respective religions. What pointers can the Government provide for these religious Singaporeans, who want to do their duty by both their religion and by their country as good citizens? What more can be done to help forge a consensus?

I fully share what Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said in his recent statement (May 15) replying to queries on the Aware saga.

This is an extract from what he said then:

On Rules Of Engagement:

'Religious individuals have the same rights as any citizen to express their views on issues in the public space, as guided by their teachings and personal conscience. However, like every citizen, they should always be mindful of the sensitivities of living in a multi-religious society.

'All religious groups will naturally teach their followers to follow the precepts of their scriptures, to do good and to contribute to society. The groups will naturally have views on social and moral issues. But we are not a Christian Singapore, or a Muslim Singapore, or a Buddhist or Hindu Singapore. We are a secular Singapore, in which Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others all have to live in peace with one another. This calls for tolerance, accommodation, and give and take on all sides.

'If religious groups start to campaign to change certain government policies, or use the pulpit to mobilise their followers to pressure the Government, or push aggressively to gain ground at the expense of other groups, this must lead to trouble. Keeping religion and politics separate is a key rule of political engagement.'

On why the political arena must be secular:

'Religious groups and individuals who hold deep religious beliefs are often active in social issues, and make important contributions to the well-being of our society. Individuals who commit themselves to social or public service are often motivated by their religious convictions. And many religious groups do good work serving people in need, regardless of religious affiliations. We welcome that. They set the moral tone of our society, and are a source of strength in times of adversity.

'However, our political arena must always be a secular one. Our laws and policies do not derive from religious authority, but reflect the judgments and decisions of the secular Government and Parliament to serve the national interest and collective good. These laws and public policies apply equally to all, regardless of one's race, religion or social status. This gives confidence that the system will give equal treatment and protection for all, regardless of which group one happens to belong to.'

Some argue that because no restraining order has been issued under the MRHA, it has been only a showpiece. Others say it worked mainly as a deterrent. What is your response?

Showpiece? Well, when I spoke in Parliament during the third reading of the Bill on Nov 9, 1990, I did foresee 'the best case scenario is that no occasion arises where we need to invoke this Bill'. I also said then that we will exhaust all other remedies, like advising, counselling, etc. So the best scenario has happened: We have not had to issue a restraining order under the Act.

That does not mean that we have no problems but rather that we have been quick to defuse the problems through active management, mediation and, where necessary, admonition, sometimes working with religious leaders.

So non-invoking of the MRHA does not mean that it is a white elephant or showpiece. It is part of our suite of tools to maintain law and order and communal harmony.

Take the Sedition Act: We rarely use it but it is available when we need it. There are also provisions in Penal Code and other laws. But prosecution is resorted to only in serious cases.

Could you give us examples of cases that could have been dealt with under the MRHA since 1990?

If you look at the 1989 White Paper, there was an Annex setting out actual instances around that time where inter-religious tensions could arise through actions which did not adequately take into account sensitivities of other groups.

I can tell you that even today, 20 years later, we do have from time to time such incidents. I cannot go into the details but examples would be cases involving insensitive proselytisation or denigration of other religions or even misunderstandings and quarrels which, if not handled properly, can lead to emotions and cause tensions.

Our approach is to nip these problems in the bud. How do we do that? By counselling, advising and, where necessary, by warning that the Government will act under the MRHA if they persist in their conduct.

Occasionally, in serious cases, the Attorney-General may decide to bring criminal proceedings, such as the recent case against the couple found guilty of distributing seditious material under the Sedition Act.

Some say that when government statements about racial and religious harmony are made too often, there is a danger that they become taken for granted. How real is this danger?

Twenty years have passed, the problems are still here. They will never disappear. We must view religious harmony and racial harmony as constant works in progress.

I worry that an entire new generation which has never experienced communal conflict may believe that we have nothing to worry about, that our present religious harmony is a natural state of affairs and will never be under threat. I worry that people don't realise how fragile racial and religious harmony is. It is foolhardy to take these things for granted and become complacent.

The greatest danger to racial and religious harmony is complacency - to believe that all will be fine always; that we have arrived.

The reality is that maintaining religious harmony will always be a work in progress. It requires active monitoring and intervention when necessary.

You ask me if government leaders are making statements about racial, religious harmony too often? And people will become jaded and take it for granted? I do not think so. I worry that some of our people are taking racial and religious harmony for granted, and that is why we need to periodically remind ourselves.

In 2002, in the wake of 9/11 and the Jemaah Islamiah arrests, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said 'it is time to give Singaporeans a jolt, to remind them that they are living in a multiracial, multi-religious society'. Is 2009 time for another jolt?

Go back to 1987. We foresaw the problem in 1987 and decided to bring it out in the open. Indeed, over the last two decades, the worldwide trend has been towards greater religiosity, and Singaporeans have been carried along by this. So we must be aware of the stresses and strains, and continue to work hard to maintain our racial and religious harmony. We must not think that after 20 years without incident, we can afford to relax.

3G SAF (3) Three forces, one big punch

July 23, 2009
Three forces, one big punch
By Leslie Koh

SHOALWATER Bay, Australia: The scene was impressive.

For the first time, elements from the Republic of Singapore Air Force and the Army were engaging the enemy in concert at an unprecedented speed. Whenever reconnaissance soldiers spotted enemy elements, helicopters would swoop down from the sky, sometimes within minutes, to take them out.

Not long ago, it would have taken much longer, with instructions being relayed verbally up and down the hierarchy and across the two services. Confusion was inevitable.

What was also different about last year's Exercise Wallaby - an annual large-scale Singapore Armed Forces exercise - was the wealth of weapons that the Army division commander had at his disposal. In addition to armour and artillery assets, he could call on attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and other weapons.

This is the holy grail of the SAF's transformation into a 3rd Generation (3G) force: Dominating the three-dimensional battle space - on land, in the air and at sea - simultaneously.

Modern battles call for tight linkages between infantry, armour, fighter aircraft, helicopters, ships and submarines. The skilful coordination of such a slew of firing platforms is a force multiplier. They can give an army divisional commander, for instance, far more combat punch than he would have had before.

The key to this combination of army, air force and navy expertise and firepower is 'integration' - getting the three services to operate and fight as a united force. Such integration is part of the transformation of militaries worldwide - called the Revolution in Military Affairs. The SAF has had a greater incentive to achieve this transformation than most: Its size.

'The US Navy has its own Marines, own special forces, own air force and its own ships. It's a complete service on its own,' notes the SAF's Head of Joint Plans and Transformation Department, Brigadier-General (BG) Joseph Leong. 'For us, the Navy is the Navy, the Air Force is the Air Force, and that's it. So the Navy has to rely on the Air Force and the Army for its capabilities.'

Military forces, of course, have been trying to get their separate services to work together for a long time. Joint operations have been taking place since World War II.

More often than not, however, the army, air force and navy tend to work separately, using their own manpower, equipment and tactics to carry out separate tasks within a larger mission.

In 1944, during the D-Day landings of Allied forces on French beaches, for instance, ships and bombers took turns to pummel the beaches before the infantrymen landed. The attacks were carried out sequentially, with each service reporting to its own command.

The SAF's idea of integration, though, goes well beyond joint operations. Integration might sound like a buzzword, but SAF officers insist that it has become a reality in the SAF. The Army, Navy and Air Force share information in real time, communicate constantly and work together as a single unit.

An Army commander attacking up the shoreline, for instance, can now tap on the long-range radars of Navy ships off the coast and extract video feeds from the Air Force's surveillance planes circling above, fuse this data with reports from ground reconnaissance troops, and launch artillery and/or attack helicopters before sending his tanks and troops in.

One of the key elements underpinning integration is what the SAF calls a 'common operating picture'. As explained earlier in this series on the 3G SAF, the Google-lisation of critical information - where one is, where one's buddies are, and where the enemy is - allows commanders to make decisions in extra-quick time.

When an infantryman spots an enemy formation and tags it with a laser rangefinder, for instance, he can send the data back to the headquarters immediately. Within seconds, a new icon denoting the enemy's location will appear on the pilot's display in an F-16 fighter jet circling overhead, and within minutes, the F-16 can swoop down in a bombing run. Talk about calling down fire from on high.

No longer need valuable time be wasted with soldiers reporting back to HQ verbally and enemy locations being plotted manually.

'I can pinpoint the target in the aircraft, and within seconds data-link to the ground units, and straightaway, the target information and location will be appearing on screens,' says Major Cheong Kok Seen, an Apache attack helicopter pilot. 'So we are eliminating all the time needed for somebody to copy it down and transfer it to a map.'

Consider what SAF units guarding Jurong Island do: They are plugged into a network of partners, including the Land Transport Authority and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. By tapping on video feeds of nearby highways and sea lanes, they can keep a closer eye on approaching vehicles and vessels.

In the Combat Information Centre (CIC) of the Navy's stealth frigates, all the operators, from the sonar operator to the ship's commanding officer, see the same operating picture. A gunner tasked to hit a target, for instance, now knows exactly which of the 100 targets his commander wants him to take out.

'Previously, an operator would just see what his sensor tells him. If you are operating an optical sight for a gun, you're basically staring out of a toilet roll,' says commanding officer of the Navy's stealth frigate squadron, Colonel Giam Hock Koon. 'But now, any operator sees the fused and processed picture amalgamated from all the sensors on the ship presented in a simple, common tactical picture.'

There are, of course, limits to sharing such data, and how much they can achieve. Forming a common operating picture, sharing it among numerous platforms wirelessly and updating it in real time all involve the transfer of massive amounts of data. Technological developments allow this - but there's always a limit.

Engineers in the Defence Ministry have had to find ways of updating the locations of enemy forces on electronic maps without overloading the system. Such problems are likely to increase as commanders seek more and more information. Also, sensors are rarely able to locate every single enemy unit in the fog of battle, so common operating pictures will never be 100 per cent accurate.

During the second Gulf War, United States forces were able to locate up to 70 per cent of Saddam Hussein's tanks and weapons. This meant vanguard troops still needed to get out there to find the other 30 per cent. Worse, the elite Marine First Recon had to depend not on America's immense network of satellites for battlefield intelligence - but the BBC.

There is another obstacle to integration that is even more difficult to surmount: Humans.

Differences in the organisational culture of the three legs of many militaries - air force, navy and army - can contribute to and exacerbate mutual distrust. This can be compounded by so-called blue-on-blue incidents, when soldiers are hit by friendly forces.

'Historically, inter-service history hasn't seen many sterling examples of cooperation,' notes Col Giam. During the battle for Guadalcanal in World War II, the Navy left the Marines on the beach, he noted. There were blue-on-blue incidents in Desert Storm.

At the ground level, the difference could boil down to different terms being used by infantrymen, sailors and pilots. Take the word 'Leopard', for instance.

'To a non-military person, the leopard is an animal. To a tankee, it could be a tank. To the pilot, it could be my call sign,' says the SAF's Director of Joint Operations, BG Ng Chee Meng.

Soldiers on the ground focus on different aspects of combat from airmen in the air, and sailors at sea also focus on different aspects of combat. In describing enemy targets, for instance, an infantryman might describe what is important to him - how many enemy soldiers there are inside a building, say. But a pilot may be more concerned about how many anti-air missiles defences are around the building.

Chief Armour Officer, BG Philip Lim, recalls the challenges of 'sensing' an enemy target when Army and Air Force units were doing it simultaneously during Exercise Lightning Warrior.

'The unmanned aerial vehicle sees the target one way, the Apache comes out from a mountain and sees it in another, the Special Operations Forces on the ground see it in yet another way,' he says. 'Their descriptions were very different...they were seeing from different perspectives.'

The various services also differ on conventions when describing locations. The Army uses map grid reference numbers, while the Navy and Air Force use latitude and longitude.

What has helped the SAF in its efforts to overcome such problems is its relative youth and small size. Smaller forces with less historical baggage among the different services are easier to reconfigure. Their operating procedures and tactics can be more readily aligned.

Solutions have been found in some areas: Incompatible radios, for instance, have been reworked or new ones bought; and guidelines have been enforced to ensure that all new equipment bought are compatible across the three services.

SAF commanders have also sat down to work out dictionaries of common codes and terms, while courses at military schools and colleges have been refined to groom a new generation of integration-ready soldiers.

'We have many common touch points in our careers as SAF officers,' says Lieutenant-Colonel Thiruthakka Devan, commanding officer of the Air-Land Tactical Control Centre, which coordinates Air Force elements for land commanders. 'Our understanding and the commonality of terms that we use are actually widening; the differences are narrower.'

Such efforts have certainly helped the SAF overcome the problems of integration that many armed forces struggle with. But while recent exercises like Lightning Warrior and Wallaby have demonstrated that integrated SAF operations can indeed work, there still remain some questions that may not be answered until the systems are tested under fire:

How would soldiers fare if communications systems were to go down? Would soldiers suffer from information overload? Would commanders be tempted to rely on technology too much and forget that enemy forces can also deceive high-tech sensors?

Such questions have been asked by analysts of the US military in efforts to transform itself.

In a report to the US Congress on network-centric warfare, the Congressional Research Services' Mr Clay Wilson notes that many people may not make full use of the new systems, as they have yet to come to grips with the necessary changes in behaviour the systems require.

He also asks if strategies for implementing such warfare are 'joint' enough: 'Do the current service network architecture allow systems to work together...or do they enforce parochialism along service boundaries that is inconsistent with the joint cyber environment?'

Certainly, the traditional distrust between the different services is hard to put aside overnight. Despite advanced technology that was deployed in the second Gulf War, there were still cases of planes shooting at friendly tanks.

For the moment, the SAF will rely on what it has been able to do, what it has tested, and continue to exploit whatever new technological solutions come on line. And, as one senior commander quips - only half jokingly: 'When all else fails, there's always Hokkien.'

This is the third part of the 3G SAF series.

RELIGIOUS HARMONY: 20 years of keeping the peace

July 24, 2009

In 1989, the Government published a White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony, ahead of a new law prompted by concerns that overzealous religious leaders could blind followers to the realities of Singapore's multi-religious society. Insight looks at the underlying concerns behind this move and whether it still matters today.
By Zakir Hussain

A PRIME minister promised his country's majority Buddhists that he would make Buddhism the state religion and Sinhalese the official language if he won the election.

He did, with the support of Buddhist monks. But two years later, religious leaders were not satisfied.

One monk shot him dead.

This was what happened in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the 1950s.

As Buddhism and Sinhalese nationalism became political forces, the Hindus who spoke Tamil felt excluded. They gradually fought back. Civil war erupted - and continued to plague the country for decades after.

In the 1940s, Ceylon had been a paragon of peace and harmony after gaining independence from Britain. Religion became divisive when it joined forces with politics and blinded monks and politicians alike into making decisions that led eventually to civil strife.

Although far away, the tensions in Sri Lanka had repercussions in Singapore.

Likewise, so did developments in other countries.

When the Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran in 1979, a handful of Singapore Muslims wanted to implement a similar Islamic state here.

When then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh extremists in 1984, the Hindu-Sikh riots that erupted in India led to Hindu-Sikh tensions here.

Further afield, the influence of American charismatic Pentecostal evangelicals has been and continues to be felt in Singapore. Protestant Christian groups which were overzealous in their proselytisation efforts upset other religious groups, which then made efforts to fight back in order to retain their followers.

On the Catholic front, inspired by developments in Latin America and elsewhere, a handful of Catholic priests took to making political statements and criticising government policy from the pulpit and in church publications.

Watching these developments in the 1980s, the Government concluded that religious revivalism was a worldwide trend with real repercussions on religious harmony here.

It also concluded that the entry of religion into politics had to be stopped - nipped in the bud, in fact. It could not be allowed for a country like Singapore, which has to maintain a precarious balance among many religious groups.

In his 1987 National Day Rally, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew dwelt at length on these issues.

Not mincing his words, Mr Lee said: 'Churchmen, lay preachers, priests, monks, Muslim theologians, all those who claim divine sanction or holy insights, take off your clerical robes before you take on anything economic or political.

'Take it off. Come out as a citizen or join our political party and it is your right to belabour the Government.

'But if you use a church or a religion and your pulpit for these purposes, there will be serious repercussions.'

The rally speech was the start of several years of vigorous public debate, leading to a carefully-crafted White Paper on Religious Harmony in 1989 and the passage of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) in 1990.

Studying the trends

FOLLOWING the 1987 rally, the Ministry of Community Development, as it was then known, commissioned a study of religious trends here.

The study confirmed that religious fervour was indeed on the rise.

In their report, Religion and Religious Revivalism in Singapore, National University of Singapore (NUS) academics Eddie Kuo, Jon Quah and Tong Chee Kiong found that 'followers from some religions have also become more fervent in their religious interest and activities'.

This was true not only of Christians, but also of Buddhists and Muslims.

The Government feared this trend might lead to a clash between religions.

In a December 1988 speech at a Buddhist event, Mr Lee noted that 'at a time when Islam is resurgent and thrusting, Christians, especially charismatics, were in a dynamic, evangelising phase that has sometimes led to friction'.

The Buddhists and traditional Chinese religionists had also become active, and were revising and updating their rituals and explanations 'so that young Chinese Singaporeans will accept them as rational and reasonable'.

'No religious leadership can be tolerant and passive when its following is being eroded by other religions,' he said.

In a speech at the opening of Parliament in January 1989, then President Wee Kim Wee stressed the need for religious tolerance and moderation, and for religion to 'be kept rigorously separate from politics'.

A draft White Paper spelling out the Government's stand on the importance of religious harmony and how religious groups should conduct themselves within the context of Singapore society was also drawn up. This was modified after widespread consultations with religious groups, and eventually published in December 1989.

The Government's fear, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Parliament in 1990, was that a collision between religions or between religion and the state would affect harmony here.

This was why it moved to enact the MRHA.

In passing the final version of the law, then Home Affairs Minister S. Jayakumar stressed that it was preventive.

It aimed to nip in the bud problems that were often caused by just a few irresponsible individuals.

'These few people must not be allowed to endanger the precious racial and religious harmony that we have,' he said.

The MRHA came into effect in 1992.

It empowers the Home Affairs Minister to issue restraining orders against preachers who engage in harmful conduct - whether causing ill-will among religious groups, promoting a political cause, or exciting disaffection against the Government.

Those who breach such an order can be fined and jailed.

'If there's no harmony, there will be no peaceful, prosperous Singapore - as simple as that,' said Mr Goh.

A special law

MR GOH explained to Parliament in 1990: 'We wanted a law that could deal with the problem in a very fine way instead of having to resort to the Internal Security Act or the Sedition Act, or to use court prosecution.'

MPs and observers felt other existing laws could be used to discipline those who crossed the line in propagating their religion.

But Mr Goh said the proposed MRHA was intended to be 'a finer way of dealing with the problem'.

'It is like trying to use a scalpel to make a precise incision to deal with problem cells, instead of having to use a chopper to amputate,' he said.

Other than Turkey, which has provisions in its Constitution to ensure religious harmony, no other country had a law along the lines the Government envisaged.

No restraining orders have been issued under the MRHA since it came into effect.

However, the Government came close to invoking it on a number of occasions to stop religious leaders from mixing politics with religion and putting down other faiths, Mr Wong Kan Seng, the Home Affairs Minister at the time, said in 2001.

The religious leaders stopped their activities after they were summoned and warned by the police and Internal Security Department officers, he said.

Had they persisted, the law would have been used against them.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law academic Eugene Tan says the MRHA 'reminds us how religion can be a source of friction, conflict and violence, and how important it is to 'render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God' - to keep religion and politics separate as far as possible'.

He finds it 'a vital cog in the panoply of measures that the authorities can use to deal with faith-inspired threats to social cohesion and harmony'.

One clear advantage, observers feel, is that the MRHA is a pre-emptive law that does not require a clear and present danger to exist before a restraining order is issued. A warning 'operates like a circuit breaker' and enables the authorities to 'remind and caution any person who may unwittingly be stirring religious anxieties,' he says.

For some cases, it can be a wiser alternative than prosecuting individuals in court. If errant preachers are dealt with in an open court, the hearings can themselves become a source of tension, notes Mr Tan.

Continued relevance

INSTITUTE of Policy Studies research fellow Azhar Ghani tells Insight that if the MRHA was relevant 20 years ago, 'it is even more relevant now'.

'In 1989, the world was a different place. The concerns that MRHA sought to address have since grown with a strong resurgence in numerous religious movements worldwide, complicated by globalisation and readily accessible information and views on the Internet,' he says.

'The fact that it has not been invoked means that the Act's desired effect in bringing about self-imposed restraints within the different religious groups have worked,' he adds.

But this is an evolving situation, observers note.

Professor Eddie Kuo, now a professorial fellow at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, notes that religious groups are now more globally connected than before.

'What happens outside Singapore has a greater impact here, for better or worse,' he notes.

This is why issues that prompted the MRHA - aggressive and insensitive proselytisation and inter-religious tensions - 'continue to be relevant and important'.

Another reason why the MRHA continues to have a place, he feels, is that Singapore remains an immigrant society.

'There continues to be a large number of new members into our society from various sources, and religion is one of the factors that if we are not careful, could potentially lead to tensions,' he says.

This is why laws like the MRHA 'help make sure the population pays attention to religious harmony'.

Setting the parameters

NUS sociologist Alexius Pereira says the MRHA's single largest impact has been to draw 'out of bounds markers' on the issue of public religion.

'It serves to specify what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. This way, it serves to assure the 'potentially vulnerable' groups that they will be protected,' he tells Insight.

He notes that some religious groups might attempt to 'expand their market share' because they believe their religion is the correct one, and therefore, as good followers, they must inform others who do not know about it.

He feels that aggressive proselytisation, especially when other religions are criticised, is the most severe threat to religious harmony here.

Dr Lai Ah Eng, senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, notes that from anecdotal evidence, some preachers make derogatory and even blasphemous comments about other religions from their pulpits.

An official warning is 'rightly the best first step' for these preachers, she notes.

She says it is best that leaders and followers of any religion 'mature over time, and develop an awareness that Singapore is a multi-religious and diverse society that requires sensitive and ethical approaches to proselytisation, interfaith relations and the practising of religious beliefs'.

But tensions are ever present.

Anecdotal examples show how aggressive actions can result in outcomes that religious leaders themselves find hard to contain.

Just this month, the Buddhist Fellowship posted a note on its website and sent out an e-mail noting that, over the years, it had been told about incidents where family members who convert to another religion were encouraged by their new faith leaders to damage or destroy Buddhist and Taoist artefacts at home.

'Such acts have caused disharmony in families and much distress to other family members and the community,' it said.

Citing the MRHA, the e-mail asked people to write in with the names of those leaders and other details about instances of unwarranted proselytisation, so that the Fellowship can inform the relevant authorities 'in the interest of social and religious harmony'.

Ms Angie Monksfield, president of the Buddhist Fellowship, told Insight that the notice was put up 'in response to members' complaints'.

'We've received complaints for years; we finally decided to do something about it,' she said.

In another incident impinging on religious harmony, a Christian couple was sentenced to eight weeks' jail last month for distributing anti-Muslim and anti- Catholic publications over several years. (See the timeline below.)

In this case, the government decided to use the Sedition Act rather than the MRHA, probably to underline the severity with which it viewed the offence, said Mr Tan.

In passing sentence, District Judge Roy Neighbour said the couple could not claim to be ignorant of the sensitivity of race and religion in Singapore's multi-racial, multi-religious society.

'Common sense dictates that religious fervour to spread the faith, in our society, must be constrained by sensitivity, tolerance and mutual respect for another's faith and religious beliefs,' he said.

Pushing the line

ANOTHER key reason for the continued relevance of the MRHA is the assertiveness of religious individuals and groups attempting to impose their religious views on society.

Observers cite the recent episode where a group of conservative Christians mounted a leadership takeover at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) because it felt Aware had been promoting a pro-gay agenda.

Pushing back, the more liberal segments of civil society mobilised themselves and, at an extraordinary general meeting called a few weeks later, succeeded in reversing the takeover.

Mr Tan says the saga 'brought home the urgency of Singaporeans needing to accept that unanimity on normative positions cannot be expected or demanded in a plural society like ours'.

'To insist that one's stand is morally superior is to invite conflict,' he says.

The Government, which had kept silent throughout much of the saga, made its stand known two weeks later in response to queries from this newspaper.

It acknowledged the important contributions made by those who hold deep religious beliefs but, at the same time, stressed the importance of keeping the political arena secular.

Speaking for the Government, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said: 'We are a secular Singapore, in which Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others all have to live in peace with one another... Keeping religion and politics separate is a key rule of political engagement.'

But while the principle is clear, knowing where the line lies in practice can be difficult.

SMU's Mr Tan notes that religion and politics are not hermetically sealed spheres of human endeavour and experience. However, in a heterogeneous society like Singapore's, 'that distinction must be drawn as sensitively and in as nuanced a manner as possible if we are not to have religious tensions'.

When is the line crossed? Mr Tan says it is when a religious leader seeks to mobilise his or her followers to action in the secular realm.

'Here, the pulpit is used as a staging post in which believers are urged to act in the name of God,' he explains.

This could happen, he says, when a congregation is told which candidate to vote for in an election, or when a leader condemns a politician as immoral or praises him for being moral.

Such calls cannot be ruled out, as incidents over the years suggest.

During the Aware saga itself, the pulpit was used by senior pastor Derek Hong of the Anglican Church of Our Saviour to mobilise support for one camp in the leadership tussle.

In a sermon, he urged the women in his flock to 'be engaged' and support the new team at Aware, saying: 'It's not a crusade against the people, but there's a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line.'

The National Council of Churches of Singapore swiftly issued a statement to say it did not condone churches getting involved in the matter, or pulpits being used for that purpose.

Pastor Hong subsequently expressed regret.

What certainty is there other similar incidents will not recur?

In an open society that is highly susceptible to wider global trends, the MRHA remains a strong earthly reminder that whatever the religious say and do must be grounded in the multi-religious realities of Singapore society.

[Hopefully, the latest response from the AWARE members and the Govt has reminded the evangelical that they have no business imposing their values and beliefs on others. But by the very definition of "evangelism" they are required, nay commanded to spread the word regardless of the feelings of those with other faiths.

I fear their faith drives them to spread their word and there is no tolerable way for them to do so. They cannot convince those too set in their ways, so they have to target the young and the impressionable. They set sons against their fathers, and daughters against their mothers. They may not be driven by homicidal fatwas and jihad, but in their own way they spread destruction.

Religious harmony seems to mean they freedom to practice one's faith, but not at the expense of attacking other faiths and converting their followers.]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

America the Bankrupt

Not the news but a blog. So read with a critical eye.

A worst case scenario for America.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tiger trumped

July 17, 2009

Woods fires 71 on first day, as playing partners Westwood and Ishikawa shoot 68. Veteran Watson leads with 65

TURNBERRY: Imagine Tiger Woods' frustration yesterday during the British Open's first round.

He made just three birdies and far more mistakes for a one-over par 71 in surprisingly calm conditions, matching the score of 16-year-old Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, the youngest player at Turnberry.

He suffered the embarrassment of being outdone by playing partners Lee Westwood and Japan's 17-year-old Open rookie Ryo Ishikawa, who both trumped the world No. 1 by three strokes.

And he was also totally upstaged by the oldest man in the field.

Tom Watson, 60 in September and grinning from ear to ear, shot a dazzling 65 to grab the clubhouse lead alongside 2003 winner Ben Curtis.

'Not bad for an almost 60-year-old. The body's a little bit old, but the enthusiasm out there was very similar,' said Watson, the five-time Open champion giving the gallery the chance to relive the magic from his epic win here in 1977 - the Duel in the Sun with Jack Nickalus.

He has, however, made waves at a Major championship in his advancing years, shooting a 65 in the first round of the 2003 United States Open. He became the inspirational story of that tournament, however, mostly because his caddie, Bruce Edwards, was carrying his bag while battling ALS, often referred to as 'Lou Gehrig's Disease'.

Edwards died a year later.

This time, he showed his mastery of links golf, a style that has always suited him with his ability to play balls low and bounce them onto the green and close to the hole.

On his rare errant shots yesterday, Watson slashed his way out of the flowing grass in the rough with confidence. He started strong, with birdies on the first and third holes and played a bogey-free round.

Turnberry counts on the weather to provide much of its difficulty, with wind reliably howling off the ocean. But this Open started amid lovely, almost placid weather, leaving the first round vulnerable to low scores as the wind stayed still.

'The wind will pick up tomorrow. She'll have some teeth. I'm looking forward to that,' said Watson, who drew a rousing standing ovation when he walked up the 18th fairway.

'It's an incredible feat,' said Steve Stricker, one of several golfers to shoot a 66. 'To still be playing this kind of golf when you're that old, is great.'

When his round ended, Woods, 33, headed back to the range to work on his swing, which looked downright ugly with his right hand flying off the club and many of his shots going right.

His first signs of frustrating emerged at No. 3, when he took an angry swipe and mumbled something under his breath. By the time the day was done, he had four bogeys, the last of which came at No. 16 after finding water.

It was the first time since 2003 that he failed to break par in the opening round of the Open. But that did not stop him from praising Ishikawa.

'His golf was pretty impressive, wasn't it?', said Woods.

The shy youngster let his clubs do the talking in a round full of poise and class, starting brightly with a birdie at the second, following a stunning approach shot.

'I just hope that I can make the cut,' the Bashful Prince, as he is known in Japan, said.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Beware enclaves of the like-minded

July 17, 2009

Closed communities have no place in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore
By Lydia Lim

I PATRONISE a heartland beauty salon in Hougang where the soothing music streaming through the speakers is invariably Christian.

The salon's owners are a pair of Singaporean sisters. They are Christian and conduct Bible study sessions at their shop once a week. Their three staff, one local and two mainland Chinese, often talk about going to church.

I do not recall religion being discussed at places like beauty parlours when I was young. Is that evidence of growing religiosity here? It is difficult to say.

Shortly after the recent leadership tussle at women's group Aware, one of my colleagues, who is not religious, said she was worried about religion's growing influence in workplace interactions.

Did I not agree, she asked, that a boss who is Christian would be more likely to promote a fellow Christian rather than a non-believer?

Such sentiments may underlie the Government's recent expressions of concern over what it perceives as growing religiosity in some quarters, and its potentially adverse impact on social harmony.

The most recent expression of concern came from Minister without Portfolio Lim Boon Heng. At a People's Association event last Sunday, he observed that the current economic downturn has led many to turn to religion for solace and guidance.

'It's not a bad thing,' he said. 'I think all religions teach us fundamental values and across the religions, the values are largely similar...But there is a danger, as we see in different countries, that the practice of religion can make a community become closed.'

'We are a multi-racial and multi-religious society,' he emphasised 'and our harmony depends upon people of different races and creeds interacting with one another and sharing common interests.'

There is no survey that has tracked the changing levels of religiosity over time in Singapore. What we know from the population census of 2000 is that 85 per cent of Singaporeans profess a religion, a figure that has remained largely unchanged for decades. But that tells us little about the extent to which religion guides people's lives.

In 2005, The Straits Times tried to gauge the level of religiosity in a poll of 622 Singapore residents aged 15 and above.

The survey found that among those with a religion, half devoted time every day to prayer, meditation or the reading of religious books. Close to half of this group would not marry someone of a different religion and one in 10 would consider going into religious service full-time.

Those polled, however, differed on whether Singaporeans had become more devout over the years. Some 23 per cent said yes, 49 per cent detected no change and 27 per cent said people had actually become less religious.

What needs emphasising is what Mr Lim warned against: Not growing religiosity per se, but religious practices that leads to closed communities.

Some - especially those who are not religious or are only nominally so - may confuse the two and perceive religious devotion itself as a threat.

Every society has its share of people who are more religious than others. The overwhelming number of them are hardly social threats. On the contrary, their religious convictions may inspire them to do good works that benefit society.

But I agree with Mr Lim that community, as lived out today, is a double-edged sword: it both draws people in and keeps people out.

The communities that threaten social cohesion are the ones that are closed because they insist on 'purity' - whether of religious beliefs, ideology or race - as the measure of a person's worth.

Such groups want to draw in those who are the same ('pure') and keep out those who are different ('impure'). That is the path to segregation, not integration.

So it was indeed worrying when in a recent survey of the views of 183 Christian clergymen here, sociologist Mathew Mathews found that close to 50 per cent of them feared that inter-religious dialogue would compromise their religious convictions.

Some 41.5 per cent of them also said they would find it difficult to collaborate with a non-Christian religious leader in a charity drive because they feared it might lead to the perception that all religions are equal.

Dr Mathews, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore and a Pentecostal church pastor, commented that Christianity here tends to be conservative and evangelical, 'embracing an exclusivist stance' towards other religions.

Some scholars of modernity, such as sociologist Ziygmunt Bauman of Britian's University of Leeds, argued that the uncertainties of modern society tend to push people towards communities of the like-minded. There is 'the impulse to withdraw from risk-ridden complexity into the shelter of uniformity', Professor Bauman wrote in his 2000 book, Liquid Modernity.

It is this flight to uniformity that we must resist. In a sense, that struggle is not new. At the birth of our multi-racial, multi-religious nation in 1965, the Government made a radical decision to break up the old enclaves where people of the same race and dialect group congregated. Many people lived in the safe embrace of those who spoke the same language, ate the same food and worked the same jobs as they did.

And as Singaporeans were resettled in public housing estates, the Government enforced a racial quota to prevent such enclaves from re-forming.

Today, we have to make a conscious effort to resist enclaves of the like-minded. But this time, the barriers are not made of bricks and mortar but spring from our most deeply held beliefs and values.

The challenge we face may thus be greater than it was in the past.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

3G SAF (2) A silent sentinel takes up 24/7 duty

July 16, 2009

By William Choong

MANY Singaporeans who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s would remember the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as the country's silent sentinel. Think 'poisonous shrimp', an analogy used after Singapore's independence in 1965 describing how the Republic sought to kill its predators if eaten.

A direct outcome of this: The SAF, being a deterrent force, was rarely seen in public by Singaporeans. The SAF was a fighting force that would reveal its full strength only in times of war.

No longer. Singapore's fluid strategic environment now requires the silent sentinel to be on duty 24/7, sometimes in the public view, both in and outside Singapore.

Take Second-Lieutenant Danny Goh, an air force officer who heads 60 men operating the I-Hawk, a low- to medium-level air defence system. I-Hawk batteries are deployed in undisclosed locations around the island. As part of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Air Defence and Operations Command (ADOC), they watch our skies 24/7.

Or Major Chew Chun Chau, the commanding officer of RSS Independence, a Republic of Singapore Navy patrol vessel that is part of the Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF), an inter-agency body that keeps watch over Singapore's congested territorial waters. His tasks involve escorting high-value ships to Jurong island, deterring pirates through its sheer presence, and protecting military ships. Again, the MSTF is on watch 24/7.

Second Sergeant Mohd Rilwan, a section commander at the 6th Singapore Infantry Regiment (6 SIR), has been trained to protect vital petrochemical facilities on Jurong Island. Together with other agencies such as the Police Coast Guard (PCG) and the Maritime Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), 6 SIR is part of the Island Defence Headquarters (IDHQ) - also on alert 24/7.

The ADOC, MSTF and IDHQ - as well as the recently announced Special Operations Task Force - might sound like new additions to acronym-mad Singapore. But they are in essence peacetime 'task forces', part of the 'high readiness core' of the 3G SAF. While task forces such as the IDHQ and MSTF see 'action' at the low end of the threat spectrum, the 'full force potential' of the SAF will be unveiled at the high end of the spectrum.

The high-readiness core has already seen action outside of Singapore. Over the past decade, servicemen have been sent for reconstruction and peacekeeping operations in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor Leste. The high-readiness core has also participated in a series of humanitarian relief and disaster relief operations: In Thailand and Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami that wreaked widespread destruction; and more recently, in China following the Sichuan earthquake and Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis.

Such deployments are classified as Operations Other Than War (OOTW). Taken together, they show that the strong, silent sentinel of the past has now become fully switched on across a variety of high-profile 'missions' - or what SAF officers like to call 'full spectrum operations'.

As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean observed at a security conference last year: 'The security challenges we face (today) are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. They come from '360 degrees'. Many of the new security challenges are also transnational in nature and require multilateral cooperation. Issues such as energy security and food and water security affect us all.'

This in itself represents a sea change in thinking. Traditionally, militaries were trained for conventional conflicts. But since the turn of the century, so-called non-traditional security threats - such as energy security, terrorism, piracy and climate change - have forced militaries to reflect on and reconsider their roles.

For example, after the 2004 tsunami, the United States aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, which was steaming towards Iraq to carry out combat missions, was diverted to become the American headquarters for relief operations in Indonesia. In recent years, the Pentagon has sought to reconfigure its military forces for use across a 'spectrum' of missions, including some 'soft' ones such as disaster relief and medical support. The Bundeswehr, or German armed forces, also practises 'full-spectrum operations'.

Full-spectrum operations and OOTW engender a benefit for militaries like the SAF. Historically, militaries faced two outcomes: If deterrence held, there was no need for active defence - and as a result, capabilities were not tested or sharpened. And if deterrence failed, there would be a need for defence, and as a result, military skills were tested.

OOTW straddles both possibilities and falls between two stools, as it were: On the one hand, since the military is deployed on a variety of missions, its fighting edge and operational readiness are maintained. But on the other hand, the gunpowder is kept dry for there is no all-out war.

In toto, OOTW and full-spectrum operations sound laudable. Sceptics, however, argue that the 3G SAF is basically an offshoot of the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA), which focuses on high technology applied to the business of war. As such, high-tech military hardware cannot be brought to bear in low-tech environments such as disaster relief or national reconstruction. Can a Leopard main battle tank, for example, be used for humanitarian assistance?

SAF officers counter that the 3G SAF - and RMA in general - are not merely about the application of high-technology platforms per se, but involve also a fundamental reconceptualisation of ideas in the military sphere.

Specifically, the SAF's RMA is represented by the 'brains' of its transformation: Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2). As was described in the first part of this series last week, IKC2 - or, as the joke in the SAF goes, 'I can see too' - comprises four components: power to the edge, fighting as a system of systems, superior force structuring and enhanced decision-making. All four components are evident in the various task forces. Moreover, since every mission the task forces are deployed on is unique, the four core components can be constantly honed and the forces can acquire greater flexibility.

For example, within the MSTF, there is enhanced decision-making because all the agencies involved - naval units, the MPA, PCG, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Singapore Customs - get the same 'operating picture' of Singapore's waters.

In addition, the MSTF can operate as a 'system of systems'. When confronted with a potential maritime threat, it can 'mix and match', drawing upon the resources of the rest of the SAF - say, helicopters and chemical, biological, radiological and explosive (CBRE) units - as well as those of other civilian agencies under the MSTF umbrella.

These IKC2 concepts have also been applied to IDHQ, which is responsible for protecting vital installations such as Jurong island and Changi Airport. When confronted with a potential threat - say a suspect bumboat heading into a gazetted area near his observation tower on Jurong island - 2nd Sgt Rilwan can call on either a PCG vessel patrolling near him or a wider network of resources in IDHQ. Such empowerment of frontline units is termed 'power to the edge'.

Another IKC2 principle is superior force structuring - the ability to cobble together task forces to suit particular missions. ADOC, for example, was formed in 2007 after a shake-up within the RSAF. The reorganisation of the RSAF into five commands - including ADOC - was its most radical since its formation in 1968.

Previously, the RSAF had fighter jets on different airbases reporting to different base commanders. This meant that fighter pilots trained well only among themselves. With the shake-up, the RSAF can now participate in a slew of joint operations with the army and navy, and even with civilian agencies like the police, in say, counter-terrorism.

'The reorganisation is very bold. The RSAF has moved from base commands to functional, mission-based commands. Not many air forces have got the guts to do it,' said Brigadier-General Lee Shiang Long, head of the SAF's Joint Communications and Information Systems Department. The ability to configure task forces together - and quickly - is a marked change from the 2G SAF, where the three services (army, navy and air force) largely operated on their own to hone their competencies. Now, the three services can operate jointly - the military catchword being 'interoperability'.

Following the 2004 tsunami, for example, Operation Flying Eagle assembled humanitarian assistance and disaster relief units and got them ready for deployment within 48 to 72 hours. In April, the SAF task force sent to the Gulf of Aden comprised elements from the three services: a Landing Ship Tank, two Super Puma helicopters and 240 personnel.

This 'configurable', Lego-like ability ensures that the SAF can put together the necessary elements for a variety of missions, said BG Ng Chee Meng, the SAF's director of joint operations. 'We seek to exploit the spectrum of capabilities available to the SAF, and put these forces together to achieve the outcome. It's not throwing army units, navy units, air force units to sort out the issue,' he said.

Agreeing, BG Philip Lim, chief armour officer, said this ability to 'plug and play' will be a critical component of all future operations, be they conventional or unconventional like in humanitarian relief and disaster relief.

Countering sceptics who say high- tech RMA cannot address unconventional problems, BG Lim said it was precisely the thinking behind the SAF's IKC2 philosophy - in particular its 'system of systems' concept - that enabled Operation Flying Eagle to be put in action so expeditiously.

'I would say that increasingly for OOTW, the ability to plug and play is becoming more important because the spectrum of operations is very diverse.

'You'd never know when you would need engineer units to work together with special forces, plus a medical team ... If units were not networked, they cannot talk to one another, and you would find that you cannot rapidly put teams together and deploy,' said BG Lim.

SAF officers acknowledge that this ability to configure task forces quickly has gone through a learning curve. For one thing, given that task forces like the IDHQ and MSTF employ SAF assets together with other civilian agencies, there is the possibility of organisational cultures clashing. While the military uses map coordinates for its operations, for example, the police uses road maps.

All these issues, however, accentuate the need for a 3G SAF that is highly adaptable for a variety of missions. 'The SAF really is designed and built for the defence of Singapore and so it has...very conventional, traditional capabilities,' said BG (NS) Ravinder Singh, Deputy Secretary (Technology) at Mindef.

But newer missions such as counter- terrorism, anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance show that the SAF has 'recognised that there is a new trajectory', he added.

This is the second part of the 3G SAF series. The third part will be published next Thursday.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jitters over religion hard sell

Increasing reports of insensitive evangelism have irked many Singaporeans and raised fears about a possible backlash.
Star, Malaysia
June 20, 2009


STEREOTYPED as a society that only worships money, Singapore is surprisingly seeing a surge of religiosity – or simply put, too much religion.

This exuberance is, however, confined to a small segment of fundamentalist Christians, and appears out of line with most materialistic Singaporeans.

The Christian community makes up 17% of the people, while Buddhists and Taoists form a majority 51%, and Muslims, 16%.

But in recent years there has been a surge of born-again Christianity. These include bible-quoting evangelists who gather in city squares and MRT stations, persistently striving to convert the public, including followers of other faiths.

Others work in schools, polytechnics and hospitals, even among patients.

A major concern, however, is their targeting of schools, a melting pot of different cultures, races and religions, trying to convert impressionable teenagers.

Young men in their 30s, usually working in pairs, would approach students outside the school compound to talk about God.

The kids would be asked for their cell-phone numbers, and those who comply may find themselves harassed by persistent SMS invitations to attend services.

Another worry is the belittling of other religions, which could spark off friction.

A university lecturer who accompanied her mother, a dementia victim, received more than a blood test at a hospital, when the evangelising nurse asked about her mother’s religion.

When she replied “Buddhist” she was told to go to church because “it’ll be good for you”.

In a recent high profile trial, a Christian couple were jailed eight weeks under the Sedition Act for distributing and possessing anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic tracts.

The two – SingTel technical officer Ong Kian Cheong, 50, and a Swiss bank associate director, Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 46 – have appealed against conviction.

The intent was to convince Muslims to convert to Christianity by using inflammatory and misleading information, the court heard.

Bizarrely, they hit Catholics even harder, describing the Pope as Satan.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has named religious divide as potentially one of the biggest threats to social order.

“Don’t mix religion with politics”, warned Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng. He said that the Government would intervene if any activism threatens Singapore’s social fabric.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has advised people to manage their differences, saying: “If you push your argument too hard, there’ll be others who push back.”

These comments came as emotions ran high over the failed takeover of AWARE, a social body, by members of a small fundamentalist church apparently in pursuit of their religious beliefs.

The vast majority of Christians work within the framework of this multi-religious society, conscious and tolerant of other ancient religions.

They attend church once a week and return home to their families without trying to convert followers of other faiths.

The increasing reports of insensitive evangelism have irked many Singaporeans and have worried the majority of non-activist Christians about a possible backlash.

Evangelism notwithstanding, Singapore remains a stable, tolerant society where any hint of extremism is deeply resented.

Some 85% of Singaporeans profess having a religion, probably including many nominal believers, while atheists make up the other 15%.

There is, however, an anomaly among the younger set.

Singapore is a tightly competitive society and a rat race for its citizens, from a very young age. The result is the emergence of youths who know very little about religion.

From comments in a survey, prominent educator Phyllis Chew said she was surprised to hear such comments about Islam – “their marriages take place in the void deck” – and Buddhism – “it’s about filial piety”.

It was conducted among 2800 students, aged 12-18. Chew said it showed that while 76% were tolerant of other religions, their idea of tolerance was “not talking about it”.

“A lack of knowledge of different faiths is a potentially unstable situation,” she said, calling for a revival of religious teaching in schools.

The recession, one of the worst in Singapore’s history, appears to be making Singaporeans a little bit more religious, too.

“I pray harder in these times, although my job is not affected this time,” said a 25-year-old Singaporean as unemployment rose to the highest in three years.

“I’m praying for my fiance, that his job is safe,” she said. They were planning to wed and feared retrenchment.

Attendance in churches, temples and mosques has generally risen as Singaporeans turn more to religion for comfort.

“People might experience depression and socio-psychological problems worrying about work, Alexius Pereira, sociologist at the National University of Singapore,” told Reuters.

“It is through such worries that they turn to religion.”

How effective is modern evangelism? When it comes to numbers, it is the born again Christians who are proportionately the biggest gainers.

The reason is less their aggressive evangelism than the lure of educated youths by their glitz and modern church operations. The gain has, however, been slow and gradual.

Occasionally followers do switch, and it has nothing to do with educational levels. Neither are changes one-sided.

Chinese have switched to become Muslims, and Hindus to Buddhists. Only the Malays stay largely with their faith.

There is another reason why many adult Singaporeans – especially those who are ageing – turn to religion.

After accumulating sufficient money for retirement, Singaporeans – however materialistic – often begin to turn their thoughts to the after-life.

A bit is kiasuism may be at work, too.

I once asked a housewife who likes to play the jackpot machine, why she had not embraced a religion. Her reply: “I’m waiting till I am older and closer to death.”

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website

[There should be a law that prohibits active proselytising of young children without parental consent. Such aggressive proselytisation will put stress on our religious harmony.]

Thursday, July 9, 2009

3G SAF (1) - See first, think quicker, kill faster

July 9, 2009

By William Choong

BEFORE soldiers in the Singapore Armed Forces became the so-called third-generation (3G) force that they are today, their first- and second-generation predecessors, according to a popular story in the SAF, were like pygmies who lived and hunted in the tall grass of the African savannah.

'Every time we went out on exercises, we did not know where we were, where our buddies were or where the big game were. Hence we called these pygmies the (where the) f***-are-we tribe,' quipped a senior officer.

The SAF's leap into 3G technologies changed all that. For NSmen who served in the 1980s or 1990s, the SAF was still very much a 2G force.

Imagine Private Chow, a humble 2G infantryman, running into a platoon of enemy soldiers on a hill. He would alert his section commander, who in turn would radio the enemy's position up the chain of command. The radio message would be verbal, and the enemy's position would have to be fixed on a map by senior commanders. They would then assess the situation, mull over potential platforms to engage the enemy, and then pass down instructions to different units for follow-up action.

All these processes would take a long time. The successful execution of a strike would hinge on Private Chow submitting the correct information. God help his unit if he got the enemy's location wrong, or if someone mapped the enemy's position incorrectly. Fratricide - the accidental killing of one's comrades - was always a possibility because of such mistakes.

Enter the 5kg Advanced Combat Man System (ACMS), a battlefield computer packed with sensors and communication devices. Imagine Private Chow's 3G successor, Sergeant Koh, bearing the ACMS on his back into battle. Seeing an enemy platoon on the hill, all Sergeant Koh would do is 'mark' the target with his SAR-21 assault rifle and send an SMS-like message or digital image to his commanders.

Sergeant Koh's 1-800-DIAL-A-BOMB would throw up a rich picture of the battlefield for his commanders. And better still, the 3G force's 'sensemaking' algorithms would be able to dial up potential solutions to take out the enemy, be it via artillery, fighter aircraft or main battle tanks. In short, 3G technologies have reduced procedures once measured in hours and minutes into a matter of seconds.

Naturally, 3G-type warfare would seem alien to many NSmen accustomed to the 2G world. This is understandable. 3G concepts such as 'empowerment', 'decentralisation', 'augmented cognition', 'Erdos random networks' and 'OODA loops' seem to emanate either from the MBA or information technology worlds.

The 3G SAF is essentially the local offshoot of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which seeks to transform militaries across the world with the help of high technology. The 3G SAF can be summed up in three 'Gs': the Google-lisation of war; the ability to get a God's-eye view of the battlefield; and lastly, pure Grunt.

# GOOGLE-LISATION. The Napoleons and MacArthurs of history hoarded battlefield information, wielding it to win campaigns.

As a result of the ACMS, as well as similar systems in the SAF's new Leopard tanks and stealth frigates, a truly socialist revolution has been effected in the military sphere. No longer is critical battlefield information restricted to generals. Instead, relevant information - one's own location, where friendly forces are, where the enemy is - is shared among a number of people, from four-star generals to junior commanders.

The above three pieces of information sound straightforward, but they are critical in the waging of war. For millennia, soldiers have sought to dispel the fog of war. Like other advanced modern militaries, the SAF has latched on to an electronic fix to dispel the fog.

# GOD'S-EYE VIEW. Thanks to Google-lisation, Sergeant Koh and his commanders can now see the same 'common tactical picture' - a God's-eye view of the battlefield. More importantly, Sergeant Koh will no longer face an enemy soldier alone; rather, the enemy soldier will face a Sergeant Koh backed by a 'system' of other weapons - Leopard tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles, 120mm mortars, artillery and fighter aircraft.

Likewise, it will no longer be an enemy tank against an SAF tank. Instead, it will be an enemy tank versus the SAF tank plus all other supporting weapons platforms - what is called a 'system of systems'.

'In urban environments, just trying to figure out where you are is a big challenge, let alone where your buddies are and where the enemy is. They may be a few streets away. You can't even see where they are. So that capability that we get from the Leopard tank is not just the tank but a 'system of systems' war-fighting capability,' said Brigadier-General (NS) Ravinder Singh, the Defence Ministry's Deputy Secretary (Technology).

# PURE GRUNT. The 'system of systems' concept - where individual weapons platforms are meshed into a coherent whole, with each becoming both a 'node' of information as well as firing platform - was pioneered by the American admiral Bill Owens in the 1990s.

The concept might sound complex, but not if one is familiar with the Godfather. When one takes on Don Corleone, it is not just Don Corleone one takes on but the entire mob. Similarly, in the context of the 3G SAF, the enemy would take on not just this or that SAF unit, but an all-seeing, all-knowing totality.

This 'system of systems' concept enables the Google-lisation of information and provides every soldier a God's-eye view of the battlefield, both with one end in view: delivering pure grunt, or firepower, to hostile targets.

In battle, whoever sees his opponent first, thinks quicker and kills him faster will win. Formally, this process was called the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop.

Again, OODA loops sound complex, but a pertinent example here is the classic gun duel. Two men placed back to back with loaded weapons in hand will walk a preset number of paces, turn to face his opponent, ascertain the exact location of his foe, and shoot. Whoever completes the OODA loop first wins.

'If we can outcycle potential adversaries, if we can have 100 OODA loops within his one OODA, there will be no time for him to react. That's the main idea (of 3G)' said Brigadier-General Ng Chee Meng, the SAF's Director of Joint Operations.

Out-OODAing the enemy is the key goal behind the three 'Gs', the core components of the 'brains' behind the 3G SAF - Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2).

Terms like 3G and IKC2 might sound futuristic, but the SAF's transformation has been gradual. The momentum picked up around the turn of the century, informed by the RMA efforts of more advanced militaries, like America's. The SAF, as well as other militaries, was influenced by the awesome display of high-technology military hardware during the First Gulf War, when United States-led allied forces drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

But Singapore's 3G endeavour is also unique, the product of various factors specific to Singapore - among them, falling population growth rates, a tech-savvy population and the growing availability of technology. The Navy's stealth frigates are classic examples: They are manned by just 71 men - a huge achievement, given that most naval frigates elsewhere are usually manned by twice that number.

The RMA and its Singapore offshoot are not without their fair share of sceptics. At the tactical level, it has been argued that putting too much emphasis on computer networks would leave soldiers, sailors and airmen vulnerable if these networks failed in times of war.

At the operational level, it has been argued that the ability to out-OODA potential opponents might make commanders slaves to their own computers. US strategist Thomas Barnett, for example, has argued that becoming enslaved to dumb machines that 'count incredibly fast' could lead network-centric forces to shoot first and talk later.

At a strategic level, some critics have argued that a super-competent military will not by itself ensure the accomplishment of the political goals of war. The Vietnam War is a pertinent example. The Americans won almost all the battles in that war, but lost the war nevertheless due to their lack of political will.

SAF officers interviewed for this series, though confident of the 3G SAF's capabilities, evinced a sense of circumspection. Their counter-arguments would be explored at length throughout this series.

BG (NS) Singh, for one, said the SAF has gone to great lengths to protect its networks - for example, with backup systems such as high-frequency radios in the SAF's stealth frigates.

'In the end, we have to evolve - that's really what the 3G SAF is about. The adversary we're facing is going to evolve their tactics, their techniques, based on the capabilities that they see.'

THE six-part 3G SAF series, beginning today, seeks to do three things: describe the state of military transformation in the SAF; explore its many facets; and examine the benefits and challenges associated with the transformation.

We interviewed SAF servicemen across all ranks, from generals, colonels and lieutenants to specialists-in- training, all of whom have been schooled in the 3G mantra: 'see first, think quicker, kill faster'.

Of particular interest would be the sections on integration, which will describe the 3G SAF in air-sea and air-land warfare. The section on full-spectrum operations will examine how the SAF has evolved, not only to handle so-called conventional wars, but also a range of operations such as the protection of vital installations, disaster relief, and overseas deployments in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second part in this series will appear next Thursday.