Monday, 2 October 2017

Singapore soldiers on the front line in the fight against ISIS

Flying flag high amid the heat and danger
They miss local food, and once a week, they sing the National Anthem. Toh Yong Chuan stayed three days with members of Singapore's medical team supporting the coalition in the fight against ISIS.
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 1 Oct 2017

Singaporean Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad created a stir online last Sunday when he featured in the latest recruitment video for terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

When news of the video broke, I was in the United States Air Force (USAF) airbase in Kuwait waiting to board a C-130 transport plane that would take me to Iraq.

I was travelling to meet a little-known group of Singaporeans who, like Shahdan, had gone to Iraq. But unlike the militant who had gone to create violence, the men whom I was meeting were there to stop it. They are Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers who are members of the multinational coalition set up to defeat ISIS.

They have been deployed there since June as part of the medical team, working alongside the Australian Defence Force and New Zealand Defence Force to provide medical support to coalition efforts.

To get to the coalition base in Iraq, I had to take a commercial flight to Kuwait City through Dubai, before hopping onto the USAF plane.

My travelling companion was a Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) media relations officer.

"Getting you into Iraq is unprecedented," she said, referring to MINDEF making an exception to its media restriction policy and allowing The Sunday Times to visit troops on the ground there.

About a dozen US Army soldiers were also in the plane, as was cargo bound for Iraq. The Americans mostly kept to themselves.

The C-130 cargo plane was unlike passenger planes. Its soldier passengers sat in the cargo hold - about the size of a four-room HDB flat - along the sides of the plane, shoulder to shoulder, on webbing seats.

The windows consisted of a few portholes along the fuselage. The four propellers were so noisy that earplugs were given out by the air crew and had to be worn throughout the flight. It was impossible to talk above the noise.


The last leg of the flight was dramatic.

As the plane prepared to make its landing at an airstrip within the base, I had to don a Kevlar helmet and body armour. It dived sharply towards the airstrip and I heard what sounded like crackers being fired from the sides of the plane.

A senior SAF officer travelling with us explained: "Those are chaffs. It is standard operating procedure for pilots to fire them when they land in hostile zones."

I learnt later that chaffs are flares used to counter heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles.

As the plane came to a halt, two fully armed US Army soldiers fanned out from the rear ramp to form a security perimeter around the plane. They signalled for us to disembark only after they were satisfied the landing zone was safe.

I handed my passport to an Iraqi immigration officer at a booth in a tent at the side of the airstrip. He checked my visa and stamped my passport.

MINDEF had asked The Sunday Times not to publish the name of the base or the identities of the Singapore soldiers for their safety. In September last year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that it was used as a training camp for Australian forces to train Iraqi forces who were fighting to retake their country back from ISIS.

A curfew was in place when I arrived at the base, which meant that the movements of the 2,000 personnel within the compound with high walls were restricted at night. The curfew was imposed after drone activity was detected a day earlier.

"How uncanny," I said to the MINDEF media relations officer. Just hours earlier, as we were transiting through Dubai, I told her that I had read in The New York Times that the Pentagon was testing lasers and nets to counter ISIS drones that the newspaper described as a vexing foe.

The commander of the Singapore medical team, doctor "R" who is in his 30s and had met us at the airstrip, said the base has amenities like Wi-Fi, air-conditioned accommodation and hot showers, even though conditions are harsh.

The doctor had arrived in Iraq early last month, taking over command of the medical team after the first batch completed a three-month rotation between June and September.

"This is my first overseas deployment," he said. "It is a heavy responsibility."

Recently engaged, Dr R said his fiancee and family were supportive of his deployment. "They know the risks and support what I am doing."

The doctor's right-hand man in the medical team is paramedic "M", also in his 30s. He is the oldest of the medics in the team and is its sergeant major.

Both Dr R and M were armed with P226 pistols. All the soldiers in the base are required to be armed.

M took me for a tour of the medical centre last Monday, the second day of my visit.

"We are singing Majulah Singapura at 8am, please join us," he said.

As the medical team sang the National Anthem accompanied by a soundtrack from the hissing speakers of a well-worn CD player, they saluted the Singapore flag. It hung amid the flags of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States - lined up in alphabetical order - in the ambulance bay of the medical centre.

They sang with pride but their tone was a little off-key, the soldiers' voices hoarse from the arid desert air and heat. The temperature soared to furnace-like heat of as high as 42 deg C the day I visited.

"The first rotation started it when they came here in June," M said of the weekly ritual. "We continued the practice after we took over.

"We do it every Monday, at the start of the week, to remind ourselves of home."

Do you miss home, I asked.

"I don't miss home, but I miss the food," he replied without missing a beat.

Cooking overcomes homesickness and helps them make friends with soldiers from other countries, he said. He took out his mobile phone and showed me a photo of a plate of nasi briyani. "We cooked this just two weeks ago," he said. "We have also cooked nasi lemak."


M took me to where the Singapore soldiers stay.

The commander and company sergeant major of the medical company get their own individual containers. The rest of the soldiers are paired up and each pair shares a container about the size of two parking spaces. The containers are laid out in what resembles a container park.

M shares a container with Dr R. The beds are pushed to the two furthest ends of the container while two 2m-high cupboards divide the room into equal halves. The cupboards also act as walls providing some measure of privacy. I asked if I could take a photo of the room. He demurred. I did not press.

For three months, all the personal space the soldiers get is a bed and a cupboard packed into a space about the size of a parking space. I, for one, could not take living for months with so little privacy.

Because of the cramped quarters, the soldiers spend most of their off-duty hours chilling at a "Singapore corner", which is a sheltered space outside two containers, with tables and chairs for about a dozen people. A string of eight napkin-size national flags, coated with desert grime, had been nailed across the top of an opening between two concrete walls that led to the Singapore corner.

The days are repetitive and even monotonous.

The medical team works from 8am to 4pm, six days a week, with a rest day on Friday.

The medics typically start and end the day with fitness training. In between, they practise their medical procedures and drills. They also go to the firing range to keep their marksmanship sharp.

The Singapore team is deployed as a trauma team in the medical centre. "We are like an accident and emergency team," M said.

The previous team had seen lacerations, fractures and heat injuries. I asked M how many emergency cases his team had handled.

He replied: "We've not had to handle any emergency in the three weeks we have been here."

Still, they keep up their training.

On the day I visited, the team was practising its drill for a mass casualty situation where all the injured soldiers were rushed to the medical centre. "We practise this almost every week," he said.

"We want to be ready."


I had lunch with M and several other medics at the base's central dining hall, called DFAC, which is - unsurprisingly - an abbreviated name for dining facility.

Half-way through lunch, three American soldiers who had finished their meal at the next table walked over to M on their way to return their trays and said: "You guys are doing great!"

"They are the air medics from Oregon," M said, adding: "They fly the helicopters. We have trained with them."

An Australian physiotherapist, who is a member of the medical team, told me that she found the Singaporeans "very professional".

"They tend to be shy, but after I got to know them, they are humorous," she said. "And they like spicy food!"

M noted that it has been easy working with the other servicemen from various countries. "We speak English, although it took some time to understand them, and for them to understand us," he said.

Another medic jested: "I don't know why they have to say 'quarter to one' when it is easier to say '12.45'. I learnt 'quarter to this' and 'half past that' in primary school but we just don't say that in Singapore."

M said that the Singapore soldiers have to learn to slow down as they speak. He added that they have tried to teach their colleagues Singlish, too.

What Singlish, I asked.

Encik is Malay for warrant officer, and agak agak is roughly, they replied.

Tell me something interesting that you have learnt from them, I probed.

They replied, cracking up: "Australian soldiers are called 'diggers', and 'don't be a jack' means don't 'eat snake' or (be) slack."


On the third day of my visit, I met Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who had just made a whirlwind four-hour visit to the base and to see the Singapore medical team.

"Why did we send soldiers here? Why put them in harm's way?" I asked Dr Ng.

He replied: "It's quite obvious that this is not friendly territory. There are threats all over."

The deployment in Iraq is a long-term one against extremism and terrorism, he said, adding that it is in Singapore's interest to join the international effort against such threats. "When we join others, it is to protect Singapore and Singaporeans."

I posed a similar question to Dr R and M separately: "Do you know why you are here?"

Both gave uncannily similar answers - that Singapore is contributing to the coalition effort against the terror threat.

"But what does it mean to you personally? Do you feel you are making a difference?" I asked.

Dr R replied: "We are ambassadors. Each time we put on the uniform and do our work well, we fly the Singapore flag."

M said, after a long pause: "We are here to play a role. It is an important medical role because the soldiers trust that we will look after them when they are injured.

"We are a small team. But no effort is too small or unimportant.

"What might happen, you never know."

Working from Saddam's former palace
The Singapore Armed Forces has been involved in rebuilding Iraq. Nearly 1,000 servicemen served in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 to help it get back on its feet after the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein. This is a soldier's account of the mission, some 10 years on. The SAF has withheld his identity to protect his safety because he is still in active service and indirectly involved in the current operations in Iraq.
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 1 Oct 2017

For six months in 2007, senior Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officer "G" (not his real name) lived in the former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

He was a military planner that the SAF had sent to Baghdad to serve with the multinational coalition that was helping the Iraq government find its feet.

"I volunteered for the mission," said the officer, then in his 30s, who had completed a stint as a battalion commander.

"It was my first extended operational deployment overseas."

He recalls flying into Baghdad from Kuwait City on a United States Air Force C-130 plane.

"When the plane landed at Baghdad International Airport, I walked out calmly while the other passengers ran into the building to avoid being exposed. I didn't know the danger," he said with a laugh.

For six months, he was an adviser to the Interior Ministry of the Iraqi government.

"I helped them plan and set up gated communities with security measures such as access control," he recalled.

The coalition officers were housed in the former presidential palace of the Iraqi dictator within the "Green Zone", or safe district, of the city.

"The toilet was bigger than our typical bedrooms," he said.

Being in the Green Zone did not guarantee one's safety, he noted. There were regular rocket and mortar attacks over the walls of the Green Zone.

The veteran added: "I know of two cases in which coalition soldiers were killed. One of them was a medic or nurse."

His training as a soldier kicked in.

"I maintained my weapon and kept my helmet and vest close to me," he said.

"I knew that my life might depend on them."

"G" is modest about his contribution to the country's rebuilding efforts.

"I did what I was trained to do," he said, in a matter-of-fact tone.

The six-month stint had a lasting impact on him personally and professionally.

He proposed to his girlfriend of more than 10 years as soon as he returned.

"Life is precious," he explained. The couple got married.

He has remained in the SAF.

He said: "I did not volunteer for the deployment expecting a promotion. But I learnt that there is a strong purpose to the job.

"This is what being in uniform is about."

Singapore's contributions in international fight against terrorism
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 1 Oct 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen visits Singapore troops in Iraq, declares them to be 'in high spirits'
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 27 Sep 2017

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen visited Singapore troops in Iraq on Tuesday (Sept 26), and he declared them to be "in high spirits".

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) medical team has been deployed to Iraq since June this year to provide medical support to multinational coalition forces countering the threat there from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The coalition forces consist of troops from the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Dr Ng was briefed by the SAF medical team on their tasks and responsibilities, and saw a demonstration of the team's in-theatre medical capabilities.

Dr Ng said in a Facebook post that the Singapore troops "provide excellent medical care for coalition soldiers there".

He also emphasised the importance of their mission in Iraq and expressed confidence in their ability to carry out the mission, added a Defence Ministry statement.

Dr Ng was accompanied by Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman, Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Perry Lim and other officers.

During the visit, Dr Ng was also briefed by coalition commanders from Australia and New Zealand.

Dr Ng wrote on Facebook: "The coalition commanders I spoke to gave two pieces of good news. One, that ISIS is falling faster than anticipated and now reduced to pockets of resistance in Iraq and second, the Iraqi Army has raised their capabilities over time.

"We should all take heart in this progress, and that the battle against extremist terrorism is being won by countries who believe in law and order and the rights of their own citizens to choose their way of life."

He added: "At the same time we must remain vigilant, as the threat of terrorism increases in ASEAN."

At the briefing, the coalition commanders stressed that the support of partners like Singapore was vital in the fight against the terrorist threat.

They "expressed appreciation for the SAF medical team's contributions", the Defence Ministry statement said.

75 SAF soldiers lauded for serving in fight against ISIS
They receive Overseas Service Medals for role in multinational force in Qatar, Kuwait
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 10 Oct 2017

Seventy-five soldiers from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) were awarded medals yesterday for serving in a multinational coalition fighting to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

The soldiers, who recently returned from their deployment in Qatar and Kuwait, received Overseas Service Medals from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at a ceremony at the Ministry of Defence.

Lauding them for their service, Dr Ng said: "Through your efforts, through your deployments there, the world we cherish is safer."

The SAF is regarded as a "valued contributor" to the coalition and has won praise from coalition partners such as the US Central Command and Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), he added.

"They were very impressed with your professional bearing in carrying out your duties, and we know that they value our contributions in the niche areas," he said.

The SAF has deployed troops to provide intelligence analysis support to the CJTF.

It has also deployed a KC-135R tanker aircraft to support air-to-air refuelling operations for coalition aircraft. The tanker squadron's contributions came during a crucial period leading up to the liberation of Mosul from ISIS in July, Dr Ng said.

He added that these overseas operations have given the SAF an avenue to sharpen its capabilities and gain operational insights.

"We should apply the knowledge to counter-terrorism and peacetime contingency operations back home," said Dr Ng.

The SAF has been involved in counter-terrorism missions for a decade now, he said, beginning with a deployment to Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda in 2007.

While ISIS is losing, other similar terror groups could emerge in future, in failed states such as Libya or Yemen, he said, warning that the fight could continue for a long time.

"Communism without God took 50 years to fight. This one (will be) more troublesome. It has been 10 years. I do not know how long more we will battle it," he said.

He added that the SAF will continue to be part of multinational efforts to tackle such threats.

"Unless the source of terrorism is neutralised at its beginnings, more and more Singaporeans and other residents, whether in Malaysia, Indonesia or other Asean countries, will be radicalised," he said.

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