Total Defence Day 2014

February 15, 2014

The Total Defence Day falls on the 15 February every year. It is a day to mark Singapore’s fall to the Japanese in 1942. It seeks to commemorate and remind people the sufferings our fore fathers had went through during the Japanese Occupation. It also stress on the importance of the 5 key aspects of Total Defence. They are, Psychological Defence, Social Defence, Economic Defence, Civil Defence and Military Defence.

Below is the speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, on Total Defence Day at the National Museum of Singapore.


Dear friends;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen,

First, let me thank you for being here, I am sure all of you know that this event is to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Total Defence. If truth be told, it is actually very hard to keep something up for 30 years. You look at all the various creative angles, and Colonel (COL) Roland Ng (Director Nexus) was telling me this year, they tried a different angle, which means that we have tried 30 different angles. It is a serious message, but some years we do better than others. Some years I am sure the organisers at the end of it, think to themselves: did I get my message through? Did people understand, did people get the real message? And when this was started of course, 30 years ago, it was a day that we remind ourselves, whether it is as individuals or together as one nation, why it is so important to be able for Singapore to defend our way of life. So this year, COL Roland and his committee worked very hard over the last 6 months. And they decided that they would focus it on individuals. We have decided that we would focus on individuals, because they are the best persons to tell stories, and whether you speak to anthropologists, whether you speak to sociologists; as humans we are wired to learn from stories. That is the way we are. The moment you have captions, the moment you have policy statements, people switch off.

So I was very glad that we could bring with us today, here, individuals who have gone through difficulties, who have gone through difficult periods in Singapore’s history, and whose experiences and recollections serve as living reminders. And the first thing, or lesson that we wanted to tell Singaporeans, especially younger Singaporeans, is what happens when our defences fail. And we have among us Mdm Kwoh Toh and Mdm Chan Kieu, who had to survive hunger and fend off attempts of assault and rape when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942. And I hope you speak to them, I met them, they are two lovely ladies. They were just telling me how hungry they were and how they did not have food. Certainly there was no rice. So I asked them, I heard people planted tapiocas, they said no, we did not have tapioca too. So tapioca, for some, was a luxury. We have Mr Alan Wong and Mr L M Mani, I met them. And as they shared with me, and as they shared with me you could almost sense that the visual images that went through their minds was as if it happened yesterday. Mr Mani was only 10 years old when the cannon shells fell into his home, heavily injuring him and his siblings. He recounted to me just now how he held his two year old sister, blood coming down from her skull, the eye protruding. Later on, these experiences shape our lives, and later on, Mr Mani became a volunteer against Indonesia’s Konfrontasi.

We have here Janet Ng, who, together with five other siblings, lost her mother, Elizabeth Choo, when a bomb went off. And the bomb was set off by Indonesian soldiers Harun Said and Osman Haji Mohamed Ali. And this of course was at the MacDonald House at Orchard Road. There were two others killed and at least 33 injured. The MacDonald House bomb was one of about 42 bombs set off around the island by these saboteurs, and these bombs during then killed a total of seven people and injured more than 51 others during Konfrontasi. Mr Zainal Kassim was one of those injured at the MacDonald House blast and he is here together with us. He is a stout and very fit 70-year-old today. He is still very active, and I asked him, what do you remember of that blast? He says he went into the lift, the lift door closed, and that was all he remembered. Next thing he was conscious, he says where I am? He could not remember a thing, he knew that he had suffered injuries and they told him that he was a victim of this bomb blast. He was hospitalised for more than 10 days.

Other Singaporeans who remember this period of turmoil and tension vividly include, with us here, Lieutenant-General (Retired) Winston Choo. Winston went with his 1 SIR to Sebatik Island, south of Sabah. He had to go there and conduct border patrols. And there is Colonel (Retired) Goh Lye Choon, who was a platoon commander whowas sent into the jungles of Kota Tinggi during Konfrontasi. Unfortunately for the troops in Kota Tinggi, some soldiers were killed in his unit. 2 SIR was sent there. Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Daljeet Singh who took part in patrol operations during Konfrontasi. He is here too, always ready to tell his stories to those who would listen. It was a real privilege to met and speak with many of you, and we should all listen carefully to their stories. Their life stories are cautionary tales that remind us of the heavy price of not being able to defend our country.
And I was very glad that both Straits Times and CNA covered many of their stories. Straits Times covered what happened during the Konfrontasi, and why old wounds have been reopened when the Indonesian navy decided to name the warship after the two marines who set off the bomb at MacDonald House. I believe that the media plays an important role in helping Singaporeans, especially our younger Singaporeans, remember our past and from whence we came. Some of you may have caught or would be catching CNA’s documentary called “Days of Rage”. It is a good documentary. It helps us understand our past, the values and principles that shape our current nation. And there is an episode on the Confrontation which will be aired this Sunday evening. I have watched it, snippets of it, and I recommend it to everyone. It is well worth watching.

These people are here, and they tell us a story of what happens when our defences fail. That is an important chapter but it is an incomplete chapter, if that was the only story. Thankfully, in our short history, we also have good examples of lives saved when we have been able to defend and protect ourselves. Those of you who are old enough will remember 1991, SQ117. Passengers on the flight, probably some going on a holiday and some just taking a trip, were held hostage by members of the Pakistan People’s Party at Changi Airport. And honestly, their lives were in jeopardy. It could have gone very wrong. But thankfully, none of them were injured or killed. We deployed highly skilled SAF Commandos, stormed the plane, and in 30 seconds, all four hijackers were killed. In 2001, all of you here will remember when 911 happened. I remember I received an SMS from a friend which said “watch television”. I thought, what is this about, why send me such an SMS? And I turn on the television, and of course, the picture of the twin towers just crumbling, etched in millions of minds that saw this particular footage. Because of that, we stepped up quickly measures to deter and deal with potential terrorist threats. We discussed sensitive issues as a community, and built trust among our races. I had just come into government at that time, and I will tell you that the first concern when 9/11 happened, was not safety or whether a terrorist bomb could occur in Singapore. Of course that was important, but the first concern was, would trust between different races break down. And we quickly decided that we had to deal with it. I will also share with you another fact which is not commonly known. Because we hardened our defences, because we had put up security aspects, it deterred would be saboteurs and terrorists from planting a bomb here in Singapore. And you remember the bomb blast in Bali was 2002. What happened in Bali could have easily happened to us in Singapore, if precautionary measures had not been taken. It is not widely known, but we were told that those who planted the bomb subsequently, received money to execute the mission. And because Singapore was a hard target, they decided that they would not plant a bomb in Singapore.

The SARS episode in 2003 is another good example of Total Defence in action. I was part of the SARS combat team, we called it. I had to visit the hospitals to tell them why they had to be very careful about cross infections. It was a deadly virus, and lives were lost. I lost a very good colleague, a surgeon named Alex Chow, He succumbed to SARS, he was treating SARS patients, and he was at the prime of his career. And I like to believe what we did saved lives. There were lives lost but if we had not been careful, if we did not pass the bills through government, through expeditionary measures to make sure we could quarantine people and stop the epidemic, many more lives would have been lost, as it happened in Hong Kong. You remember the 2008 global financial crisis. It was truly a picture of economic resilience. Strong tripartite relationship… and when you talk about the 2008 financial crisis amongst businessmen today, many of them say we recovered too fast. You said it was the worst financial crisis in 60 years, but truly, in some senses it was a V-shaped recovery. And we are struggling to catch up with infrastructure because there was not a shedding of workers thankfully.

Last year, you remember the haze, when the PSI rose to unprecedented levels. Just as a warning, the hotspots are up in our neighbour again because it has been dry weather, and the only reason we are not having haze is that the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. It could change. And we were very glad that when it happened, we delivered masks and the SAF transported one million N95 masks to all the community centres. But what really heartened me was to see individual groups spontaneously coming out. You have the SG Haze Rescue, they decided that they wanted to volunteer and distribute masks on their own. There were others who offered their homes and their companies, air-conditioned facilities. And companies allowed their employees to work from home. Recently, when the riot occurred in Little India, there were many Singaporeans online who spoke of restraint. Civilian resilience, psychological resilience.

All these examples show the collective spirit and unity against any challenge. And is what defines our Total Defence. The main pillar of Total Defence is a strong SAF whose primary mission is to defend Singapore against all threats. And because NSmen form the backbone of the SAF, they must therefore take their roles and responsibilities seriously.

The message that we want to send out to Singaporeans is that everyone has a role and everyone needs to play a role in Total Defence. I am very glad today too that there are many Singaporeans who have put Total Defence in action. I was speaking to Brigadier General (Voluntary) Ishak Ismail; he retired from the SAF, but he still volunteers to do National Service. And he says he loves to share his stories with NSmen and to others who would listen. And he is going around sharing with them the lessons that he picked up when he was in his career in the SAF. I was speaking to Mrs Eileen Aw. Now Eileen Aw is highly unusual, her husband is SLTC(NS) Eugene Aw, who is an NSman. And they have decided that their family bonding exercise is to run together with her husband Some of you may want to follow it, I met the Aws and their two daughters, aw-some family. Some of you would get it later. I met them, and I asked their young daughters: What happens, when you outrun your father? And Mr Aw said it will happen one day, and I told him for me, it has already happened. But that is their way of bonding and building a resilient society. I met Anthony David, whose job is, some of you would say, an ordinary job. He’s an NEA officer whose job is to make sure that you do not breed mosquitoes. He has been doing this, he tells me, for 22 years. Chinese we have the expression “pa bang” (beat insects). Anthony David actually chases these mosquitoes. But he understands his task, and he understands that if he does not do it diligently, and go the extra mile, people can get sick, and even fall very ill or even die.

So we have collected all these stories, put them in a way that can be communicated to Singaporeans, whether it is through interactive exhibitions or a book, and we have also put together a commemorative book. We need to pay heed to each story, and if we can do that, individually first and then collectively as one nation, and then resolve to defend what is ours and our way of life through Total Defence, then we can be assured that Singapore’s future and security is safe.
So I look forward to the exhibition and would like to thank everyone here – I know that many of you have been our partners and have helped us, whether you are from the public, private and people sectors – for your support to Total Defence. I do not know if we can continue to keep up that interest in Total Defence as much as this year, arising from some episodes in the past few weeks. Many of you have said that one good thing, at least for this year, is that people are listening to your message closely for Total Defence. I do not wish for these episodes so that people would listen, but it is a very serious message and I believe that as a small country we are always vulnerable. That will not change. And if we can tell our younger generation that, if we can convince them that in order to be secure, you must be strong, you must be united, you must be a cohesive society, that is able to defend your way of life, then I think our children’s generation will be secure.

Thank you very much.

Jurongville Secondary School NPCC Unit

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