Monday, February 28, 2011

Singapore's internal security options: When lethal force might be used

Some of us may feel that riots in Singapore are an unlikely scenario. Singapore has been spared social unrest, but there are elements in Singapore's national security apparatus who train hard to meet and defeat far fetched scenarios.

The red vehicles you see above are used by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) Special Operations Command (SOC). The SOC unit they belong to is known as the Police Task Force (PTF), otherwise known as the riot police.

The vehicle on the right was introduced several years ago to replace the Command Vehicle on the left. The old Command Vehicle dates from a design from pre-Independence days when modified buses were deployed for riot control. The concept successfully quelled riots in Malaya as it gave law enforcement officers a raised platform from which to marshal and deploy riot police against street protests. Riot police from Malaysia's Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) still use Command Vehicles of a similar design as the turret gives them an elevated view of the street scene.

The Command Vehicle includes a turret with an observation deck for four to five PTF officers, a bell for sounding riot police formation changes (continuous rings means "Baton charge!") and a 1234X light box for giving visual cues at night. The flashing "X" signals a baton charge.

Please click on the image to enlarge it and take a close look at the open signboard. This signboard is usually closed up when the PTF troop is deployed for duty. Many of you would be seeing this sign's wording for the first time.

When PTF officers display this in public, it is time to look for cover.

It appears that the old Command Vehicle never deployed the signboard in anger. Had Singapore's riot police wielded the sign against street protestors, such an action would have damaged Singapore's international image.

There may be occasions when brute force is require and where mob violence must be met with terminal intensity. This could include occasions anarchist groups bent on destruction unleash organised mayhem on the city state. Should push come to shove and the safety catches on firearms are put to "fire", Singapore must be prepared to present a credible case for the just use of force to an international audience.

On the home front, the government of the day must fulfill its social contract with Singaporeans by keeping such powerful forces on a tight hold. The sweeping laws in Singapore must never be abused and SPF and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) capabilities must always be employed responsibly.

Now that a new vehicle has been introduced, it is time to reconsider the use of such language (DISPERSE OR WE FIRE) as it may not work in the 21st century for the following reasons:

1. Many Singaporeans have seen or experienced a real riot. Deploying a sign that says "DISPERSE OR WE FIRE" tells the MTV generation that action is going to take place soon. It is a free show worthy of YouTube and may encourage gawkers to hang around the demonstration site, thus negating the crowd dispersal value of this sign. For example, Gen Ys may linger to watch the action just as many Singaporeans slow down to rubber neck a road traffic accident.

2. It is interesting to speculate the concept of operations (CONOPS) that would see PTF officers deploy such a sign. What sort of firearms would be discharged? What are the conditions for a ceasefire? When the PTF warns that it will open fire, does it mean non-lethal or less than lethal munitions such as CS gas, baton rounds or obscurants? Or does this mean single shots from Taurus revolvers, MP-5 submachine guns or is this a warning that the PTF are about to turn the place into a free fire zone?

3. Who will be the target? Angry Singaporeans or disgruntled foreign workers protesting pay and work conditions? Both groups must be handled with extreme care. Any Singaporean government that draws blood from Singaporeans without just cause loses its social contract with the people.

Shooting foreigners opens a new can of worms. For example, no Malaysian general will stand idly by if Malaysians protesting in Singapore are shot dead or wounded by PTF gunfire. Our northern neighbours can be expected to take a decisive stand against political violence and the situation could escalate alarmingly fast.

4. Where are the troops trained to aim at? A head shot for a brain stem kill? Or a shot at the legs to incapacitate? A leg shot would kill a person within six minutes if a femoral artery is ruptured. What does the CONOPS state if protestors are unarmed? This brings to mind the classic response from South African authorities during the height of the apartheid era when they were accused of using live ammunition against blacks and coloureds. They are quoted as saying: "We will fire rubber bullets, when they throw rubber bricks". Classic.

5. The message "DISPERSE OR WE FIRE" is ungrammatical. To be sure, it sounds like the kind of threat Asian bad guys from a James Bond movie or Dr Fu Manchu show would spout. Singaporeans may be deterred if the sign said simply "Disperse Or We Will Arrest U" or "Disperse Or Fine $1K". The Malay version, "Bersurai Jika Tidak Kami Tembak", is roughly translated as "Disperse, if you do not we fire" - not quite a direct translation of the English text.

6. The sign spells a bonanza for any photo journalist covering a riot. Imagine a picture with unarmed demonstrators in the foreground with the sign in Singapore's four official languages in the background. It says it all: that an unarmed crowd is about to be gunned down. Magazines and media agencies will pay good money for such action shots and the price such publicity will exact on Singapore's international image will be high.

7. As unpalatable or unlikely as nightmare scenarios are to most of us, the hard truth is that our security forces train for many eventualities that may threaten to destabilise our fragile city state. One may deem such situations implausible or improbable, but authorities think otherwise.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget that we have thousands of Gurkhas who are loyal to their paymaster. I am very sure they'll be very happy to fire at unarmed crowds whenever the cowardly Singaporean commanders say so... As for the aftermath and global backlash, it'll take time but most will eventually forget. China did in successfully inTiananmen, and now the western world wants to be her best friend.

Anonymous said...

Hi David, based on this article and earlier articles, it comes across as if neither you nor the earlier poster understand guidelines on use of lethal force or rules of engagement employed by law enforcement or military used to perform crowd control duties.

I really do hope this is not the case and that you have better informed SMEs to draw your information from.

- K

Anonymous said...

The phrase "guidelines" reminds me so much of my civil service days.... The whole point of the article is that no one knows what the rules of engagement are, other than "trust us".

In any case, no matter what the rules are, it only takes one panicky commander or ill-disciplined trooper to set off something with huge consequences. Google Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.

And god forbid the possibility that the political masters go bad and the career officers do not refuse to obey unlwaful orders.

Anonymous said...

The writer and the first commentator can go sign up for PAP. I'm sure they'd want your type. Puke. said...

Anonymous, how can I contact you? Are you on Facebook?