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Chan warns Malaysia: Risk of escalation cannot be underestimated

Former Army Chief and 2nd Assistant Secretary-General of PAP Chan Chun Sing warned that the "risk of escalation cannot be underestimated" regarding the recent incursion by Malaysian vessels in Singapore waters.

Speaking to reporters at a community event yesterday (8 Dec), Chan urged all parties to revert to the "pre-Oct 25 status quo ante for things to calm down".

This was his first public comment with regard to the recent maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia. Chan is now the minister for trade and industry. Chan said Singapore welcomes talks to find a “swift and amicable resolution” to the issues.

He said the RSN and the Singapore Police Coast Guard have been patrolling the areas off Tuas for decades. "Then suddenly the Malaysians publish a new map with a new port limit. No consultations, no discussions. Claiming even more than what they did in 1979, which no one else has even accepted."

"Sending Malaysian government vessels into the area inconsistent with innocent passage, conducting unlawful and unauthorised activities under international law, refusing to leave, then suggesting that Singapore vessels leave the area for talks to happen. That’s not right. Even the layman can see that this cannot be right," he added.

He also said "we have seen this pattern before”, citing Malaysia’s unilateral claims over Pedra Branca and the waters off Tuas.

"That set off a dispute that lasted decades. Military forces were deployed, facing off each other at sea. We were brought up in that generation. We even went to ICJ (International Court of Justice) and even that did not fully settle the issue. Even today, we are still managing the issue. It has become a blemish on our bilateral ties,” he said.

He also questioned the sincerity of the younger Malaysian leaders who had signaled towards closer cooperation between Singapore and Malaysia. "I hope their actions will match their words," Chan said.

Stealth Frigates, Submarines and USVs

It's not known what vessels Singapore is currently sending to the disputed maritime area to fend off the intrusions by Malaysian vessels but certainly Singapore has added much formidable firepower in RSN in recent years.

According to a 2007 article by Defense News, the Singapore’s Navy has undergone dramatic upgrades with the addition of destroyers, submarines, unmanned systems and a new command-and-control system, "moving ever closer toward developing a blue-water naval force".

The new stealthy Formidable-class frigates would allow RSN to project force farther from home. Sam Bateman, senior fellow and adviser at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies contended that the new ships are "by far the most advanced surface combatants in Southeast Asia. They constitute a real capability edge for the Singapore Navy over other regional navies."

"While they have an effective point defense air-to-air warfare capability, their main attributes lie in anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare,” he said. “The organic helicopter will provide an important extension of the ship’s own capabilities, particularly for surveillance, over-the-horizon targeting and anti-submarine warfare.” The frigates are equipped with Sikorsky S-70B "Seahawk" naval helicopters, with anti-surface and anti-submarine combat systems.

A MINDEF spokesman was also quoted saying, "Our locally developed CMS [combat management system] on board the frigates not only integrates the sensors and the weapon systems, but also incorporates data links and networks for force-level capabilities and advanced visualization for situation awareness."

Weapons on the frigates include the Boeing Harpoon anti-ship missiles, MBDA Aster 15/30 surface-to-air missiles, Oto Melara 76 mm gun, Eurotorp A244-S Mod 3 torpedoes and CIS 50 12.7 mm machine guns.

Other than having the most advanced frigates in Southeast Asia, last year, it was announced that the new Type-218SG submarines from Germany's ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems will be added to RSN fleet. MINDEF said that the new submarines boast design innovations to optimise training, operation and maintenance costs. They will also be equipped with "significantly improved capabilities" like modern combat systems and Air Independent Propulsion systems.

“To be effective, the RSN needs to keep pace with this growth of navies in Asia. At steady state, the four Type-218SGs in service will complement each other in maintenance, logistics and operations, and have better capabilities to protect our sea lines of communication,” Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said during the announcement of acquiring the advanced German submarines last year.

In addition, the RSN is also experimenting with a variety of unmanned systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) for maritime surveillance, interception and force protection, while Autonomous Underwater Vehicles would further expand the RSN’s capabilities in the underwater dimension.

The USVs are stealthy inflatable boat developed by Israel-based Rafael. Armed with surveillance equipment and the Typhoon close-in weapon system, it can approach suspicious craft night or day.

With such formidable firepower the RSN possesses, it's no wonder Minister Khaw has the confidence to warn that Singapore won’t hesitate to take firm actions against Malaysia if necessary with regard to the recent maritime dispute between the 2 countries.