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Bertha HarianBertha Harian


In Ukrainian shoes – or boots

“Tonight is the night of all nights’’, said the BBC’s Ukraine correspondent this afternoon, reporting from an underground carpark in Kyiv, the country’s capital.

As explosions light up the sky, Kyiv has become a subterranean city, with its people huddled together in silent desperation. I cannot bear watching scenes of civilians, their children wide-eyed and fearful, wondering if they would live or die or if tomorrow never comes.

The pictures hit home more than those earlier, and very regular, reports of suicide bombings, shootings and armed skirmishes in the Maghreb region. We click ‘next’ or flip the page as if this was another ordinary day in a far-off place which nobody thinks of travelling to.

But it’s different when it comes to watching people lugging suitcases much like the ones we have, trying to board trains or making their way by foot to the Polish border. Those who cannot are huddled in underground carparks and train stations that any city-dweller would be familiar with. They might be wrapped up in warm clothing, but their ordinariness makes them like us. 

Their plight makes me wonder if our own underground carparks and train stations could provide us refuge if, touch wood, we should meet the same fate as the Ukrainians. And where can we, a people on an island with two land crossings, flee to? Will Singapore Airlines fly us to safety, just like how they flew home Singaporeans stranded overseas during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic? Or will Changi Airport be one of the first targets of an invader?

Many pundits had earlier said that Russia’s Vladimar Putin was just playing Russian roulette with his sabre-rattling noises against Ukraine and warnings against Western interference earlier this month. Then the bullet was fired. 

Now, punditry is about the utility or futility of NATO which cannot, by treaty, enter Ukraine. Or about whether Ukraine should have stayed politically neutral and not made overtures about joining NATO or the European Union. Or the impotence of the United States, a fair weather friend who is not a friend in need, and the positive or negative effect of economic sanctions include the recent efforts to boot (some) Russian banks out of the international trading system.

We can talk all we want about the past and the future but the present reality is : Russia has invaded another sovereign country. It is raining missiles, dropping bombs and has its tanks trundling on Ukrainian roads. It says it is trying to assure the independence of two separatist zones, but it is bombing much further afield. It says it is only reclaiming land that was its right, picking a convenient date in history for justification. It talks about the nazification of Ukraine, even though many Ukrainians had lost their lives in the fight to eradicate Nazism during World War 2. 

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A bully doesn’t need a reason to hit the smaller guy. He does so simply because he can. Singapore, an extremely small guy, can’t be compared to Ukraine with its 45 million people, spread out over a country of 603,550 sq km, a little bigger than the size of Thailand. It is blessed with valuable minerals underground :  leading the world when it comes to reserves of titanium, iron and non-metallic raw materials. On the ground, its fertile soil has made it a leading distributor of wheat and corn. 

This particular small guy has, in the parlance of today, stores of “potential capacities and capabilities’’ – except his house didn’t have strong locks despite the alarm system going off repeatedly. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky banned able-bodied men from fleeing the country. There was a call to arms. Families were separated The men remained to fight while their women and children scrambled to safety outside the country. British media reported that some Ukrainians in the country were returning home to fight. 

Times like these make me wonder about my own country’s vulnerabilities and strengths. I look at bombed-out apartment blocks in Ukraine and I wonder if HDB blocks are built too close together. I even wonder if the underground MRT stations will be lit if our main electricity supply gets cut. 

So it comes as a bit of a surprise when some fellow citizens decry the natural instincts of others to speak about having a strong defence at this time. To them, it is about borrowing or appropriating other people’s tragedy to bolster “Establishment’’ views on defence spending and military conscription. They are dreading a surge of nationalistic sentiments and sermons about the necessity of National Service. 

I don’t mind such sentiments and sermons at all, especially when they are said at the right time to catch people’s attention. It is political, yes. It is also necessary.

We always fail, in peacetime, to think about wartime. Who is the enemy, we ask, when everything looks hunky-dory.

No country wants to make an enemy of another, and sometimes we, the ordinary people, prefer to think that we have none. But even being friendly to another is problematic, as Ukraine’s courting of the US and Europe has shown. I think back to November 2016 when our Bionix trucks, en route from Taiwan to Singapore, were detained in Hong Kong by the Chinese authorities. Or the many times our own immediate neighbours have said that we have not been “friendly’’ or even respectful enough of their concerns. Or the Chinese seemingly insistent that we are part of its “extended family’’. 

Are we up to defending ourselves if push comes to shove? 

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I don’t know how much military hardware but, as I said, times like these make an ordinary person renew his or her focus on defence. So I checked Janes. 

On the defence budget: Singapore’s 2022 defence budget of $16.36 billion is a nominal increase of  $1 billion or 6.5 per cent over the allocation in 2021. The budgeted allocation includes $15.76 billion for operations, with $15.71 billion of this funding going to “military expenditure”. This represents a year-on-year increase of 6.5 per cent. 

On military hardware: SAF modernisation plan, started in 2019 and presumably slowed down over the last two pandemic years, includes investment in new land-forces capability, including the locally developed Next-Generation Armoured Fighting Vehicle (NGAFV); a next-generation 155 mm howitzer; a new armoured all-terrain tracked carrier vehicle; and new micro-, mini-, and close-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The men would know better than me if they make for a more powerful deterrent. 

But I am sure that whether they are 3G, 4G or 5G equipment, there must still be men (or women) to operate them or become what is known as boots on the ground. 

I wonder if the Ukrainian men left behind know how to handle a rifle or other military equipment. But I know that the men here can, because they have been trained intensively through NS and regularly during their reservist call-ups. I see our men walk out of their homes in uniform when a logo pops up on television. This mere female doesn’t know what the logos stand for or who they apply to. But the men do. 

Some men reading this will by now say that I know nothing about NS because I haven’t gone through it, and did not volunteer to join the armed forces in some capacity. Hypocrite, they say. Don’t talk so much, they say. I will put it this other way: I belong to the other half of the country who will support our men whole-heartedly.  And I, for one, am more than sure that I will carry a gun if need be – and not flee the country.

My worry, really, is about the Singapore diaspora. Will they return home or thank their lucky stars that they are abroad when the country is in a time of need? Will our able-bodied take the first plane out of the country with their families, knowing full well that the Singapore passport would be welcomed anywhere in the world? 

I take heart in the heroic tales of defiance on the part of Ukrainians whom, we are told, have managed to slow down the pace of the Russian invasion. They might well be propaganda to urge support for the Ukrainians and lift morale – even fake news. 

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I want to think that they are all true. 

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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