SINGAPORE: Military service is an undertaking of the highest order, where those who sign up pledge to lay down their lives in the defence of their country.
The idea of men in navy uniform usually leads one to conjure up images of naval battle ships and uniformed soldiers engaged in brave, heroic acts - whether keeping sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden free from the scourge of Somali pirates or fighting against time to recover downed aircraft like in the case of AirAsia QZ8501.
Where naval modernisation has transformed many navies in the Asia Pacific into world-class fighting forces, many stand as symbols of hope, progress and strength for their countries.
Just think of how much national pride China’s first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier had stirred when it was launched last April or how strong a signal the participation of three US aircraft carrier strike groups in military drills and training missions across the Pacific Ocean at the same time US President Donald Trump was in Asia had sent.
Yet news this week seem to suggest that navies should be involved in a different kind of work – in saving helpless civilians stranded on a resort island.
Media reports on Monday (Jan 15) covered news of a Royal Malaysian Navy ship KD Terengganu being deployed to rescue 93 stranded on Tioman island.
It seems inclement weather and rough seas had led to ferry services being halted, leaving these people stuck with no way back to the peninsula.
Readers have cheered the Malaysian navy’s move, with many expressing relief that the tourists in question managed to get some help.
Some even joked the stranded tourists scored a cool free ride on a navy ship, and managed to check off an item on their bucket list.
But a few wondered whether holidaying on an island famed for its beach resorts during this monsoon period was a good idea, where it had left these people stranded.
And more importantly, did it really warrant the involvement of the Malaysian navy?
ODD TO INVOLVE THE MALAYSIAN NAVY
There’s no denying that many look to the armed forces to act as first responders to national emergencies and natural disasters of massive scale.
When tragedy strikes at sea or in distant lands, navies are often called upon because they can muster the resources and capabilities needed to mount a quick response.
What comes to most people's minds is the Singapore navy’s response to deploy its landing ships tank to Aceh after the Boxing Day tsunami.
The Malaysian navy’s response to deliver aid to the Philippines and deploy a sister ship of KD Terengganu in the aftermath of Typhoon Tembin two weeks ago also stands out as another example.
Yet, it seems odd that the Malaysian navy was involved in this otherwise small and modest operation to fetch less than a hundred stranded tourists and ferry them back to the mainland.
Was it really necessary to deploy a powerful naval battle ship to do the job that a Malaysian coast guard craft should have done?
The fact that the Malaysian navy was deployed to undertake this task suggests that there was little choice – possibly because most other vessels in the vicinity are unable to safely travel across raging seas.
Perhaps the Malaysia coast guard’s vessels were similarly ill-equipped for the mission. Rescuing 93 tourists from Tioman under inclement weather and rough sea conditions is no easy task, requiring a rescue craft with sea-keeping qualities including some level of endurance, speed and freeboard.
But the mismatch seems to have deeper roots in long-term force planning where the incident called for a larger, offshore-capable vessel to operate in open waters but most of the Malaysia coast guard’s 200 vessels are built for inshore and coastal missions under calmer sea conditions.
Operating in open waters during the monsoon period is a scenario which a tropical nation like Malaysia should be long accustomed to, yet it seems its coast guard was not adequately resourced for these kinds of scenarios.
In this context, where the Malaysian navy has the capability to respond decisively without affecting its operational readiness for other missions, the course of action to deploy a Malaysian navy vessel arguably shows flexibility in a whole-of-government approach towards incident management at sea.
Yet this trouble is this: The Malaysian navy may have been the rescuer of last resort in this case but such actions may unfortunately set an expectation that navies in general should be expected to rescue civilians when they find themselves in difficult situations.
If this inclination to call on the Malaysian navy to respond to such incidents repeat, at some point, the Malaysian navy may also find themselves overstretched – at a time when they continue to perform peacetime constabulatory roles against illegal fishing and unauthorised anchoring.
Might it be that the Malaysian navy themselves were keen to launch a rescue response, so as demonstrate their usefulness to the domestic populace where the stranded count 39 Malaysians among them?
If so, their playing to the gallery may be a way to build up their public reputation and show value to their political masters, so as to gain support for big-ticket acquisition programmes. Even though Malaysia’s defence budget saw a modest increase of 5.3 per cent this year, the massive cut the defence establishment suffered in 2016 may still be fresh in their minds.
Meanwhile, the Malaysia coast guard continues to face enormous pressures as it slowly build its capabilities.
The good news is the Malaysian coast guard recently received their first new-generation patrol craft that should be able to undertake these kinds of mission while larger offshore patrol vessels that allow them to launch a larger spectrum of operations are under construction.
The bad news is the Malaysian coast guard remains in a weak position to show their relevance, and will have to do more with less, in a political climate where capacity-building priorities appear lopsided in favour of navies.
Across Southeast Asia, governments have been more willing to set aside funds for high-profile naval modernisation projects.
The Tioman episode may have ended off with a happy note for the tourists, but it seems the Malaysia navy and coast guard will continue to be saddled with their current predicament, where their collective natural response to budget limitations reaps adverse effects.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is a research fellow with the maritime security programme at the Nanyang Technological University's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.