BANDA ACEH - Singapore and Indonesia share a unique and special relationship that reaches all levels - from the political leadership to military men on both sides.
That is why Singapore was able to respond so quickly after Aceh was wiped out by a killer tsunami on Boxing Day a decade ago, deploying 1,500 men and women to help stabilise the province, said Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing.
"We knew the commanders personally, and we were able to talk to them, friend to friend, to iron out operational issues. When you don't have that kind of personal relationship, it doesn't mean you won't get the job done - it just means you might take a bit more time, and time is of the essence in a crisis, a relief effort, like this."
He was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a memorial in Banda Aceh to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster, which claimed some 168,000 lives in Indonesia, mostly in Aceh.
Mr Chan, a former army chief who served as a military attache in Jakarta between 2001 and 2003, said the two militaries "understand each other culturally, linguistically and operationally" - a trust built up over many years of joint training.
Less than 48 hours after the tsunami submerged Aceh, located in northern Sumatra, Singapore had begun planning how to lend a helping hand. By Dec 31, a team of 20 men had flown to Medan, to lay the groundwork for what would be its largest-ever humanitarian and disaster relief deployment of men and machines to Indonesia and Thailand.
Operation Flying Eagle involved 1,500 personnel, three supply ships, 12 helicopters and eight transport aircraft. Although the effort was modest compared with those by other militaries, Mr Chan said Singapore made a "qualitative difference".
The Republic provided the primary foreign military contingent in Meulaboh, one of the worst-hit coastal towns in West Aceh, and helped rebuild the town's hospital and pier. Singapore also flew in a makeshift air control tower that made it possible to deliver aid by air into Aceh.
The operations tested and validated the ability of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to respond to emergencies, as well as the commitment of its men and women, noted Mr Chan.
Lessons drawn from those massive disaster relief efforts have led the SAF and other militaries to step up training, to sharpen their response to natural disasters in the region.
In addition, Singapore has set up a new disaster relief centre that will enable militaries in the region to get quickly to where they are needed when disaster strikes. The facility, called the Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre, can activate a response team to reach ground zero within 48 hours of a natural crisis.
Among the ambassadors and envoys invited from 35 countries who were present at yesterday's memorial, Mr Chan was the only Cabinet minister. He said of his presence: "I think it also signals our intent to bring the relationship to a higher plane where we can. And we hope this is not just for disaster relief and so forth - beyond disasters and humanitarian assistance, there are many areas of cooperation. Indonesia has always been a very close and dear neighbour."
This article was first published on December 27, 2014.
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