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New Zealand’s defense model: An example for Singapore?

by Ajax Copperwater

In May 2010, I wrote about Costa Rica, a country that has maintained its sovereignty without a military since the beginning of the Cold War. However, Costa Rica is not a model for Singapore. The latter needs a military presence as it is situated beside the world’s most important waterway for world trade and thus, it has a vital duty of protecting the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

As the population of Singapore is greying and more prone to illness, government health care spending increases as this trend continues. However, not enough public money, with only about 3% of GDP, is poured into the health sector. To increase more of the money for health care, the government can either raise taxes, cut spending from other programmes or both. Since raising taxes can worsen the living standards of the people, especially its bottom 20%, cutting spending is therefore the more sensible approach. Hence, I have always advocated the transition from conscription to an all-volunteer service, as this approach save taxpayers’ money, boosting a leaner and more professional military and provide better health care to especially those who struggle with their bills.

There are many countries in the world that gave up conscription so as to provide more support to its population from their national budget. New Zealand is one good example of such a country that maintained a professional military since 1972 and practises universal health care.

Why did I choose to showcase New Zealand? Before elaborating further in the article, the table below shows the difference between Singapore and New Zealand in terms of population size, land area, GDP and expenditure. This table might give you a preview of what this article is about.

Defence

New Zealand Defence Force has a total headcount of 14,843 as of 1 April 2010, including regulars, reserve and civilians. Its defence expenditure for 2009/2010 was about NZ$2.3 billion whereas Singapore’s defence expenditure for 2010 is estimated to be S$11.46 billion.

Though its military is small, New Zealand has sent troops to Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Egypt, Middle East, Iraq, Solomon Islands, South Korea and Sudan, totalling 404 personnel as of 13 December 2010. Its troops have been active participants in peacekeeping missions.

New Zealand is part of a free association with Niue and Cook Islands. This means that New Zealand acts on behalf of these states on matters of foreign affairs and defence, only with the advices and consents of the latter. Do note that citizens of Niue and Cook Islands are also citizens of New Zealand, which means having New Zealand citizens’ privilege and usage of its passports , but not vice versa

The New Zealand Army is infantry-heavy, and consists of light armoured vehicles and artilleries. The Royal New Zealand Air Force demobilized its air combat capabilities in 2001. That left the air force with transport planes and patrol helicopters. The Royal New Zealand Navy has two Anzac class frigates, three support vessels, six patrol vessels and a surveillance vessel.

New Zealand bars the entry of nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered warships into its water and airspace. Its laws prohibit the procession, purchase or manufacture of nuclear explosive device by any New Zealand citizen or resident.

Health Care

Health care in New Zealand is largely funded by public money, though services are provided by both private and public providers. Public hospitals provide free treatments, including x-rays and accident & emergency treatments. Under certain conditions, visits to General Practitioners (GPs) and specialists are subsided. So are some prescription items and some medicine. Under public health, maternity care is provided free.

The District Health Boards(DHBs) fund and provide the provision of health and disability services in each geographical regions of New Zealand. One of the objectives of DHB is to promote health improvement and reduce health disparity among all population groups. Each DHB receive public funding based on the demography the population within the region. 7 of 11 DHB board members are elected by the public during local government elections, whilst other members are appointed by the Minister of Health. Board members oversee the financial responsibility and governance of each DHB, but do not have executive roles in the DHB.

The main pillar of New Zealand’s public health care is the Accidental Compensation Corporation (ACC). This agency provides support to New Zealanders suffering from injuries be they from leisure, work, abuse or medical error. It also covers recently-injured residents returning from overseas and visitors who wounded themselves while in New Zealand. If sufferers were unable to work due to injuries, ACC may provide up to 80% of pre-tax weekly income during the sufferers’ recovery period. If a sufferer becomes permanently physically disabled, he or she will receive a lump sum payment.

However, it must be noted that benefactors of ACC are barred from suing anyone for compensatory damages. Beside injuries claims, ACC is involved in injuries prevention by working closely with governmental agencies, businesses and community services.

What can Singapore learn from New Zealand?

I’m not suggesting Singapore should adopt New Zealand’s example completely for New Zealand’s defence needs is different from ours. New Zealand has an ally in its neighbour, Australia, and is not situated in a heavily-militarized region as Singapore does.

Nevertheless, if New Zealand can meet its defence needs with less than 15,000 personnel, surely Singapore can do with less than 100,000? I believe it can do even lesser than this number. Many would disagree with me. They might feel every soldier is critical to an army’s defence. That is true to a certain extent. Having a large army is counter-effective as the North Korea has shown. What good is an impressive army when its people have to shoulder the burden of military expenditure with poverty and poor health?

A huge army might be a good deterrent against an imaginary invasion, but there are more credible threat threatening Singapore: diseases. The less well-off would skip medical attention, believing they can get well on their own, to avoid the cost for treatment. That is a very dangerous act that could lead to death. According to MOH, pneumonia is third leading cause of death, 15.3% of case, in Singapore as of 2009. Early treatment in some cases of pneumonia can prevent death.

I feel Singapore can implement a system similar to New Zealand’s District Health Boards. Though Singapore is a city-state and does not have land area the size of New Zealand, its population size is larger. Each region of Singapore are different demographically and better needs of its residents can be met if overseen by a health board. A regional health board can provide a transparency in health expenditure and services dispensed. If the health board members are also members of Parliament or members of the public, perhaps the people can have a larger say in decision making and the health services they want.

As the climate changes for the worse, cases of new contagious and virulent diseases will rise. Is Singapore more prepared for something as deadly as SARS? Perhaps, but won’t it be better if Singapore spend more money on health care, more than 3.1% of its GDP, to safeguard better the health of Singaporeans? What’s stopping Singapore from at least providing free health care service to our youngest, our oldest and our most vulnerable? Won’t you rather have granny access to free health care whenever she needs it and whatever her affliction?