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Rethinking Singapore's Defence Needs

By Rajiv Chaudhry

It is taken as an article of faith by generations of Singaporeans who have gone through National Service (NS) that Singapore needs a strong armed force and NS is unavoidable.  To suggest otherwise would appear to be sacrilege. But is it?

In his foreword to “Hard Truths to keep Singapore going”, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tells us that the Malaysian and Indonesian armed forces conducted joint military exercises in Kota Tinggi on 9 August 1991, Singapore's National Day, and imagines that the intention was to “intimidate and con (Singapore) so that we know our place in the pecking order”. Is such paranoia justified?

Mr Lee goes on to say that the economy and defence are closely interlinked and “without a strong economy, there can be no strong defence. Without a strong defence, there will be no Singapore (emphasis mine). It will become a satellite, cowed and intimidated by its neighbours”.

This then, is the bedrock upon which the PAP bases its world view and is its raison d'etre for the breakneck speed at which it has been racing to grow the economy by any means available. The overcrowding and social ills which stem from the government's desire to grow a large economy can therefore be traced back to the need for a strong defence force.

But is it really an immutable fact that Singapore must have a large and strong armed force with advanced strike capabilities? I suggest there are other ways of structuring Singapore's defence needs without compromising our security which will result in reduced needs for defence spending. This, in turn, should both ease the pressure to grow the economy with its unsustainable need for imported workers and free up funds which can then be used for social purposes.

* * * *

In the current year, Singapore has budgeted $12.279 for defence spending, taking up fully a quarter of government expenditure. It is the largest allocation to any ministry. As a percentage of GDP, defence spending amounts to 3.76%.

In terms of total spending on defence, Singapore ranks 24th in the world, ahead of many much larger countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Norway and Egypt.

On a per capita basis, based on total population, Singapore is the fourth highest spender in the world, behind the United Arab Emirates (UAE), United States of America (USA) and Israel, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) military expenditure database. The figures are as follows:

Country

Per capita spending on defence US$mm

UAE

$2,653.00

USA

$2,141.00

Israel

$1,882.00

Singapore

$1,593.00

If the defence expenditure is apportioned to citizens alone, however, a radically different picture emerges. Divided amongst its 3.257m citizens, Singapore's defence spending figure shoots up to S$3,770 or US$2,900 per head making it possibly the highest in the world.

As a percentage of GDP, Singapore's expenditure on defence exceeds all but two (USA and Saudi Arabia) of the world's top 15 military spenders.

Does Singapore need to spend so much on defence? Indeed, can it afford to spend so much on defence and should it prioritise defence spending above other needs such as the social needs of vulnerable sections of society?

I suggest it does not.

* * * *

Singaporeans have long been brought up on the orthodoxy that our little island needs to be heavily defended from unknown and unseen enemies around us. Ever since independence in 1965 and especially after the withdrawal of British troops in 1971, we have been repeatedly told we need to build our defence capabilities in order to ensure our independence as a nation. Generations of Singaporeans have done NS, so much so that it is now taken as axiomatic that service in the defence of the nation is not only a duty but is critical for the survival of the country.

After the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, this dogma has assumed added urgency. Although unspoken, the assertion is that Singapore, the little red dot, is surrounded by and at threat from a sea of Islamic green.

The cold war has ended but a new cold war is on.

OPTIONS

It is a little known fact that some 25 countries or about 13% of all United Nations member states do not have armed forces. Many of these countries are geographically small (as is Singapore) and a number of them have long-standing arrangements with former occupying powers for their defence, such as Monaco's arrangement with France or Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau's arrangements with the USA.

Three of these countries, however, are notable because of their size and history. All hold lessons for Singapore.

COSTA RICA

As far back as 1949, Costa Rica, a country with a population of 4.2m people and a land area of 51,000 sq km, abolished its army permanently, thus becoming militarily neutral. The money saved  was  channelled into development efforts. The country is today regarded as one of Latin America's top performers in terms of the Human Development Index and is highly commended by the UNDP for its achievements. It is ranked first in the Happy Planet Index and is regarded as the “greenest” country in the world.

The country retains a small force for internal and border security purposes.

SWITZERLAND

In Switzerland, with a population of 7.8m and land area of 41,000 sq km, professional soldiers constitute only about 5% of military personnel, the rest being conscript citizens between the ages of 18 and 34. Annually about 20,000 citizens are called up for basic military training for between 18 and 21 weeks (less than six months), with women serving voluntarily. The country has a long history of neutrality and there have been several attempts to abolish the armed forces altogether (in a referendum in 1989, over one million Swiss citizens voted in favour). In 2003, the strength of the Swiss armed forces was reduced from 400,000 to 200,000 persons.

ICELAND

Iceland is a country with a remarkable military arrangement. Although it has an area of 103,000 sq km and a population of 318,000 it maintains no standing army, navy or air force. It does, however, maintain an air defence system, a small peace-keeping force and a coast guard. It has security arrangements with the USA and is a member of NATO.  

According to the Global Peace Index, Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world, due to its lack of armed forces, low crime rate and high level of sociopolitical stability.

The point of these examples is to show that there are alternative ways to structure a country's defence arrangements. One of the ways in which this can be done is when a country declares itself to be neutral. The other is to form strategic defence alliances.

NEUTRALISM

Neutralism is a foreign policy position where a state intends to remain neutral in future wars. The rights and duties of a neutral power are defined in Sections 5 (1) and 13 (2) of the Hague Convention of 1907. A country may maintain armed neutrality or declare itself permanently neutral. An example of a permanently neutral country is Japan. Switzerland and Sweden maintain armed neutrality.

A total of 14 countries are recognized as neutral although the neutrality of some of these countries that are members of the EU has been called into question in recent years because they also subscribe to the EU's common foreign policy. Three other countries claim to be neutral while a further eight were formerly neutral. So, neutrality has a well-established lineage and has been practised by a number of countries for at least the past 200 years. 

MILITARY ALLIANCES

This is self-explanatory. Stefan Bergsmann defines a military alliance as “an explicit agreement among states in the realm of national security in which the partners promise mutual assistance in the form of a substantial contribution of resources in the case of a certain contingency, the arising of which is uncertain”.

There are countless examples of military alliances in history. Some of the best known ones in contemporary times are NATO and the European Common Security and Defence Policy. The Russians also have military alliances within their own sphere of influence.

The obvious advantage of a strategic military alliance or alliances for a small country such as Singapore is that they free up a country with limited resources (exactly what the government has  said for years is Singapore's major constraint) so that these resources can be applied to areas where they are more urgently needed. 

That the umbrella extended by the alliance(s) with a country or a group of countries can provide for the long-term security needs of a country is amply demonstrated by these two well known post-World War II (WW2) examples;

JAPAN

Japan was restricted by the terms of its post WW2 constitution from deploying armed forces abroad or developing nuclear weapons. It does, however, maintain an internal security force known as the Japan Self Defence Forces. It entered into a military alliance, known as the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, with the USA in 1960, under which the USA agreed to protect Japan in the event its territories were attacked. The USA also agreed to extend a nuclear umbrella.

This mutual defence pact between Japan and the USA has worked successfully so far, for close to seven decades since the end of WW2.

GERMANY

The unified armed forces of Germany, known as the Bundeswehr, are restricted by Article 87A of the Constitution of Germany to a strictly defensive role. This restriction has been relaxed slightly in the post Cold War era to allow German forces to take part in peace-keeping activities and other EU military initiatives. Each overseas deployment, however, must be approved by the Bundestag.

During the Cold War, the responsibility for Germany's security was assumed by the four Allied Powers: the USA, United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union. Germany now operates within the ambit of the European Common Security and Defence arrangement.

To pre-empt a potential argument against military alliances, it may be noted there that despite their apparent “weakness” in not having strong military forces capable of offensive action, both Germany and Japan (the latter despite two decades of stagnation) are economic power-houses. Or, can it be that because these countries were freed from the distraction of building large armed forces, they were able to build strong economies?

NATIONAL SERVICE (NS)

A corollary to the reduction of the armed forces in Singapore would be a much reduced need for NS. Several of the countries mentioned above, including Switzerland and Germany, have compulsory military service of six months or less. In Norway, an average of only 27% of young men complete military service each year.

A reduced need for NS would free young Singaporean men to either complete their studies earlier or join the workforce earlier. In either case, it would add many months to their working lives which are currently lost to NS.

A reduction in the number of regular servicemen would also add Singaporeans to the labour force,  thus, hopefully, reducing the need for foreign workers to that extent.

As an aside, in this day and age of gender equality where women are demanding and getting equal treatment from boardrooms to government, it is time Singapore considered introducing NS for girls, albeit for the shorter period suggested above and then only in areas suitable for them. In Israel,  from which Singapore's armed forces have borrowed many ideas, girls have long served NS along with boys. This would further reduce the need for male conscripts who can then join the Singapore workforce earlier.

CONCLUSION

So, to come back to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's statement, is it true that without a strong defence, there will be no Singapore, that it will be reduced to a vassal state? The  answer is quite clearly no. Singapore does need to be defended, to protect the wealth that has been created in the past half century or so since independence. Yet, there are more ways than one of defending the country, as I have tried to show above.

For a small country such as Singapore to be spending nearly as much as Israel, a country that has seen numerous military hostilities and fought repeated wars since its independence, is surely unnecessary?

In fact, it might be argued that the siege mentality under which Singapore operates, based on the Israeli model and bristling with offensive weapons, is actually counter-productive as it invites hostility from others and diverts valuable resources from social and other objectives.

The unspeakable truth is that no matter how well prepared or well equipped the  Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are, Singapore is probably indefensible because the real threat is unlikely to be a military one. Singapore has been built on confidence. Unpalatable as it might sound, the first hint of trouble (a few bombs in the financial district?) is likely to trigger a massive flight of both capital and people. In a globalised world, neither is tethered to permanent pegs. Capital flight will hit the financial sector and human flight, the property market. It doesn't take much imagination to see that the economy, built on a bedrock of property based lending, could buckle under such circumstances.

Far better then, to refocus our national defence and security objectives. I would submit it is preferable to leave military matters to others through alliances with regional and global heavyweights and focus instead on reallocating resources to raising the quality of life of our citizens. Even if  70% of the defence budget is thus freed up (after leaving a residual force for civil defence, internal security, a coast guard, air defence warning and military intelligence), it will release over $8 billion a year which could be usefully channelled into healthcare, old-age pension and other benefits for the needy.

These ideas will be met, I have no doubt, with stiff resistance from the military-industrial establishment in Singapore which enjoys a captive market in the SAF. They are also unlikely to be greeted with joy by the political leadership, seeing that the latter has historically had a symbiotic relationship with the armed forces.

I do, however, hope this paper will allow people to see Singapore's defence needs in a different light and that it kicks off a healthy debate on the subject.

This article first appeared on www.sonofadud.com on 13 June 2012