Speech by Pritam Singh, MP for Aljunied GRC in the debate on the President’s Address (28 May 2014)
This motion of thanks on the President’s address takes place amidst worrying developments in our neighbourhood. At the recent ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement on 10 May 2014 expressing “their serious concerns over the on-going developments in the South China Sea, which increased tensions in the area.”
There have been many references from the Government over the last few months about hostilities between Ukraine and Russia and its implications for Singapore. The South China Sea, where tensions are increasing between China and a whole host of countries, is a sea line of communication central to our survival. US$5.3 trillion worth of trade passes through it every year. Needless to say, the South China Sea is right at our doorstep too.
The geopolitical jockeying taking place in the region takes place in a year when we celebrate 30 years of Total Defence, a national initiative that first began in 1984.
Mdm Speaker, my colleagues have already spoken and will continue to speak during this debate a wide range of important domestic matters as covered in the President’s Address. I will focus my speech on national security, specifically to issues pertaining to Foreign Affairs and Defence.
A geopolitical shift in progress
In spite of the American pivot towards Asia, the fact remains that the benign American security umbrella in Asia has to accommodate China’s economic and growing military power. The real manifestations of a changing power equilibrium in East and Southeast Asia are taking place. Over the last year, developments in the East and South China Sea in particular are causing serious concerns among several Asian countries with the Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in the eye of the storm.
A Code of Conduct on the South China Sea to address these territorial spats is unlikely to come to pass anytime soon. This is in spite of hopes for it to be hurried along, as most recently expressed by the Foreign Minister in his visit to Washington two weeks ago. In contrast, the Prime Minister’s more sober remarks in Tokyo on the back of the Nikkei International Conference last week – that any nation would be cautious about signing on to a set of guidelines which may constraint its freedom of action – are noteworthy. Seen from this perspective, while the early agreement of a Code of Conduct would be warmly welcomed by Singapore, it is not terribly realistic to expect this of China or any other major power in its shoes.
As China grows economically, it has taken a long view of history to ensure that it is in the foremost position to determine the power dynamics of its immediate neighbourhood, which it sees as a core interest. Such big power behaviour is not unusual. Big powers march to their own drumbeat. Even the US, while accepting the widely ratified United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as customary international law, have not moved to ratify the treaty for reasons best known to American lawmakers.
In a sense, China’s reactions can be read as a direct response to the perception of a gradually minifying ability and keenness of the US to impose its will on the world. This is coupled with the slow and uneven post-Cold War shift to a more multipolar world. As part of this process, it would have come as no surprise to hear of the 30-year $400 billion gas deal between China and Russia last week, even as barbed exchanges and spats were taking place over the South China Sea.
For Singapore, the jockeying in our neighbourhood suggests that external environment in the years to come are likely to be more, and not less unpredictable. In the event our external trade is affected by skirmishes and hostiles in the South China Sea, or a chill permeates through the markets and business confidence sinks as a result of it, our resilience as a people is likely to be severely tested. Beyond hosting a strong SAF that is ready for battle, how prepared are we as a country if a conflict in a foreign region has a debilitating effect on our economy and society?
Total Defence and Resilience
With our fast changing population, have the pillars of Total Defence been unwittingly weakened? Is our economy strong, resilient and diversified enough to survive a crisis in the South China Sea? With close to 40% of the country comprising of non-Singaporeans, will Singaporeans and foreigners look out for each other or turn to look after their respective communities?
These numbers should inform the Government that the next 30 years that undergird Total Defence, will be much more important than the last 30.
While SAF and Home Team National Servicemen reinstate their commitment to Singapore, the Government should assess if we have over-extended ourselves in outsourcing many critical public functions. In times of conflict, we can certainly expect job losses and some foreigners returning to safer pastures. How will our municipal, health, transport and telecommunication services hold up given the large number of foreigners manning them? Will some of our foreign friends amongst us respond nationalistically favouring the Philippines, or Vietnam depending on their ethnicity even as Singapore would prefer to stand as a neutral party? We would need to prepare for these unexpected outcomes and review our crisis strategies even as the Government presses ahead with economic growth and with the expansion of foreign manpower continuing.
Insofar as national resilience is concerned, the announcement by the Committee to Strengthen National Service in recommending a Volunteer Corps is a laudable initiative. This is even if it is for all intents and purposes, a pilot initiative and a small baby step targeted at new citizens, first-generation PRs and women. I would urge all new citizens in particular to apply to join the SAF Volunteer Corps and join hands with Singaporeans who already dedicate a minimum of 12 years of their life to national service.
As a young nation, but with close to 40% of our population comprising non-Singaporeans, questions of identity and commitment of the new arrivals are likely to remain in the minds of Singaporeans for the foreseeable future. This has a direct consequence on our resilience as a country and a people. The Government should continue to explore how new citizens and PRs can contribute to our national security and how the Total Defence concept can be reinforced in light of our new realities.
Defence Diplomacy and better managing the Defence Budget
Mdm Speaker, it was instructive to note the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Addendum to the President’s Address referred specifically to the fact that good relations with our immediate neighbours, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are essential for our security and prosperity.
I recently attending the 34th Singapore Lecture delivered by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei in April this year. The Sultan took the opportunity to applaud Singapore’s offer of the Changi Command and Control Centre as a regional humanitarian disaster and relief co-host centre. Such Singaporean initiatives are hallmarks of effective defence diplomacy, and we should build on these.
Going forward, it may be propitious to explore how our defence ties with our immediate neighbours in particular can be further improved. This would be solely to increase reservoirs of trust with our neighbours, with a view to completely eradicate the prospect of hostilities, as far as practicably possible. This will have to be a long-term strategy but it is not impossible.
We can start with Malaysia. As our populations and economies become more interconnected with Iskandar Johor and the Rapid Transit System between JB and Woodlands in the works, the logic of conflict between us will make less and less sense as the years go by.
To this end, a new multilateral architecture between Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei that eradicates the prospect of conflict and promotes military inter-operability and joint training may well operate to create a far more benign security environment in our immediate neighbourhood so as to allow for a more flexible and targeted use of our defence dollar in the long run. While Singapore must ultimately remain responsible for its own security, steady and determined confidence building measures and a willingness to put the past behind can alter the security landscape.
I would suggest that we are in a much better starting position. The Government already actively encourages Singapore businesses to operate in Iskandar Johor as evinced most recently in the Prime Minister’s remarks during the Malay-Muslim Business Conference held earlier this month. Singapore already conducts a wide range of military exercises with our immediate neighbours. It would also be helpful to add some cultural ballast to deepening defence ties by restating the importance of the Malay language and encouraging its use, even informally, since Singapore will always be located in a Malay archipelago.
We should also take the opportunity insofar our local discourse is concerned, to remind policymakers that the fear of putting a Malay serviceman behind a machine-gun are already over. We are all Singaporeans and with 50 years of independence behind us, now more than ever, when you are conscripted to defend your home Singapore in whatever capacity, your race is not a factor.
Mdm Speaker, much has been said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, a trade agreement to expand the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement. The TPP seeks to enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth and development. For Singaporeans, the implications of the TPP for Singapore have not been discussed beyond broad motherhood statements, even as many groups and lobbies in potential TPP signatory countries are protesting against the treaty, especially those economies that are heavily weighted in favour of particular industries such as automotive and agriculture, amongst others. Even environmentalists and internet-freedom advocates have raised a hue and cry about the implications of the TPP.
While Singapore’s considerations would be different in view of the externally oriented nature of our economy, it would be important for the Government to inform Singaporeans what is in it for us?
These questions are especially important for Singapore businesses and for the world we want to bequeath our children, questions that go beyond economics, in view of the implications of the TPP for the Asia-Pacific region. Will the TPP allow Singapore companies to go overseas and do business, the same way big companies are allowed to come to Singapore and to compete for major contracts with local businesses? Which businesses and industries, if any, are likely to be killed off by the TPP?
Mdm Speaker, it would be helpful if the Government fleshed out the opportunities and pitfalls awaiting our local SMEs should the TPP come to pass so that our businesses are not blindsided by it. In fact, such a strategy, going beyond communication with chambers of commerce and business federations may well encourage greater entrepreneurship among our people. Equally, greater sharing of information with our budding businesses, start-ups and those that are still primarily locally-oriented would vindicate and justify the policymaking hours spent by our civil servants on TPP negotiations.
In conclusion Madam Speaker, with our total external trade hitting almost $1 trillion dollars according to 2013 statistics, Singapore will be acutely vulnerable should conflict erupt in the South China Sea.
Beyond our neutrality and our relentless diplomatic efforts, Singapore will have to adjust and deal with the reality that comes our way. A former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs once observed, not incorrectly, Singapore will always be a price taker, not a price setter in the international realm. Nonetheless, we may be in a better position to determine the price we take with regard to our immediate neighbours, given the greater interdependence between Malaysia and Singapore in particular.
Unfortunately, we are not in a position to determine or prevent a conflict in the South China Sea beyond offering ourselves as a neutral arbiter and an advocate for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. We can however start working on scenarios to determine how we can be better prepared for a regional conflict, especially given the deep changes that have taken place in our society over the last 10-15 years, with regard to our population policies and economic strategies in particular. The standoff between Ukraine and Russia is not wholly irrelevant to Singapore. But there are more immediate worries closer to home.
Madam Speaker, I support the motion of thanks on the President’s address.