Writing for ST yesterday (‘Defence spending: A case of too much or not enough?’, 3 Mar 2018), Dr Graham Ong-Webb from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies attempts to defend the PAP government’s position of increasing defence spending in Singapore. In fact, he asked, “Are we spending enough?”
He said, “In some quarters, there is a nascent perception that Singapore’s defence spending – in the current absence of external military aggression – has not only ballooned, but is also excessive.”
People from these quarters are asking, “Are we spending too much on our defence?”, he noted.
Dr Ong-Webb: Defence spending down as proportion of govt expenditure
Dr Ong-Webb defended the government by saying that defence spending as a proportion of government expenditure budget “is going down”.
He said that from mid to late 2000s, defence spending was one third of total government expenditure. But it has fallen to 19 per cent from 2015 to last year.
“At the same time, social spending increased from 35 per cent of total government expenditure in 2006 to 40 per cent in 2016,” he noted.
Dr Ong-Webb, of course, avoided revealing the actual figures of Singapore’s defence spending in his article. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Singapore was spending between US$8.9b to US$9.3b in the period of 2007-2010 for defence.
However, in 2016, despite having a lower proportion in government total spending, the defence budget has actually climbed to US$10.0b.
As for the increase in social spending, it is certainly still far below that of other first world countries. For example, after netizens on social media pointed out that the Singapore government’s share of healthcare spending had been very miserable languishing at 30+ per cent when OECD countries were spending like 70+ per cent on average, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong finally relented and announced few years ago:
“The first major shift is to increase Government’s share of national spending, to provide Singaporeans with greater assurance that care will remain affordable and accessible. Government spending will not only rise in tandem with the increase in national healthcare spending. We will in fact take on a greater share of national spending, from the current one-third to about 40 percent and possibly even further, depending on various factors such as demographics, and our ability to manage healthcare costs and target our subsidies. This will help to reduce the impact of rising healthcare costs on Singaporeans, especially the lower- and middle-income Singaporeans.”
That is to say, Minister Gan has “generously” announced that the government’s share of health spending would increase to 40 per cent (not that far from the original 30+ per cent).
The rise of terrorism
Dr Ong-Webb then proceeded to talk about the new threats facing Singapore these days like “terrorism, cyber security, counter-proliferation, biological pandemics and natural disasters”.
“Taking on more of these additional missions raises operational costs for the military,” he said.
He added that more costs would be incurred to train soldiers to respond to terror threats, and to “procure equipment to deal specifically with terrorism incidents”.
Also, protecting computer networks from cyber-terrorism would also require “additional resources and skills that will cost more money”.
“Spending on national defence is essential to create a stable social and economic environment for economic development,” he added.
No one will disagree with Dr Ong-Webb on the need for a sovereign country to spend on defence so as to adequately protect oneself.
However, spending money to buy stealth warships with Harpoon Surface-to-Surface Missiles, Aster Surface-to-Air Missile, Whitehead A244S Torpedoes, etc, an aircraft carrier in disguise, advanced Apache attack helicopters , F35 stealth fighters and telling everyone that these weapons would be used against terrorism would be a bit hard for Singaporeans to swallow.
Yes, money will have to be spent to counter terrorism but do you really need a multi billion dollar budget to, say, train soldiers against terrorism?
Singapore already #1 in defence spending amongst Asean countries
In the last part of his article, Dr Ong-Webb mentioned that in the last 3 decades, defence spending in Asia has increased over 4 times.
“In Asean, spending over the same period trebled,” he noted. “Neighbouring countries are clearly hedging against greater geopolitical uncertainty.”
“Given the evolving security landscape that necessitates increased spending in security, the actual question Singaporeans may want to ask is, ‘Are we spending enough?'” he concluded his article.
In other words, Dr Ong-Webb thinks Singapore should be spending even more in defence given the “evolving security landscape” and ” greater geopolitical uncertainty”.
So, let us look at some of the defence expenditure figures of our Asean neighbours, provided by SIPRI (https://www.sipri.org).
Military spending in 2015 by Asean countries (in US$ Million):
- Singapore – 10,213
- Indonesia – 8,071
- Thailand – 6,101
- Malaysia – 5,300
- Vietnam – 4,581
- Philippines – 3,893
- Myanmar – 3,187
- Brunei – 460
- Cambodia – 278 (2014)
- Timor Leste – 37
- Laos – 23 (2013)
Not surprisingly, we see that Singapore has become the number one ASEANcountry in defence spending. The next country after Singapore, which spent substantially in defence in 2015 is Indonesia. However, if one was to look at the whole decade from 2006 to 2015, we see that Singapore actually spent almost twice as much as the amount Indonesia spent:
(US$ Million, from 2006 to 2015)
- Singapore – 97,050
- Indonesia – 52,769
In fact, for the whole decade from 2006 to 2015, Singapore’s defense spending about equal to the combined spending of Indonesia and Malaysia (US$M 47,770 for Malaysia), the 2 closest neighbors of Singapore.
Now, if Singapore continues to use its economic might to pile money onto defence spending, buying stealth this and stealth that, and you are one of the neighboring countries watching Singapore, wouldn’t you want to follow suit? Who is the one that is creating the “geopolitical uncertainty” here?
And yet, Dr Ong-Webb is egging on the PAP government to spend even more on defence.
It was Martin Luther King Jr, who once said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”