By William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Recent months have seen national service and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) popping up as topics of discussion and debate among Singaporeans. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Monday a new committee would conduct a comprehensive review of the support network around national service. Recently, Mr Hri Kumar Nair, a member of parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh constituency, called for a defence tax on permanent residents and foreigners.

Last year, nearly 70% of Singaporeans polled in an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey said that having a male child who had completed NS is an important characteristic of being ‘Singaporean’. And director Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men two-parter hit – movies about the trials and tribulations of a group of recruits – has broken new records at the box office, reflecting popular interest in national service.

It is appropriate to focus on questions of equity between permanent residents and citizens and the proper recognition of the sacrifices made by national service men. After all, most, if not all, Singaporean families have members who are serving or have served in the armed forces.

What success has bred
The problem here, however, is that a focus on such issues looks at national service and the SAF through a domestic lens, and fails to put them in a more externally oriented and geopolitical context. Put differently, there is a risk of getting mired in the weeds.

The fact is that after 45 years of national service, the SAF has fallen victim to its own success.

Because the city-state has deterred potential aggressors for so long, Singaporeans have to an extent been lulled into complacency, such that they now talk about ‘softer’ issues, be it whether permanent residents do national service, and even a trimming of the defence budget.

Granted, there are some grounds to be smug. Singapore’s defence budget, at a projected $12.3 billion this year, is the biggest in South-east Asia. And it is an open secret that Singapore has one of the highest per capita defence spends in the world, after countries such as Israel. It possesses a highly advanced ‘third generation’ fighting force built on the principles of ’see first, think quicker, kill faster’.

But to understand the SAF’s enduring validity, and the need for a substantial defence budget, one has to go back to where it came from.

Formed in 1967, the SAF provided strategic insurance in a Muslim neighbourhood that has often viewed the Republic’s predominantly Chinese population with suspicion, if not animosity. To compound matters, Singapore suffers from a lack of strategic depth – another way of saying that once an adversary had set foot on its soil, the war was all but over.

A dangerous region still
One could argue that Singapore’s current environment is more benign. After all, the Cold War has been consigned to history, and Vietnam, once feared by many South-east Asian countries, is now a key member of ASEAN. Globalisation ties all regional countries, including China, in a complex web of interdependence.

But the Asia-Pacific remains a dangerous place, with many potential flashpoints, such as the standoff between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, North Korea’s nuclear programme and the South China Sea territorial spats.

Closer to home, Singapore’s relations with Malaysia and Indonesia have improved markedly in recent years. But this cannot be taken for granted. Dr Tim Huxley, author of Defending the Lion City, puts it nicely. Relations with these two countries, he notes, have often been ‘characterised by rivalry and tension’.

History bears this out. In 1991, Malaysia and Indonesia conducted a joint military exercise. Code-named Malindo Darsasa 3AB, it involved an airborne assault by paratroopers in the south of the Malaysian state of Johor. This raised concerns among Singaporeans, with some reading the scheduling of the airdrop on 9 August, Singapore’s 26th National Day, as being unnecessarily provocative.

In 1998, the Malaysian Armed Forces were put on alert, Mr David Boey, formerly this newspaper’s defence correspondent, wrote. Then, politicians on both sides of the Causeway argued over the status of the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) checkpoint at Malaysia’s railway station in Tanjong Pagar.

Defence premium a ‘must’
Speaking to Straits Times journalists in Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was emphatic about the threat posed by Singapore’s immediate neighbours; they will ‘knock us about’ and ‘harass us’ if Singapore does not have a defence capability.

This is why Singapore needs a defence premium – not only to ensure that it would have the military wherewithal to repel an aggressor, but also to enable it to remain free from coercion.

The fact is that small countries have been bullied, bargained over and even dismembered through the millennia. Here, realists cite the Melian Dialogue, which describes how the stronger Athenians overwhelmed the tiny island of Melos in 416 B.C. Indeed, the Athenian pronouncement – that’”the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ – still endures today.

In 1990, Iraq stunned the world by invading Kuwait. Enjoying a 5-1 advantage, 100,000 Iraqi troops overran its smaller neighbour in two days. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, a former Soviet republic. In seven days, superior Russian forces reclaimed South Ossetia and drove deep into the heart of Georgia.

Similar events have occurred closer to home.

For years, the Philippine military increased its defence budget, but increasingly became preoccupied with fighting domestic insurgencies. So when Manila confronted China over the disputed areas in the South China Sea, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was found to be wanting.

When Chinese patrol ships faced off a Philippine survey vessel near Reed Bank in March 2011, Manila could only dispatch OV-10 light attack aircraft to the area. Until recently, when the Philippine Navy purchased two former US Coast Guard cutters, its major combatant was a World War II-era destroyer escort.

Vietnam and China were long Communist allies; the latter gave support to the former during the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Rising regional defence bills
That said, however, the ‘lips and teeth’ relationship has become a severe case of gingivitis. Both countries fought a brief war in 1979 and now have pressing disputes over the South China Sea. In response to Chinese intimidation, Vietnam has purchased Russian-made Kilo submarines and Su-30Mk2 fighters.

Such incidents, and more generally, growing unease over China’s assertiveness and the future balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, have led many regional countries to up their defence expenditure.

According to the Military Balance 2013, released by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) yesterday, Asian defence spending rose by 14% in 2011 to US$294 billion. In 2012, it rose by an additional 7%.

Such rising defence expenditures reflected concerns over Chinese assertiveness and uncertainty over the future balance of power. In addition, the IISS said there is ‘substantial evidence of action-reaction dynamics taking hold’ – code for saying the region is on the verge of an arms race.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Dr Ng said that Singapore is monitoring such trends closely. As a small country, Singapore’s external environment sets its defence posture, he added.

The statement summed up Singapore’s calculations well. As a small country, its defence ‘premium’ ensures that it retains maximum freedom of action amid an uncertain environment.

In 2008, Professor Ross Babbage, a former Australian defence official, argued that Canberra should acquire enough Joint Strike Fighters and submarines to ‘rip an arm off any major Asian power that sought to attack Australia’. Arguably, Singapore has taken a leaf from such an idea.

This might be analogous to what I term the three ‘D’s of Singapore’s defence policy. The republic depends on diplomacy and deterrence to keep threats at bay; but if these two legs fail, the full force of the SAF would be unveiled to defeat aggressors.

It is entirely apposite that we talk about kitchen-table issues surrounding national service. But some hard truths about Singapore’s defence and external environment are worth emphasising – and often.

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