(This is a continuation of “Singapore’s outdated national security policies”)
Fighting the real enemy: Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces
Why does Singapore still need such a large standing Armed Forces? If we accept the argument that Singapore’s security threats have evolved over the years—and no longer includes “potentially hostile Muslim neighbours”—then our country needs to adapt, and prepare itself for today’s threats, not yesteryear’s.
There appear to be two main security threats to Singapore—pirates and terrorists. We should focus our resources on defending Singapore from these groups. It is ludicrous that Singapore has spent billions preparing for a dubious invasion from our “hostile Muslim neighbours”, and yet was not able to secure the country from the actual real and present danger:
A suspected terrorist, who walked with a limp, managed to escape from detention with the aid of toilet rolls, traversed half of Singapore and then drifted across the Johor Straits to Malaysia on the back of a jerry-rigged floatation device. If this incident wasn’t so shockingly tragic, MacGyver Selamat would have left that Filipino maid trailing in the national comedy stakes.
In order to combat pirates and terrorists, we need a good Navy, Coast Guard and Counter-terrorist units. But we do not need many large traditional divisions of the Army, including Armour, Infantry and Guards.
One could argue that Singapore does not need an Air Force either. But given its tiny size, it might be prudent to maintain the highly-trained Singapore Air Force as a deterrent to would-be aggressors, especially since it is conceivable that a terrorist attack could be airborne.
Finally, as Singapore has been doing, it should continue to push the boundaries of high-technology military research. Drones, unmanned vehicles, robots, and other futuristic weaponry should be deployed to defend ourselves against the groups that pose a threat to our country today: pirates and terrorists.
Hence, my recommendation is for Singapore to severely reduce the size of its Army, but to keep investing in the Air Force and Navy, as well as the Singapore Police Force’s Coast Guard and Counter-terrorist units. These all require money but far less manpower than the Army, and hence should all be professional units.
(There is one other emerging threat. In the interests of safeguarding state secrets, we may want to earmark a small portion of our kitty to ensuring politicians and civil servants keep their pants on—“The Palmer Patrol”?)
Creating a harmonious society and region: Reimagining National Service
When Singaporeans reflect on the benefits of mandatory national service, two things stand out. The first relates to discipline and independence. Compared to kids in many other countries, most Singaporeans are mollycoddled, growing up in relatively comfortable surroundings. Through National Service (NS) we learn to take care of ourselves, away from mummy’s pandering eye.
The second is social integration. NS forces the sons of tycoons to sweat it out next to the sons of taxi drivers, bridging divides, to some degree, in this drastically unequal society of ours.
Any change to our NS system should ideally preserve these two benefits.
My recommendation is to switch two years of mandatory NS for males to six months of mandatory National Social Service (NSS) for everybody.
What will “National Social Service (NSS)” entail? A combination of developmental work around South-east Asia and assistance to lower-income Singaporeans.
Who is “everybody”? Males, females, all citizens, including first-generation, naturalised citizens, many of whom do not currently serve NS.
In other words: Instead of Singaporean males preparing for war against supposed hostile Muslim neighbours, all 18-year old Singaporeans must spend six months helping the less fortunate amongst us, both in Singapore and in the immediate region.
NSS is not Summer Camp. Recruits will work long hours on real projects with defined deliverables and performance assessments. These projects could range from assistance to disadvantaged children in Singapore to reconstruction work in post-tsunami Aceh. NSS will give Singaporeans an opportunity to help others in need, and will also prepare us for the rigours of the working world.
Discipline, integrity, hard work and team work must be emphasised. Law and order should not be compromised. For instance, Singaporeans who try to weasel their way out of NSS or who go AWOL will be dealt with as severely as they are now. That said, much more flexibility can be exercised—for instance, Singaporeans could be allowed to complete the six-month NSS anytime before they turn 30.
Those who choose to sign on as regulars in our Armed Forces, Police or Civil Defence should be exempt from this six-month NSS.
Foreigners below the age of 50 who want to become Singaporeans will have to serve this six-month NSS at some point after they get their citizenship. If the thought of spending six months helping the less fortunate in Singapore and South-east Asia is a deterrent to some would-be migrants, well, does Singapore really want them?
Benefits of a six-month NSS
First, NSS would not only preserve two of the main advantages of our current two-year NS—discipline and social integration—but it would extend these to all Singaporeans.
It is interesting how, by virtue of NS, the average Singaporean man has social circles that span broader socio-economic groupings than the average Singaporean woman, who tends to hang out with women from similar class and educational backgrounds. NSS will help level these social dynamics.
Furthermore, by including naturalised citizens, NSS will balance the obligations of Singapore-born citizens with those of foreign-born citizens, helping the integration of new migrants.
Second, NSS will improve social cohesion in Singapore. NSS represents, to some degree, a redistributive transfer to Singapore’s lower-income and disadvantaged groups, who will benefit from targeted assistance by the programme. Additionally, by exposing Singaporeans from all walks of life to the challenges faced by the less privileged, NSS will invariably contribute to a greater sense of compassion and a more textured understanding of issues around social justice.
Third, NSS will not interrupt Singaporean kids’ higher-education dreams. As it is only six months long, it can easily be completed between secondary and tertiary education. Singaporean males will no longer feel handicapped educationally and professionally in comparison to women and foreigners.
Fourth, NSS will boost Singapore’s standing—or “soft power”—in the region. While there are many instances of Singaporean individuals or organisations providing aid and assistance to the broader ASEAN community, our national efforts are irregular and often only in the wake of specific disasters, such as the tsunami in 2004.
Other countries have similar international development programmes—e.g. the USAID and Peace Corps—and given how globalised and rich Singapore is today, we arguably have a moral obligation to implement one. From a political and economic viewpoint, there are many benefits that might accrue from boosting our “soft power” in the region. NSS will further solidify Singapore’s position as the pre-eminent city for the ASEAN area, as regional integration continues apace.
From a national security viewpoint, NSS could be a tremendous boon—Singapore’s international relations and future security are arguably better served by sowing goodwill in our backyard than by maintaining a huge Armed Forces.
NSS can, in effect, be used as a potent tool to achieve Singapore’s foreign policy objectives.
Who will resist?
As with any major policy change, there will be several different constituencies who will resist.
The first group comprises the national security hawks who believe that a huge, active and strong military is essential for Singapore’s survival. Within this group there are at least two competing narratives.
The first narrative is the old, traditional one that harks back to the 1960s and maintains that Singapore is under threat from potentially hostile Muslim neighbours.
The second narrative acknowledges that while potentially hostile Muslim neighbours are no longer serious threats, Singapore’s economic and political power depends on its strong military power. This position is articulated in a paper, “Singapore’s defence policy: essential or excessive?”, written by Major Lee Yi-Jin:
“The role of Singapore’s defence policy has since evolved alongside changes in the security environment. As the threat of interstate conflict has receded, the significance of Singapore’s defence policy has become increasingly associated with its contributions to Singapore’s non-military instruments of power, and in particular its economic and diplomatic instruments. Framed in terms of Singapore’s national goals, this analysis contends that the primary motivation underlying Singapore’s defence policy has shifted away from a provision of security and towards an increase in the country’s international influence.”
Many international theorists support this notion that military power provides the base for a country’s exercise of economic and political power. In “Has economic power replaced military might?”, Joseph Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defence and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, and University Professor at Harvard University, says:
“This leads to a larger point about the role of military force. Some analysts argue that military power is of such restricted utility that it is no longer the ultimate measuring rod. But the fact that military power is not always sufficient to decide particular situations does not mean that it has lost all utility. While there are more situations and contexts in which military force is difficult to use, it remains a vital source of power.
Markets and economic power rest upon political frameworks, which in turn depend not only upon norms, institutions, and relationships, but also upon the management of coercive power. A well-ordered modern state is one that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and that allows domestic markets to operate. Internationally, where order is more tenuous, residual concerns about the coercive use of force, even if a low probability, can have important effects – including a stabilizing effect.
Indeed, metaphorically, military power provides a degree of security that is to order as oxygen is to breathing: little noticed until it becomes scarce, at which point its absence dominates all else. In the twenty-first century, military power will not have the same utility for states that it had in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it will remain a crucial component of power in world politics.”
In the context of Singapore, there are two arguments against this. The first is that this theory applies much more to the great powers—including China and the US—than it does to small states such as Singapore. The great powers are the ones with the economic and political gravity to influence and affect global negotiations on issues such as financial and environmental regulations. Countries like Singapore will never really have a seat at the table; we will never be able to project much economic or political power, and hence have no need for a military to buttress these efforts.
How about in bilateral or regional negotiations? Even there, it is difficult to envision how a strong military would alter Singapore’s international power dynamics. For instance, in 2003 Malaysia and Singapore agreed to refer their dispute over Pedra Branca (Malaysia calls it “Pulau Batu Puteh”) to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 2008 the ICJ ruled that Singapore had sovereignty over the island.
Would history have played out differently if Singapore had a much smaller professional Armed Forces, with lower budgets and no conscript army? Examining the details of the case and the relative bargaining positions of the two countries, it is unlikely to have made much difference. Malaysia would not have acted in a more belligerent or less accommodating way had Singapore been less militarised.
That segues to the second argument, which is that even if we accept that Singapore must maintain a credible military force, then what exactly is “credible”? It would seem, given the per capita military spending numbers mentioned above, that Singapore has a lot of latitude to reduce military spending while still being able to project the necessary economic and political power for our country’s development.
Aside from the hawks, another group that might resist demilitarisation includes any individual or corporation invested in Singapore’s military industrial complex. For instance, ST Engineering is the only South-East Asian firm among the top 100 global defence manufacturers, according to SIPRI. The stable stream of lucrative domestic defence contracts has allowed these firms to grow and expand far beyond Singapore’s borders—ST Engineering has sold over 100 Bronco (or Warthog) armoured troop carriers (pictured) to the British for use in Afghanistan.
Remarkable as these successes are, it would be folly for Singaporean taxpayers to continue to underwrite these firms’ domestic business simply for the sake of supporting Singapore’s military industrial complex. Militarists the world over boast about the virtues of such a complex, including the potential spillover effects to innovation in the healthcare and technology industries. These arguments are morally tenuous and economically questionable. Singapore should simply allow its military firms to sink or swim, without the excessive buoyancy our taxpayer floats provide.
Meanwhile, as Singapore demilitarises, it must ensure that current professionals in the Singapore Armed Forces are not disenfranchised. These soldiers have committed their lives to protecting our country; some of their roles will be slowly phased out, but they must be provided comparable employment either within the SAF or elsewhere.
Certain members of the ruling party may also be against any demilitarisation as the status quo serves them well: as in many other countries, fear-mongering provides some political currency to the incumbents.
“China is undergoing its own nationalist resurgence, and the Communist party relies for its legitimacy not on elections but on a combination of high economic growth and nationalism,” says Professor Nye. “Hawks benefit.”
What if geopolitical circumstances change?
It would be naïve for Singaporeans to assume that our neighbours will always be as pleasant as they are today. There is a possibility that Singapore will one day have to contend with serious international disputes with its ASEAN neighbours. Although China and the US are heavily invested in the region today, and provide enough of a deterrent to would-be aggressors, their geopolitical priorities will evolve over time.
On a related note, the 21st century could see some sort of a Cold War emerging between China and the US—indeed, some believe it has already begun. Therefore, there may come a time in the future when Singapore decides that it does not want to rely on the security assurances of either China or the US, because it does not want to be beholden to either amid a great global power game.
Therefore, even if Singapore demilitarises as suggested here, we must always keep open the possibility of remilitarisation. This will not be a difficult or costly process. It might take a couple of years, just like it did in the mid 1960s. But our geopolitical considerations will not change suddenly overnight. They will do so gradually, if at all.
Like so many other sacred cows that have been fattened at the altar of “The Singapore Model”, disabusing many people of this siege mentality that they have grown up with will not be easy. As Major Lee contends:
“Singapore’s leaders would appear to have skillfully removed any debate on Singapore’s defence policy from the realm of economic cost-benefit analysis. Instead, the current policy is couched as necessary to maintain the unquantifiable concept of “deterrence”, and to provide the stable environment necessary for foreign investment and productive economic activity. Such arguments are obviously extremely difficult to disprove, leaving the odds heavily stacked—at least for now—in favour of the status quo. Whether this trajectory can be sustained in the longer term will depend on at least three factors:
(1) the public continuing to buy in to the vulnerability narrative;
(2) sustained public confidence in the military as an efficient and effective use
of public resource towards reducing that vulnerability; and
(3) the continued credibility of the political establishment insofar as making decisions that are consistent with the broader public interest”
But is it really possible that hundreds of thousands of Singaporean men have shed blood, sweat and tears, toiling in the impossibly narrow slivers of rainforest on this tiny island, some losing their lives while fighting imaginary wars against phantom Muslim neighbours, led by Generals who have never stepped on a battlefield but will one day rise to a plum post in a government-linked company—by merit, of course—all because our country is still guided by the national security paranoias of fifty years ago?
Then again, maybe there really is some small chance that Malaysia will invade us tomorrow, as hawks have long suggested. Just like there is some small chance that the world will perish on 21/12/2012, as the Mayans once predicted.