Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces and National Service

(This is a continuation of “Singapore’s outdated national security policies”)

Fighting the real enemy: Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces

Why does Singapore Singapore Armed Forcesstill 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 resistLAND_ATTC_Bronco_Parade_lg 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.

28 thoughts on “Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces and National Service

  1. Here’s a middling/”synthesis” thought for realistic implementation- a sudden swap from 2 years to 6 months might be a bit of a “shock”, so maybe it would be more palatable if we start by converting the last 6 months of NS to NSS.

    if it’s a good idea, it works out well, then maybe we can move forward from there, making adjustments accordingly.

    Nice idea!

  2. No one seems to question the cost of each and every battalion called up for 2 weeks of in-camp reservist training, which I estimate to be in excess of S$1 million a pop… and what do we do in ICT? for the most part, hang out in the bunk until we get bored enough to venture to the canteen. A million bucks for a few hundred guys to waste 2 weeks of their lives! Ain’t nobody got time for that…

  3. Politely, I beg to differ. Do spend some time to think about my counter arguments.

    It is exactly since Singapore is so important to the world economy why we need our defense to be independent and sovereign.

    Depend on regional powers for defence? I have seen (with my eyes) how coalition troops slap local Afghans around at check points when they are supposedly defending the country. The locals have to put up with the humiliation of their national flag in the form of a decorative blanket being hung as a doorway curtain to the toilet at a coalition base. The strong will always bully the weak, the large threatens the small. Look at history, justice and sovereignty has never been served by the larger powers. Would they have sided with our neighbours in territorial disputes had we not have a credible armed forces?

    “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” – Thucydides, in The Melian Dialogue.

    Small states have no chances of bouncing back with failure.

    I suppose you buy insurance policies. Do you agree that risks and threats shall always exist in nature, and any reasonable stakeholder would mitigate them by all means possible to limit their effect?

    Never underestimate the risk of religious and racial politics. Race and religion have always been a potentional powder keg. Put in the right ignition factors and it explodes. History is again full of examples.

    Diplomacy, a strong economy and a credible defense are the three foundations a small city state (especially without resources) could depend on. Remove anyone, it topples like a two legged stool.

    2 years of NS (whether one believe in NS or not) to safeguard 50 years of sovereignty for us and our kids to grow up in an independent country is worth it. The sad fact is most NSFs were too immature at the tender age of 19 to grasp the importance of it all, but ask most middle-aged NSmen, I am sure they do.

    Security of our home is, and will always be the owners’ burden. You don’t rely on your guests to defend against any neighbourhood gangsters, do you? Let the foreigners contribute economically. Let Singaporeans guard our home, even if its an dirty task. Have you heard of the term, “tragedy of the common?”. An asset, shared collectively, with no one to exercise responsibility of ownership, will be gone in no time.

    Think of displaced peoples like the Rohingyas. They don’t even have something to protect to begin with. And Zuckerberg was fortunate, he didn’t have to worry about national defence or foreigners meddling with his domestic politics like the Iraqis.

      1. And thanks for writing this article. Although you come from a pacifist point-of-view it does create much debates and awareness among the public and rattle quite a few bones…but then again some dissent is a much needed trait of a progressive society.

        My personal experiences and observations had since convinced me that Machiavellian-style Realism is indeed, and will be the underlying principle for international relations and strategic matters. War and economy are too intertwined to be divorced. Alliances among western democracies in this age is merely a passing cloud. Self-interest over righteousness is still a hidden fundamental pillar even in a perfect democracy.

  4. We are all responsible for our country’s defence, And cannot expect a skeleton force of soldiers to protect our country. And lets say if we do fall into the enemy hands aren’t you going to blame the government than ? So at least we are trained to fire a weapon and have gone through some sort of jungle fighting or most recently close quarter combat. When the need arises we are ready to defend and another things we are more than a conscript army. Based on our efforts in overseas training, detachment and humanitarian i can say we are a professional army as we are very different from other countries who have the same compulsory military service.


  5. And do recall the “Total Defense” concept we had dream up years ago, but now very much forgotten.

    We should also train our people to be self reliant, in the face of major difficulty – like the recent train failures. Here we had hundreds of people stuck in train, and none seems to be trained on what to do in such emergencies – like how train emergency doors are operated, how to lead the people safely out of the tunnel.

    Same could be applied during the major ‘ponding’ affairs we have had. Civil defense forces should be trained to go quickly out to affected areas and clear whatever blockages there are so that flood water drain off quickly.

    There would be simialar training in other area like basic first aid to be rendered to victims. I wonder how many people know what to do when they someone on the road bleeding?

    Another area, our country is affected indirectly by the 2 yr NS is our TFR . Men are 24, 25 yrs old after NS and degree programs that is it lots of catching to do when the yjoin the work force, and compete agnst 20, 21 yrs old from other countries. This add pressure for them to start saving for a house, car, etc etc that starting a family is left behind or even completely forgotten.

  6. “Therefore, even if Singapore demilitarises, it must always keep open the possibility of remilitarisation.” This statement of yours is a criteria that your proposed NSS will not fulfill. No one can ever expect a nation to re-militarize in an instant.

    – To re-militarize without any military training would be a militia, which is not fitting for defense
    – To re-militarize with partial training would be like the USA National Guard, partially fitting for home defense
    – To re-militarize in an instant with training is known as being an NSmen.
    – To re-militarize in an instant with confidence that you have trained long for is known as National Service.

    Whilst i do agree with you that the duration of National Service is rather extended (imagine those of us who have served 2.5years instead of 2) replacing NS with NSS is fundamentally flawed as we already do have a decent social service sector, and that NS is not just serving in the armed forces, there are those who serve as firefighters and policemen for 2 years. Hence, reducing NSS to 6 months of social work is insufficient to breed a sense of belonging as well as to being too short for these citizens to see the benefits of their “tasks and objectives”. Most may pass these NSS as a one-off social obligation project that assists in the society but not in the defense of the country. Social work is vastly different from Defense work.

    Also, i do agree that NS does bring about social integration (reference to the tycoon and taxi uncle metaphor) However, NS does one step further, it does not only bring the child away from mummy’s pandering eye as suggested by you, but it also strips the freedom that youths enjoy for 18years of their lives. By serving NS (those who attend Basic Military Training), they will understand the concept of being CONTROLLED and having their rights being severely restricted as Recruits, this concept is quintessential reason why most male Singaporeans can easily communicate with each other by simply talking about life in the army, since this is de-facto common reset that majority of Singaporean males have gone through and can relate with one another. This reset factor is something that NSS will not fulfill.

    Finally, I disagree that the threat “no longer includes “potentially hostile Muslim neighbours”. Malaysia have over the past decade purchased submarines and upgrade Russian jets, the Indonesian Armed Forces is an army of over 230,000 regular soldiers a sizable force to be reckoned with, together with their highly amphibious navy of transport ships, in addition to the TNI-AU working with ROK in the development of the 5th generation stealth fighter, the KAI KF-X estimated to be delivered in 2020. We have yet to talk about The Phillippines, Kingdom of Thailand nor China’s advance stage of aircraft carrier development. How then given that neighboring ASEAN nations are arming themselves with modern weapons can Singapore not do that same for it’s own defense? Which is no surprise when Singapore invested in the highly over-budgeted F-35 program. Hence, given that Singapore’s neighbors are continuously arming themselves (definitely not against an attack FROM Singapore), Singapore can only take measures in response to defend itself should the inevitable happen.

    Thus, your opening statement that the “potentially hostile Muslim neighbours” is not entirely accurate, sure they are not hostile now, but no one can ever predict the eventuality of their capable armed forces in the hands of a rogue populist elected leader, so the threat is REAL and PRESENT. Given this context, all other pointers of instant re-militarization will not be feasible. Although I do give credit for your suggestion about the 2 key factors that drives the proposed NSS, unfortunately, the workings of these 2 factors are much more complex and is embedded in the ethinic and morale workings of the Singapore society. The proposed NSS does not reflect upon any deep thought given into the workings of these 2 factors and hence, the principle argument of NSS being a social service based on the 2 factors is deeply flawed and dangerous.

    1. Thanks. Yes, I served 2.5 years–quite long. Glad they reduced it. I think it will take some time to remilitarise, but my sense is that if we could do it in the turbulent 1960s, with supposed hostile neighbours all around, no reason why we can’t do it again. Incidentally, Japan is going through the same thought process now, as to your point on Senkaku. And in terms of an Asian arms race, Singapore has been one of the leading proponents. But yes, you’re right, given that all these other countries now have growing Armed Forces, perhaps a step in the other direction would put Singapore in an uncomfortable place.

  7. if neither China or Japan has a credible army forces, do you think diaoyu island will still in this current dispute phase?

  8. Dear Sudhir,

    I have read this article (and the previous one) and I enjoyed the refreshing summary – as well as some new points – of the general debate on NS in Singapore.

    However, I believe the issue is less clear-cut than you make it out to be. History is not on the side of the city-state. The Wikipedia page on “City-State” lists only three city-states existing today, one of which, Vatican City, continues to exist under highly special circumstances. (I cannot imagine any advantage to attacking the Vatican, but certainly a lot of downsides, least of which would be the religious uproar). Further, none of these three have existed for more than a hundred years.

    Though I am certainly no expert, I believe that the historical city-states generally did not last long. The ancient Greek cities – Athens, Sparta, Thebes – fell soon after contact with other powers. Ragusa and Dublin both fell to invasion. The most famous and often cited, Venice, lasted over a millennium, but for most of its history it was a major sea power. Besides, Venice controlled a large continental domain.

    The overriding factor for the fall of these city-states is invasion and annexation. Your geo-political considerations are constrained to the timeline of perhaps twenty years or so. Terrorists and pirates are immediate threats to Singapore’s (and many other countries’) national security. The threats beyond this time frame are hidden behind the horizon, but history suggests that armed conflict between countries is never too far away. Further, though there have been no major conflicts for the better part of the last twenty years in East Asia, the conflicts twenty years ago (such as the Sino-Vietnamese war) have shown the willingness of countries in the region to go to war.

    Whether the 21st century and beyond will be that much more different from the rest of human history is up for debate, but I would not bet against a repeat of history.

    Perhaps one would suggest restarting NS from your proposed NSS when the threat of conflict arises. My response would be that it could either be too late, or it would face major resistance. Even in the 1960s, when mandatory conscription was first imposed, there was major concern and resistance. Predictably, in the future, when the threat arises (but is debatable, as it always is), the political climate then will make it impossible to revert to a more substantial scheme.

    Another less substantial point that you may not have considered is that NS may be an experience which is beneficial to Singaporeans. An admissions officer for a prestigious US university shared at a sharing session that the university offers special consideration to former soldiers (US, not Singaporean, more’s the pity) presumably due to the lessons learnt and nationalistic concerns. Though the monetary cost is great, perhaps the experience counts for something. For some, it may be a valuable experience. Certainly, it has provided my parent’s generation with stories to regale me with.

    I certainly agree that the opportunity cost of NS is high and discussion about our national security policies is greatly needed today. But a cost-benefit analysis of the existing situation is not as simple as you make it out to be in your two posts. It would be great if a panel of experts provided with the relevant documents could look into this issue, perhaps with members from the Institute of Regional Studies.

    1. Thanks Yu Ri, appreciate your points, and definitely agree that a thorough cost-benefit analysis is well beyond the scope of my two opinion pieces.

      I can only hope that these small efforts by bloggers/journos such as me eventually trigger a proper national conversation on NS. Just the process is important, because even if Singapore decides to maintain NS forever, it needs to be periodically reviewed–among other things, the discussion would certainly help convince sceptics such as myself, while reinforcing the beliefs of the faithful.

      That said, I am skeptical about whether Singapore will ever be able to have an open and honest conversation about this. Before I wrote the piece, I spoke with 2 international relations/security professors from different Singaporean institutions–they both agreed with the main thrust of my argument, but said that it is political suicide for them to ever mention this in public.

      Second, I am doubtful that the government will ever release the relevant data that analysts need in order to properly dissect this issue. That is partly because our government is so cagey with information, but also because national security issues warrant greater confidentiality.

      In other words, I believe that “best-effort journalism” such as what I’ve tried to do above is all we will have for the foreseeable future. I hope I’m proved wrong.

      In terms of the content arguments you make, all fair points, historically. City states are arguably more vulnerable and history will repeat itself. Though my response would be that we need to formulate forward-looking policies for the Singapore of today–economically integrated with the world; with many different nationalities living here–not ones that are perennially backward-looking. No easy answer; merits in both our positions, it seems.

      Thanks again.

  9. Taking up Yu Ri’s points, I see there is an implied danger of a warfare that Spore needs to defend against.
    Well, taking this scenrios, I noticed that all recent wars including that mentioned Sino-Vietnam, have been between neighbors that share a common border. Thats true for many others like India-Pakistan, India-China, Japan-China tensions, North-South Korea, Serbian, Chechnians, and many others in Africa. And oh yes, Arab-Isreal conflicts.

    So based on this, our immediate concern should be from our 2 big neighbors. Yes?

    But I cant see why they would want to invade Spore, unless its just to destroy us. They have everything we have and in larger quantities (land, natural recources, people etc) and perhaps its our reserves they may want. BUT, this is locked away in foriegn banks, and will evaporate in a armed conflict. Its not as if we have the $160bln in gold stored under the Istana grounds.

    Also, an armed attack on Spore destroys the very richness it produces. Our banking sector would disappear, our commercial trade will go, tourist, etc etc will melt away.

    So for the 2 to attack us will not make economic sense (which is the cause of all conflicts anyway); it will cost them more then what they stand to gain.

    Also, it will be far easier to wage an economic war.

    Imagine, if Msia cuts down the number of immigration lanes to 2 officer each day at the 2 land crossing we have. They dont need to close it, just make it difficult for people to cross between.
    Changi airport would have to cancel more than half their flights – as you know the security clearance is done by the many JB residents crossing over to Spore daily on their cheap motorbikes. Similarly Juring factories, and many other places. SBS buses will be down to a trickle as many of their captians reside in JB. This simple act alone will take off 10% on our GDP (ok, guesstimate)

    Or if JKT, KUL flights are cut down to 2 per day, our tourism will plunge. Yes, they would suffer too, just like a war between us, but it will be a less costly route to take.

    So, my point is have NS and a military in proportianate to the threat we face, esp. since the 2 years of NS has major economic impact esp. for the male Singaporeans, something that has gone up tremendously in recent years based on globalisation and our opening up or employment to foreigners.

    On the latter, my point is if you let foreigners into our shores, have them subjected to the same rules as Singaporeans. i.e. their CPF rates should be exactly the same, and the withdrawal restriction of 55, 62, etc should be the same. At the moment, they have a big advantage here, as they can come in at age 30, work for 10years, leave Spore with their CPF (which can be big) and return back to their low cost country and either retire or seem business line with the capital they accumulated whilst in Spore. Its a big advantage and big motivating factor for them to come work here.

  10. “But given its tiny size, it might be prudent to maintain the highly-trained Singapore Air Force as a deterrent to would-be aggressors, …..”

    How does an Air Force equipped with highly advanced, attack aircraft fit in with your vision of a scaled-down armed forces? Might not a credible early-warning system and missile-defence shield serve the same purpose?

    1. Hi Sudhir, while I do think you have a great idea with the “NSS”, let’s keep that to the ladies. Us males should still serve the mandatory two years of NS. NS is based around the old-fashioned concept of “prevention is better than cure” and I think in today’s society, that old-fashioned concept is still rather relevant.

      Hi Rajiv, aside from fighter aircraft, the RSAF also operates all Airborne Early Warning systems and Ground-based Air Defence radar and weapons systems.

      1. Thanks Basil. Good point. Even if Singapore wants to maintain NS, perhaps it should introduce NSS for girls–and possibly even naturalised citizens–to help sow goodwill in our backyard, help our neighbours etc etc.

  11. NS is not only for defence, it is also aimed at indoctrinating men with nationalistic ideas. New citizens who have not done NS are looked down on as second class citizens or “not true singaporeans”, and men are paid more than women, this being justified by “they have served NS”. It gives NS men a sense of entitlement, and also makes them more committed to nationalism because they have spent 2 years of their lives in NS and don’t like to think that it was a waste of time: “i’ve given 2 years of my life for the nation, so the nation must be worth it”. It starts from a young age, with kids being given kids Pioneer with cut-out toy tanks, and dressing up with toy guns and singing militant songs in school. In many ways the militarisation of sg culture reminds me of Starship Troopers:

  12. Hi Sudhir,
    I agree with your take on the NS conundrum. In this day and age where diplomacy has a much bigger role to play than brute force defence, I hope that the government will re-examine the needs of our country.

    The 2 years stolen from a person’s prime youth will never be given back and it is more of a stumbling block in an otherwise seamless transition from secondary to tertiary education. Needless to say a full time army is needed but holding back half of a country’s population a good 2 years must surely be grossly overestimated.

    The odds are for us in terms of the threats we face but we seem to be in a state of paranoia. The extent of our military might should only be proportional to the level of threat we face which is, as of now, close to none.

    The cons out-weight the pros so much right now that even our old-fashioned leaders can not deny that our National Service needs a radical revamping.

  13. I just have some thoughts, and they may repeat what has already been said as I haven’t looked through all the comments.

    Firstly, you pointed out that Singapore has “only” 2 threats in Pirates and Terrorists. That’s only true if you assume the status quo remains and the assumption that the only purpose of the military is for offensive or defensive action. Increasingly, military forces are being trained for deployment in disaster relief, exampled by Singapore’s ability to put boots on the ground in Aceh after the 2004 Tsunami, in the days following the tragedy to build field hospitals and distribute aid. Singapore forces remained in Aceh for a few weeks before Indonesia eventually kicked us out saying they didn’t need our help. Which goes to my next point.

    Hostility between some factions of Indonesia and Malaysia remain hostile to Singapore and though they may not be in power today they may at some point in time return to power. Much like how the Neo-Nazi party is gaining steam in Greece today. It would be foolhardy to dismantle our defences considering we have no assurances against being attacked in the future. Though this example might be brushed off, Indonesia is still the only country to have declared war against us since our separation from the British Empire and conduct military action on Singapore soil.

    Your suggestion that SIngapore only focus on our Navy and Air Force is an interesting concept. And could potentially be seen by our neighbours as developing a purely expeditionary military designed for pre-emptive attack and invasion. If you look at the US, the USN which has both the air and sea power that you suggests, is used as a weapon of invasion. with the Army only coming in after the initial assault. Also, a military that is focused primarily on a Navy and Air Force might require less manpower but will require far more training. Will you suggest a lottery where only a portion of the population be drafted while the rest get to do nothing?

    Your NSS policy sounds great, and I would totally support NSS being part of the 2 year NS program. But your insistence that ALL people should do 6 months of NSS including new citizens smacks of a certain xenophobic mentality that says that only those that do NS are citizens, which fails to recognise that many of our first generation Singaporeans never did NS. It also makes it very difficult for a new citizen who has a family to essentially stop working and disappear for 6 months and be away from his/her family. If your intent was not to be xenophobic, I would suggest allowing them to complete the 6 months of NSS over a number of years, say 3-5, where they do one day of community service a week, which has the dual benefit of also integrating them into the Singapore community faster.

    I don’t see how NS currently prevents or impedes a kids higher-education dream, it is a simple delay. And your argument that Singaporean males will “no longer feel” handicapped is not a good reason to change. That would be implying that we have to change policy based on implied hurts or grievances which seems a bit of a stretch. Many Singaporean males have gone before us and many of them have become very successful in their chosen careers. I don’t there has been anyone who has blamed NS for his failures in life (well at least not anybody I know).

    You also mentioned that there isn’t a need to have a “huge, active and strong military”, but our standing forces only number in the 50-60k of which about 15k are NSFs. That isn’t a huge or active standing force compared to the standing armies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand….I would even hazard a guess that we have the smallest standing army in ASEAN. What would be the appropriate protection of 5million people, I don’t think 0.01 soldiers(and support staff) to 1 member of the population is all that huge.

    I agree with you that we shouldn’t buy the argument that military strength guarantees economic strength, but we can’t hope to be like the European nations and allow the Americans to set up bases on our soil to defend in the event that push comes to shove.

    The Pedra Branca issues was refered to the ICJ way back in the early 90s or late 80s. It only went up to the ICJ in 2003. I don’t it is a bad idea for diplomacy to prevail over conflict though, after all FDR said to speak softly but carry a big stick.

    And finally remilitarisation isn’t a simple process or a quick one. Countries like the UK and US can do so because they have a massive infrastructure to support that. We don’t have the same kind of facilities to rapidly train raw recruits into fighting fit soldiers which is why we have a reserve force.

  14. Chanced upon this article while googling for the suggested “NS tax” policy.

    At the crux of the issues pertaining to NS, is the compensation to those who have given up their time, effort and sometimes health over it. If everyone were paid market rate, there would be far less resistance than what this policy has today, or some other form of remuneration to satisfy the disgruntled person.

    Honestly I find the “intrinsic benefits” like “maturity”, etc quite silly. This policy only affects a minority of people living on this island. Many, i.e. foreginers and women, have not gone through this, yet they appear to living out their lives fine. Oh, and not forgetting many other parts of the world where conscription is non-existent.

  15. Singapore’s strategy would be to defend long enough until some of their treaties kick in. It can never repulse Malaysia much less Indonesia on its own. Why would our neighbours attack us. Let me count the ways.
    1) Our arrogance- they stride around as if they are a smaller version of colossus.
    2) Chinese vs Malay sentiments- that’s ALWAYS under the surface- no matter how much Singapore and Malaysia reconcile
    3) Now Singapore Is seen as China’s proxy- a fifth column launchpad from which China can launch a takeover of the region
    4) Indonesia is ALWAYS sore with Singapore
    a) They believe that Singapore is harbouring their white collar criminals
    b) There’s a lot of hot Indo money here.

    Directions change with change of leaders.

  16. to continue…Which country in this region likes Singapore and Singaporeans anyway. Let me count them
    Your LKY wasn’t Hitlerean because he was a dick-tator but because he is/was as eugenicist as Hitler.was. You want to read a book- read Mahathir’s one- a real eye opener. LKY has disparaged ALL races in this area. His beliefs are carried on today by his Chinese controlled party.
    1) Thailand- they absolutely hate us- especially after Thaksin sold the state jewels to the PAP controlled Temasek after a very public backslapping session
    2) Vietnam- this country is going to do harm to Singapore one day- we are seen as China proxy.
    3) Phillipines- of course they despise us- because of the very evident racism against Pinoys in this country
    4) Malaysia- Mahathir is Malay Champion just as LKY is Chinese Champ. Maha may not last very long but his male children will carry that Malay Champ thing with them
    5) Indo- as my previous post
    6) India- this one is more complex- plenty of racism against India and Indians in the PAP controlled media- but they go there to make money- Singtel ( Bharti), SIA ( their India routes are some of the most profitable), the army training facilities for a real discount,all advantageous to Singapore- and see how the PAP just backtracks on the CECA? India should reciprocate likewise- just turn off the investment pipeline- and see how this piddling country reacts.The BJP has the measure of this country I believe. When they come in in 2016, this country will be on the back burner
    7) China- the Chinese people don’t think much of their local “cousins’- an elitists pretentious lot who think they are white. The CCCP might use this place to get ahead but I doubt very much if they will place Singapore at the same level. Wasn’t LKY disrespected there? Deng Hsaio Ping told to stay out of the Taiwan issue and we all know about the Suchou Fiasco. He wasn’t invited to the Hongkong Handover until the very last- maybe he had to bring his own chair. On the other hand we have Pandas…just better check their insides to see that they don’t carry small Chinese soldiers

    So what have we here- basically no friends at all. And surely some potential enemies- so do you still think we need not have defence?

    1. You mention many reasons why people in those countries may not like us. But that does not amount to a military threat–indeed, many of their richest and brightest actually reside in Singapore, so attacking us would be self-defeating. A bit like California attacking New York city.

      Moreover, there are many other reasons why people in those countries like Singapore and Singaporeans. So–we actually do have a lot of friends in the region.

      I see them as friends who might disagree with some aspects of our development and/or positions we take.

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