Singapore’s national security policies are outdated and in dire need of revision. These policies are heavily influenced by the paranoias of the 1960s, when a vulnerability fetish gave rise to a siege mentality amongst Singaporean leaders that persists today. But Singapore’s main security threats now are not other states but non-state actors, specifically pirates and terrorists.
Singapore should therefore cut its military budget, partly by drastically reducing the size of its Army. It should continue to invest in its highly-trained Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Counter-terrorist units.
The Singapore Armed Forces should be a purely professional outfit. Two-year mandatory National Service for males should be replaced by a six-month mandatory “National Social Service” (NSS) for all Singaporeans, including new citizens. NSS will involve a combination of developmental work around South-east Asia and assistance to lower-income Singaporeans.
These changes will free up government funds for spending on social services; reduce social inequalities; improve social cohesion and integration; enable Singaporean males to better compete in the global knowledge economy; sow goodwill in ASEAN; allow Singapore to achieve its foreign policy objectives through the use of “soft power”; and continue to protect Singapore from its main security threats.
Singapore’s outdated national security policies
Jim Sleeper, a professor at Yale, recently ruffled some nationalist feathers here in Singapore by suggesting, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the current turmoil in Gaza might somehow have a link to Singapore. In the resulting online melee, barbs were traded but not enough attention was paid to the two most alarming facts Mr Sleeper raised—that Singapore is such a close ally of Israel; and that indeed, after Israel, Singapore is the most militarised nation in the world.[i]
To be sure, neither of these is really “news”. They are both well documented facets of Singapore’s vulnerability fetish—the belief that Singapore is a small, vulnerable nation that must do all it can to defend and protect itself against potentially hostile Muslim neighbours.
Nevertheless, Mr Sleeper’s piece has shone a light on two core assumptions of Singapore’s foreign policy and national security agenda; two assumptions that might have passed muster in the turbulent 1960s, but that today deserve serious scrutiny.
Why is Singapore in bed with Israel?
Assumption 1: Singapore should ally itself with Israel to protect ourselves from our main security threat—potentially hostile Muslim neighbours
In 2004 Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I cycled around Malaysia, interviewing Malaysians as part of research for a book that we wanted to write. We partly wanted to find out how political separation in 1965 had changed the way Malaysians and Singaporeans think about themselves and each other. Among other things, we asked Malaysians about their perceptions of themselves and their country’s place in this world.
By that point, Sumana and I had completed our two and a half years of mandatory National Service, and were well aware of our defence ties with Israel and the US. But it is one thing to know it, and another to experience the clash of worldviews.
“But I tell you something. Do not believe what the Americans have to say. They only say things to serve their own purpose,” said Kamal (pictured), a Malay man in his mid 40s, as his wife and two kids listened. We were sitting in a warung just outside Felda Endau in Johor. “They’re always saying that Israel is the best, when everybody knows they are evil. Why? Because they [the Jews] control Manhattan! They have no choice but to support them. Do not believe what the Americans say.”
The Israel-Palestine conflict greatly influences many ordinary Malaysians’ view of the US, and the way it conducts itself internationally. Some we spoke with are convinced that the US is still on a crusade, against Iraq, Palestine, and whichever other Muslim country gets in its way. In 2004 we noticed many bumper stickers and posters calling for the end of the Iraq occupation. Singapore, of course, had supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In 2005, while covering a by-election in Pengkalan Pasir, a district in Kelantan, Malaysia’s most pious state, I noticed “Free Palestine” bumper stickers as well as VCDs of jihadi struggles in places such as Afghanistan and Chechnya. In early 2010, Malaysians were absolutely livid over Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla from Turkey.
When one considers how political separation has affected Malaysians’ and Singaporeans’ respective worldviews, nothing distinguishes us more than our foreign policy choices. Our governments, through their media channels, shape public opinion. Malaysia’s media outlets are typically sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; Singapore’s to the Israeli cause. This basic difference in Malaysia’s and Singapore’s foreign policies has invariably influenced how we view and treat each other.
But what are the roots of our affection for Israel? In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, describes how he charted newly-independent Singapore’s geopolitical strategy. Following independence in 1965, Mr Lee looked across the world and realised there was one other state that had faced and repeatedly overcome a similar national security challenge—being “a tiny minority in an archipelago of 30,000 islands inhabited by more than 100 million Malay or Indonesian Muslims.”
And so in 1965, some 18 officers from the fearsome Israeli Defence Forces provided the spark for the Singapore Armed Forces, today the most advanced and well-trained military in Southeast Asia.[ii] In return, the Israelis consistently pushed for an embassy in Singapore, part of their ongoing struggle to earn recognition worldwide.
Mr Lee was initially hesitant, unwilling to openly anger all the Muslims around, who were sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. However, by May 1969, Israel had an official embassy in Singapore. On the other hand, to this day, Israel does not have an embassy in Malaysia. The two country’s peoples are barred from visiting each other.
Using the lens of Malaysia-Singapore relations, Singapore’s alliance with Israel is one of several policies that have yanked Singapore away from the Malay region, untethering us from our most obvious heartland. Over the years, Singapore has become less and less “Malayan”, as we have transformed into a global hodge-podge, a cultural jack-of-all trades.
That said, one can understand Mr Lee’s decision to seek help from the Israelis—or the “Mexicans”, as they were then known under cover—given that Singapore had just been thrown out of the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, and that Indonesia under Sukarno was pursuing an unpredictably hostile policy of Konfrontasi.
But the world today is a very different place. Singapore does not face the same national security challenges it once did. Though Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbours, Singapore is not. Despite what some hawks might argue, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario where modern Indonesia or Malaysia would attack Singapore. In fact, I cannot see any other state attacking Singapore.
Why? Simply, Singapore has become too important to the global economy. Some 80% of the world’s oil flows through Singapore. Singapore sits at the centre of global aviation and shipping routes. MNCs from China, Europe, India and the US have sizeable operations in Singapore. High-net worth individuals from every Asian country have second homes in Singapore.[iii]
If Singapore were embroiled in a conflict, there would be an immediate and direct impact on many other countries in the region. As shipments of natural resources to China were halted, its economy might sputter to a halt. Peace in Singapore is a non-negotiable prerequisite for Asia’s stability. In other words, the biggest deterrent to would-be aggressors is not Singapore’s Armed Force; it is the Armed Forces of China and the US, hovering around the broader Asia-Pacific region.
Contrast Singapore’s importance to Asia with that of, say, Timor Leste’s. If Indonesia decided tomorrow to invade Timor Leste again, would any other country intervene militarily? No. Some countries, including Australia and the US, would probably respond with diplomatic threats and economic sanctions. But none would be able to gather the domestic support for a serious intervention.
Sadly, from a pragmatic geopolitical perspective, Timor Leste simply isn’t important enough. But Singapore is. If Indonesia invaded Singapore, the retribution would be swift.
A common argument from Singapore’s security hawks is that Singapore sits in a volatile, unpredictable region and hence needs to maintain a strong deterrent force. Yet, aside from the occasional skirmish between Cambodia and Thailand, all regional fracases are local insurgencies, not ones that could possibly boil over into an inter-state conflict. The only period in recent history when South-east Asian states fought against each other was in the 1970s, when Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were all, to different degrees and in varied ways, caught up in the American-led Vietnam war. South-east Asian states are getting closer by the day, as the region prepares for deeper economic integration in 2015.
Why then is Singapore still in bed with Israel? Does it serve our national interests today to be so closely allied with Israel? This alliance may actually undermine relations with our own Muslim population and our neighbours, and make us more susceptible to attacks from Islamic terrorist groups.
As this is a very emotive subject, it is worth clarifying this position. I have visited both Israel and the Palestinian territories, and have met many wonderful people in both places. I do not want to wade into a debate about the rights and the wrongs of a conflict that continues to kill so many people on both sides.
The argument here is not that Singapore should immediately align itself with the pro-Palestinian side. Rather, it is probably wise for our country to reconsider our unflinching and unreserved support for Israel. Perhaps it is time that Singapore simply sat on the fence.
What might that mean in practice? First, we should progressively reduce our military ties with Israel. Though the alliance served Singapore’s interests when we were a “young nation under threat”, helping to develop our nascent army, its usefulness today is questionable. Singapore can now produce much of its own military hardware and software; whatever it can’t, it can easily buy from other big military manufacturers, including the US. Indeed, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Singapore is now the fifth-largest arms importer in the world, behind China, India, Pakistan and South Korea.
Of course, we should maintain good diplomatic, economic and political ties with Israel—as well as the Palestinian Authority. But the justification for our close military alliance diminishes by the day (I will examine the impact on Singapore’s military industrial complex below.)
Second, in international diplomacy, Singapore should lean less towards Israel. At last month’s UN referendum on upgrading Palestine’s UN status, Singapore was the only South-east Asian country not to vote Yes (we abstained). This despite the fact that many elder statesmen, including Jimmy Carter, former US president, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norway prime minister, had argued that “A vote for the resolution will help to safeguard the two-state solution and enhance prospects for future negotiations.”
(Singapore’s voting record on Israel- or Palestine-related UN resolutions has evolved over the years, and is not as pro-Israeli as some might imagine. In fact, of 19 Palestinian-related UN resolutions since 2008, Singapore has voted in favour of 18 while one was adopted by consensus. Nevertheless, one suspects that when push comes to shove—for example, in the case of a close vote—Singapore will lean towards Israel.)
Third, we need to immediately quash the notion that if Singapore ever went to war with a Muslim country, Singapore’s Muslims might switch sides. This supposed risk is behind our refusal to allow Muslims to occupy many high-security positions in the Armed Forces.
Again, one might argue that there was more justification for this in the 1960s, when Singapore had just been born; when a Malaysian Muslim would have woken up one day in Singapore to discover that he/she was now living in a Chinese majority country; when the very basis of Singapore’s ejection from Malaysia was our refusal to accept Malay Muslim pre-eminence in society. Perhaps back then there was more reason to worry that a Muslim might choose religion over country.[iv]
But not anymore. Malaysian Malays like to joke that Singaporean Malays today prefer to communicate with them in English rather than Malay—the Malays in Singapore are as dedicated to this country as the Chinese, Indians and every other ethnicity. It is preposterous that, for instance, new citizens from China and India are afforded higher security clearance than Malays, who have been around far longer. By maintaining this lower level security clearance for Muslims, we are effectively saying that we still do not fully trust them.
In the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, Mr Lee says that Singaporean Muslims have not integrated as well as the rest. But it seems odd for Mr Lee to claim that Muslims haven’t integrated when certain national policies—particularly those related to military service—have forcibly kept Muslims apart. Have Muslims not integrated, or has Singapore prevented them from integrating?
Why does Singapore still have mandatory national service?
Assumption 2: Singapore’s national security can only be guaranteed by maintaining a conscript army
On a related note, if we accept that Singapore faces different national security challenges than it did in the 1960s, then we must question the need for mandatory national service.
Singapore is possibly the only modern state that has never been embroiled in a major military conflict but still insists on maintaining a conscript army. Yet there are many reasons why Singapore should immediately shift from a conscript to a professional army.
Perhaps the most important is motivation. Anybody who has gone through mandatory national service here will know that the typical Singaporean soldier is about as motivated as a Resorts World dolphin. For most soldiers, army is drudgery; we enlist convinced that we are about to learn skills—such as throwing a grenade and how to bayonet another human in the chest—that we will never ever have to use because our country has never gone to war.
Our hearts and minds are simply not in it. We represent the polar opposite of the ultra-nationalistic, super-motivated American soldier. In short, aside from the “regulars” (professional soldiers), it is unlikely that Singapore is training very dedicated and proficient soldiers. This farce has inspired Singapore’s greatest contribution to the world of comedy: never before has a Filipino maid been imagined as a soldier’s Sherpa.
On a related and more sombre note, when a person is forced into rigorous exercise and discipline for an amorphous cause he cannot fully grasp, there is a chance he can be emotionally and psychologically affected. This may partly explain the Singaporean soldiers who commit suicide because they just can’t take it any more.[v]
Just as horrific are the stories of soldiers who die in the course of their training. Again, Singaporeans collectively might have been able to rationalise all this in the 1960s-80s, but in today’s world, it seems like every life lost is reason enough to end mandatory national service immediately.
But perhaps we hardened (emotionless?) Singaporeans must be convinced not by our hearts but by our minds. A separate reason is a very pragmatic, rational one— ponder the opportunity cost of every Singaporean male losing two of the most productive years of his life.
This would have had a major impact on our economy even 20 years ago. But the loss is all the more severe in today’s globalised, high-technology world, where cutting-edge companies are being created overnight in garages by dynamic, pubescent teenagers.
Consider that in 2004, when 19-year old Mark Zuckerberg was founding Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, almost every Singaporean male his age was busy firing a rifle.
From a fiscal point of view, the money could be better spent elsewhere. The Ministry of Defence gets more of our tax dollars—almost a quarter of total government spending—than any other. IHS, a research house, forecasts that this will rise from S$12.28bn in 2012 to S$12.32bn by 2015.
But by how much should we reduce defence spending? It is difficult to make a proper assessment without having access to a lot more information, but let’s suppose we decided to spend only one-third of the money.
At the moment, Singapore’s military expenditure per capita is similar to countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose geopolitical and security considerations are vastly different from ours. By spending only one-third, Singapore will be spending a similar per capita amount to the likes of Canada, Monaco and Switzerland, which seems intuitively right.
If Singapore spent only one-third of the money, that would free up roughly S$8bn every year. There are many possible uses for this, but let’s consider one—if we redirected that money to the bottom 30% of citizens by household income (roughly 1m people), that would equate to S$8,000 a year each. If we targeted only the bottom 10%, we could spend S$24,000 a year each.[vi]
So, instead of arguing that the government needs to raise taxes to pay for more social services, politicians should consider redirecting funds from defence expenditure.
Looking through another lens: Singapore currently spends more on defence than on education. Is our country trying to build a knowledge economy or a military state?
Finally, there is the issue of responsibility for security in a global city. Given that fewer than 2 out of 3 people in this country are citizens, and that first-generation citizens do not have to serve in the military, is it fair to expect male citizens alone to shoulder the city’s national security burden? We are essentially targeting a demographic that comprises less than a quarter of our country, and insisting that they defend the rest. Is that fair?[vii]
Moreover, in a global city, the very essence of national identity seems to be slowly seeping away, as I have argued here in a separate piece. Thus, how can we possibly inspire male citizens to “fight for their country” in the same way that the Americans and the Israelis do?
Better, perhaps, to professionalise the army, and even outsource certain elements to defence contractors. Sceptics might worry about how committed external defence contractors can be to the defence of Singapore—but with a juicy carrot dangling, much more, I suspect, than disillusioned Singaporean men, many of whom now subscribe to the theory that their labour has provided a dirt-cheap security backstop for foreign multinationals and investors, who have apparently reaped all of the benefits of safe, efficient Global City Singapore without much of the costs.
Put another way, the argument here is that in a global city state with a high proportion of foreigners, foreign capital and foreign firms, national integration can be improved by levelling the national security responsibilities of the locals vis-à-vis the foreigners.
Each of these reasons on their own might warrant the end of mandatory national service. Together, they make for a compelling case.
There are many other, arguably lesser, arguments for ending it, including the potentially beneficial impact on relationships and hence fertility rates amongst those in their early 20s (forced separation during National Service is the reason for the demise of some budding romances); and the fact that it places an unfair burden on some men from low-income households, who have no choice but to sign on as regulars, as they simply can’t afford to spend two-years of their life on a meagre National Service income—i.e. the current military structure narrows the career options of men from lower-income households, as they are more likely to sign on at age 18.
Please carry on and read the second part of this piece, “Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces and National Service“.
[i] The Global Militarization Index (GMI) depicts the relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of one state in relation to its society as a whole. For this, the GMI records a number of indicators to represent the degree of militarization of a country:
comparison of military expenditure with its gross domestic product (GDP);
comparison of military expenditure with its health expenditure;
contrast between the total number of (para)military forces with the number of physicians, and the overall population;
ratio of the number of heavy weapons available and the overall population.
[ii] For some great insights and anecdotes from the days when Israeli commanders, led by a chap nicknamed “Gandhi”, first came to train Singaporean soldiers, do read “A deep, dark, secret love affair”, a short article by Amnon Barzilai
[iii] One could argue that Singapore’s huge military expenditure has contributed to its status as a safe haven, which has in turn helped attract foreign investment. While perhaps true in the building of this country, it is unlikely to be a prerequisite for future development. Foreign investors will only want assurances that Singapore is calibrating its military spending to address the security threats of the day, which is exactly what this piece is proposing.
[iv] The counter argument to that being that in the 1960s many Muslims around the world, including in South-east Asia, were far less fervent in their beliefs than they are today.
[v] Without full historical statistics from the SAF, we cannot tell if the suicide rate within the SAF is higher or lower than that in the general population.
[vi] This is a gross simplification of a complex economic trade-off. For one, the S$8bn savings from reduced military expenditure will also have a negative economic impact on some quarters of society, including, for instance, some of those employed in Singapore’s military industrial complex. Nevertheless, the comparison serves to highlight the relative potential of that money.
[vii] In a separate article, I calculated that only some 45.8% of Singapore’s total population (residents and non-residents) was born in Singapore. This includes Singapore-born males and females. Hence, I feel it is safe to assume that Singapore-born males comprise less than a quarter of our total population.