Singapore’s outdated national security policies


Singapore’s national security policies aresingapore_flag outdated and in dire need of revision.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Singapore’s outdated national security policies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. KamalDo 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, Palestine bumpera 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 map-of-indonesiais 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.

31 thoughts on “Singapore’s outdated national security policies

  1. A breathtaking piece but with some factual inaccuracies and incorrect assertions.

    “Singapore is a small, vulnerable nation that must do all it can to defend and protect itself against potentially hostile Muslim neighbours.” :- It has nothing to do with being Muslim, but about being Malay although most Malays are Muslims. That is why LKY lamented that Singapore is a Chinese island in a Malay sea.

    “(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.)” :- Incorrect. First, the Palestinian bid at the UN was not a close vote, and second, Singapore abstained.

    “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.” :- Despite Singapore’s closeness with Israel, Singapore-Malaysia relations are today the best it has ever been especially in commercial terms. Cultural exchanges also frequently take place. Sharing of intelligence is also commonplace particularly after 9-11. The complex interdependence in economic terms between Malaysia and Singapore have also minimised (perhaps even dissipated) the security risk to each other.

    “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.” :- The less “Malayan” we are, and the more “Singaporean” we are, is what matters, no?

    “…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.” :- You are confusing religion with race yet again just as you do throughout your blog piece.

    “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.” :- There have been several UN resolutions that Singapore has voted for, which castigate Israel e.g. ICJ advisory opinion, Goldstone report etc.

    While Malaysia and Indonesia do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, they do have thriving commercial links, some direct, some indirect. Indonesia even buys arms from Israel despite being a predominantly anti-Israel country.

  2. Hi Sudhir,

    You wrote a very good article. I share the same view too… that Singapore is over-defending itself. Time to relook at our defence policy to reduce defence expenditure so that money can be freed up to help Singaporeans in other areas.

    Can I have your permission to re-post this article on TRE? Many thx!

  3. Enlightening to read a very well written essay like this. Am glad you allowed it to be linked via TRE, as this is where I found it.
    Loved your link to the ‘resorts world dolphins’

    I totally agree that in this globalised world we need our young chaps to be in the ‘markets’ and not stuck in the army running up a hill slope.
    Now I compare how other youths are going out and learning a new skill, a computer language, getting an MBA, or a trade skill – whilst our youth are in the army.
    These guys then come to SG and are now considered talented and get the jobs that the youths need – just walk pass any MRT and look at the number of youths standing there trying to get you another credit card that you dont need. These are jobs where they are not going to pick up any life long employment skills.
    Or many of them end up in call centres, making those nuisanse calls on your mobiles to subscribe to yet another credit card!

    And we should not leave out the ladies. If we really need an effcetive army, we need their participation one way or another. Since we have good number of women as professional soldiers, it about time to reconsider why NS is only for the men.
    Again the Isreal model is interesting, in that their NS is optional for ladies, but almost all women go through it on a ‘voluntary’ basis, as a matter of pride.

    With women also serving NS, maybe the “dolphins” would be happier taking up weekend guard duties!

    If you look at some of the real conflicts that went on around us, like Cambodia and Sri Lanka – women played a major role in them.

    Anyway, I really hope to see more articles from you in the future. All the best.

    John John

  4. What an idiotic, idealistic and naive article! Is this guy for real?! He’s like the pacifists like Neville Chamberlaine during WW2 who believed that if they showed Hitler how nice and kind they were, he would leave them alone. And if we relaxed our guard and disarmed our military, Al Queda would realise we are nice people and never attack us. Incredible naïveté or bold support for our enemies, either way he’s a fool.

  5. Hi Eaststar,

    Rather than just simply dismissing Sudhir’s analysis as idealistic and naive (please kindly watch your language and refrain from calling another ‘idiotic’), perhaps you can enlighten the rest of us as to why you think so? I don’t see anyone remotely close to Hitler in this part of world, or in the whole world for that matter. And how do you think Al Qaeda should be fought? Through conventional armies, soldiers, tanks and guns? It is instead a battle of the mind, supplemented by the likes of good military intelligence, covert operations and precise special forces strikes etc. Exactly the kind of skills that a conventional conscript army is not trained for, which a professional army would be better suited for (as it needs special aptitudes and the training takes more than a couple of years, perhaps as long as a life-time). Sudhir is not arguing for an abolishment of our defense forces. He’s saying that the nature of the enemy has changed, and so should our defense in order to meet that new threat.

    Hi Sudhir,

    An excellent article. May I add another reason why Singapore should seriously relook at its defense structure. All the arguments above have played a large part to result in an outflow of a significant part of our population every year, constituting some of the best and brightest of each cohort. It is time we stem this tide, which seems to be building up. Every Singaporean is precious. We have to keep them being one. And welcome back those who have left in the past for whatever reason, and who wish to be back.

    1. Thanks for your comments, both halves. Appreciate it. Thanks for the additional point, it’s true that we need to stem the tide of emigration. Also, reading your note I remember some related points: that a very high proportion of young Singaporeans (one-third) say they feel no loyalty to the country, a separate one-third of male PRs renounce their PR so they can get out of NS; and that, in the opposite direction, there are Singaporeans who have emigrated who still have to return and serve NS despite already becoming citizens of another country. Anyway, hopefully NSS, or some revision to the system, can address all these issues. Thanks again.

  6. Hi, it is a well-written article, and you are certainly very bright and articulate. I may not be your intellectual equal in terms of education, but I would like to share a few thoughts about this article and the one titled ‘Reimagining the SAF and NS’. I agree with your views on Singapore’s stand with Israel, but I do hope you will reconsider your views on mandatory military service.

    While it is true that Singapore currently faces different national security challenges than in the past, I am not sure this is the right premise upon which to question our militarization. I posit that such a premise is incorrect because surely the strength of our military has influenced the geopolitical landscape. You cannot remove our military strength and expect ‘ceteris paribus’. Our more peaceful geopolitical climate is a result, in part, of our strong military; take it away and things will change. We are a small country with little resources, but very successful. Without the right deterrents, it would be easy, or even populist, to take advantage of us. I mean, up to the 90s, Malaysia was still having fun threatening us with our water supply.

    I believe that as long we are unable to credibly predict our future geopolitical climate, we have to remain militarized – and we cannot simply extrapolate current circumstance into the future! The notion that we can simply ‘remilitarize’ when the need arises is incredulous. It takes many decades to build a strong military. Also, the idea that changes in the geopolitical climate will be gradual and thus foreseeable is tenuous. If it is so easy to foresee and remilitarize, WWII might not have been so catastrophic – Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan did not spring up overnight. Fact is, the other countries that you have suggested would be good benchmarks for our military spending, Canada, Switzerland and Monaco, are all located in far more developed and stable regions than ours. Basically, I do not think that the threat of inter-nation conflict is gone – while I do not see neighbors attacking us, I can certainly see neighbors threatening us. I also believe that the current peaceful climate is aided in part by regional economic progress. All’s good when the economy’s doing well. But when the economy flips, it is hard to predict people’s behavior, and it will certainly be tempting for governments to play the blame game or distract its people with some regional rivalry – where Singapore becomes a juicy target without a strong military. Just look at parts of Southern Europe: they enjoyed the good life when the economy was OK, but once the economy flipped, you now see riots and violence and looting.

    So we need a strong military, but maybe this can be done without mandatory NS? I’m not sure it can. After all, the core idea behind our military is deterrence, and sheer numbers count in deterrence. Personally, I have enjoyed a fruitful 2 years in the military, and have gained some of my best friends there. You mentioned that most Singaporeans find NS drudgery. Well, I feel that if one thinks NS is crap, they tend to put in minimal effort, and consequently leave NS having wasted 2 years. On the other hand, if one strives to make NS a learning experience and journey in self-discovery, there is much to be gained. At an individual level, what you gain from NS tends to be proportional to the effort you put in.

    That’s all from me, good luck!

    1. Thanks for your comments AhPek. You’ve touched on a very good point that I probably haven’t paid enough attention to–the need for a sufficient Armed Forces to buttress our geopolitical strategies and diplomatic bargaining power. I suppose we both agree on the need for this; but disagree about the requirements. I need to analyse this more. Thanks.

  7. i tend to agree with ah pek. we have been called a “little red dot” by our southern neighbour and as recent as a month ago, there was hostility from fans from our northern neighbour over a soccer match. militarisation has brought about relative peace so if it aint broke, dont fix it. demilitarisation is akin to replacing a guard dog with a chiwawa. you should also not generalise about army being a waste of time. what you get out of it very much depends on what you put into it. if you put in peanuts in terms of effort, you get monkeys in terms of outcome.

    1. Thanks. I think there will always be a small percentage of “ultras” in Malaysia who will stoke up feelings against Singapore, partly because they feel we don’t treat Malays well enough. But I’m not too bothered about them–they do not represent Malaysian society. And you find this set of people wherever you go, e.g. England v France games, USA v Mexico ones. And I agree with what you say about effort in army–the problem is I see too many people putting in “peanuts in terms of effort”! Perhaps there’s a way to change that.

  8. Singapore society is basically a society where you are suppose to surrender certain liberties for security. This contract is illustrated by conscription, the lack of press competition, our sovereign wealth fund, and so on and so forth.

    Conscription is here to stay for many years because of the way Singaporeans are brought up here, to put society above self. That is the way we are educated from birth and it will take a very long time for us to accept anything else.

    Its like trying to convince North Koreans that capitalism is beneficial. Since from birth they have been told, in many different ways, that capitalism is evil, it is very difficult to convince the majority of them otherwise. You just have to let them be.

    Its not all bad though. In return for surrendering these liberties, we get the benefit of “walking safely in the streets at 3am in the morning”, which many Singaporeans are actually quite proud of. Every time the West criticized us for our lack of liberty, we tend to go back to that benefit.

  9. It is a well thought out essay brilliantly portrayed.

    Some of the comments herein giving points of view from different perspectives (from that of the author on basic fundamentals) are not only very interesting but carry stuff that is also food for thought.

    Modern wars, even if one is thrust upon us, are not fought by foot soldiers. It is fought by high technology and lethal weapons for which you require highly trained Armed Forces – one adapting to changes of times and always upgrading but ever potent and on the vigil. The capital expenditure for defense procurements and running a regular army can remain or even incrementally increased, if required. The scrapping of NS will save millions which can be channeled to the social needs of our underclass.

    Our youths certainly benefit from NS as it teaches them discipline, team work besides making them trim and fit. It also inculcates in them a sense of patriotism and the national ethos pertaining to our defense and security. There are some who find NS inimical to the flowering of our youths in a non-regimented natural way. They argue the Government benefits more as it uses the NS to control and shape the mind of youths to respect authority and do as told.

    Theoreticians think differently from practitioners. Some of our leaders are exceptionally brilliant as they think and plan long term. That is the reason why for now and the immediate future I can’t think any alternative to the PAP and I am not a member of any political party, I must say. I do not know where did the idea of Iskandar Malaysia originate from – Singapore or Malaysia? Even if it is from Malaysia, our leaders have turned it around to our tremendous advantage. We now have a hinterland three times the size of Singapore with strategic political, economic and security underpinnings.

    1. Thanks K Das. Yes, Iskandar could be one of the best things to happen to both Malaysia and Singapore separately, as well as to our bilateral relationship. I”m not sure who thought it up, but I do know it took a lot of to convince some in Malaysia that instead of competing with Singapore (Penang, MSC), they should think about creating something complementary.

      1. Defense is an essential success of a country economy where stability, peace and order that will serve as benchmark for people to be discipline whether in chaos or peaceful moment. A lawful and righteous enforcer will ensure that the country will not be compromise with terrorist or violence attack for unforeseen element in the world to allow growth in one nation. Our NSF has done great justice in our prospective and outlook after undergoing a two years intensive training to prepare ourselves and face the world at large.

        We need a strong army and police to protect the country at their best for the prosperity and future development. It is our duty to be loyal and take pride in our national growth of our country.

        It is necessary to have a strong defense to overcome surprise threat that will take down our nation without any warning. In every situation, we must be prepared for the offensive attack and be ready to defense it.

        A country that provide a secure, safe and investment haven for investors is considered a right place to live in. People should be able to enjoy their fruit of labor by supporting the government advocacy to give as they grow as one united nation.

  10. Totally agree, save on military to spend on domestic issues. There are plenty of marginalized Singaporean to assist financially

  11. Sudhir,

    Are you sure that we are not surrounded by hostile neighbours? Maybe you are too young to experience the following incidents:

    1) In 1991, during our National Day, Indonesia and Malaysia had a joint military exercise in Johore near Ulu Tiram which is just a stone throw from the Straits of Johore involving massive parachute drops. The wind could have been them over. This is highly provocative.

    2) In 1986, Malaysia and Malaysians’ hostility towards Israeli President Herzog’s state visit to Singapore almost boiled over. The Malaysians were picketing at the Causeway and trying to stop the trains. Now, this is an entirely Singaporean affair involving our sovereignty and yet the Malaysians saw fit to interfere in our affairs.

    3) The unhappiness over the water talks.

    4) Mahathir “joking” about bombing Singapore with their air force only a few years ago.

    5) Malaysia and Indonesia both banning the export of sands at the same time.

    Our neighbours not hostile??? Maybe. Maybe not. And if they are not hostile, don’t you think our armed forces is a very big piece of the equation?

    1. As a Malaysian I find your fears highly unwarranted and your examples highly unconvincing. Malaysia is all bark and no bite; any aggression towards Singapore would be simply shooting ourselves in the foot. And that’s more to do with simple economics (and to a large extent cross-border family ties), not armed forces.

  12. Hi,

    Certain points are valid, such as too much money blown on defenses. It could better in fact be blown on buying more buses never mind the hackles thrown by the public.


    The article over-emphasises SG’s ties with the rest of the world and how we can rely on them in times of needs. Would we rather WAIT for the world to save us, or hold off the aggressor and deter them first, before the world comes (as you would assume)? I rather the latter thank you very much.

    Also, there are many security threats out there that many do not know. Taking national security for granted is a sign that the SAF has shielded the populace well over the years. I can’t divulge too much details here for obvious reasons, but we would do well to consider what I have said.

  13. 1st there are no such thing as over defend ourselves, politics around us are dynamic, not static, if a ultra nationalist party take over as gov in our neighbouring countries and resort to hostility towards us, it will be too late.
    It takes time and resources to train personal, purchase and upgrade hardware, weapons and most of all, maintain a large enough force to deter. Don’t believe in letting our guard down, We may not agree to Israel’s policy but we will not forget the 18 amigos who are instrumental in building the SAF from ground zero.

    1. According to the link Sonia provided, Prof Wong, one of my lureectrs in Uni, the longan doesn’t fruit in Malaysia, of which is quite true. I’ve seen longan trees older than me never ever fruit, even if they flower, the flowers just never fruit. When I was small, I asked my parents why they never plant longan at home, cos we have 3 mango trees, they told me, longan never fruits in Malaysia. It’s recently trees (trees planted less than 15 years ago) that are beginning to fruit. BTW there are even apples and yellow lemons in Sabah. *Roll eyes*Agriculture technology is getting better and better. That’s all I can say.:)A summary from the link is : Mata Kuching is a type of longan but longan is not a type of mata kuching. Longan is not a local fruit, therefore, the locals might have used a local name mata kuching, which is the real local variety, to call the longan which is similiar but not the same. Example: Kangkung as we know here, are called Morning Glory in some neighbouring countries (From what I read in in the internet). We will not call it morning glory because we have a definate local name for it. But for people in other countries, it looks similiar, and scientifically, its genus is the same, Ipomea. So, others call it morning glory.Hope I’m not talking too much and I hope this clears the confusion, Longan or Mata Kuching.Oh BTW, sarawak mata kuchings are not found here, same goes for limau bintangor. Of which my friend calls pomelo, but to us peninsulans, that is no pomelo, pomelo is way way bigger

  14. From somebody via FB Messenger:

    Hi Sudhir
    I have read your article on “Time to Overhaul SIngapore’s National Security Policies”. I would like to offer my personal opinion. NS is not just for defence needs but serve a form of social and racial integriation needs. Socially it helps to keep youths from the street and hopefully to install discipline in them as youth in the 18 to 20 have lots of pent up energy and could be up to no good. On the racial integrition, it provides a chance of all reces to understand each other needs and create a kind of bonding and keenship. For me, I have form great freindship, bondship with alot of people during my full time NS and is still in contact and meet up.

    The region is still not stable. Society will become stable once basic needs are satisfied but there are many countries in the region that still has population whose basic needs are still lacking.

    Racial fault lines still exist within our society although on the surface we are cordial. It takes generations before a strong Singapore identity can be form and currently it is slow down by the influx of foreigners that become Sinaporeans and it will take a while before this group can integrited into our society.

    I have not seen the racial riots that took place in Singapore in the 60s but I do value our society that enables different races to live, work and play peaceful. Once racial hated started, it will take ages to heal if ever.

    Thanks for your insight as it does provide me of seeing this issue in a different light and I would ponder and it mgith alter some of my view points but will not change my perception that the region is still unstable.

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