Time to overhaul Singapore’s national security policies

Time to overhaul Singapore’s national security policies. (AFP file photo)
Time to overhaul Singapore’s national security policies. (AFP file photo)

By Sudhir Vadaketh


Singapore’s national security policies are outdated and in dire need of revision. These policies are heavily influenced by the paranoia of the 1960s, when a vulnerability fetish gave rise to a siege mentality amongst Singaporean leaders that persists till today.

One archaic assumption is that Singapore should maintain a military alliance with Israel to protect itself from its main security threat—potentially hostile Muslim neighbours. This harks back to the mid 1960s, when Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, 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.”

Lee’s decision to seek help from the Israelis was defensible then, 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 Singapore does not face the same national security challenges it once did. Though Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbours, Singapore is not. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario where modern Indonesia and/or modern Malaysia—or any other state, for that matter—would attack 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. Multinationals 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.

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 Forces; it is the Armed Forces of China and the US, hovering around the broader Asia-Pacific region.

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. South-east Asian states are getting closer by the day, as the region prepares for deeper economic integration in 2015.

Singapore’s alliance with Israel may actually undermine the country’s relations with its own Muslim population and its neighbours, and make it more susceptible to attacks from Islamic terrorist groups. This does not mean that Singapore should immediately align itself with the pro-Palestinian side. Rather, it is probably wise for Singapore to reconsider its unflinching and unreserved support for Israel.

What might that mean in practice? First, Singapore should progressively reduce its military ties with Israel. 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 (it abstained).

Third, Singapore should immediately quash the notion that if the country ever went to war with a Muslim country, Singapore’s Muslims might switch sides. This supposed risk is behind the refusal to allow Muslims to occupy many high-security positions in the Armed Forces.

Relook national service

On a related note, if Singapore faces different national security challenges than it did in the 1960s, is there still a 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 knows that the typical Singaporean soldier is about as motivated as a Resorts World dolphin. Aside from the “regulars” (professional soldiers), it is unlikely that Singapore is training very dedicated and proficient soldiers.

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. Just as horrific are the stories of soldiers who die in the course of their training.

A separate reason is a very pragmatic, rational one—the opportunity cost of every Singaporean male losing two of the most productive years of his life. This loss is 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 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.

If Singapore spent only one-third of the current defence budget, its per capita spending would fall in line with the likes of Canada, Monaco and Switzerland. That would free up roughly S$8bn every year. If the S$8bn were redirected to the bottom 10 per cent of citizens by household income—about 0.33m people—that would equate to social spending of S$24,000 a year each. (This is a gross simplification of a complex economic trade-off. Nevertheless, the comparison serves to highlight the relative potential of that money.) It is sobering to note that Singapore, which is trying to build a knowledge economy, currently spends more on defence than on education.

Finally, there is the issue of responsibility for security in a global city. Given that fewer than two out of three people in Singapore 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? Singapore has essentially been targeting a demographic that comprises less than a quarter of the country, and insisting that they defend the rest. Is that fair?

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.

Please carry on and read the second half of this piece, “Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces and National Service”.

This Op-ed is an excerpt from a longer analysis that you can read here.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is a senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The views expressed here are purely his own. Sudhir is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, a socio-economic narrative on the two countries.