Singapore increases defense allocation with eye on improving military capability

By Fan Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/11 20:13:39

Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen announced a plan to buy up to 12 F-35 warplanes from the US in his Ministry of Defense Committee of Supply debate speech on March 1. The decision, reported by CNN on Thursday, is seen as "indicative of growing concerns within Asia regarding China's regional ambitions." However, in a statement Sunday, Singaporean Ministry of Defense emphasized that the warplanes are for Singapore's defense and have deterrence value, and are not directed at any country, or not to help the city-state align with any other nation. 

As announced by its Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in February, Singapore will allocate about 30 percent of the government's total expenditure to support "defense, security, and diplomacy efforts" in 2019. At S$15.47 billion ($11.4 billion), the outlay on the military amounts to 19 percent of total government expenditure and about 3.3 percent of GDP, up from S$ 14.8 billion ($10.9 billion) in 2018.

According to Ng's March 1 speech, Singapore will "continue its efforts in defense diplomacy" to promote regional peace and stability, but "must ensure that the Singapore Armed Forces [SAF] are strong and adequate to defend our rights when diplomacy fails."

In the early days of Singapore, then defense minister Goh Keng Swee remarked that "it is foolish to allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the disparity in the population ratio between Singapore and her neighbors. What counts is the fighting strength of the armed forces, not the size of populations." Now superior equipment and stronger fighting power have made SAF one of the most capable and modernized armed forces in the region.

For a city-state, though its size didn't allow it to have a big military, Singapore makes sure armed forces are not found wanting in ability. Defense has always been a highlight of Singapore's budget, lending it a special status. 

Singapore's increasing defense budget can be understood based on the following:

First, raising military expenditure can help increase Singapore's ability to defend itself amid growing regional instability and uncertain global environment. The China-US trade war and related big power games have piled mounting pressure on the tiny market-oriented country. As Heng said, "Against an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment, our commitment to defense and security cannot waver." 

Second, sufficient defense outlay can provide confidence to the country facing regional challenges. Disputes with Malaysia, especially after current Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took office, have put pressure on the country. Ng stressed in his debate speech that "Malaysian government vessels have repeatedly entered Singapore's territorial waters" since last November. 

Third, the budget can support Singapore's military hardware maintenance and renewal. The F-16s will be replaced with the F-35s. In the navy, the aging missile corvettes will be replaced by the new Multi-Role Combat Vessels with full delivery expected in 2030. For the army, the Next-Generation Armored Fighting Vehicle will serve as the mainstay of the SAF's mechanized forces from 2019. 

Fourth, defense budget hike can help improve the troops' safety. Accidental deaths occasionally took place in Singaporean army in 2018, hurting the country's military image. To uphold people's trust, the government must ensure security of soldiers. 

Fifth, defense expansion requires more investments. Heng said, "Digital defense has now been incorporated as the sixth pillar of total defense." In addition, terrorism threat to Singapore remains high, so counter-terrorism will also put the country's security prowess to test.

Singapore's great economic achievements have ensured it can keep expanding its defense budget, and the country's awareness of potential dangers and preparation for any eventuality are key reasons for its defense preparations. 

Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew believed that "in a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimps, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp." A tiny poisonous shrimp can pose a threat to the big fish and survive in international waters. It is obvious that the "poison" refers to the country's combat effectiveness supported by enormous military expenses.

It is no accident that Singapore has made remarkable achievements. It is the awareness of potential dangers that has shaped the past and present of the country, and will continue to shape its future. The budget plan for 2019 will serve as a solid guarantee for the country to guard its safety and cope with risks.

The author is director of The Center for Singapore Studies at Shandong University of Political Science and Law.


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