Features | Politics | Security | Southeast Asia

Singapore: How to Stay “Stable and Strong”

Singapore’s security approach has been a success. It’s policies now need to focus on sustaining it.

By Tan Kwoh Jack, Ho Shu Huang and Koh Swee Lean Collin for

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address at the National Day Rally in August has been seen by many observers to be a landmark speech. Singapore is at a turning point, and the major policy shifts in housing, healthcare and education all aim to facilitate the country’s entry into a new phase of development and nation-building.

While the rally was ostensibly domestic in nature, external forces were also behind the changes Lee unveiled. These include increased regional and global competition, technological advances, fluid international finance and talent flows. It is a reminder of how the international environment directly impacts Singapore’s domestic politics, and how Singapore’s internal transformations will determine the country’s ability to succeed in the global arena.

There is also one other important shift to note. Small states like Singapore can, indeed, survive and thrive. As Lee acknowledges, Singapore is “stable and strong”; it is charting a bold, new way forward from a position of excellence and strength. This reinforces Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam’s recent remark that in becoming economically and politically successful, “Singapore has overcome its small geographical size.” Likewise, the recent 90th birthday celebrations of Lee Kuan Yew have sparked numerous reflections on Singapore’s achievements.

This shift in rhetoric suggests that Singapore’s longstanding narrative of vulnerability – a narrative that has galvanized its strategic policies for the last four decades in areas from education to defense to foreign relations – is evolving into one that is more about sustaining its success.

Given that the domestic and the external are intertwined within Singapore’s framework of Total Defense – which connects socio-economic factors and security matter – how might these domestic shifts influence Singapore’s foreign policy, its armed forces and the institution of National Service? 

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New Avenues in Foreign Policy

A more complex environment as highlighted by Lee in his rally speech means Singapore will have to continue honing its proactive stance in foreign policy. An acute sense of smallness and vulnerability has long pushed the government to adopt a complex mix of foreign policy strategies. These strategies range from the more hard-nosed belief of needing great power balancing and Singapore having its own credible military force, to being a firm adherent of international law and economic multilateralism while strongly advocating the construction of common norms, values, and identity, especially under the aegis of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

To date, Singapore’s foreign policy record has been reputed for its coherence and for being able to “punch above its weight.” In recent years, Singapore has begun to undertake more active, if selective, roles in the global arena. These include Singapore holding a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in 2001-2002, participating in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in places like Afghanistan, Indonesia, East Timor, Japan and China, as well as more recently becoming a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. These events reinforce the view that Singapore’s foreign policy has been shifting from one of merely “coping” with vulnerability, to one of strength and sustaining success.

Indeed, recent academic literature on small states suggests that contrary to prevailing assumptions, they are not necessarily powerless. They can deploy multiple dimensions of foreign policy power to effect changes in global politics. These take the forms of addressing international humanitarian and ethical issues, or of pushing through initiatives for regional cooperation. To these ends, Singapore has been exemplary in seizing opportunities to enlarge its diplomatic space and strengthen its security.

Interestingly, Singapore’s domestic shift towards a more “compassionate” paradigm of social policies can begin to open up new avenues in foreign policy; for instance, more proactive international advocacy in social equity, human development and rights. As highlighted in Shanmugam’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, poverty eradication and sustainability are integral to national development and global stability.

With the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter (AHRC) in November of last year, Singapore may find it increasingly difficult to remain silent on issues pertaining to welfare and rights. These issues will continue to invoke the efficacy of the AHRC and, by extension, ASEAN. Consequently, ASEAN’s long-standing principle of non-interference will have to evolve into something more vocal.

Inevitably, any official stance that Singapore takes in regard to welfare and rights will reflect on its own reputation and record. How well Singapore can articulate a foreign policy of social equity, human development and rights – more pressing now with the AHRC – will depend on how much progress it makes on these issues domestically. This is yet another reflection of the blurring lines between the internal and the international. The nascent transformation towards a more compassionate Singaporean polity is a significant first step to advancing Singapore’s foreign policy from a position of material and moral strength.

Defense Consolidation

Given Singapore’s socioeconomic priorities, as signaled in the recent NDR Speech, the SAF is likely to be concerned with consolidating and honing its current set of capacities for the foreseeable future. This also ties in with Shanmugam’s emphasis on sustainable development, a key facet of which is increased urban management to cope with socioeconomic demands. The planned decommissioning of Paya Lebar Air Base to make room for socioeconomic development and the relocation of its air force assets to Changi East Air Base is one such notable aspect.

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With the exception of the projected future purchase of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, as well as the recent orders for eight new multi-function littoral patrol vessels and Aster-30 air defense missile systems, the SAF acquisition patterns seem to be incremental. Recent purchases have aimed to sharpen the latent capabilities of its existing platforms via systems enhancements, as seen in the recently-concluded mid-life upgrade of the navy’s missile corvettes. This is a plausible scenario even with defense spending likely to remain pegged to a percentage of gross domestic product, as it has been for decades.

This incremental approach is enabled by the fact that capacity-building efforts in the 1990s and the first decade of the millennium paid off in furnishing the SAF with a balanced set of capabilities. Some notable force projection capabilities, for instance the KC-135RS aerial refueling tankers and the Endurance class landing ship tanks, have proven their worth in regional and international operations in the past decade.

Without stretching beyond its present overseas commitments, the existing force projection capacity is considered sufficient to meet the SAF’s operational requirements. With the existing capacity at its disposal, the SAF may either maintain or scale back on its commitment to “out-of-the-area” international operations in distant regions such as in the Gulf of Aden. The Ministry of Defence also announced earlier this year that the SAF’s deployment to Afghanistan, arguably its longest and most complex operation, would come to an end by the middle of the year. However, the SAF will continue to remain an active participant in global affairs, especially in regional security, given its continued emphasis on Singapore’s immediate security milieu.

Rethinking National Service

National Service (NS, or conscription) has been a remarkably robust national institution that has remained largely unchanged in form and function since its inception in 1967. Most Singaporeans still see NS as crucial to Singapore’s defense. However, an increasing number have broadly questioned the relevance of the current system given the intensive, regular training over many years that is required to raise a credible and capable conventional military, as well as the exclusion of females, and to a lesser extent, some permanent residents, from NS.

That last point in turn leads naturally to the issue of fairness, as well as the inefficacy of NS as a nation-building tool if a large segment of the population is excluded. In fact, recently published results of a survey of Singaporean perceptions of NS by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) suggests these observations may be overstated and Singaporeans do not resent the current NS system as deeply as anecdotal evidence might suggest. However, they are unequivocal in indicating more should be done to allow Singaporean females and PRs to contribute directly to Singapore’s defense in the interest of fairness and inclusivity. The results also reveal that a significant number of NS men do indeed feel that they are discriminated against at work because of their NS obligations. These sentiments could become more acute and possibly even more militant in the future if they are not appropriately addressed now.

These concerns have highlighted how a policy with an ostensibly external focus is now being challenged, perhaps even undermined, by internal issues beyond defense. By serving as the bedrock of the SAF, a key pillar of Singapore’s defense, NS has done much to relieve Singapore of the acute strategic insecurity it has traditionally felt. But as the national narrative shifts away from emphasizing such insecurity, NS will now have to adapt to a new sense of domestic and material insecurity, one that is palpable in Singapore society and that is exacerbated by the perceived sacrifice in time and opportunity that individuals incur in serving in the NS. Arguably, as a key contributor to Singapore’s defense, and therefore the peace that has facilitated the nation’s prosperity, NS may ironically be a victim of its own success. This is undoubtedly a good problem to have, but one that still needs to be addressed.

The key challenge NS faces is being able to mediate the tension of remaining an institution that serves the primary functional (and very practical, even specific) critical security need of external defense, with the perception that it is equally an internal homogenizing agent of national identity construction (commonly known as nation-building) that should be experienced by all. While both can occur concurrently, and arguably have done so for quite some time, the inherent differing objectives of both have caused friction. For example, present operational needs do not call for the enlistment of all liable Singapore residents (most notably, females are not enlisted), yet nation-building through a common experience, which NS is touted as doing, should naturally include as wide a swath of society as possible. Above all, if NS is truly a nation-building experience, then its cost should be shouldered by all who consider themselves part of the nation. This is NS’ Gordian knot.

Perhaps the way forward is to reconsider the meaning of National Service. As it is most immediately understood, NS is a practical defense policy designed with the specific aim of raising sufficient manpower for the uniformed services key to Singapore’s security. Current practical considerations preclude the possibility that all Singapore residents can be enlisted to serve. As such, NS will never be truly equitable, and until the specific aims of the policy change, it will be difficult to broaden its scope. The sacrifices made by those who do NS, ones that others do not make, should therefore be appropriately acknowledged and rewarded, given that perfect equity, at least in practical terms, is simply unattainable. This is a key task the Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS) has been assigned to determine.

This traditional understanding of NS should, however, exist in a broader ecosystem of other national service policies that collectively serve to build Singapore society. While part of the value of conscription is its compulsory nature (thereby making it a shared experience), an equally important aspect is that it provides an avenue through which different people can come together to work towards a common goal at a national level. Few other activities provide such important nation-building space at a national level. To that end, the establishment of the Voluntary Youth Corps, which was announced during the rally, will go some way towards broadening the conception of service to the Singaporean nation. NS will be just one mechanism for nation-building within a broader national service network.

Recent statements by Singapore’s leadership have signaled Singapore is now better placed to address its vulnerabilities – both internally and externally – and that its guiding philosophy is evolving into one of consolidating and sustaining its success. Yet, as it navigates the international arena with confidence and autonomy, the policies that guide how Singapore positions itself in the world will ultimately be informed by domestic concerns, even if they are not spoken of in the same breath.

Tan Kwoh Jack, Ho Shu Huang and Koh Swee Lean Collin are Associate Research Fellows in the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. This article is an extended version of a piece published by TODAY (Singapore) newspaper on October 2, 2013.