This week, Singapore’s new chief of defense forces paid his first trip to Brunei in his current capacity. The visit placed the focus on the defense side of the relationship between the two Southeast Asian states amid wider domestic and regional change.
As I have noted before in these pages, Singapore and Brunei have a close defense relationship as part of their broader bilateral ties. This is reflected not just in traditional aspects like exchanges, visits, and exercises, but also the fact that Brunei has benefited significantly from the expertise of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), while Singapore’s military also holds training in Brunei as it does with other key partners around the world.
Both sides have kept up the momentum of their defense ties through 2018 thus far amid a busy year. Singapore is holding the annually rotating ASEAN chair this year, which has placed it at the center of a range of defense issues, from the South China Sea disputes to lingering fears about the terrorism threat in Southeast Asia. For Brunei, 2018 has been a year of significant domestic change, as exemplified by the reshuffling of key officials earlier this year that had affected the defense side as well (See: “What’s Behind Brunei’s New Defense Budget Hike?”).
Some of the bilateral and multilateral interactions by both sides have been at play in just this month alone. For instance, Brunei’s new second defense minister (the defense minister portfolio is held by Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah) paid his introductory visit to Singapore earlier this month, while Brunei and Singapore are both currently participating in the multilateral Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise hosted annually by the United States.
This week, the defense aspect of ties was in the spotlight again with the visit of Singapore’s Chief of Defense Force Lieutenant General Melvyn Ong to Brunei. Ong’s visit, which lasted from August 28 to August 30, was his first visit to Brunei in his current position, which he assumed in March from his prior appointment as the chief of army following changes that had occurred within Singapore’s defense establishment.
During the visit, Ong met with a range of top Brunei military officials, including the second defense minister and the commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF), both of whom had paid their own introductory visits to Singapore since assuming their positions earlier this year as well.
According to Brunei’s defense ministry (MINDEF), the meetings saw both sides address bilateral issues as well as regional and global matters of mutual concern. Though few additional specifics were disclosed regarding the private meetings themselves, the official agenda items that highlighted by both sides in recent interactions have touched on functional areas including cybersecurity and counterterrorism as well as developments such as those related to Singapore’s ongoing ASEAN chairmanship.