The New Digital Pillar in Singapore’s Military Thinking

The introduction of a new digital pillar in the country’s defense approach is just the latest sign of its attention to cyber challenges.

The New Digital Pillar in Singapore’s Military Thinking
Credit: Marcus Spitse on Unsplash

On February 15, Singapore officially incorporated a new digital pillar into the country’s overall defense approach. Though the development has long been in the works, it nonetheless reinforces the increasing emphasis that the country has been placing on the threats and opportunities in the cyber domain.

As I have noted before in these pages, as a small, multiracial country lacking in natural resources, Singapore has long recognized the need for it to adopt a comprehensive approach to preserving its security amid myriad threats. The country’s comprehensive focus is encapsulated by the term “Total Defense,” a concept first introduced in 1984 initially set out to include five areas: military defense; civil defense; economic defense; social defense; and psychological defense.

Over the past few years, Singapore’s defense thinking has been seeing an even greater focus on the opportunities and challenges that arise from the digital domain, with the attack on the country’s health system SingHealth last summer being a case in point. Singapore has been undertaking a series of measures in response, both on its own such as the setting up of a new cyberagency and with its partners in the region and beyond, some of which were in display during its chairmanship of ASEAN back in 2018.

As this has occurred, Singapore’s defense officials have highlighted the need for the greater incorporation of the digital domain into the country’s overall defense thinking. Capturing this sentiment last October, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said at the annual Total Defense Awards Dinner that Singapore ought to apply the concept of Total Defense to threats from the digital domain given the rising challenges it was facing as well as a relative lack of preparation to confront them compared to other physical ones.

This week, the rising salience of the digital domain in Singapore’s defense thinking was in the spotlight again with the official incorporation of “Digital Defense” as a sixth pillar of Total Defense. The development occurred as part of the country’s annual commemoration of Total Defense Day that usually occurs on February 15, with Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran delivering remarks that officially launched the initiative.

Substance-wise, the new “Digital Defense” pillar incorporates various ongoing as well as new initiatives that Singapore that have already been in the works. Key components include practicing good cybersecurity habits; guarding against fake news and disinformation; and considering the impact of actions on the community. These components will be backed up with ongoing as well as new initiatives focused on various areas and different actors in society including promoting greater awareness, offering educational courses, and showcasing new innovations and tech gadgets.

As with the other components in Singapore’s defense thinking, the new digital defense pillar is something that will be built out even further with time. The evolution of this will no doubt be interesting to watch as the city-state continues to try to manage both the opportunities and risks inherent in the cyber domain in 2019 and beyond.