Archive for February, 2011

As we wrap up Total Defence month for 2011, Ong Weichong pens some reflections on the evolution of Total Defence. His commentary can be read here.


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Since January 2011, Singapore’s defence spending has been coming under some scrutiny, from both within Singapore as well as from outside. Starting with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir’s comments about the possibility of Singapore’s defence spending initiating unwanted regional arms races, to more recent reports about the Singapore Democratic Party’s proposed ‘shadow’ budget that called for significant cuts to defence spending, and a letter to the Straits Times’ Forum arguing against such a proposed cut to defence spending.

Let’s not deny this: Singapore’s defence budget is indeed large. According to SIPRI, in 2005, Singapore’s defence budget as a percentage of GDP (4.5%) was the 17th largest in the world. That amount translated to over USD 7 billion for FY 2005. In contrast, Singapore’s immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia spent just under USD 4 billion (2.3% of GDP) and under USD 5 billion (1.2 of GDP) respectively. Both in absolute as well as percentage of GDP terms, Singapore’s defence budget outstrips its two immediate neighbours’. Some estimates (the reliability of which cannot all be verified) place Singapore as the second-highest defence spending country in the world, behind only Israel, when the defence budget is measured in per capita terms.

What this large defence budget has produced is by most estimates the largest, most modern, most well-equipped and (significantly) the most well-trained armed forces in Southeast Asia. All superlatives that scholars of military affairs in the Asia-Pacific region are familiar with. Of course, questions can be asked of the combat effectiveness of the SAF – after all, it has never been battle-tested in its entirety – but that is a path I would rather not go down, for this moment.

Which leads many people – scholars, policy practitioners, citizens (of Singapore but also of other countries) to wonder if such high levels of defence spending are justified at all. I have to concede that such questions are indeed valid. I do not presume to be able to answer these questions, but this is my take on what the answers might have to consider.

What is the threat to Singapore? Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir, in reacting to former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Quan Yew’s Hard Truths suggests that Malaysia never had any interest in posing a military threat to Singapore. It might be plausible to conclude thereafter that Lee maybe suffered from some degree of strategic paranoia. On the other hand, the ancient Indian strategist, Kautilya, in his Arthasastra, postulated a geopolitics that makes immediate neighbours as “natural threats”. Simply put, if anyone is going to be able to threaten you, it has to be your immediate neighbour. Kautilya does not conclude that your immediate neighbours are therefore necessarily and unavoidably hostile to you; its just that if anyone is going to be able to project power against you, your immediate neighbours are the only viable candidates. But we should also remember that Kautilya was writing at a time when there was no such thing as air power. Even with air power today, most countries will not have sufficient capabilities to project military power farther than beyond their immediate border regions. It is therefore only natural, in Kautilyan geopolitics, that any country views its immediate neighbours with at least some wariness.

Of course, anyone who has studied International Relations theory will tell you that this Kautilyan geopolitical view represents merely one theoretical perspective – the Realist or power politics school of thought. Realism suggests that international politics is essentially anarchic in nature, that is, that the absence of a central authority that can provide a semblance of law and order means that the need to provide oneself with a sense of security is really one’s own responsibility, that no one else will guarantee your individual security. Power politics also means it boils down to the survival of the fittest (and strongest). Other ideas that tend to be associated with Realism are, among others: the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponessian War (the strong do what they want, the weak suffer what they must – and I admit, a grossly inadequate paraphrasing); and the old Roman proverb “si vis pacem, parabellum” (if you want peace, you must prepare for war). Any student of International Relations theory can then tell you that there are contending theories of international politics, that paint a less potentially violent picture of international politics.

Be that as it may; inasmuch as Singapore’s defence policy-makers think in Kautilyan geopolitics terms, then this is the vision that the country has to live with, right or wrong.

A second issue that might have to be considered is the issue of building and maintaining the armed forces. An armed forces is not built up overnight, it is a process that is necessarily long-term, with many potential hazards (like over-spending on defence, bringing the economy to the brink of bankruptcy for instance, something that some scholars argue explains the demise of the former Soviet Union). Inasmuch as an armed forces has, however, been built up over time, it becomes incumbent to maintain and regularly upgrade and modernise that armed forces. This is what the scholars Barry Buzan and Eric Herring examine in thier book The Arms Dynamic in World Politics. Cutting a defence budget in large amounts might appear to be a socially, economically and even politically desirable thing. Also it is not as uncommon as one might think. Look back at the Carter administration in the 1970s, and the numbers of weapons programmes former President Carter had slashed. More recently, in the US, the F-22 has had its numbers significantly reduced. There have been several other weapons programmes in the US that have been cut.

But here’s a question: what if, just what if, new weapons programmes are cut for economics or financial reasons, only for subsequent leaders to face situations where they actually need these capabilities? Re-acquiring them will be mean the re-initiation of an acquisitions cycle that is increasingly long, painful and costly. That was the logic that explained why the Singapore government, in times of economic downturns, was prepared to vote for extra-budgetary measures to keep extant acquisition programmes alive. It might appear financially prudent to cancel an acquisition programme during times of economic recession; to re-start the cycle after the economy has picked up, however, may mean even greater financial costs being incurred.

Next, the issue of arms races. Readers of this blog will by now be familiar with my position on this issue of arms races. Suffice it for me to say at this point that the old aphorism, “It takes two to tango”, is very much applicable in this issue of arms races. It takes at least two countries – both of whom openly identify each other as the potential adversary in a future war – to get an arms race going. Mahatir may claim that Singapore’s high levels of defence spending might eventually trigger an arms race in Southeast Asia – and I am not prepared to rule out that possibility altogether. I do have one burning question for former Prime Minister Mahatir, however: which other country is going to be the one who engages with Singapore in an arms race? Mahatir claims that Malaysia never entertained any hostile intentions towards Singapore; if so, then why should Singapore’s continued defence spending eventually spark off an arms race? For Malaysia and Singapore to enter into an arms race, therefore, both countries must openly identify each other as likely adversaries in a future war.

Secondly, Malaysia then has to respond to Singapore’s defence spending by radically increasing its own. My neighbour may, for instance, choose to spend SGD 100,000 on a new car, and then flaunt that new car in front of me, goading me to respond to his ‘provocation’. I have the choice to either respond, or to ignore. If I choose to respond, by splashing out SGD 150,000 on a new car, and if I then flaunt it in front of my neighbour and goad him to respond, and if he does respond by splashing out even more money on another car, then, guess that, my neighbour and I are now in a ‘car race’. If, however, I choose to not respond, if I choose to ignore, my neighbour can go on spending his hard-earned cash on flashy new cars, and it does not have to bother me one bit.

I know, I know, this analogy is potentially problematic. Buying new cars is not quite the same as buying more weapons. Cars, unless my neighbour threatens to run me over with his new car, don’t threaten my existence. Weapons, on the other hand, potentially do.

Which brings me to my final point: how wars start. Wars are a reflection of deep-seated political differences between two or more countries, on matters that these countries’ policy-makers have deemed to be of absolute importance to their respective countries. Decisions to go to war don’t typically happen overnight. Wars don’t just break out. If a war breaks out and catches one country’s policy-makers by surprise, this is typically because this set of policy-makers has been guilty of hubris – in thinking that the other party cannot and will not, absolutely will not, go to war with them in the first place. But clearly, there will be a period of increasing tensions and crises in that particular relationship. One of the great problems (at least in my opinion) of the arms race argument is that it does not pay sufficient attention to the politics that underpins any war, and it attributes too much to the issue of armaments and military balances. Of course military balances are important, but they alone cannot explain why specific wars break out. At best, they act as triggers to the outbreak of a war.

Maybe Singapore does spend too much on its armed forces. Maybe at least some of this money can be spent on education, or financial assistance programmes to the poor of Singapore’s society. These are all arguments that are plausible. I am not saying that the Singapore government should radically cut its defence expenditure; but for us as Singaporean citizens to arrive at our own conclusions on this admittedly thorny issue, the issues I outlined here are, I suggest, what we should be considering in guiding us to our own conclusions.

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