Singapore Government

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Posted: 06 Mar 2014, 2030 hours (GMT +8)

Speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, at Committee of Supply Debate 2014


Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen

Thank you, Madam Chairman. Madam, first let me thank Members of the House for their continued support for MINDEF and the SAF, and a strong defence of Singapore. I felt very heartened because this support came from MPs, regardless of party affiliation, NMPs included. I take to heart Mr Nicholas Fang's affirmation for a strong defence and for individual effort and for us to communicate the need for a strong defence.

The Pioneers of Singapore take centre stage in this year's Budget and COS. Minister for Finance, DPM, was a bit upset with MINDEF for putting out a PIONEER bag but you know the PIONEER magazine came before his package so that gives us some latitude. For them to take centre stage I think is a right thing. Singaporeans owe a debt of gratitude to our founding generation - for their vision, tenacity, sacrifice and hard work. Because without these pioneers, today's modern, successful and stable Singapore could not have been built. Our pioneers were deeply convicted that a strong military was necessary to defend Singapore as an independent nation. The convictions of this founding generation were visceral, emotionally riveted as many of them personally lived through Singapore as a British Colony, through the Japanese Occupation, Konfrontasi, the communal riots, and the Communist insurgency. You would have met some of them, some of them are your relatives as you described, and when you speak to them about these events, you can see in their faces a face shift as they are relating an incident. Mental images etched [and] seared in their minds are going through and they speak to you with a different depth of conviction. Subjugation and terror; fearful even when unjustly treated; defenceless and too weak to respond - these raw lessons that they learnt first-hand on power and dominion shaped their belief, sank deep their conviction that a strong security force was critical to ensure peace and stability for Singapore and to protect our sovereignty.

Even so, when we gained independence in 1965, this founding generation saw clearly the insurmountable odds to build a credible defence. The reason? Singapore was a poor country with few resources and our people lived on an island with what military experts say has no strategic depth geographically. For the Army, National Service started with significant teething problems in equipment and training. Conscription was newly introduced, and had yet to find general acceptance and commitment. To train our first pilots, the RSAF - it was not called the RSAF then, it was called the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC) - had to borrow a Cessna from the Singapore Flying Club! The Singapore Flying Club was built before the SADC! Our Navy's illustrious beginnings were two wooden hull boats that could not go very far from our shores, and so they confined themselves to constabulary duties within the Singapore Strait. As for our magnificent communications network that we speak of today, well, in our beginnings, we had six high frequency radio sets that we took over from the 4th Malaysian Signals Squadron.

From these humble beginnings, we have today a modern, professional and credible SAF - the Army, Navy and Air Force linked as one fighting machine - able to stand up to the wide range of security threats, able to protect Singaporeans and defend our airspace and surrounding waters. The SAF has had to undertake missions thousands of kilometres away from home, whether it is on the unfamiliar seas off Somalia, the air space over Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. We have done well and this transformation of the SAF speaks volumes of past efforts, and of the sterling and defining contributions of our Pioneers. We salute the Pioneers who laid the foundations of the strong SAF today.

But as with the building of Singapore, the work of building up the SAF is not done. This generation must continue the pioneering efforts to maintain and build up a strong SAF. Present challenges exist and new ones are on the horizon. As many members in this House has spoken - Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Ms Irene Ng, Mr Alex Yam, Mr Ong Teng Koon, Mr Nicholas Fang, Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Gerald Giam. A new generation with different experiences, memories and motivation now form the SAF as protectors of this nation.


Regional Security Environment

And indeed, our immediate part of the world is changing dramatically, as Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Irene Ng pointed out. In the latter half of the 20th century, US dominance in both security and economic spheres was unchallenged, and it provided the security umbrella for this region.  In the 21st century, China's rise as an economic and military power is re-defining the power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific. Japan and Korea are responding to these dramatic shifts, as are India and ASEAN. Already, Asian defence spending has surpassed that of Europe, and it is projected to surpass that of the US within the next decade. Asia will spend more than the US. A militarisation of many countries within Asia, of this magnitude, has no historical precedent. This is the larger strategic backdrop against which territorial disputes and incidents amid rising nationalism should be viewed. 

I recently attended the 50th Munich Security Conference, the 50th gathering. There was one distinguished panel that stood out. It consisted of, among others, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger - octogenarians, maybe even nonagenarians in their 80s and 90s, all WWII and Cold War veterans. This distinguished panel made the trenchant observation that Europe had not seen a major war in the last 50 years. That was a signal achievement to them, because after two World Wars and the Cold War, there was political will by European leaders to make war between one European country and another irrelevant. But barely a month after that meeting, a crisis has precipitated in Ukraine, taking it to the brink of war, with concerns that another Cold War might emerge. But beyond Europe, I was struck by a comment Secretary Kissinger made of Asia. Often we look at Asia from within but often times it is useful to hear the views of outside from others looking towards Asia. Kissinger said that Europe, in the post-modern period, was reluctant to engage in military conflict, very eager to maintain its standard of living, and quite different from the Europe that organised the world a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago because it has been a hundred years since the First World War. However, he continued, Asia at present was more like 19th century Europe, where military conflicts among each other, he mentioned between China and Japan, or other neighbours, could not be excluded. Military conflict in Asia could not be excluded. Kissinger added that the risk exists that "some relatively peripheral issues are escalated step by step, into a conflagration." These were sobering words indeed on the risks that exist in Asia, from wise men who have studied or witnessed the making of wars.

How do we prepare and build our defences for this kind of future? I think many members here in their speeches are grappling with this issue. How do you prepare for this future? It is not possible to predict the future precisely or tailor-make an SAF that meets only specific security challenges. I think all of us know that because if you look at within the last decade, just within the last ten years, all the major security challenges globally, whether was it 9/11, the terrorist threat, SARS and piracy, all came as surprises. No one foresaw us operating a Weapon Locating Radar and UAVs and running hospitals 6,000 km away in Oruzgan, in Afghanistan, or deploying frigates and naval helicopters more than 7,000 km away in the Gulf of Aden. This is not a surprise because military history is replete with unknown unknowns.

Because we are unable to forecast specific security threats, we therefore must adopt a more robust and resilient approach by building an SAF that can deter would-be aggressors and meet a wide range of security threats so that we would not be caught off-guard or flat-footed.


Defence Spending

A robust approach in building our defence capability to achieve strategic deterrence is why MINDEF maintains a steady defence spending - which has delivered, over time, a strong SAF respected by even advanced Western militaries. Our planning horizons are intentionally long term and we spend prudently and steadily. This steady defence spending allows us many "opportunity buys". For example the refurbished Leopard Tanks from Germany. It was a good buy because this was what they termed as post-Cold War dividends. Berlin Wall came down, people said tanks were no longer required so there was a huge surplus of tanks that went on the market and we picked them up at a relatively good price, refurbished it. After this came Iraq and Afghanistan where the Canadians had sold their Leopard tanks and realised that Leopard tanks were indeed very much needed even in desert warfare, had to re-buy them at an escalated price. So we were smiling and saying, "Good buy." This steady defence spending allows us a long lead time to train our men adequately and to develop platforms that meet our specific requirements when we cannot buy from the open market. For example, some of you may have heard about our Pegasus light-weight howitzer - it was locally developed. It can be lifted by helicopters and self-propelled; it is the first and still the only one of its kind in the world. 

MINDEF will continue this approach of steady defence spending that has reaped significant benefits for our defence capabilities. In other words, we will avoid sharp spikes unless security risks require increased spending. We will also avoid sharp dips that will undermine our defence capabilities over the medium term. So if you look at our defence spending over the last 10 years, and I think members have asked for it, "What is our thinking, what is our trend?" If you look at our defence spending over the last 10 years, it reflects this steady investment in capability building, where our defence budget has roughly kept pace with inflation. Let me give you the figures, in 2004 it was S$8.6 billion and last year it was S$12.2 billion. In other words, it has kept pace more or less with inflation and I expect going forward that our defence spending to continue on this trajectory that more or less keeps pace with inflation, over the long term. It is sustainable and it is a prudent way of investing in our defence capabilities.

In buying equipment, we prefer to upgrade existing platforms instead of buying new ones. For example, we upgraded the Navy's missile corvettes which were first commissioned in the early 1990s. These ladies are not particularly young but they are still very sea-worthy and we have upgraded them. The Army's Leopard tanks were also bought second-hand and upgraded to meet our needs.


A Stronger SAF to Defend Singapore

Through this prudent, steady and long-term view of defence spending, the SAF today that has been built up is a deterrent force and it sends a strong signal to all that Singaporeans value our independence and will fight to protect it. This signal, this unequivocal signal of deterrence is priceless. The SAF has also responded well to security challenges, even unexpected ones, as we have done in Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden. Another "test" that validated whether our SAF is ready was our response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Because, if you remember, this happened on Boxing Day and there was no prior warning, but we were able to quickly dispatch C-130 aircraft with supplies and helicopters to assist in relief efforts, as well as a Landing Ship Tank (LST). The RSS Endurance carried over 400 people, more than 50 vehicles, and a large amount of relief supplies. This was of course to Aceh and this was before we realised also that other parts were hit. Remember the epicentre; it also affected Krabi and across Thailand. So within days, we had to send our second LST. It was deployed, and then a third. At this time, our fourth and remaining LST was deployed in the Northern Arabian Gulf. For your information, we only have four LSTs, all deployed, 100% operational efficiency. Button pushed, all out, deployed, all ready, men and machines working well. It is because we have invested steadily, trained our men, made sure our systems are optimised that we are able to do this. And when called to do more, the SAF will step up. Ms Ellen Lee asked about National Maritime Security System (NMSS) and the SAF has stepped up to coordinate and control this maritime security system.

We have done well thus far, but MINDEF and the SAF must again be strongly positioned for the future. Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Mr Nicholas Fang and Mr Pritam Singh asked about this.

The question is, "What are we building for the future?" I thought instead of telling you, I will try to show you, I think it is much easier. Let me illustrate with a schematic of what the SAF might look like in 2030. You will find this in your goodie bag. This particular picture, and basically it says "Current", "Plan" and "Future". The SAF in 2030 will be one with all parts highly connected. Which means that whether it's the fighter pilot in the air, the sailor out on the oceans or the soldier on land, each will be able to see the big picture, and beyond that, speak to each other to jointly target threats and orchestrate responses. Let me repeat that - whether you are a fighter pilot, a sailor out on the oceans or a soldier on land, you will be able to see the big picture, speak to each other, jointly target threats and orchestrate responses. Sounds simple but very, very difficult to do. This concept of a networked force is now a reality, and the SAF is a front-runner in global terms in realising the full potential of a networked military.


In 2030, our F-16s will have been upgraded with what we call the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, which are more precise, which can see further and will have more precise air-to-ground munitions. The F-16s upgraded with the F-15s, will be able to defend our airspace ably. In addition, we would have acquired our next generation fighter aircraft, which Mr Pritam Singh asked about. We are not quite ready to decide yet, we will take our time because our F-16s and F-15s will serve us for the near term and medium term. We will also have in place multi-layered air defence capabilities with the deployment of the SPYDER and ASTER-30 Surface-to-Air Missile Systems. In other words, layers of air defence. Our current KC-135 aerial tankers will have been replaced by the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), which we have decided to acquire. The MRTT, or Airbus A330, can hold 20% more fuel than our current KC-135s and will extend the range of our fighters through Air-to-Air Refuelling. The Airbus A330 can also double up as a cargo and troop-lift aircraft to deploy troops and equipment to overseas sites further away as we have done in HADR operations. You will be familiar with the A330 because you fly in some of these commercial planes.

For our Navy, the two Type-218SG submarines will be in operation, together with our two Archer-class submarines. Our frigates, operating with their Sikorsky S-70B Naval Helicopters, and our new Littoral Mission Vessels, will form the mainstay of our surface fleet. The Naval Helicopters have proved to be effective and versatile for a wide range of missions. When we deployed them in the Gulf of Aden, it validated their usefulness in counter-piracy missions and the SAF has therefore decided to acquire two more Naval Helicopters. The SAF has also found the multi-role Landing Ship Tank to be an effective workhorse in our relief efforts, so whether it was to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Northern Arabian Gulf, whether it was to relief efforts elsewhere, they were found to be effective. But if there was one limitation, it was in their carrying capacity. We are therefore studying carefully the need for larger LSTs that can carry more helicopters as well as more cargo.

The Army in 2030 will certainly be more mobile. In the next 10 years, the number of units that will operate on wheel or track platforms will almost double. So whatever we have right now, in 10 years they will double in numbers and this will create more mobile units. This includes more Terrex Infantry Fighting Vehicles, to deal with threats in urban environments. The Terrexes will be linked to UAVs to see further, better and act more decisively. The Bionixes will also be upgraded and this will be operationalised by 2030.

By 2030, the SAF also expects that future systems that are currently prototyped or thought about will be part of our day to day use. Possibilities include multiple micro-UAVs for individual soldiers. Some of you may have seen on YouTube these gyrocopters that are swarming. Very likely that individual soldiers will be able to use them or even robotic mules that can carry very heavy loads and follow soldiers autonomously. I know that this will be every soldier's dream where a robot mule carries your rifle but do not get ahead of yourself. This is for serious stuff. We will continue to test these capabilities in realistic terrain and scenarios. For example, as we did in Exercise Forging Sabre 2013, where we deployed our widest range of platforms and precision munitions to date. F-15s, F-16s fighters, Apaches and Chinook helicopters, and our HIMARS. 

I'm painting you a snapshot of the SAF in 2030 so that you can see what our defence spending is moving towards in visual terms. These capabilities of the SAF, if achieved by 2030, should provide Singaporeans the confidence that Singapore can be protected. I say confidence, not certainty. The future is as always unpredictable. I would also remind members of this House and Singaporeans who have asked whether we are too far ahead or if we are too well protected that, as a small country of only 700 square km and about 4 million residents, our vulnerabilities will always exist. We cannot erase these vulnerabilities. We can mitigate them and prepare the best we can for our defences, with the resources available. But we must be resilient enough to withstand the unforeseen. But most importantly, whether we can deter would-be aggressors for another 50 years and achieve peace depends not on advance systems or weaponry, no matter how sophisticated, but our people and their resolve to defend our island home.


SAF Soldiers - Strengthening National Service

Therefore, I agree completely with members who have said that we have to raise and inculcate values in the next generation and in this generation. We must therefore continually strengthen the training and commitment of our soldiers, which is why we started the Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS), which I chair and which Second Minister and MOS chair Working Groups. Our National Servicemen are a critical part of our fighting force and together with the regulars, are crucial to our defence and this is why we have to ensure that Singaporeans give full commitment to their duties during NS.

I think Singaporeans should be heartened that NS continues to enjoy widespread support. Many of you would have read the independent survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies. It was randomised, [and] rigorous in statistical terms. We outsourced it so that it would not be connected to MINDEF. They surveyed 1,200 people last July. 98% of respondents acknowledged that NS is crucial for national defence and for securing Singapore's peace and prosperity. When they presented these results to me, I tried very hard to poke holes in their methodology, I said "These were people that you knew would say that defence is important." The researcher was somewhat taken aback and said, "No". He defended it well and I kept probing him. He was satisfied that his methodology was rigorous. I know of no issue in Singapore where 98% of the respondents give support. The Committee also engaged nearly 40,000 people from all walks of life to draw ideas and as well as to find ways that we think we can improve.

I would say that while the majority of Singaporeans support NS, many also said that time committed to the SAF during full-time NS and In-Camp Training (ICTs) could be better utilised. I think that that is fair comment. The SAF takes this criticism to heart because those who gave feedback were not asking for lighter loads or less involvement. They in fact wanted NS to better strengthen our national identity and social cohesion, and instil discipline and values, which many members of this House have echoed. They said there should be less time wasted and more effective training systems. I agree that these are good outcomes, even if people are committed to NS and that we should find ways to improve the system, seriously look at the system to see if we can improve it. So I asked the SAF to take a serious view, take a serious look. Let me share with members some preliminary responses from the SAF.

We need to and we can improve training, but we will need to employ more professional trainers, especially for the Army. Let me explain why. The current system has second-year NSFs train and lead new recruits and servicemen. You would have gone through it yourself or you would have children or relatives who gone there. In other words, the older batch second-year NSFs train and command the first-year NSFs. I think there are merits in this. You really build commanders, you hone leadership skills, you build a sense of stakeholdership, ownership. But there are limitations. Compared to having professional trainers which will have greater impact on training outcomes, inculcating discipline and more importantly, transmitting values. There is a limit to which what a 22-year-old NSF can transmit to a 21-year-old NSF. Some of them do it very well and I am very proud of them but we have to accept that there are limits. In fact, using only full-time regular trainers is how the Commandos train their recruits in basic training. They have always done it for years; all their trainers are professional trainers.  For the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC), which your relatives and your children go to, only about 1 in 6 trainers are professional regulars. Of all the trainers, 5 are NSFs, 1 of them is a professional regular. Arising from the CSNS, the SAF has decided to employ more regulars as full-time trainers, as a career path. We are studying the details about how many we need but we could employ as many as 1,100 more regulars to fill this vital role. This will increase the proportion of professional regular trainers in BMTC from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3, which is a significant improvement, which I think will strengthen the training of our NSmen.

Full-time Army trainers will make the training of NS men more effective and efficient; possibly even shorten the training duration. As quickly I have said that, let me quickly dispel unrealistic expectations. The number of ICTs that NSmen have to perform will not be reduced. Let me say that again, "Will not be reduced." The reason is this: we reduced it from 13 to 10 ICTs in 2006. As many of you have pointed out, including Mr Ong Teng Koon, the demographic challenges are there and we need these 10 ICTs and those in MINDEF reserves to maintain the strength in our standing force. This will meet our defence needs, even with falling birth rates, until 2040.

The largest impact of employing more regular trainers I think will be on the training of our NSFs and I think there can be some time savings. Because in the present system, some time is required for the second-year NSF trainers to adapt themselves to the training environment in their units and training schools. So having regular trainers will smoothen this transition. But here again, let me quell unrealistic expectations. The time savings will be a few weeks at most, if any. I am not making any promises here because the Army has to study many details to ensure that we can continue to generate operationally ready units. But if there are time savings in terms of weeks, we will pass it on and we will operationalise it but the Army is under no pressure to deliver on that score.

But there is an area that we can improve in, arising from the feedback, and that is to reduce the waiting time before enlistment. Many of you know this problem because the reason is Singaporeans before enlistment have different educational pathways. Some go to Junior College, some go to Polytechnic, some go to ITE and they have different waiting times. Some are longer than for others. I asked the SAF to respond to this feedback, to develop a system where we can commit to all enlistees, except for some exceptions, that all of them can start their BMT and NS within a fixed time frame, say within 4-5 months. I think this is possible. But please remember that we are dealing with nearly 20,000 enlistees every year, so the logistics are very challenging. But the Army is studying this seriously and expects to complete its detailed studies on the issues raised by the CSNS in the second half of this year.

The Committee also noted that many Singaporeans supported the idea of more women and first-generation Permanent Residents and New Citizens volunteering for roles in national defence. The idea of a SAF Volunteer Corps for women, PRs and new citizens, I think has gained wide acceptability. Mr Pritam Singh talked about his own session that he was involved in and we think that this is a very good idea that we will adopt. Second Minister Chan will speak more on this idea.

MOS Maliki will also share ideas from the CSNS, how we can enhance recognition and benefits for our NSmen.

Some of the members here have asked how we are good stewards of another precious resource apart from dollars - land - and I agree with you. MINDEF is mindful to use land efficiently, given competing needs. I think Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Sylvia Lim asked about. This is why MINDEF and the SAF on its own undertook studies to relocate Paya Lebar Airbase. I want to remind everybody here that this will free up the 800 hectares in Paya Lebar for redevelopment, as announced by PM last year.

Where we can, we also train overseas. But we do need local land for training, which we optimise. The Multi Mission Range Complex (MMRC) is an example. I encourage you to visit it. We will arrange for you to visit this. The MMRC houses seven ranges which can simulate both day and night conditions, and it occupies the site of what used to be just one single 100m range. Seven ranges on one site.

We have consolidated our training into two main training areas - the live firing areas and manoeuvring areas in the West and the offshore training area in Pulau Tekong. We have intensified the use of our camps and equipping centres to fulfil operational, security and safety requirements.


Defence Diplomacy Efforts and International Security Contributions

Our security is also strengthened when we build defence ties with other countries as Ms Ellen Lee have asked and mentioned.

With Malaysia, our armed forces cooperate regularly through bilateral exercises and joint activities including the Malacca Strait Patrols and the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Last month, our two navies, the Malaysian and Singapore navies, commemorated the 30th anniversary of Exercise Malapura. My counterpart Dato' Seri Hishammuddin Hussein visited Singapore recently and we agreed to strengthen bilateral defence cooperation. With Indonesia, the warship naming episode has impacted bilateral relations and set back many years of relationship building in defence ties. Yet Singapore and Indonesia continue to share many common interests in maintaining regional peace and security. We want good defence ties with Indonesia and I hope that we can rebuild this important bilateral relationship, based on mutual trust and respect.

With the US, the rotational deployment of the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore began last year. Our close relations with US have provided us with many benefits such as access to high-end defence systems which contribute to our capabilities as well as access to training space. I mentioned to you that the training space in Arizona is many multiples that of Singapore, the whole of Singapore. Without this area, we will be unable to hone our capabilities or test our capabilities. We also welcome US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel's reassurance that the US remains committed to this region.

With China, the SAF and the People's Liberation Army have regular professional exchanges, we attend each other's courses, and port calls. Last year when the PLA Navy called in Singapore, we took this opportunity to conduct a bilateral passage exercise. I look forward to working with new Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and the new PLA leadership.

Our ties with partners such as Brunei, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, India, France and Germany also remain strong.

Mr Alvin Yeo asked for an update on the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). The ADMM-Plus has made good progress. One example is the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and Military Medicine Exercise in Brunei where over 3,000 personnel from all 18 ADMM-Plus countries exercised in June last year.

Mr Alvin Yeo also asked about our international security efforts in the Gulf of Aden. We will deploy a fifth Task Group, comprising a Frigate and a Naval Helicopter, to the Gulf of Aden, from March to June this year.


Conclusion

Madam, we build the SAF for an uncertain future with unknown risks and new challenges. But MINDEF is confident that as long as we have the strong support of members of this House and Singaporeans, who are resolved to defend ourselves and willing to invest in building these capabilities, the SAF will be able to preserve our peace and protect our sovereignty. Second Minister Chan and Dr Maliki will address your remaining questions as well as elaborate on the deliberations of their various CSNS Working Groups.

Thank you.


Last updated on 07 Mar 2014