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Posted: 02 Aug 2013, 2000 hours (GMT +8)

Speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, at the Total Defence Symposium 2013

Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen

Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen

Senior Minister of State,
Senior Parliamentary Secretary,
Chief of Defence Force,
Chief of Army,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good evening to all of you.

Let me begin by congratulating and thanking all award winners and civil resource owners for your continued strong support for Total Defence and National Service (NS). This year, we are giving out 522 Total Defence Awards, 10 of them will receive the highest tier - the Minister for Defence Award. We are giving out more awards each year. This trend is very encouraging because it tells us that more employers and civil resource owners continue to support and contribute to Total Defence. I also want to thank many civil resource owners. I have spoken to you on many occasions and many of you give us full support during our civil resource mobilisation exercises, and some even refuse any compensation. I have asked them why, and these owners tell me that this is important, that if the country is not stable we will not progress. They actually don't want the compensation because that is their contribution to Total Defence. I am very touched by that.

Indeed, Singapore has enjoyed peace and progress for over four decades, more than forty years. That is a very long time because an entire new generation would have grown up in this period, a new generation with no direct recollection of the Japanese Occupation, racial riots or the communist insurgency. These are the three challenges in our history. If you talk to them about the Japanese Occupation or racial riots or communist insurgency, they may have studied it in primary school or national education but they don’t have direct memories or even stories that they have heard. These were the hardships that shaped the beliefs of the founding generation. I think that is why I mentioned the civil resource owners and other employers who strongly support defence. They do so because of their personal encounters during these difficult times. But times have changed and the new generation has grown up. In fact, we are very thankful for this prolonged period of tranquillity and harmony. I don’t think anyone here wishes hard times for Singapore and Singaporeans. But of course with the long period of peace and tranquillity, we will have to manage the complacency that can set in because we have done so well, Singapore has done so well, and for so long.

So this afternoon, I want to pose to you a question, to think along with me. Especially because for forty years, we have not had security challenges for Singapore. We have been doing Total Defence campaigns every year for many years. My question for you to think along with me: how do we know that our efforts and plans for Total Defence are effective? Because we have never really tested? For the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), we have complex exercises that we do in Australia, in America, air-land integration, simulated enemies, live-firing. From time to time, we mobilise the SAF. We just completed our operations in Afghanistan, this time it is not simulated - real rockets coming in, real enemies, real danger. We deploy the SAF in the Gulf of Aden against pirates, again real situations. We can have a rough assessment of our capabilities, whether our systems work together or not. But for Total Defence, how do we know if we are never really tested? One way I think to determine is Total Defence efforts are working, is to see how we respond as a nation when we do encounter what I call minor battles. I can think of two such incidents in the past decade - SARS in 2003. I think many of you would have been in the workforce and had undergone that, and the recent haze. To evaluate how strong we are in Total Defence, we ask: in both these episodes, did Singapore come together to fight this common threat? How strong and effective was the Government's leadership and how quickly did we organise ourselves? Apart from the Government, did other groups - employers, social groups, unions, NGOs, the people themselves - did they take independent action? I think the answers to these probing questions can reveal our strengths as well as our weaknesses. I was directly involved in both the SARS and the haze and I can share some perspectives. I am sure that you will have your perspectives and I would be interested to hear from you after this award ceremony. For myself, when I assess these two national threats, I would say that we did above average, but there is still room for improvement. I will use some examples to illustrate why I have come to that conclusion.

During SARS, our economy nearly grounded to a standstill. If you remember what happened, you will remember we had deaths. This was before we could put out that mass thermal imaging devices that DSTA helped to develop. In airports, we were worried that people with SARS were coming in. When you went to the office, when you went to work, and in places where there were a lot of people, you would be worried that you could come into contact with somebody who would have been exposed to SARS. I remember we had to go through Parliament to get the Presidential consent for quick change in our laws to quarantine people. Before that, we didn't need this and we didn't have the powers to quarantine families who were exposed to SARS. The news spread worldwide that Singapore was one of the places hit. So worldwide, people were worried to come here and tourists just stayed away. You know how low the hotel occupancy fell during that period? Take a guess? Hotel occupancy went down to as low as 4%! And the Government tried to stimulate the economy and tried to make sure that business went ahead as per normal. We knew that if the Government withdrew, businesses would be affected. We did what we could so we held conferences like this and continued with our events. Not only hotels, but retail outlets and F&B outlets that were dependant on tourists, businesses with high overheads were really struggling. Employers will say they don’t know how long this will last, how would they reduce their costs? I remember employers, unions and Government meeting with hotel owners, F&B associations like you and saying that we have to find ways to reduce unemployment. We came up together and enforced weekday offs, four-day weeks and enforced leave, all so that together we can reduce unemployment. This helped because when businesses picked up again, they didn’t have to spend a lot of effort trying to rehire. That was a very good example of employers, workers and Government working together in Total Defence.

I talked about quarantine. If your family was exposed to somebody with SARS and the SAF was involved in contact tracing, they will call you and say that you have to be quarantined for a week. So that if you are infected and you show the symptoms, then you would not be able to spread the disease. I think that was the right move. So I thought for SARS, we did above average. It gave us a sense.

Just over a month ago, you remember the 3-hour PSI level went above 400. We didn't really know how long the haze would last. It was dependant on wind. We were worried because above 400 was hazardous, if it continues, what happens to the economy? SARS affected pockets here and there - remember we put the mass thermal imaging devices and we sort of cordoned the whole of Suntec or Raffles City so that there was only one entrance and exit point. Once you have the thermal imaging, you can relax, but he haze is everywhere! There is no place you can hide from the haze so we were worried that if we didn’t have the resilience, our economy would be even worse than SARS. Prime Minister called for an Inter-Ministerial Committee, we examined this, and in particular, I wanted to focus first on industries which were high-impact and had their workers outdoors. So I visited a construction site, this was one of our HDB new estates, to make sure that this would continue and delivery would be on time. I spoke with the contractors and their workers. I was assured because the employers had already gone out and bought masks, even though there was a shortage. They had taught their workers how to use it so that in case the air really turned bad, the workers could still continue. I visited Changi Airport and the baggage handling terminal because this was outdoors and an area I was also concerned about. They handled 50 million passengers a year at one point. You could do your mathematics - 50 million divided by 365. If these baggage handlers have to wear masks and they slow down, you can very well have a situation where planes will have to be diverted because planes cannot clear and you can have great impact. Changi Airport needs 30,000 workers to just function as it does, everyday, 24/7. Employers, workers and unions have worked out how to make sure this doesn’t slow down drastically. But not only individuals, employers, unions, agencies, but also individual Singaporeans and NGOs also took their own initiative to respond to the haze. Youth groups, for instance, bought masks and distributed them to the elderly and the needy in the society. Others willingly opened up their air-conditioned homes for strangers to take refuge from the haze. It was heartening to see Singaporeans rally together to help one another.

I said there was room for improvement, there is, but we can take great assurance that these efforts, these responses, in Total Defence are bearing fruit.

If there is one area in which we need to improve on. It is information management. You would think that in this day and age where information could be sent out, it would be easier to communicate. It is actually the reverse. Why? Because there is a new threat: DRUMS on the internet - Distortions, Rumours, Untruths, Misinformation and Smears. This new generation has to deal with all these on the Internet. In a tense and volatile situation, DRUMS can spread very far and wide and even cause confusion and chaos. Those who would do us harm will purposely start DRUMS to weaken our resolve and cause disunity. We have to learn how to respond to DRUMS, both as a Government and the people. The authorities must have a quick response plan. At the same time, the people themselves must be more discerning about the information that they read on the Internet. Singaporeans themselves can respond or counter and stop the spread of DRUMS.

Employers’ Support for Defence and NS

As employers, you play in large role in Total Defence, especially in the support you provide to NSmen. I would tell you that without your strong support and unstinting commitment to NS, we would not have a strong SAF, as we have today, capable of deterring threats and defending Singapore.

Repeatedly, when we have our focus groups or when we talk to NSmen, they tell us that whether they can fulfill their NS duties or whether the spirit, attitude and motivation in which they do their NS duties, depends a lot on you as employers, the support of their company and bosses. I am grateful that employers here today have gone the extra mile to support their NSmen during ICTs. For example, we have a Battalion Second-In-Charge, Mr Thomas Wong, he worked for Shell, and when he had to do a  five-week long full-time National Service Command and Staff course - our NSmen are doing very well, promote them and put them into higher capabilities, but we have to send them for proper courses, and this is a five-week National Service Command and Staff course. So Shell made alternative arrangements so that Mr Wong could attend this course. Syntax, another company, made sure that when their NSmen needs to go for In-Camp training, others can cover their duties. We have companies like Epson who plan their operations early and if their NSmen have to take off early for IPPT, they are given the time to take an off. It is these companies like yours that give our NSmen peace of mind and enable them to focus and perform well during their ICTs. To me, this kind of attitude and action which you have shown is your National Service to Singapore. And I want to thank you for doing that. This in turn helps to ensure that the SAF remains at a high state of readiness at all times.

I wish all companies and all bosses were like you seated here. Unfortunately, the feedback is that we still have some companies and some bosses which send mixed signals to NSmen when they have to go for their ICTs. NSmen tell us that their bosses may not say outrightly that they disapprove, but our NSmen get very little support. Some are even asked why they have to do their NS duties for that year. I think this attitude by a handful of short-sighted employers is unfair to our NSmen. I hope that you as employers here, who are role models, can help MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) change the negative attitudes of these types of employers. I believe that there are direct benefits to companies who employ well-trained NSmen. Many employers have also shared that NS has helped to hone the important skills in their employees, such as resilience and teamwork, which make them even more productive at the workplace. In many countries, I know that companies with progressive HR practices look particularly for those with military training and know that this type of training brings  value to their company.

Societal Recognition and Support for NS

The truth is that we can only have a strong SAF if the Government, employers and the community together support our NSmen. Our NSmen tell us that they are very thankful for small acts of appreciation from people like Mr Tan Bee Seng, better known as "the chicken rice uncle", who has been quietly giving extra portions of chicken rice to NSFs and NSmen. I think our NSmen appreciate this. There was also the story of a kind taxi driver who gave a discount to an NSF who did not have enough for his fare. For this year's SAF day, I met some of you, many companies such as Mr Bean, Bossini, Golden Village and Singapore Petroleum Company gave discounts to NSmen. These simple acts of appreciation go a long way to motivate our NSmen to train hard and fight to protect us and our nation. 

Let's together support NS strongly so that the next generation of Singaporeans can have a strong SAF, just as we have today. Ultimately, we need a strong defence to protect our way of life and our sovereignty. Because without a secure Singapore, there can be no progress for us as companies, individuals or families. That is the reason why we have set up a Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS), to get more feedback and I would encourage you to give us your honest feedback to help us improve commitment to NS. 


Let me conclude by congratulating you again and thanks to all award winners and civil resource owners for your continued strong support for Total Defence and NS.

Today, I think we have much that is worth defending in Singapore - we have a beautiful country we call home, a vibrant economy that offers opportunities for a better future, and a way of life that is uniquely Singaporean. We are not a perfect society, nowhere is perfect. But I think there is a lot we can be thankful for. We can only keep Singapore this way and continue to progress if all of us do our part in Total Defence. 

Thank you very much.

Last updated on 02 Aug 2013