Madam Chair, first let me thank Members of the House for their very incisive questions and comments, and for their continued support to build up a solid defence for Singapore, Members have asked many difficult questions on wide-ranging topics and I don't think it's possible within the short time that we have to address all the affairs of the world so we will try to address the substantive questions that you've asked.
Regional Security Environment
Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Ellen Lee asked for an update on the security situation in our region and I think they've summarised it very well. There are increasing tensions in the South and East China Seas. The South China Sea is in our backyard and Singapore will not be able to avoid the consequences if this region becomes more troubled, or worse still, when missteps are made. Further away, as Members have pointed out, North Korea has threatened to void its 1953 armistice agreement with South Korea, after the UN Security Council imposed additional sanctions. Members have touched on the recent intrusion into Sabah by armed followers of the purported heir to the former Sulu Sultanate, and I think this episode reminds us that security challenges can be unpredictable and precipitous. And, no, the Malaysians have not asked for our help, and I think they are well capable of taking care of their defence challenges.
Against this backdrop, I think it's more important for us to understand that Asian countries have increased their defence spending. The figures are quite telling. Over the last decade, Asian countries' defence spending rose to US$305 billion, up from US$177 billion before; a 72% increase compared to a 12% increase in Europe over the same time period. Indeed, by one estimate, Asia's military spending is said to have overtaken Europe's in 2012, absolute numbers. And I think some members have rightly pointed out the reason. As economies grow, countries in the region are modernising their militaries, procuring new fighters, submarines, armoured vehicles. And in this context, ASEAN and extra-regional countries must do our utmost to ensure that the region remains peaceful and stable. I think this was the point that Dr Lim Wee Kiak pointed out, especially with US and China.
Amid these tensions, MINDEF is working hard within the platforms that members mentioned, the ADMM, (ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting), the ADMM-Plus, the Shangri-La Dialogue, the FPDA (Five Power Defence Arrangements), and other bilateral or multi-lateral platforms, because we want to improve military-to-military relations to build confidence and reduce the risk of miscalculation. Some members have asked for an update on ADMM-Plus. A major effort this year is the disaster relief and military medicine exercise hosted by Brunei, as the chair of ASEAN. I'm happy to report, both US and China are actively contributing to the exercise, and this is occurring amid their leadership renewal. We have actually full support and participation from militaries of 18-nations, 10 plus 8. This is very encouraging because it strengthens the ADMM-Plus as a platform for strategic dialogue and practical cooperation.
A Capable, Professional and Modernised SAFThe point is that as a small country, Singapore's external environment sets our defence posture. Asia's defence spending on the whole, as I have cited, has risen considerably. Singapore is monitoring this trend closely, but for now, I think we can continue to avoid sharp increases or dips in our own defence spending. This is the most effective way in stretching each defence dollar as it allows MINDEF to plan long term. Dr Lim Wee Kiak said we have the larger share in terms of resources, whether it is manpower or finances, and we agree and we recognise it. But steady defence spending allows MINDEF to plan long term and avoid the disruptive changes arising from fluctuating expenditure year to year. And this is why MINDEF is able to make opportunity buys for strategic assets in the past, and optimise our training systems. Because we can plan longer term.
Our defence expenditure, including this year's, has grown steadily in nominal terms but kept pace more or less in real terms - by about 4% nominal growth annually, on average, over the last decade.
Madam Chair, the SAF has come a long way since it was stood up. Then, when the SAF was stood up, we had only two infantry battalions, a couple of naval patrol craft that we inherited from the British, and no air force to speak of. Today, the SAF is a professional and integrated defence force capable of responding to a range of traditional and unconventional threats. Jane's Defence Weekly, I think Ms Sylvia Lim mentioned this reputable defence publication, and it is reputable, commented that "the SAF of today is by far the most advanced military force in Southeast Asia." This was not achieved overnight. It is the result of a steady commitment to defence and 45 years of National Service, which Mr Ong Teng Koon highlighted. The success and progress of the SAF has been built through sweat and sacrifices of committed National Servicemen led by bright, dedicated and capable commanders. I fully recognise that the SAF takes its fair, and some say unfair, share of bright people. And long may it be so because it is important. The SAF leverages on advanced technology to modernise our equipment and systems, to multiply our capabilities. There are three crucial factors - steady, prudent defence spending; capable and committed SAF soldiers; the use of advanced technology. These three crucial factors have allowed us to build a credible defence force despite the unique vulnerabilities of a small country. When we started, no one believed we could build a credible defence force.
These are the reasons why our frigates can operate with only 70 men, half that in other navies. Or why our High Mobility Artillery Rocket System needs a crew of only three men, compared to eight for other artillery systems which are shorter ranged and less accurate.
Investing steadily over the long-term allows MINDEF to keep a constant lookout for platforms with cutting-edge capabilities that can provide Singapore with that strategic advantage. For this reason, we joined the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Programme as a Security Cooperation Participant (SCP) back in 2004. The JSF, as some members know, now the F-35, has the potential to be the most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft for decades to come. Though the F-35 aircraft is still in development, we are nonetheless interested in the platform for our future needs. The F-35 will be the vanguard of next generation fighter aircraft when operational. Our F-5s are nearing the end of their operational life and our F-16s are at their mid-way mark. For the longer term, the RSAF has identified the F-35 as a suitable aircraft to further modernise our fighter fleet. We are now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. So in the interest of transparency, I'm telling you we're now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. MINDEF will have to be satisfied that this state-of-the-art multi-role fighter meets our long-term needs, is on track to be operationally capable and, most importantly, is a cost-effective platform. I've given many necessary caveats before we make a final decision, but we are evaluating the platform.
Again planning ahead, MINDEF is also looking to replace our ageing Challenger-class submarines, which were built in the 1960s. The replacement submarines will have significantly improved capabilities and will enhance our ability to keep our sea lines of communication safe. Our plans for new fighters, submarines, the Army's recently operationalised Leopard tanks and Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles, the Air Force's G550 Airborne Early Warning Aircraft and the Navy's Formidable-class frigates with their Sikorsky naval helicopters - taken together - will ensure that the SAF remains a credible and effective force to serve our defence needs for the next decade or two.
But, many members here have said this and I agree with them, even if we have the most sophisticated platforms and systems, ultimately our defences are only as strong as the resolve and the commitment of our people to defend Singapore and our way of life. In fact, I think we ought to be wary of complacency because we have a technologically advanced SAF. Because the temptation is always that because it's so sophisticated, you don't need the man in the loop. And that would be a tragic and costly mistake. Or to think that the peace in our neighbourhood is a given. The security in our region can turn unpredictably. A decade ago, no one could predict that the territorial disputes would escalate tensions in the South China Sea, or that a few hundred gunmen with rifles and grenade launchers would intrude into eastern Sabah. My family and I spent a nice holiday in Sabah one or two years ago. Idyllic. From mountain to sea in two hours. The base camp of Kota Kinabalu, very tranquil. The best goreng pisang I've tasted in a long time because they use a special kind of banana. Mee Goreng also, as you say, very sedap. Then you take a ride to the sea, world heritage sites, you can dive from the shore, natural corals. Who could have predicted that a few hundred gunmen with rifles and grenade launchers would go into Sabah. For the SAF, we have to ensure that above all, our NSmen who form its "backbone" are capable and have the resolve to defend Singapore, if ever similar circumstances fall upon us. This is why we must keep NS strong.
So how do we ensure that our NSmen continue to have the commitment and capabilities to defend Singapore? We talk about how the SAF has transformed itself into a 3rd Generation, the 3G SAF we call it. But as Members here have pointed out, we should be mindful that at the same time, Singapore itself has been transformed - a 3G Singapore, a very different one than that when NS was started 45 years ago. The city, the people, the values, the aspirations are not the same. Younger Singaporeans, our NSmen today, are indeed more educated and talented. More PRs will serve NS. We have to respond to these changes and ensure that the commitment of a new generation of NSmen remains strong. At the same time, we must find ways to use their abilities more effectively in the SAF and I think Mr Desmond Lee is correct, meaningful roles that match their capabilities.
I received an appeal recently. A young man going into full-time National Service was downgraded because his X-rays showed some early changes in his spine. He had some back pain so he went for an MRI. But he feels fit and wants to be in a combat vocation, and in fact, wants to be an infantry officer. Such appeals are few and we do get more appeals from NSFs who want to use their talents in music, the arts, dance and sports during their NS. But the details are not as important as the main challenge, which is that if our NSmen feel that their abilities are being put to the best of use and if they believe in what they are fighting for, it will engender greater commitment and contributions in building a stronger SAF.
We may not be able to satisfy all the requests, in fact we won't be able to satisfy all requests. I quite expect after saying this that I will get a deluge of requests from a variety of NSmen who want to use their multi-talents to help the SAF. But we may not be able to satisfy all of them but at the end of the day, we recognise that the SAF must be operationally ready and fighting fit. But I believe that NSmen can and want to play a larger role in our SAF if the commitment is there. Many here are good examples of this already - Mr Teo Siong Seng and Mr Zaqy Mohamad who have completed their ORNS. I asked Mr Zaqy Mohamad, he's only 38, how come you've completed your ORNS. He says, well I've done 10 cycles, each year one. So he's completed it. Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Dr Chia Shi-Lu now serving in the Navy; Mr Nicholas Fang, Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Pritam Singh in the Army and Mr Desmond Lee in the Air Force.
We often cite Finland for its strong education system. I have visited Finland many times to study them. I give you a tip, you can go in winter, in summer, it's actually only very cold or very very cold. Makes very little difference. But worth studying. Less known is that, like us, the Finns also have National Service. In the Finnish system, National Servicemen can indicate how they want to serve in their NS. You decide what you want to do. You have a choice of vocation. And it does not end up in their system with NSmen only choosing the less demanding roles or the least demanding roles. Indeed, some choose more demanding roles as pilots, intelligence officers, special forces etc. Some choose to be officers or to be in vocations that lengthen their National Service period. Because if you choose a particular vocation, you require more training, you're required to serve longer, and they choose it. This is a different organising principle in their society that explains their National Service and education system. If I can characterise it there is a first hurdle that all must cross to make sure that standards don't slip. But beyond that, the approach is "springboards to success, not hurdles". You choose how high you want to go and the springboard will be provided. Now, not all will jump gracefully, the dive won't be spectacular for some, but this approach encourages NSmen to go higher and contribute more.
Singapore is obviously not Finland - we have a different culture, security risks, needs and people. Compared to us, they are a much older society, long history and certainly more homogenous. Comparing our NS systems, we have certain strengths and weaknesses and they have theirs. But I think we must adopt and adapt what we think are good practices from other systems to improve ours. In fact the SAF already has a similar practice where we ask Full-Time National Servicemen to indicate if they want to become commanders after they go through their Basic Military Training, and I will tell you that the majority want to become commanders.
In building commitment, it surely must be the right direction to maximise the potential and talents of NSmen and allow them to play a greater role in our national defence. We should study how we can provide more springboards for National Servicemen.
Secondly, several MPs too asked how we can better help our NSmen meet their duties and recognise their efforts. I think Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Mr Zainudin Nordin and Mr Desmond Lee talked about this.
Like them, I am alive to the demands that National Service places on our NSmen. MPs here send many letters of appeals to MINDEF or to me on behalf of their residents. I read them and we look at them. Some examples. A Mr Yu who had dutifully served his In-Camp Trainings. But his next In-Camp Training coincided with his first month on a new job. Another Mr Charles, who needed to look after his mother who was receiving cancer treatment. In these deserving cases, we granted them deferment from their In-Camp Training. But I acknowledge that many do not get excused because their Commanding Officer, who is also an NSman, has decided that the individuals who ask for deferment are needed to get his unit operationally ready. And we should support the Commanding Officer, because we entrusted him with the responsibility. This House, Singaporeans have entrusted this CO with the responsibility to get his unit operationally ready. And sometimes he has to make the difficult decision when people ask for deferment.
MPs like Assistant Professor Eugene Tan and Mr Hri Kumar, in recent debates have also pointed out that some employers seem to discriminate against NSmen in their work. I know that this complaint upsets all members in this House. It undermines a strong NS. MINDEF will work harder to reach out to more employers. Each year, we work hard to motivate employers to support NS. I present awards to those who are our staunchest advocates of NS such as Ya Kun, Canon and the URA:Urban Redevelopment Authority. But if Singaporeans know of specific employers who adopt unfriendly practices at their workplace towards NSmen, please let me know and we will make best efforts to remedy the situation.
Despite these demands, I think all MPs here support NS. I've not heard a single MP, who despite the difficulties and the demands placed on NS, who say, let's relook it. Some of you have shared your own positive NS experiences and strongly affirm that NS is part and parcel of being a Singaporean. Mr Ong, Mr Hri Kumar, Mr Pritam Singh. Some of you have suggested that we should make it a part of the integration journey for PRs and new citizens, albeit at a reduced level. Mr Pritam Singh mentioned that. Mr Hri Kumar has thought hard on this issue, and asked how we can better address those who renounce their PRs, such as through higher penalties or taxes. Whether you agree with specific proposals by various MPs or not, I think it may not be as important as what we can all agree on - that NS is very much a duty and honour for all those who would make Singapore our home. That's the starting point.
We in this House appreciate the commitment of our NSmen and the sacrifices they make. All of us recognise that if we do not defend Singapore ourselves, no one else will. Each of us has to uphold our duty to serve NS. But I also heed your calls that we can do more to match the abilities of our NSmen, increase their engagement and commitment, recognise their efforts, and find ways to help them fulfil their NS duties, even on a daily basis. Where we can, we should look into ways to reduce the impact on their studies, work and family commitments.
MPs here have raised many issues. Some of these issues have been raised by public members as well. To respond to this feedback, I have decided to convene a committee to strengthen National Service. It will be called "Committee to Strengthen National Service". I will chair the Committee. There will be two working groups. Senior Minister of State Chan Chun Sing will lead the Working Group on "Support for NS" to see how we can maximise the abilities of NSmen for the SAF and help NSmen fulfil their duties. We will also look into increasing support from various groups, such as families, employers, schools, permanent residents, new citizens and the broader community. Senior Parliamentary Secretary Maliki will chair the Working Group on "Recognition and Benefits for National Service". I think that some of the MPs, including Zainudin Nordin and others, have asked for it.
I want to say from the outset that I know that the Committee will receive many requests. We will be open to views and ideas. But let us agree on common goals to set the Committee in the right direction. Our most important goals are to strengthen Singapore, strengthen National Service and the SAF, and serve all Singaporeans, in that order. Important order. Singapore first, SAF and NS second, personal interest of all Singaporeans next. Often it comes in the reverse order. But we should set the direction right. The Committee must ensure that NS must still be focused on defending Singapore, that it is fair to all and universally applied, that it must engender a commitment and hopefully love for our country. We should avoid using this as an exercise to serve narrow interests or inflict unnecessary or unfair hardship on any particular group. That would be a negative outcome. This exercise must bring our nation together, not divide us; it must strengthen National Service and Singapore, not weaken it. If we do this well, NS will have strong support for many years to come.
To achieve these purposes, we want to include into the Committee and Working Groups, members with a good appreciation of the issues so as to provide good, workable and affordable ideas to strengthen NS. Good, workable and affordable. Obviously, MPs will be included and I hope you will not turn us down. We intend to consult widely with various groups of Singaporeans. We hope to complete the Committee's work within a year.
Training and Operational Safety
Let me now address other issues or update members. Since the last time we met, there have been safety concerns and I updated the House in November and there have been some developments and I thought I would just quickly update you.
We have recently started the SAF Care Fund to allow the public to show their support for severely disabled servicemen. Thus far, we have received $1 million in contributions, mainly through the generosity of The Lee Foundation. MINDEF will provide a 1:1 matching grant of up to $2.5 million to support this effort. We intend to obtain Institution of Public Character, IPC status for this Fund.
I have explained before that our compensation and welfare schemes provide significantly higher amounts and assistance than civilian schemes. But I want to be clear that we do not detract from our goal to prevent all injuries and death. And let me provide an update in terms of security measures or safety measures. I told the House last time that we wanted to create additional posts for full-time Safety Officers. The first batch of these additional safety officers have been trained and sent to units and will report directly to their Unit Commanders. This will ensure better compliance with training safety regulations. I also informed the House previously that we would start an SAF Inspectorate for safety. On further review, we have decided to elevate this SAF Inspectorate to a Directorate for Safety and Systems Review. As a Directorate, it will report directly to the Permanent Secretary of Defence and the Chief of Defence Force. The Directorate will also set up external review panels which will submit recommendations to the Minister for Defence. The first external review panel will be on training safety, and will include experts and professionals from outside the SAF to validate the safety practices in our units and determine if they match up with best practices of industries and other militaries. We decided to do this because rather than ad-hoc committees formed after incidents occur, this standing panel will provide oversight and direction for the longer term. I think this way will be more impactful.
Bilateral Defence Relations
Ms Ellen Lee and Lim Wee Kiak asked about our bilateral defence relations with our neighbours and key partners. Our relations with our neighbours are excellent. For Malaysia, we have regular tri-service interactions all the way from Minister to the rank-and-file. Last year, I have met my counterpart, Minister Zahid Hamidi, I think, six or seven times. We have also reinforced our strong and close relationship with Indonesia in the past year, held our first Joint-level bilateral Counter-Terrorism Exercise last year and co-hosting the first ASEAN Maritime Security Information-Sharing Exercise.
Some asked about our defence ties with other partners. Our defence ties with the US are strong, multifaceted and mutually beneficial. Our F-16, F-15 and Apache Helicopter pilots train extensively in the US because they have larger training space. Just one tid-bit of information - the training air space our F-15s have in the US is 100 times the size of Singapore.
Ms Ellen Lee asked about the LCS - Littoral Combat Ships. This is in line with the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding and the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement, which our neighbours understand. The LCS will be deployed to Singapore on a rotational basis. The first will arrive next month and it will not be based here, but will sail out, make port calls in the region and engage other regional navies as well.
Our defence relations with China are warm and friendly. I met with Chinese leaders - Vice President Xi Jinping and Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie - during my visit there last year. Both Vice President Xi and General Liang had expressed confidence that the defence relationship between China and Singapore could be further enhanced through high-level strategic dialogues, as well as interactions and exercises, including exchanges between young officers. We are following up with specific programmes to achieve this.
Our ties with partners such as Brunei, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, India, France and Germany remain strong. I am happy to report that we renewed the Air Force Bilateral Agreement with India last year and this allows the RSAF to continue joint military training in India with the Indian Air Force until 2017. We also renewed the Oakey Agreement with Australia, which allows the RSAF to continue its helicopter training in Australia until 2027.
Ms Ellen Lee also asked about our contributions to Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden. Thank you for saying that our SAF has done a wonderful job. I think they will appreciate that. Over the last six years, we have deployed close to 500 servicemen to Afghanistan, as part of the ISAF - International Security Assistance Force. The experience gained by our soldiers has been invaluable and we have incorporated many of the lessons learnt into our operational doctrines and practices. Singapore will be completing our mission in Afghanistan by June this year, 2013. Our deployments to Afghanistan have supported the larger international efforts to prevent extremists from using Afghanistan as a base to export terrorism, including to our own region, and Singaporeans can be proud of our contributions to this effort.
As for the Gulf of Aden, the SAF has taken over command of CTF 151 for a third time until June as part of our contributions against international piracy. Ms Ellen Lee is correct. This made a difference because piracy attacks have come down.
Madam Chair, our strong defence today is a result of continuous and strong support from members of this House and from Singaporeans alike to build a credible SAF. A strong defence is the bedrock upon which Singapore's peace and prosperity rests. We must continue to strengthen NS to build a solid defence.
There are some questions which members have asked but I will defer it to after further questions to allow my colleagues, Senior Minister of State Chan and Dr Maliki to respond. Thank you very much.