Every Singaporean has a Role to Play in Defence
Madam Chair, last year, Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence and we reaffirmed the beliefs, values and attitudes which contributed to building the Singapore today. But some may wonder - will we make it to SG100? We are confident that our home and way of life are safeguarded by an advanced and highly trained SAF, but we must know that our security agencies cannot do the job on their own. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every individual to participate in the defence of Singapore. I am heartened that many Singaporeans I spoke to during focus group discussions share this view.
This idea of strength in unity is captured in this year's Total Defence Campaign, themed "Together We Keep Singapore Strong". The threats and challenges we face since Total Defence was introduced 32 years ago have evolved, but the message to respond as one people remains equally, if not more, important today. Take the experience of Paris last year, when terrorist attacks claimed 120 victims. The initial shock gave way to a strong show of solidarity by the French. Just two weeks later, Paris hosted the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, involving more than 140 world leaders and around 40,000 attendees. Today, despite increased public security measures, Parisians have not withdrawn into fear and doubt but have returned to their daily routines in celebration of the city's strength and resilience. As President Hollande said, "[the terrorists] have a cult of death, but we have a love of life."
As Mr Amrin Amin pointed out, we need to be resilient as we face evolving threats. I fully agree. In 2011, following the arrest of 15 members of the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah branch, inter-racial confidence circles in schools and workplaces were formed to promote inter-religious understanding. We emerged stronger from the episode, but it became clear that security agencies cannot fight such threats alone. As members of the public, we can play our part by being vigilant and sounding the alarm if we find something amiss. For example, a self-radicalised youth was detained in April last year after a friend noticed changes in him and alerted the authorities before he could carry out his attack plans in Singapore. The battle today and in the future is not one waged by tanks and planes. It is a battle that needs to be won in our hearts and minds as we guard against influences that threaten our social cohesion.
Social Integration in SAF
Madam Chair, the SAF is a microcosm of Singapore society, with soldiers from different backgrounds, religions and race. I would like to remind Mr Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap that Singapore is a secular state and all Singaporeans enjoy the right to practice their religions under our Constitution. Apart from Islam, religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Sikhism also practice certain dietary restrictions. However, we do not insist that public eating places cater to any specific religious requirement. Rather than encouraging any one religious group to push fully for its own strict requirements, our approach has been to accommodate as far as practicable the needs of devotees of different religions while maintaining the common space and common goals for all. So in hawker centers, school canteens and food courts for example, there are halal and vegetarian food stalls but there are no specific corners for halal or vegetarian tables. This facilitates social integration, where Singaporeans come together, eat at the same space and interact. This is the cornerstone of our multiracial society and Singaporeans accept this. Similarly, there is no strict requirement that all restaurant kitchens must be halal certified before they are allowed to operate.
The SAF operates similarly just like society at large. In our camps, where space is available, we make provisions for halal food to be prepared separately from non-halal food, but our soldiers eat together in our dining halls. Where space is limited, vegetarian and halal food is brought in from centralised kitchens instead of being prepared in the cookhouses. In operations, we provide combat rations that are halal, and vegetarian options are available.
The preparation of halal food requires strict adherence to the religious stipulations governing the food source, preparation and even storage. For Navy ships, space is always a premium which needs to be maximised and prioritised for key operational requirements such as for combat systems, ammunitions and equipment spares. Nonetheless, we make provisions for our Muslim servicemen onboard ships by providing options such as seafood, chicken and vegetables. Similarly, we make provisions for non-Muslim Navy servicemen with specific dietary restrictions where possible. Our practice is similar to other Navies, including France and the US. The SAF will accommodate wherever we can but the SAF's operational priorities come before individual needs. Our servicemen and women understand and accept this. They are prepared to make sacrifices where needed and are committed to defend Singapore and all that we stand for.
Let me talk about ACCORD. I am heartened that Singaporeans understand the importance of the community's role in the nation's defence, and provide useful feedback through the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD).
Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef and Mr Baey Yam Keng asked for an update of the work MINDEF has done to strengthen the community's support for National Service. I am pleased to update that ACCORD has implemented 14 out of 18 proposals submitted last year to strengthen support for National Service.
First, the Family and Community (F&C) Council has encouraged almost 70 businesses to show appreciation for NSmen by offering discounts and benefits through the "We Support YOU in NS" programme. The response from our NSmen and their families has been very positive. The F&C Council also improved their outreach to women through partnerships with the Singapore Council of Women's Organisation and the Women's Integration Network of the People's Association.
Second, through the Educational Institutions (EI) Council, four Post-Secondary Education Institutions piloted fitness programmes to help pre-enlistee students get ready and fit for NS. The results are encouraging. At Temasek Polytechnic, the fitness programme increased the IPPT pass rate of participating students by more than 25%. In addition, the EI Council reached out to Singaporean and PR students in Foreign System Schools and Privately-Funded Institutions, to help them understand the importance of NS. The United World College of South East Asia was so enthused that they hosted an NS Information Evening for 430 pre-enlistees and their parents from nine Foreign System Schools.
Third, the Employer and Business (E&B) Council piloted a post-In-Camp Training letter to employers, to recognise useful skills and attributes of our NSmen which are invaluable in the business world. Last year, 122 individuals, businesses and organisations were awarded the NS Advocate Award for their outstanding support towards NS. Absolute Kinetics Consultancy Pte Ltd was one of the winners. They demonstrated their strong support for NS by providing incentives for NSmen who excel in their IPPT and recognising employees who do well during NS.
What is most heartening is that these projects were initiated and led by members of the respective councils. Their passion and enthusiasm are truly inspiring. In 2016, we can look forward to an expanded "We Support YOU in NS" programme, and more exciting collaborations with Families for Life to reach the wider community. We will continue to encourage more pre-enlistee fitness programmes and engender broader-based support for NS through the "NS Mark" later this year, which recognises supportive employers, businesses and organisations.
Strengthening our Commitment to Defence
Mr Amrin Amin and Mr Lee Yi Shyan asked how MINDEF is engaging Singaporeans to strengthen commitment to defence. The SAF regularly organises events to educate the public on our defence capabilities in a fun and engaging way. For instance, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will organise an Open House in May this year. Later in June, the Singapore Army and the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) will hold an exhibition and Navy@Vivo respectively. We project to reach out to 250,000 visitors through these events.
Last year, we launched the Commitment to Defence (C2D) Ambassadors programme to allow our SAF pioneers to engage and inspire the younger generation with personal stories of Singapore's early struggles and our accomplishments in the face of adversity. Our younger generation found the sharing sessions interesting, authentic, and I quote, "not something we can get from the internet". For example, C2D Ambassadors like COL (Ret) Goh Lye Choon would captivate his audiences by recounting his experience fighting infiltrators in the jungles of Kota Tinggi during Konfrontasi. According to C2D Ambassador MAJ (Ret) Ashim Mochtar, our youths are far from apathetic. They are passionate and understand the need for Singapore to stand up for itself.
Dr Teo Ho Pin asked about the public's readiness to address a variety of evolving threats. MINDEF agrees that the public needs to join the conversation on ensuring our future security. Therefore, we integrated this year's Total Defence campaign with the SGfuture citizen engagement initiative, under the theme "A Secure and Resilient Nation". One of the discussion participants Mr Saravenan said, "It was good to see that we feel strongly about our country and care enough to share." Many have also contributed interesting ideas to bring Total Defence to life, such as by running crisis simulation exercises to demonstrate the importance of Total Defence in overcoming hybrid threats. We will continue to explore how such ground-up ideas can revitalise community action for Total Defence.
We held a Total Defence exhibition in February and March this year. The exhibition featured individuals like Ms Nur Arfa, who was only 13 years old when she volunteered with "Citizens on Patrol" to spread awareness on crime prevention in her neighbourhood; as well as groups like the Religious Rehabilitation Group that fight religious extremist propaganda. Mr Lee Beng Kit, an exhibition visitor said, "It is nice to see people contributing to society in their own ways. After all, Total Defence is about everybody coming together to keep Singapore strong, regardless of race, language and religion." We hope that the exhibition showed that there is much each individual can do to keep Singapore strong.
This year, we refreshed the Total Defence song "There's a Part for Everyone". I am sure we can all remember that song many, many years ago. With updated lyrics and a new upbeat arrangement by home-grown band QuickPick, the familiar medley caught on very quickly. The song was reintroduced to schools and reached more than 600,000 TV viewers over a ten-day period. Even Minister Ng was game enough to sing along to the refreshed song, helping us reach about half a million people through his Facebook page. I hope that all of us will renew our commitment to Total Defence each time this song is sung.
We also continue to engage Singaporeans through platforms like the ciNE65 short film competition and N.E.mation!, a digital animation competition. Hoon Wei Ting, from Victor Junior College, was so inspired by her participation in N.E.mation! last year that she volunteered to help out and share her experience with participants this year as well. We hope that when these competition clips are shown nationwide, they will encourage conversations about Total Defence and inspire all to do their part to keep Singapore strong and resilient.
Madam Chair, MINDEF and the SAF also reach out to a diverse audience through various media platforms. Our stories highlight the sacrifices our NSmen make and the tough training they undergo to defend Singapore. Those who caught the Ah Boys to Men movies said it "shed (light) on the untold story of our unsung heroes". Programmes such as the "Commandos" documentary series, "Women in the SAF" and "SAF Pioneers" were also well-received. We are heartened that Singaporeans' commitment to defence remains strong, and we will continue to share more of our stories in the coming year.
After 50 years of nationhood, the threats we are facing have evolved, but so have our responses. The future is uncertain, but I am confident that if we see ourselves first and foremost as one people, and have the resolve to work together to strengthen our military, civil, economic, social and psychological defences, we as a society will be resilient enough for any challenge that comes our way.