Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the Committee Of Supply Debate 2016

Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the Committee Of Supply Debate 2016

Increasing Complex and Volatile Security Environment

  • Terrorism
  • ISIS has the Means
  • ISIS has Motive
  • ISIS has Opportunity
  • Asia's Security is in Flux
  • Responding to Our Security Challenges
  • Gearing up for Troubled Peace
  • SAF’s response

The SAF - Ready to Defend Singapore

  • Stepping up for Counter-Terrorism
  • Maintaining our Deterrence

Building Enduring Partnerships

A Resilient Nation

  • Trust, Our Foundation for Defence




Madam Chair, first let me thank the many Members who have highlighted the security challenges that confront Singapore today. I think they have made their points eloquently, many valid points and accurate observations. Collectively, they bring home this truth that as much as all of us want peace, work for greater cooperation and understanding among countries, neither the world nor the region we live in is Utopia; that each generation of Singaporeans will face threats, and each generation will have to renew their commitment to protect what they value or lose it; that we can only depend on ourselves to defend Singapore; that we will need to work with other like-minded partners to deal with potential troubles along the way. Singapore and Singaporeans will have to gear up for "troubled peace" in this new era after SG50.

Each generation of Singaporeans will have to confront their own security threats. The founding generation, as Mr Vikram Nair pointed out, did not have it easy. Indeed, the 1960s and 1970s, as he said, were tumultuous times in Asia and, especially, for Southeast Asia. Whether it was Konfrontasi or the ideological battles against communism and communalism, these contests often led to violence or subversion. And because Southeast Asian states were newly-minted nations in the 1960s and 1970s, only recently freed from their colonial past, individual nations were more preoccupied with their national agendas, rather than cooperating as a region.

Geopolitics today has improved, and we talked about ASEAN. ASEAN is an accepted regional community in international dynamics. ASEAN has good growth and strong relations with other countries. But despite this progress, as Members have said, challenges exist. Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef noted that we live in an interconnected world. And, indeed, what happens in some other part of the world, many Members have said that it occurs very far away but comes closer to home, as Mr Zainal Sapari said, whether it is terrorism or technological warfare. And as Mr Vikram Nair noted, there have been numerous developments recently in the South China Sea, more terrorist attacks, and a sophisticated cyber attack involving the US Federal Reserve.

Members have asked key questions - Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef, Ms Low Yen Ling, Mr Cedric Foo and Mr Zainal Sapari. In summary, they asked: what are the main security threats to Singapore, and how significant are they when compared to previous years? How is the SAF responding to these threats? How can we keep Singapore and Singaporeans safe? How prepared are we? These are all important questions that can change our lives here irrevocably. I agree completely with Mr Zainal Sapari when he said that the consequences of failure will be great. So, I intend to answer these questions in the course of this reply for the COS.

Increasingly Complex and Volatile Security Environment

First, Terrorism

The clear and present threat upon us is terrorism. As of now, there is no specific intelligence of any imminent plot against Singapore, but the general assessment by our intelligence agencies indicates that almost all cities are likely targets, including Singapore. Members here already know of attacks in other cities in the past 18 months - Paris, Sydney, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Bangkok, Jakarta, Brussels and, most recently, Lahore. A few months later, you may have to add more cities to that list. Threat levels for Singapore from ISIS are higher than those posed by Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) when they were active. So, if you'd like a simple number, what Al-Qaeda was able to attract - both sympathisers and operatives - in the last 10 years, ISIS has already exceeded the number in the last three years. So our assessment is that the threat levels from ISIS are higher than that from AQ and JI. Let me explain our reasons for this assessment.

ISIS has Greater Means

First, ISIS has greater means. ISIS controls territories and oil fields in Iraq and Syria from which they can draw resources to fund tens of thousands of fighters and further its goals. ISIS even uses drones for its operations, like a military. In fact, they are a military. They can orchestrate and coordinate attacks far away, as they did in Paris, Brussels or even near us, Jakarta. Their tentacles can reach far. Just this week, the Malaysian Police revealed that ISIS had allocated around S$100,000 to Katibah Nusantara - a network that Mr Vikram Nair pointed out. It is a Malay Archipelago Combat Unit, and ISIS had given them S$100,000 to finance terrorist attacks and bombings in Southeast Asia

ISIS operatives and sympathisers have already formed networks in our region, as some Members have observed. In the past year, close to a thousand people from Southeast Asia have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the fight, including Singaporeans. And more have been radicalised without even travelling to the Middle East. Most recently, Members would have read that four Singaporeans were prevented from joining the armed conflicts in the Middle East. As you have pointed out, returning fighters will bring back their extremist ideology, share their experience in weapons, explosives and actual fighting. In addition, we know that they have linked up with existing cells, like the JI offshoot, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, and Abu Sayyaf. Greater means, as I said.

ISIS has Motive

Second, ISIS has motive. In our region, ISIS has declared its mission to establish a wilayat, a "caliphate", and Katibah Nusantara is leading the charge. This central ideology of a Southeast Asian "caliphate" binds Islamic militants who have already set up training camps in Sulawesi, Aceh and in the Southern Philippines. Even the Uighurs are known to have joined a training camp in Sulawesi, led by the Indonesian militant, Santoso. I am not sure what the tenuous connections had been previously between militants in Indonesia and the Uighurs, but here, you have it − that ideology binds them together.

In this narrative, Singapore is an attractive target. Last year, Dabiq - Dabiq is an English-language newsletter published by ISIS - named Singapore among the "enemies of the Islamic State" and called on followers to wage jihad against us.

ISIS has Opportunity

Third, ISIS has opportunity. Every shopping mall, every crowded place is an opportunity for violent extremists to target innocent civilians and cause as much suffering and mayhem as possible. ISIS operatives and sympathisers, especially what we call "clean skins" - those with no prior criminal record - can travel and smuggle components of arms and explosives. Changi Airport received over 55 million passengers last year, and many more crossed land and sea checkpoints of Singapore. MHA has stepped up security checks, but the terrorists only need to succeed once.

Under these circumstances, can Singapore - or for that matter any city - guarantee its residents that no extremist attack will occur? I think the answer is an obvious one. Only a foolish or complacent Government will provide that false sense of security. Instead, we must step up our defences, bring our citizens into confidence, and more importantly confront this threat and prepare to deal with the aftermath together. I will elaborate on how the SAF will respond to this.

Asia's Security is in Flux

Even as we ask Singaporeans to prepare ourselves to deal with extremist threats, let me just say we must be mindful of the trajectory of state-to-state relations surrounding us. So, as members have pointed out, the disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea are increasing. They are symptomatic of a more powerful dynamic of strategic rivalry and rising nationalism. This state of flux, different from post-World War II and the Cold War is creating tension. This dynamic will stress existing military cooperation and alliances, international agreements or laws, even the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Let me give a few examples to illustrate what I mean.

On a regular basis, Japanese fighter jets scramble in response to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) military aircraft that enter Japan's Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). The PLA planes are flying into disputed airspace around the Diao Yu/Senkaku Islands. So the Japanese would have to respond and they scrambled. It is a common occurrence.

Let me give you a second example. The largest overlap in the South China Sea claims is between Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone and China's "nine dash line". You would recall that just two years ago, Vietnamese and Chinese vessels clashed over an oil rig in the South China Sea. You would remember that in Vietnam they held protests and burned down foreign-owned factories, meaning to target Chinese-owned factories. Unfortunately, some Taiwanese factories also got burnt. They hear them speak in Mandarin, and so, they got burnt. Just recently, the Vietnamese coast guard seized a Chinese oil tanker allegedly operating in Vietnam's waters. And for the first time ever - if you have not noticed this - a Japanese submarine arrived in Cam Ranh International Port. It called in Vietnam last month for the first time.

An example close to home: the Indonesian Government has also taken a hard-line stance against illegal fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zones. Since Indonesian President Joko Widodo took office in 2014, Indonesia has confiscated and destroyed approximately 150 foreign fishing boats. Just last month, there was a standoff between the Chinese coast guard and an Indonesian patrol vessel. In addition to a diplomatic protest, Indonesia has since announced plans to deploy fighter jets to the Natuna Islands. Supposedly as a show of strength, military ships of the Indonesian National Defence Forces (TNI) are used to blow up these merchant vessels. This is not the most cost-effective solution. Military munitions cost more, but as a show of strength, they will use the TNI to blow up the vessels.

So as we observe these incidents occurring at an increasing regularity, we have to remember that they occur against the backdrop of Asia's highest military spending ever. In fact, collectively, Asia has spent more on its defence than Europe, in absolute dollars, since 2012. We have exceeded Europe. Rising nationalism and improving economies have fueled many Asian countries to spend larger and larger sums to modernise their militaries. In itself this is not wrong, but with more capable militaries, miscalculations or missteps can precipitate serious tensions and even physical conflicts.

Responding to Our Security Challenges

So as you look around at our security challenges, this troubled peace around us reaffirms our policy on steady and prudent defence spending, and I think Mr Zainal Sapari asked about this, as well as Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef. I want to thank members from all parties here - NCMPs included - for your steadfast support for the defence budgets over the years. Together, members in this house were wise not to have taken short periods of peace for granted. As some of you pointed out, Singapore too could have gone down the path of European countries to reap our own "peace dividend", because the threat of Communism had waned, and you see ASEAN progressing. But if we had been so lulled into that complacent mood, under-invested in defence capabilities, then, just like countries such as Finland or the Baltic states, I think we would have regretted it now and rushed to catch up. But, we avoided spikes or dips in our defence spending and maintained a strong SAF. The next decade would not be easy for Singapore. In fact, I believe that the next few decades will pose to Singapore its greatest challenge since our independence. We have never had the situation where your factors of production are on a decline, and when your needs are going up. Because even in the 60's and 70's, when our needs were going up, we reaped our demographic dividend. But in 2030, you have nearly one million people above 65 years old, your workforce is declining, and your social spending needs to go up. Even as our population ages and social spending increases, we must maintain steady defence spending because that is the most effective way to stretch every defence dollar. It allows us to plan long-term, it allows us to avoid disruptive changes from fluctuating expenditures. It is very difficult as Mr Sapari pointed out, and other countries have discovered – to suddenly wake up and say, I need a stronger defence, because the threats have gone up, and then quickly expect to build a strong defence. It will be too little, too late.

This PAP Government will continue to invest wisely and spend prudently on defence. For MINDEF, we buy only what the SAF needs and after a robust and stringent evaluation process. We do not go around shopping for expensive or highly sophisticated stuff. We adopt the most cost-effective solution, looking clearly at what we need. And our first preference is to upgrade existing platforms, if we can do it.  So for example, like the F-16s, we are going to upgrade them. We only buy new equipment if Singapore needs them to maintain that defence edge. Some of you have asked how I see our defence expenditure going forward - our defence expenditure has roughly kept pace with inflation, growing by about 4 percent annually in nominal terms over the past decade. I expect to maintain the same trajectory in the longer term. But we have to watch inflation and see if there is deflation or lower rise of inflation. Sometimes it does not get passed on to the equipment we buy so quickly, so we have to observe.

Gearing up for Troubled Peace

Is this era of troubled peace hyped up? Some have said so. Some have questioned, "Do we really need that kind of defence?" The United States, the world's most wealthy democracy, with the largest and most capable military, can perhaps take that line and live with the consequences, if something goes wrong. But I think for Singapore, a little red dot in the middle of a region with extremists threats, rising nationalism and strategic rivalry, we should guard against the worst and prepare ahead.

Indeed, some scholars and even world leaders have suggested that the face of "war" has already changed and is upon us.  According to them, unlike in the past when wars were fought in specific localities, today's conflicts are increasingly borderless, and occurs wave after wave. So against extremism, first there was Al-Qaeda, 9/11 – that was weakened. Now, ISIS. But if ISIS is defeated, I believe another group will rise to take its place. It may not be in Iraq and Syria, but there are a host of failed states that an extremist group can gain a geographical foothold and take the resources, whether it is Libya or other countries. In cyber attacks and biological pandemics, ground zero can be anywhere. We are worried about bird flu in Indonesia. For SARs, it was in some part of the world. Zika virus can arise anywhere, and spread far very quickly. This troubled peace, according to this new narrative, is the new normal in our globalised world.

Mr Zaqy Mohammad talked about "hybrid warfare" that is ongoing. Indeed, it is the antithesis of Total Defence. And if you think about it, I think that generation was prescient and very clever in launching Total Defence - this was more than 30 years ago - because Hybrid Warfare is an orchestrated campaign to weaken and fracture the solidarity of a target nation. And this is no laughing matter, because it is actually in practice. So according to this doctrine, the aggressor targets a specific country or countries, and undertakes a long-term campaign to undermine the civil, economic, social, psychological, and military defences - that is the equivalent of our Total Defence. For example, ISIS employs hybrid warfare skilfully and exploits social media in sophisticated ways to target the young and innocent. And even online games, which seemingly are innocent, are used to socialise youngsters to their cause, and the shocking propaganda videos of beheadings and burning people go viral and attract more sympathisers.

Members have talked about cyber attacks. Cyber attacks are integral parts of hybrid warfare. Last December, unidentified hackers attacked Ukraine's power grid and disrupted electricity to a large part of the country for hours. Just imagine, your power grid is down, traffic lights are out, power stations fail, you can gut out a country quite easily. Adversaries can therefore cripple key operating systems of target countries, steal their state and people's secrets, invade the hearts and minds of people, all without stepping foot onto their soil. And Singapore is particularly susceptible to hybrid threats, because we are an open economy and connected to the world.

SAF's Response

So members here have asked how the SAF should respond in this new normal of troubled peace. I am glad to say that there was foresight in the leaders of MINDEF and the SAF to have identified these broad challenges a decade ago. And it was, as Mr Cedric Foo pointed out, that the previous SAF construct could not have addressed these wider spectrum of threats decisively because the previous structures of the SAF, and members here know, centred on combined arms warfare within the Army, a competent Air Force and Navy, and they would have been inadequate to deal with non-traditional security challenges – natural disasters or hybrid threats such as cyber attacks or terrorism. But as members here pointed out, the spectrum of today's threats continues to widen and evolve and the SAF must adapt. So let me share what the SAF is doing to respond decisively. 

The SAF - Ready to Defend Singapore

Stepping up for Counter-Terrorism

Since 9/11, the SAF has stood up task forces to deal with peacetime threats. These task forces are geared up in a high readiness posture, fully manned to respond quickly even with little warning. Let me elaborate on these task forces. The Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) is drawn from the Commandos, the Naval Diving Unit and assets across the three Services, and they will be our first responders, our SAF's first responders, in counter-terrorism and other contingency operations. There is another task force for homeland security, and this is called the Island Defence Task Force. And its operation is to safeguard our homeland security with active and NS servicemen protecting key installations. You would have seen them if you are in Changi Airport, if you are working in Jurong Island, Sembawang Wharves. They regularly conduct patrols with the Home Team, and because they are tasked to deal with real threats, they are armed and given clear rules of engagement.

At sea, the Maritime Security Task Force protects our waterways, and the Air Defence Task Force keeps a close watch over our skies. And after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, our response plans were again strengthened to tighten our linkages with home-front and other government agencies.

We have assessed, as we said, the rising threat of terrorism, and in the next few months, the SAF will re-double our efforts to gear up for counter-terrorism. First, studying what happened in Paris, Jakarta and Brussels, the SAF will enhance its incident response. The SOTF must have the capability to respond even faster when activated, and have the means to neutralise armed attackers, in addition to hostage rescue. Some of you have asked, 'Can we use technology?' Indeed, we have to, and we have. The SAF is working with our defence engineers and scientists to equip these special forces with better tactical sensors like micro-UAVs, perhaps small enough to fit in your palm and well-suited for urban terrain. We will continue to develop new technologies and tools that will give the SAF an edge in this fight against terror.

In this, working with the Home Team closely and seamlessly is crucial if we are to bring to bear the full strength of our security capabilities. The SAF is working closely to share intelligence and develop joint operational command systems. We are conducting more joint exercises together. Last year, Exercise High Crest was conducted to validate our Whole-of-Government response to simultaneous maritime security threats. And in that exercise, various agencies, including the SAF, SPF, SCDF, ICA, MPA, worked together to intercept a terrorist speedboat, storm a hijacked merchant vessel, and deal with the aftermath.

Second, more SAF units will be trained to take on a wider range of security tasks. We do not assume, as Ms Low Yen Ling says, that attacks will only be carried out by lone-wolves or wolf packs - smaller groups, like those which occurred in Jakarta. We must be able to deal with orchestrated attacks, like those which occurred in Paris and Brussels, where airports, MRT stations, shopping malls and town centres are targeted simultaneously. And to deal with these scenarios, more SAF units will be trained to conduct deterrence patrols, even in populous areas. These units will be better equipped to perform their tasks. So for example, we commissioned last year, the Peacekeeper Protected Response Vehicle, which will give our responders greater mobility, protection, and more precise firepower to deal decisively with threats.

'How do we train?' That is a question that some members asked, including Mr Cedric Foo. I agree with you for SAF soldiers to competently undertake this range of missions, we will have to continue to invest in new and realistic training facilities. The SAF has decided to build a new high-density urban training facility, and this will have features such as high-rise buildings, mock-up transport nodes, complex road networks. And that will provide a highly realistic training ground for counter-terrorism, as well as conventional urban operations.

But as some of you rightly pointed out, beyond our homeland response here, we need to address this threat at its source - because only when the source of the threat and recruitment is diminished or eradicated, that the situation here can improve. It was so for Al-Qaeda. If we did not address or diminish the capability of Al-Qaeda, more cells like JI would have flourished. And this is why Singapore has been involved in multinational counter-terrorism operations since 2007, first against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and now against ISIS. Last year, the SAF deployed our KC-135R tanker to support air-to-air refuelling operations, and we also deployed an Imagery Analysis Team (IAT). The IAT is tasked to monitor suspected terrorist facilities and activities, to help the coalition partners in disrupting supply chains that feed terror networks here. And the commanders there have commended our efforts and asked the SAF to continue the IAT deployment, which we extended for this year.

Maintaining Our Deterrence

Even as the SAF gears up for troubled peace and the present threat of terrorism, the SAF will continue to conduct realistic exercises on a high tempo to maintain a strong deterrence. I think MPs, such as the member Ms Jessica Tan have asked about this – whether they are important – and I will tell you, they are very important, because that is where we can validate our capabilities. Singapore is not very large, as you know, to train. The Terrexes can go at 70km per hour, even 90km per hour, and a training exercise might be finished in 15 minutes if you are going at that speed. And we need the large space because we have so many platforms, so many different units working to bring it together and say "Will it work? Can we talk? Can we hit a moving target? Can we orchestrate and how quickly? Can we learn from the mistakes?" So, we need the places, as we do in the US in Exercise Forging Sabre, and Exercise Wallaby in Australia and Exercise Cope Tiger in Thailand, not only to validate our systems, but in joint exercises to benchmark our own capabilities, and to show others our capabilities. Because when the SAF is able to perform in exercises, people will take us seriously. So we will continue these exercises and we want to make sure they are mindful of NSmen's commitment, but even the NSmen who have gone, when I talk to them after the exercises, they feel chuffed and they feel, "Oh I did something, I can manoeuvre here". I remember visiting some of them in Bionixes, and they say "Here, I can manoeuvre a lot, whereas in Singapore, you know, there are only short circuits"..

Most recently, the SAF took over command of the Combined Task Force 151 for a fourth time, for our counter-piracy efforts. Some of you have pointed out that piracy has occurred in the Strait of Malacca as well in the South China Sea, so we believe we should help contain piracy in any part of the world, and we are in the Gulf of Aden. And as members have pointed out, we may be called to respond to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions and peace support operations, like the Nepal earthquake and the forest fires in Chiang Mai and Palembang, and we will train for that, something which Mr Cedric Foo asked about. And we will look at not only training, but structures, which is why we started the Changi Regional HADR Coordination Centre.

Some of you have asked about shrinking manpower pools, and how we can address this. I think Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef noted the demographic trends and Ms Jessica Tan asked how technology can continue to be used to maintain the SAF's edge. I agree with you, it is a vital tool. Without that, we cannot multiply our efforts. Ms Jessica Tan asked how we can continue to compete for Defence Engineering scholars. First of all, we will compete. We want our unfair share; the SAF wants its unfair share. We will introduce a new SAF Engineering Scholarship to attract bright young individuals with the interest and commitment to join the SAF as military engineers. So just as with the recipients of The SAF Scholarship, those who take up this SAF Engineering scholarship will be able to depart for their university studies earlier, so that on their return, they can better apply their specialised skills and knowledge to the SAF as military engineers. This is important because they will form the next generation of leaders in our engineering corps to ensure we maintain an edge in defence technology.

Some members have asked about hardware, which Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Zainal Sapari asked about. We will continue to refresh and upgrade platforms at a sustainable pace. This is in lieu of a White Paper. You know, the SAF is not very big that there will be much more information that I can give in the White Paper than what I am telling you here. So, if you see what we have in Changi Naval Base, see what we have in Sungei Gedong, see what we have in the air bases, that is our ORBAT. And we primarily raise the SAF for deterrence –people understand – and we make friends with other people. So, we are not quite like Australia, which I think needs a White Paper from now and then to, as Mr Pritam Singh says, to show others. For Singapore, for the SAF, we make friends with everyone, and our defence is purely for deterrence.

The Navy is acquiring eight versatile Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs) to replace our long-serving Patrol Vessels. The first LMV, Independence, was launched in July last year, and is expected to be operational by early next year. We have two new Type 218SG submarines. I will tell you that the development is on track. It will replace the ageing Challenger-class submarines, which should be commissioned by 2020. This year, the Army will also launch a new Protected Combat Support Vehicle to provide better protection and mobility for our supporting troops.  For the RSAF, our Super Pumas and some of our older Chinooks are aging and will need to be replaced. We are finalising our evaluations and expect the new RSAF helicopters soon. We will announce it when we finish the evaluations. For the F-16s, as I have said, we are upgrading them with more advanced radars, the advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, and air-to-ground weapons.

The SAF will deploy more unmanned platforms, beyond what we already have - the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), so that manpower resources can be freed up for other missions. The Navy envisages that unmanned vessels may eventually complement our ships to patrol our waterways and clear underwater mines. Likewise, our Army may use Unmanned Ground Vehicles to conduct security patrols.

Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Cedric Foo asked about our cyber defences. Well put questions. We consider this threat a very serious one. It can potentially be more disruptive than physical intrusion, because it can disrupt your key installations. And I would say that this is also a national priority, and nationally, the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) was launched last year under the aegis of PMO; overseeing is PMO and Deputy Prime Minister Teo who oversees the National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS). Some of your specific questions on national security should be put to that agency. But for the SAF, as Mr Low rightly pointed out, what we set up recently was a Cyber Defence Operations Hub (CDOH). We will have to increase the head count. I will not give you the exact numbers, but I will just tell you that we will double the headcount by 2020. Cyber intrusions occur daily, for those of you in this business, it is not tens; it is not hundreds; it is not thousands; it is hundreds of thousands or millions of network event logs. You use algorithms; you use smart software, to try to remove the bulk of them and identify suspected intrusions. But what you are worried about are not the ones that sort of deface your page and make you lose face but does not really affect you. What you are worried about is a cyber attack, things that can burrow into your systems, steal your secrets or have a trigger at a particular time to render you defenceless. So this is of national importance. There is structure, there is organisation, and much of it is what we call "security by design". You design your security into your networks even as you build them. For the SAF, we expect to use more artificial intelligence and big data analytics to detect and respond to cyber threats. We will build greater security into our software design and shore up the defences in our network architecture to make them more resistant and resilient to cyber attacks. This includes hardware infrastructure. There will also be substantial investment into developing more and better trained cyber defence personnel. The SAF will work closely with the national CSA on this front. 

Building Enduring Partnerships

We spend a significant amount of our resources to maintain a strong defence but even so, Singapore cannot face our security threats alone. It is foolhardy to try, and will fail. For example, to stop the spread of terrorism globally, we are stepping up our intelligence-sharing with our neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia, and partners such as the US and Australia, to provide us with early warning and apprehend suspects that intend to do us harm. This is particularly important as militants have been using Southeast Asia as a transit point.

Beyond intelligence, we continue to build enduring partnerships to strengthen regional security. Mr Baey Yam Keng and Mr Vikram Nair asked about our defence diplomacy efforts. We are friends with all and we cultivate relations with all. We continue to build good ties with the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) and TNI, the Indonesian National Defence Forces. We will also be celebrating the 40th anniversary of our defence relations with Brunei this year.

Mr Vikram Nair asked about China and US. Last December, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and I concluded the enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. The agreement updates and deepens our defence ties to cover non-conventional security areas, such as counter-terrorism, biosecurity and cyber defence. It is that close relations with the US that have given us access to much-needed training space and high-end defence technology. So whether it is our F-16, F-15, Chinook or Apache helicopters, our pilots train extensively in the US and are given access to training areas many times the size of Singapore.

Mr Vikram Nair asked about China. We agreed on a Four-Point Consensus for our military ties in 2014. One of the Points was to "promote confidence building … and strengthen practical cooperation". With China, we introduced a new bilateral naval exercise series named Maritime Cooperation last year. We will build on these initiatives to encourage China to continue to play a peaceful and constructive role in the region.

Mr Baey Yam Keng asked about Australia. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, this defence relationship is a very important one. Many SAF servicemen go for Exercise Wallaby and train in sizeable areas. We hope to take this partnership even further in areas such as personnel exchanges, counter-terrorism, and R&D collaborations, through the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that the two Prime Ministers endorsed last year.

Apart from our bilateral efforts, some of you have asked, as Mr Baey Yam Keng did, about the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM). Some of you have asked why we engage in these. Well, to paraphrase or to quote Churchill, "Jaw-jaw is better than war war". Yes, this may require effort but more importantly, these platforms promote a rules-based security architecture, things that we can agree on, that are underpinned by international law, and creates opportunities for dialogue and practical cooperation. And sometimes, it helps us, as some of you rightly pointed out, in responding to contingencies and crises like HADR. But let me nuance that – we are not NATO. It will take us a long time before we think of ourselves to be anything like NATO and I am not even sure if NATO's structure is optimal for ASEAN. We cooperate in partnerships with the understanding that it cannot mean that you subsume your sovereignty or control under other forces in ASEAN. So where we can, we will cooperate and have dialogue. For example, the ADMM-Plus Maritime Security and Counter-Terrorism Exercise to be conducted this year, which Singapore will co-organise. It will involve 18 militaries and will build trust among each other, helping to reduce the risk of mishaps at sea.

A Resilient Nation

Madam Chair, Total Defence was launched more than 30 years ago, Mr Zaqy pointed out. But the threat that we now face from extremist groups like ISIS makes Total Defence more relevant than ever. Just as damaging as physical harm, extremists can sow deep mistrust between Singaporeans and weaken our social cohesion.

The crucial question is: after an extremist attack, will it splinter our society? Will it paralyse Singaporeans and sow discord through fear? We want to hear what Singaporeans hope to do to strengthen Total Defence, and encourage more ground-up ideas. SMS Maliki and SMS Ong are leading these efforts and will share more about our SGfuture engagements later.

Trust, Our Foundation for Defence

Mr Pritam Singh asked if MINDEF/SAF should do more, whether it is in a Defence White Paper or other aspects  to shore up support by Singaporeans or external countries. I think that is a noble goal which indeed we will head to. We can discuss how we do it effectively. I would say we conduct periodic polls, these are sometimes population surveys. Thankfully, the support for defence has been very high. In last August's polls, 97 percent of Singaporean respondents said that the Government has performed well in defence and national security.

At the core of Total Defence is societal trust - trust among each other as citizens, trust between commanders and soldiers, trust between the Government and people, trust between the SAF and those we promise to protect.

The SAF knows that it can only build this trust through living by its values. A core value which all soldiers pledge is to defend Singapore with their lives. SAF commanders and soldiers put Singapore and Singaporeans first, above their own well-being, whether it is in training and operations. Six years ago, both engines of one of our Apache helicopters failed mid-flight. For MAJ Adrian Quek and MAJ Spencer Ler, it would not be an exaggeration to say that their lives flashed before their eyes and were at risk - it could have been their last flight. But they acted professionally, and as every airman is taught, ensured that civilian lives were not put at risk, even if it meant endangering their own. They glided in free fall from 10,000 feet, and reached the ground in a mere two minutes. They had manoeuvred the helicopter down to an open field away from buildings. The pilots survived and more importantly, no civilians were injured.

We see this duty to put others before self, exemplified by our NSFs. Three years ago, LTA Kamalasivam, put his life on the line to save a recruit during a live grenade exercise. The recruit had accidentally released the hand grenade lever. As many of you here have done NS, you would know when you release the lever, you throw the grenade. But the recruit released it. This officer did not panic, but immediately instructed the recruit to throw the grenade, then shielded the recruit as he pulled both of them down behind the concrete walls. Fortunately, both escaped with minor wounds. I wish I could promise Singaporeans that risks do not exist for our SAF soldiers who are asked to protect Singaporeans, who are asked to train hard or conduct missions, but all of you know that risks exist for all militaries - whether it is helicopters, infantry or ships. We will do all that we can to carry out our training and missions safely, because each life is precious. But ultimately, I would say for the SAF, the lives of Singaporeans must come first. MAJ Quek, MAJ Ler and LTA Kamalasivam exemplify this core value of selfless service in the SAF. 


Madam Chair, in this troubled peace, the SAF will train hard, prepare well and continually adapt to protect Singapore. I again ask and thank members of this House and Singaporeans for their unstinting support and commitment to maintain our strong defence. With Singaporeans strongly behind and with us, the SAF will respond decisively to all those who seek to do us harm and protect this precious island we call home.


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