Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 5th Putrajaya Forum Session 1 on "Regional Security Crescendos and its Implication on Stablity"

Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 5th Putrajaya Forum Session 1 on "Regional Security Crescendos and its Implication on Stablity"


Thank you Tan Sri Jawhar, Chairman, my esteemed colleagues Dato' Seri Hishammuddin, Pak Ryamizard and Undersecretary Ricardo. Dato' Seri Hishammuddin articulated a wish. I would just add that his wish is the same as mine. I wish him all good things. First, let me thank the organisers for inviting me to speak at this very now-successful and established defence forum – the Putrajaya Forum – as well as its associated Defence Services Asia (Exhibition and Conference). 

Regional Security Trends and Challenges

In the next decade, we in Asia will inevitably be affected by political trends that are now widespread and gaining strength world-wide.

First, economics. By any comparative standard, the tide of globalisation that we witnessed in the 20th century has been enormously effective in lifting standards of living and indeed, hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in many countries. Yet, a populous backlash has ensued. Local populations react against the flow of migrants into their communities, the disruption of jobs due to competition and technology, and the widening income gaps that are associated with free market policies. Politically, far-right parties that push for nationalisation, nationalism and nativist policies have gained ground. Even centrist and moderates have to adjust their own positions. The global commons of trade and finance lack champions, and indeed even the United States (US) that spearheaded many of the previous initiatives for common markets and rules is now pursuing an "America First” policy. It is likely that other countries will follow suit, to gain greater benefits for their own local economies. Some academics have coined the word "geoeconomics” to emphasise that trade disputes can and has historically precipitated armed conflicts. The opium wars in the mid-19th century is an egregious example but many more exist to illustrate that close nexus between trade and security.
Second, strategic rivalry for both trade and security will occur in Asia. The US-China rivalry will affect all of us. China is already the leading trading partner for almost all Asian countries. The US is still the dominant military power here and globally. This divergence in trade and security dependence or alliances is itself a stress factor. But other major powers like Japan, India, and some in Europe will also want to assert their influence in this region. That jostling for pole positions may impact small countries like Singapore and Malaysia that will be put into the uncomfortable position to choose sides. 

Potentially dangerous flashpoints due to the instability on the Korean Peninsula as well as the East and South China Seas, and terrorism that my good friend Dato' Seri Hishammuddin has just mentioned, are some known threats that can become proximate precipitators of conflict. The siege of Marawi last year is a stark reminder that terrorism here has evolved far beyond disparate individuals to groups that are well-connected, well-funded networks with the technology and the ability to wage full-scale war against states. The terrorist fighters in Marawi were well-equipped, with snipers, heavy machine guns, and even anti-tank weapons, and conducted urban warfare against soldiers and policemen who were not trained for that kind of fight. It took five months for the Philippine armed forces and homeland security to dislodge the militants from the city, and many lives had been lost and the city devastated.

These changes occur against a backdrop of greater military spending by Asian countries that has now surpassed all historical norms. Asia, including ASEAN, has seen the highest growth in military spending in past decades. The military spending of Asia increased by more than seven times from 1975 to 2016 to reach US$430 billion, about a quarter of the world's military expenditure. 2012 in particular saw Asia surpass Europe in defence spending. Within ASEAN, between 1987 and 2016, military expenditure has more than tripled in the 30 years to over US$40 billion, with much of the increase coming only in the last decade. 

With more capable militaries in Asia, any conflict can be devastating in scale and impact. But unlike Europe, which was united post-World War II by a "never again” moment, Asia lacks that resolve borne out of the horrors of war. Multilateral institutions that promote collaboration to reduce confrontation are relatively few and young. The ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), are less than three decades old and will need time to address the structural weaknesses in our regional security architecture. 

Singapore's 2018 ADMM Chairmanship

ASEAN will have to step up to address the security challenges in our region. It is to our intimate interest to do so. The ADMM-Plus in particular is now the most important defence and security platform for this region and we must redouble efforts to build its resilience to enhance its relevance. Hence, as Chair of the ADMM this year, Singapore has proposed the "3Cs” – counter-terrorism, confidence building measures, and chemical, biological (and) radiological (CBR) programmes, and these have received unanimous support from the ASEAN Defence Ministers.

First, we aim to enhance counter-terrorism, leveraging on militaries' niche capabilities. We have proposed a "3Rs” framework – Resilience, Response, Recovery – to put together the regional counter-terrorism initiatives. And this outlines the gamut of actions needed to deal with the terrorism threat, from strengthening resilience against attacks, coordinating our responses, and recovering from these attacks. A unified framework will strengthen our centrality in the region, as well as improve coordination and synergy.

Second, we seek to strengthen regional capabilities against CBR threats by terrorists and rogue states. Central to this is the establishment of a virtual ASEAN network of CBR defence experts. A network will deepen the professional links among ASEAN experts and increase our channels that we can reach out to in the event of any disaster.

Third, we want to establish practical confidence building measures and code for unplanned encounters to guide our military interactions in this area, in air as well as on seas. This will help reduce the risk of miscalculations and de-escalate tensions. I am pleased that all of 18 ADMM-Plus countries have agreed to adopt the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). ASEAN and Chinese navies will take a step further by putting CUES into practice during the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise later this year, as agreed to by the ASEAN and Chinese Defence Ministers. The ADMM is also making good progress on a set of guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft among ASEAN's air forces, and hope to bring the Plus countries on board subsequently.


Ladies and gentlemen, I have outlined the dangers and pitfalls that exist in Asia and how ASEAN can increase its relevance in tackling these threats. If we can work together to avoid the perils, then this region can continue to enjoy stability and progress for another generation.

Once again, thank you for inviting us, the Singapore delegation and myself. And I wish this forum continued success. Thank you very much.

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