Speech Transcript by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2018

Speech Transcript by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2018

Defending Singapore for Another Generation


Mr Chairman, let me thank the members for their continued support to build up a strong defence for Singapore by voting for the financial policy of the Government yesterday.

This debate and the next on the Presidential Address after Parliament reopens are crucial. For this debate, it is expected that any proposed tax increase will attract attention. If it didn't, we would be in a different world, a surreal one. But astute Members of Parliament (MPs) have pointed out that the financial budget is but a means to an end. Indeed, apart from the financial scrutiny of Government spending and revenue, the debates will set strategic directions for Singapore over the next ten, twenty years and beyond. And these core issues are addressed at a crucial juncture, as we transit to a fourth generation leadership that must forge support from a generation of Singaporeans with perspectives and memories significantly different from the pioneer generation, and even that of their parents - because they were born when Singapore was first-world, and they did not experience a third-world Singapore. As we deliberate on these key issues, we have to decide what we must never let go, lest we weaken the foundations of our growth, and what we must change to keep relevant with the times. Those decisions from these two debates will affect every Singaporean, young or old, right or wrong.

Defence of Singapore in the 21st Century

Every Ministry therefore, including and especially defence which takes up a large share of Government spending, must deal with these core issues. That's the core debate. Mr Vikram Nair captured the essence when he asked of my Ministry what are our security plans in the face of wide-ranging threats and risks, and if our defence spending is adequate and sustainable. He used the word 'existential' twice, and he is correct. Should we continue to put defence spending as a priority? Because after all, we have had peace for 50 years and more now. Our relations with neighbours are good on all sides. We have formed strong partnerships, as members have pointed out, with major powers. How much should we invest in building a strong Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)? How much can we afford? 

The answer to these questions by previous generations was plain, as it was unwavering - defence was a top priority and they invested heavily into building a strong defence, a strong SAF, no ifs or buts. But let me make one fact clear, past generations did so even when there were many competing needs. We talk about our rising needs, but as a third world country, our needs then were dire and everywhere - houses, schools, hospitals, roads, public facilities, jobs, all in short supply. And because our military capabilities at independence were next to nothing, the Government of the day had to make hard decisions - every dollar spent on building up the military was a dollar taken from other needs. And yet, they paid the price to build up a strong SAF. Why? Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneer generation who lived through Singapore as a British colony, under Japanese occupation and as a part of Malaysia held a deep conviction on self-determination through a strong defence. At National Day Parade (NDP) which members here attend, we replay a particular clip of Mr Lee's - it is a very stern admonition, and at this coming NDP, I invite you to listen to it again. It was uttered in 1967 when National Service (NS) was introduced, "If you, who are growing up, do not understand that you have got to defend this, then I say in the end, we will lose. Other people will come, smack you down, take it over." I can't say it as harshly as Mr Lee did, because that generation lived through difficult times. It's just unnatural for us but when he says it, and when the pioneer generation says it, it's so authentic. Harsh words for harsh times, but ever so necessary, not only for that generation, but I think for every generation. So listen for that clip again this year.

And with that deep conviction and sacrificial commitment, we today have a modern and professional SAF. From two infantry battalions - which if you read Mr Lee's memoirs were still under Malaysian command even after we separated - we now have an Army, combined arms divisions, fully manned and able to move at short notice. Earlier this year, you may or may not have noticed, we activated a mass mobilisation exercise. There was not much of a fanfare, in fact it may have gone unnoticed, but in a few hours we were able to rapidly assemble and equip 8,000 men - move munitions to them, and we used new ways of doing it. Many of you here are operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) and have gone through mobilisation and equipping exercise (MOBEX). The NSmen went to the automated counters, which takes a picture of you, issues you a slip to say which company and which platoon you go to, and what your role is and what weapons you need to draw. At the same time, we activated supply facilities that pushed logistics, weapons, platforms, to them. Within a few hours, we mobilised 8,000 soldiers - no mean feat, anywhere. That should give a lot of confidence to members in this House and to Singaporeans. From two Cessnas, and the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) celebrates or commemorates its Golden Jubilee this year - when we started we had two Cessnas, we didn't really own them, we leased them from the Singapore Flying Club. Today we have a fleet, a comprehensive fleet of fighter, transport, surveillance aircraft and ground-based air defence systems that protect our skies 24/7. After 9/11 we took that threat seriously, and if there are planes that come to us, unplanned - our fighter planes are mobilised, and from time to time we gently guide errant, sometimes lost pilots down, but you will never know when there might be a real attack just like 9/11. Our Navy started with two wooden-hull boats, but we now have modern navy of Littoral Mission Vessels (LMV), frigates, and submarines that protect our waters and maritime hub. 

The commitment of previous generations to build up a strong SAF was not merely through words or aspirations. It required substantial financial resources from the Government and the people. But that was not the only resource, and in fact not the most precious resource they had to give. They gave of themselves, as every Singaporean male, as every male MP in this House who has done NS has done so, through NS with the full support from family and as employers.

The results of that unequivocal commitment are plain for everyone to see - to Singaporeans, to our neighbours and indeed globally - an SAF today that is able to defend Singapore, but beyond that, an SAF that has contributed to global security. As Mr Vikram Nair said, how do we show that we are a valued partner? It went beyond our wildest imagination that SAF troops and assets, as Mr Teo Ser Luck pointed out, could assist after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Katrina; or could be deployed as peacekeepers in Timor-Leste or against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, against pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and in humanitarian efforts in Aceh and Nepal. Who would have thought of it when SAF was started more than 50 years ago? We will continue to do this because the partnerships forged from playing our role internationally are important in dealing with transnational threats that affect our own security. We are not playing "good guy". It raises our stakes, our value to others, who will then want to help us as we deal with transnational security threats.

Maintaining a Steady Level of Defence Spending

It has been the steady investments in defence spending that enabled these achievements by a strong SAF, both locally and internationally. This is a Committee of Supply (COS) debate, so I think some details on actual financing are appropriate. We've handed out, with your permission, Mr Chairman, charts. The first figure (Figure 1), and I'll show them as well on the screens, shows our defence spending for the last 30 years. First off, in blue, is the percentage of Government expenditure - how much the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) spends as part of Government expenditure. At its height, you will notice that we spent almost a third of every dollar the Government spent. But with the SAF modernised and doing more with people and technology, defence spending as a proportion dropped substantially starting around a decade ago, and it is now about 19% of Government spending.



So much for Singapore's spending, but defence must always be seen in perspective. What you spend is never as important as what everyone else spends. What of defence spending by countries around us? I've chosen just to focus on ASEAN, but the same can be said of Asia, less ASEAN and Singapore. Figure 2 shows that we had kept pace with ASEAN spending until about 2006. In the last decade, our ASEAN neighbours have been spending more to modernise their defence capabilities even as their economies grew. The gap between Singapore's spending compared to the rest of ASEAN has increased, but Singapore need not increase its defence spending radically now to play catch-up. Don't worry, we don't have to do that.



As I have said in this House previously, we can maintain the SAF's capabilities with a defence spending that roughly keeps pace with inflation - around 3 to 4% increase each year. And even for the next decade, MINDEF does not foresee any spike in defence spending. Obviously, this will not apply if there are exigencies or unexpected scenarios. For instance if there is a terrorist attack or if the security environment deteriorates, our agencies will have to spend more to protect Singaporeans. And after the next decade, it would be prudent for the Government of that day and this House to reassess the security threats and the military spending, and the capabilities of other countries and plan ahead. So if you can remember and you're still in this House 10 years on, please remember this gentle admonition, and sound out warnings if you think necessary.

Two crucial lessons to learn from our experiences as well as that from negative examples from other countries which went the other way and they are: First, the best time to prepare for trouble is during peace. Second, in the long run, steady investments into military capabilities maintains peace through deterrence and results in more effective outcomes. It is actually the most efficient yield for defence investments. In other words even if you spent the same dollar amount over a defined period, the most effective yield is continuous, steady investments. And I'll tell you why, by examples, which many European countries have learnt in bitter ways.

So, I recently spoke of how Lithuania did away with NS after the Cold War, but has now to reintroduce it following the annexation of Crimea. If one Defence Minister abolishes NS, is it possible for a subsequent Minister to reintroduce it a few years later? Certainly not in time to deal with an imminent crisis. Denmark announced in October last year that they would now increase defence spending by 20% over the next five years - you can quickly appreciate the pain it will cause their population. The Finance Minister of Denmark may have to raise GST by 2%, just to pay for increased defence spending. Because Europe has now got threats, people are asking France and Germany, who are the two largest powers to do more, and they're going to up their defence spending. President Macron, to his credit, believes that it should be done. France had to unveil a bill last month that would increase its spending on its armed forces by more than 40% by 2025. France now spends 34 billion Euros on defence, which will have to go up to 50 billion Euros - a 16 billion Euro increase in seven years. This might require far more than just a 2% increase in GST, just to pay for defence spending. I have been attending the Munich Security Conference for more than half a decade, and back then there was almost a schizophrenia: "We think we want Germany to do more, but with their troubled past maybe they shouldn't do more." That debate is done. Now Germany is asked by European Union (EU) states to do more militarily. But after 25 years of cuts to the German defence budget, the German military - the Bundeswehr - is underfunded, with entire weapons systems unusable because they either lack spare parts, or have been poorly maintained. By the German government's own assessment, less than half of Germany's submarines and planes are operationally ready. The platforms are there, but only half can be activated. When the Aceh tsunami occurred, we activated three of our four Landing Ships Tank (LSTs). It happened on Boxing Day, no way you could have had a prior warning; on activation, all move. 75% of the assets of that particular platform. The fourth LST was in the Gulf, as Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean reminds me, all four were out. If you had sent another one, we would have had to borrow one more. The Bundeswehr will need many years to modernise its platforms and make up for lost time. When I share these lessons, I say these are salutary lessons that we must voraciously imbibe because someone else has paid to learn them. That's the cheapest cost to any country.

A More Complex and Volatile Security Environment

We intend to keep our defence spending steady despite countries around us spending more and against wide-ranging security threats. But we have to prioritise and focus, and optimise our resources.

Some members have asked about counter-terrorism - Professor Faishal Muhammad, Dr Fatimah Lateef - and the SAF takes terrorism very seriously, so much so that we have to reorganise, train and equip differently. And members have pointed out, including Professor Teo Ho Pin how we now have the capacity to train 18,000 SAF national servicemen for homeland security. We learnt valuable lessons from Marawi, another painful lesson that someone else learnt, so we went there, we absorbed the lessons. I made a trip, DPM Teo made a trip recently, where they found out and they admit that they underestimated the problem, both the number of fighters and how well they were equipped. The terrorist fighters there were equipped - snipers had good weapons, heavy machine guns and they even had anti-tank weapons, and the terrorists conducted urban warfare against soldiers and policemen of the Philippine authorities who were not trained for that kind of fight. That's why it took five months for the Philippine armed forces and homeland security to dislodge the militants from that city, and this after many lives had been lost and the city devastated. I think the bill they recently estimated will cost about US$1.1 billion. This is just one city. The experiences there confirm that the SAF is on the right track in building up our counter-terrorism capabilities. In the span of a year, we have trained some 18,000 servicemen for homeland security, and we started a new institute, called the Island Defence Training Institute. I talked about SAFTI City last year. When completed, it will allow our soldiers to train more realistically for homeland security and counter-terrorism.

Members rightly pointed out that we will have to do more with other government agencies to respond to these terror threats. We are working with the Singapore Police Force's Frontline Policing Training Centre to conduct routine joint training and equip NSmen with the skills to perform these homeland security operations. At sea, the various agencies are coordinated, whether it is the Republic of Singapore Navy, the Police Coast Guard, Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, or Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, so that we keep our waters safe. 

But, as much as we prepare at home, Singapore needs to be part of the international effort to deal with terrorism at its source. That's a sound strategy because if you don't do that, you're just dealing with the problem too late and allowing the problem to mushroom. And we did that against Al-Qaeda, from 2007 in Afghanistan. That threat has dissipated for now. Our SAF troops have been deployed in Iraq since 2014 against ISIS, with considerable progress. The coalition effort, led by the United States (US), has taken Iraq back from ISIS control. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote to me recently to ask Singapore to commit more resources for the next phase of consolidation after our hard won victories. Cabinet has approved for Singapore to maintain our commitment to counter-terrorism globally, for our own interests. And I am announcing today that the SAF will further deploy troops to Iraq later this year. We will send SAF troops to help train Iraqi Security Forces to counter improvised explosive devices, as well as in tactical weapons and combat tactics.

As Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef suggested, we need to work with ASEAN on counter-terrorism, and some others have pointed that out too, including Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Low Thia Kiang, especially because the risk of foreign fighters leaving Iraq and Syria has gone up. Paradoxically, as the problem there diminishes, they come back to Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines or even Singapore. The Philippine Special Operations Command came to Singapore last December for a two-week professional exchange, and our offer to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to use our UAVs for surveillance remains open. DPM Teo, when he visited Philippines leaders recently, reiterated that offer too. The SAF stands ready to join the Sulu Seas patrol when invited, and as ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) Chair, we recently proposed a counter-terrorism framework. There were many programmes but we felt that we needed a comprehensive framework. We decided the 3Rs of "Resilience, Response, Recovery", to coordinate our responses to prevent, deal with and recover from attacks.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak asked about the growing cyber threat - indeed, a transnational threat that has effects that could be as devastating as physical attacks, whether it is power grids, whether it is financial grids, whether it is hospitals and so on and so forth. 

At the Whole-of-Government level, DPM Teo chairs our coordinating inter-ministerial committee with the SPRC - Security Policy Review Committee. But at the ministry level, we are responsible for our own ministries as well as the ecosystem that the ministry is in charge of. Members have asked where the attacks come from, how often and who are they targeted at. I think you can guess at the answer. The attacks are conducted by freelancers, as well as organised state and non-state actors. Senior MINDEF and SAF leaders, as well as departments, handling sensitive information have been deliberately targeted, for example by "spear-phishing". Those of you in IT will know what this is. In other words, you get innocent looking emails addressed to you but it contains malicious software, if you click on the attachment, the malicious software can come. 

As we do in the physical arena, MINDEF adopts a multi-layered approach to cyber defence, including the ultimate step of physically separating sensitive systems from the Internet. Sensors monitor our internal networks 24/7. We have "red teams" which are testing for vulnerabilities. Mr Zainal Sapari asked about our bug bounty programme, thank you for affirming it, I thought it was a good idea. It attracted 260 white-hat hackers and it has improved our systems at relatively low cost. We have shared lessons with other agencies like GovTech and the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore. I think the results are encouraging. I don't think it is a one-off, it may not be an exact mould but we will think of ways to crowdsource; because on the internet you can crowdsource and actually leverage off that connectivity.

And as members have pointed out, we will build up a cyber force with more SAF regulars and full-time staff and we will also use NSmen. This year, we will take in the pilot batch of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) under the Cyber NSF Scheme. For those of you who have friends or children of friends who are interested and suitable, tell them about this. We will offer them regular contracts of varying durations. If they accept, we will invest more on training them - in cyber defence training and exercise infrastructure to train them. This is also a long-term need, needs a long-term plan, and we have begun.

Investing Prudently for the Long-Term

Mr Teo Ser Luck asked how we can be prudent in our spending, and he is spot on. We know our resources are limited, we have to be prudent. But we won't compromise. The SAF will not compromise our defence capabilities, but we have found ways to optimise resources, we want to stretch every dollar, where we can.

Through innovation and better work processes, the SAF saved about $200 million last year, the highest in the last four years. I think we can do more. For instance, our new LMVs will cost around $65 million less for the whole fleet to maintain across their lifetime. They replaced the Patrol Vessels. The LMVs are much more capable than the Patrol Vessels but will cost less. Why? Because they have less crew and they are more efficient to maintain. The RSAF's Aerostat, our big balloon, achieves continuous aerial surveillance just like a plane with a radar, but saves about $29 million a year. 

The SAF upgrades existing equipment where possible to avoid buying new platforms. Our first instinct is not to buy, but to upgrade. And that is what we did for our whole fleet of Leopard Tanks and Chinooks (CH-47SD helicopters).

We must harness new technologies, as Dr Teo Ho Pin pointed out, because even if you chose to give us more money in exchange for manpower, we can't do it. We just don't have the manpower, we recognised that as an inherent constraint. And we started to deal with it I think probably about one, even two decades ago, in terms of designing our systems, in terms of maintaining our systems. Let me give you some examples. Dr Teo Ho Pin mentioned that the older NSmen, those in their sixties, won't be so adept. We are not planning to induct them into our armed forces, because your NS liability is till forty or fifty years old, but thank you for that idea Dr Teo. But of those in the SAF, there are some examples. So instead of soldiers conducting surveillance from observation towers, the Army will build Unmanned Towers to watch over Jurong Island and the surrounding waters. Those towers will watch 24/7, in all weather and will reduce the total number of soldiers by up to a third - a significant number. 

The RSAF is moving towards a Smart Air base. What is a Smart Air base? For example, we will use drones to perform runway damage assessment. We can use drones to perform runway damage assessment, and respond to other intruding drones. We want to make it more efficient by leveraging automation for aircraft maintenance, and use sensors for pre- and post-flight aircraft checks. It is achievable and we are doing trials to achieve that kind of Smart Air base.

The RSN is integrating data from all agencies - the maritime environment is a different environment from the air - there are lots of moving parts, different agencies, and you want to gather data from all sources, construct better algorithms to detect anomalies and then pre-empt possible terrorist threats from the sea. And for surveillance we want to use cameras with smart sensors for automated surveillance. We don't need so much man-in-the-loop to say this vessel is behaving in a different way from other vessels. And you don't need manned vessels for some scenarios; unmanned vessels will soon be used for patrols and underwater surveys. All these give us hope that we are moving towards an SAF that is just or even more effective, but uses less manpower.

Positioning Strongly for the Future

We agree wholeheartedly with members here who pointed out that we can't do this alone. We have to join other partners and other countries. Ms Jessica Tan, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Pritam Singh, thank you for affirming that our focus areas as ADMM Chair this year is important. We said there will be three areas: counter-terrorism, confidence-building measures and code for unplanned encounters (CUE) at sea and in the air, and the third, was chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) threats. That was really precipitated because of the Korean Peninsula's instability and most countries are not prepared for those kinds of threats. As members pointed out quite rightly, the CUE for sea (CUES) has been accepted. What is the possibility of the CUE for air being accepted? It is a tough one, I agree with you. But if we can do it, 18 nations, I think it will send a very strong signal. So we will try. We will at least start the ball rolling, see whether we can get the consensus from 10 ASEAN countries, and then the Plus-8 countries. Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Pritam Singh asked if we would be practising CUES. Indeed we are, we don't even have to wait for the ASEAN-China Maritime exercise. We are going to do it with all 18 ADMM-Plus countries, because they have agreed to collectively adopt CUES and practise it in our exercises in 2019. You asked if the ADMM-Plus meeting will be yearly, indeed it will be from this year onwards. We have agreed that Singapore will be the first to host these annual meetings.

With the US, we have achieved new milestones. Both the RSN and the RSAF conducted bilateral exercises in Guam for the first time last year, flying with US Pacific Command Air Force (PACAF) and exercising across the full spectrum of anti-submarine, anti-surface, and anti-air warfare with the US Navy. With China, we will build on the positive momentum from the visit of Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan earlier this year and will deepen ties with the People's Liberation Army (PLA). With India, we concluded the Navy Bilateral Agreement which will increase maritime security cooperation between our countries, especially around the Andaman Sea. For Australia, we will begin constructing SAF training facilities in Queensland in 2019. 

So we will build strong partnerships but all of us here know that ultimately, we Singaporeans must be accountable for our own defence. When we depended on others, it failed.

As our NSmen will be better trained through new facilities in the SAFTI City and in Australia, and with continued investments, steady, year after year which members of this House approve, the SAF will continue its transformation onwards. And the Next Gen SAF will use game-changing technologies and new fighting concepts. On the ground, they will operate unmanned and autonomous systems as a force multiplier. Our skies will be better protected with advanced weapon systems. We also recently added the ASTER 30 Surface-to-Air Missile System. Our territorial waters and sea lines of communications will be better secured with manned and unmanned vessels alike. That's the vision, that's what we are investing in. And we will be equipped to deal with ever-evolving cyber threats.


Mr Chairman, let me conclude. That members of this House voted for the Budget this year, sends a strong signal to our own people and to the world. In doing so, we have kept faith with what we were entrusted to by previous generations - a strong SAF able to ensure our independence and protect Singaporeans. But that strong SAF was not built or maintained by happenstance or even good intentions. For each generation, it will require a conscious and a deliberate decision. It will require sacrifices to commit resources and of themselves. Previous generations took that hard decision. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said to SAF officers, it was at a Temasek Society dinner in 2012, "From the day we started, I knew that we needed a strong SAF and I believe that still remains today. Without a strong SAF, there is no economic future, there is no security." The members of this House who voted for the Budget yesterday united themselves with this belief and the resolve of the pioneer generation. If each generation reaffirms and renews its commitment, then a strong SAF will continue to keep Singapore safe and sovereign with a secure future for another generation.

Thank you.


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