Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, for the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry 54th National Day Dinner

Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, for the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry 54th National Day Dinner

Mr Roland Ng, President, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI),
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to thank Mr Roland Ng and the Board Members of SCCCI for inviting me to join you in the SCCCI's celebration of Singapore's 54th National Day. This is a wonderful tradition we have in Singapore where National Day dinners are held all over the island to mark another year of progress for Singapore. These dinners are usually not meant for serious speeches, but Roland gave me this opportunity, I would speak to your members about Singapore's security. 

Singapore, and indeed the world, is entering a period of great uncertainty and turbulence marked by, and drive by a sharper ideological divide between the US and China. In the recent Shangri-La Dialogue held in June here, we saw up close strong statements made by the US then-Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Minister of National Defense GEN Wei Fenghe. That was one flash point, but their fundamental differences are long-term and have the potential to affect all countries and all sectors – not just in trade and finance, but also security and including country-to-country relationships. The tensions arising from these differences are not new, and have been going on for years, sometimes up, sometimes down, but recent events mark a significant shift, not only in attitudes but of strategic intent towards each other.

After China undertook economic reforms, first begun by Deng Xiao Ping in the 1970s, and joined the global trading system and later the World Trade Organisation, the speed of China's rise has been a historical phenomenon – not seen in this scale in the history of mankind. By some projections, China's economy will overtake that of the US, the largest economy since the 1890s, in the near future. When an event of such enormity occurs on the world stage, history teaches us that there are bound to be changes.

And indeed, this was the key subject that was studied when in 2017, Harvard Professor Graham Allison published his book, "Destined for War". It caused some consternation at least among academic circles, think tanks and Governments. In his book, Professor Allison asked pointedly "Can America and China escape the Thucydides Trap?". Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian and general, who wrote on the war about 2,500 years ago that occurred when a growing Athens threatened the established Sparta who feared that they would be displaced. Professor Allison went on to study in detail, similar episodes in the last 500 years. He discovered that there were 16 such episodes where a rising power challenged the position of the resident power and of these 16, 12 ended in war. His book therefore examined the future of the US-China relationship in this light, and asked if and how the two countries can avoid the Thucydides Trap. Professor Allison is a good friend of Singapore and visits us often, and understands Singapore, the US and China. When we meet, I often tap his insights. 

If this was just an academic exercise or just another book, well, it would be good material for dinner conversations and seminars. But the US and China are the two largest economies in the world as well as two of the largest militaries. The answer to Professor Allison's question therefore will affect all countries, including Singapore. 

This year, as we commemorate our bicentennial, we are reminded that Singapore and this region are no strangers to big power contests. The bicentennial exhibition, currently going on at Fort Canning, gives a concise and clear account of our history over the past 700 years, where external forces periodically fought proxy battles in this region – often at the expense of the countries here. Whether it was the Srivijaya against the Chola and Majapahit empires; the contests between the colonial powers of the Portuguese, Dutch and British; the Soviet Union and China vying for influence over Indo-China – these big power rivalries have affected and altered the course of the countries in our region. The US-China rivalry can have that same potential impact on Singapore and this region.

The US and China have stated publicly the positions of their Government and militaries toward each other. The US, through their 2018 National Defence Strategy paper and again in july their Indo-Pacific Strategy report, branded China as a "revisionist power". I quote: "China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea", and "China seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term, and displacement of the US to achieve global pre-eminence in the future". 

China responded in their own Defence White Paper recently, noting that "the US is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority", and that "the US has severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries". These are strong and clear words from both sides.

You as businessmen fully appreciate what happens when top management outlines your strategy to your business units – it gets translated to ground actions. Sometimes slower, other times quicker, but eventually it will filter down to the last unit. 

What should we do then, watching these events unfold? Singapore is a small country, and we should not over-estimate our ability to influence, let alone control global affairs – that would be unrealistic and hubris. But we must do all we can, in our interactions with other world leaders, to maintain an open and inclusive system which takes into account the needs of all countries, large and small – one that does not divide our region into competing spheres of influence.

We cannot control the trajectory of US–China relations but we can position Singapore in the best possible way to withstand the uncertainties and if at all possible, help add to regional stability. And make no mistake about this; the potential disruptions can be drastic, so we must be prepared to take them in our stride if they occur. Because of the ongoing trade war, multinational businesses are already making plans to hedge and adjust, to cater to different scenarios. Some are even relocating their supply lines or headquarter offices. 

As a small country, what can Singapore do? First and foremost, maintain stability and security here. We cannot help others, if we ourselves are divided. If ever there was a time to strengthen our Total Defence, it would be now. Who is the enemy, you might ask, that we need to strengthen our Total Defence against? Of course it is not the US or China, because they are close friends. We must strengthen our Total Defence against the uncertainty and impact arising from these tensions. We have already added a sixth pillar – digital defence in our Total Defence framework but more needs to be done. 

In the midst of new pressures, we must keep our Singaporean identity, our independence and our interest foremost in all our dealings. What will these pressures be like and in what form? Here, what has occurred in Eastern Europe provides us examples. There, smaller countries such as the Baltic States have had to respond to external influences to divide their societies and shape their internal systems, even during elections. In our highly connected world, these external forces can affect countries in this region too, including Singapore. When that happens, and it will happen, we must put our own national interests first. We want to be relevant to the world and helpful to powers, big or small, but we do not want to choose sides or be asked to, or be put in positions that bring short term benefits but compromise the larger collective good.

Singapore has excellent relations with both the US and China, and we want to keep it that way, but always based on our own national interests first, and not that of others. We hold firmly to the view that the US' strong presence in this region has contributed to the stability which has allowed Asia to prosper. That is why our leaders signed the Memorandum of Understanding in 1990 which allowed the US' planes and ships to use our air and naval bases. They would not be based here but would rotate through. And the US' presence in this region since then has brought stability and transformed Asia. Today, there are about 5,000 US companies in Singapore, together with around 15,000 European Union (EU), 11,000 Chinese, and 9,000 Indian companies. With China, we firmly believe that the peaceful rise of China benefits the world. In the last decade, it was China's growth that propped up Asia when economic growth in the US and the EU stalled. Going forward, the world needs China's progress and stability as much as China needs the international community to accept its rise. That is why Singapore has many government to government projects with China, including promoting the Belt and Road Initiative. 

In Singapore's 54 years as an independent country, these practical and principled beliefs of guarding strongly our own sovereignty and national interests, while being relevant to the world, have helped us through difficult periods. Our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew recounted that in his lifetime, he had to sing four different national anthems: Britain's "God Save the Queen", Japan's "Kimigayo", Malaysia's "Negara Ku", and finally Singapore's "Majulah Singapura". Today we sing only Majulah Singapura, and long may that be.  

In whatever capacity, whether in Government, private practice, business, academia, profit or non-profit work, for all of us, we put Singapore and Singaporeans first. Here I want to express my deep and sincere thanks to the business community, particularly to the SCCCI for their constant support for our national defence, especially for National Service, right from the beginning.

When the first two batches of recruits were enlisted in 1967, the SCCCI gave each of them a medallion, on which was inscribed 尽忠报国 in Chinese. And in 1968, it was again the SCCCI who on their own accord, raised funds for National Service and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). I am told that in that 1968 meeting, almost 800 representatives from over 300 business entities attended the meeting and donated more than $160,000 on the spot. $160,000 was worth a lot in those days. Later in the year, the SCCCI also helped to raise another $1.23 million in support of national defence. These early efforts by the Chamber laid the foundation for a strong SAF today. And the SCCCI continues to give strong support to our national defence. 

Each year, the Chamber holds an annual memorial service on February the 15th, in commemoration of the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation at the Civilian War Memorial. This annual event teaches and reminds Singaporeans, young and old, that we must control our own destiny and protect our way of life. Again, it was the SCCCI which helped raise funds for the Memorial in 1963. Each year, the Chamber also organises the SAF Day Combined Rededication ceremony. And against fake news and disinformation campaigns on social media that seek to divide Singaporeans, the SCCCI's efforts in helping to forge a cohesive society – such as your set-up of a cultural fund – will become more salient than ever. 

On this National Day, I would like to thank the SCCCI for your loyalty to our country, and for your unwavering support in building a strong defence and a united nation. I wish all of you the best for the year ahead, and have a wonderful National Day. Majulah Singapura, and may it forever be so. Thank you.

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