Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2019

Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2019


A Fruitful 2018

Mr Chairman, let me thank members for their continued commitment to a strong defence for Singapore. I note the speeches that many members of this house have given during the budget debate. It is particularly gratifying and reassuring for our future, for Singapore's future, that despite defence, security, home affairs and foreign affairs accounting for one third of our expenditure, that we have got support across the aisles, across parties. I think that is a strong signal that bodes wells for the future of Singapore.

Last year was a busy year for Singapore. We staged a number of key events on international efforts on the world stage. In response to Mr Vikram Nair and Ms Sylvia Lim, I would say that Singapore's image and standing, because we played host, were enhanced. But it also called for extra and stringent security measures here. In June, the SAF deployed at short notice – it was yes… on, and off, so in two weeks, we were asked to host the US-DPRK Summit. Because such high-profile events can be attractive targets for terrorists, the SAF mounted a large-scale deployment involving two thousand personnel, with dozens of aircraft, ships and vehicles, to provide air, land and sea security domes that covered Sentosa and parts of Orchard Road. Our efforts, together with those of the Home Team, proved a deterrent to would-be provocateurs. The SAF mounted a similar operation when Singapore hosted the ASEAN Summit in November where all the ASEAN Heads of Government and many other foreign dignitaries gathered. 

In October last year, MINDEF chaired the 12th ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and the 5th 18-member ADMM-Plus, which collectively represents four billion people and account for ninety percent of the world's military. At that meeting, we galvanised the ADMM and Plus countries to address common security concerns, including counter-terrorism, Chemical, Biological (and) Radiological Defence threats, and we facilitated ASEAN's adoption of Indonesia's “Our Eyes” Initiative. It is an initiative which can enhance regional counter-terrorism information-sharing, and Singapore will assist Indonesia to set up and operate this facility. This is an important initiative as we prepare to deal with the wave of returning fighters coming back from Iraq and Syria, even as ISIS has lost ground there.

I am also glad to report that under our Chairmanship, the ADMM adopted the ASEAN Guidelines for Air Military Encounters (GAME). It is the first such set of multilateral guidelines in the world, with the support of the Plus countries. GAME can prevent disastrous consequences that can result from unplanned encounters between military aircraft in the air. We have also worked on putting the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. I think some members asked about this. It has been put into practice across all ADMM-Plus navies, including the inaugural ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise in October last year. Later this year, we will use CUES for the ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Exercise, which will include both the US and China. All in all, Singapore did its fair share to enhance regional security and stability. And I think on that score, it was a productive and fruitful year.

Navigating Troubled Waters

In the last few months though, we have had our challenges with Malaysia – Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about this. Since last November, Malaysian Government Vessels have repeatedly entered Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas, over which the Maritime Port Authority (of Singapore) (MPA), Police Coast Guard (PCG) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) vessels have exercised jurisdiction and enforcement without any protest or intrusions from Malaysia for more than two decades. Even now, two Malaysian Government Vessels continue to be anchored in our territorial waters off Tuas. Singaporeans and MPs are familiar with these developments and I need not elaborate. Suffice to say, we have strongly cautioned Malaysia to withdraw their vessels. In fact, if you remember, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)'s press statement in December, I will quote it “Malaysia's deployments in this area will not strengthen its legal claim and can only heighten tensions. Malaysia will be responsible for any untoward situations on the ground that arise from continued deployment of its vessels into this area.” And indeed, just as we warned could happen, last month, the Greek bulk carrier Pireas collided with the Malaysian Government Vessel Polaris. Mercifully, no bodily harm ensued, but it could have been much worse. Singaporeans will remember the collision between the USS McCain and the oil tanker Alnic off Pedra Branca in August 2017, where ten crewmen perished. Even so, some in Malaysia have accused Singapore of orchestrating the collision with the Polaris. These false accusations would have been much louder and strident to push for retaliation against Singapore and Singaporeans, if lives had been lost in the recent collision. 

Our MFA and (Ministry of) Transport officials are meeting for discussions and negotiations and the presence of these Malaysian Government Vessels does not help in any way, and in fact exposes themselves to danger and obstruct productive talks. The MPA, the PCG and the RSN are closely monitoring activities in Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas 24/7, and will remain ever vigilant to guard our sovereignty and rights under international law.

Towards the Next-Generation SAF

MINDEF will continue its efforts in defence diplomacy. I think members have asked that, including Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Vikram Nair. We want to promote regional peace and stability. We make friends with those who are willing, and partner those countries whose interests are aligned with ours and who share our desire for inclusiveness, peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for the law. But at the same time, we must ensure that the SAF is strong and adequate to defend our rights when diplomacy fails and when others choose to do us harm or ignore our rights. As Mdm Fatimah Lateef said, a strong SAF protects Singapore and Singaporeans, and it has been our persistent investments and efforts to build the Next-Generation SAF that can better respond to security threats for another generation. These developments are progressing well, and I would like to elaborate on that because many MPs have asked how we respond to different scenarios of threats that will come upon us in this generation, and we have to prepare for the future because it takes that period of time to build up that kind of SAF. 

Enhancing Singapore's Peace and Security

First, homeland security. The Mumbai attack in 2008 showed us the devastating destruction that can come from the sea, and we are surrounded by seas. To deter and mitigate external attacks against Singapore, we will beef up security for our entire coastline. The SAF will add more optical sensors and coastal radars to deter and detect potential threats. We will build more unmanned watch towers will be added for better coverage of the busy traffic across the Singapore Strait. We will also add unmanned surface vessels to patrol our waters, beginning next year.
A Strong SAF for 2030 and Beyond – Ready for SG75

Members have asked more details on our modernisation of the next generation SAF – Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Pritam Singh, Mdm Lateef, Mr Chong Kee Hiong, and Mr Charles Chong. So let me elaborate. Our plans to modernise the Next-Generation SAF to better respond to security threats are progressing well for all three services. With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I display some slides on the LED screens, and also ask for the handout to be distributed. 

Let me begin with the air. I think Mr Henry Kwek has asked about the F-35s. We have announced our plans to replace the F-16s, which will face obsolescence post-2030, with the F-35s. This will mean that the RSAF fighter fleet will consist of F-35s and F-15SGs, if plans come to fruition a decade or so from now.

As stated previously, MINDEF will issue a Letter of Request (LOR) to the US to acquire F-35s. As required by US law for foreign military sales, the US Congress must approve the sale of F-35s. Our LOR will request an initial acquisition of four F-35s, with the option of a subsequent eight if we decide to proceed. Singapore has the endorsement of both the US Administration and the Department of Defense for our proposed purchase of F-35s, but the Congress must still approve it. In fact, President Trump wrote to PM Lee last month welcoming Singapore's plans to acquire the F-35. During my meeting with Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan at the Munich Security Conference two weeks ago, he also said that the US was greatly appreciative of Singapore's decision and his department supported it.

A word on price. The price of F-35s has been steadily falling due to the healthy orders from the US and ten other countries, including the UK, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Korea. DSTA's assessment is that now is an opportune time to put in Singapore's request. The current unit price of the F-35 ranges from US$90 million to US$115 million per aircraft, comparable to what we have paid for our F-15SGs. The Total Cost of Ownership of a fleet of F-35s, including maintenance across its lifespan, will also be similar to our F-15SGs. Nonetheless, MINDEF will continue to work with the US Department of Defense to optimise operating and maintenance costs. 

The RSAF will take delivery of new helicopters from 2020 onwards. The H225M medium-lift and our Chinook heavy-lift helicopters will replace our existing Super Puma and our CH-47D fleets. These new helicopters will add capacity and be more effective in Search and Rescue or Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations. That is for the Air Force. Let me move on to the Navy. 

For the RSN, our submarines in operation are over two decades old. We will replace them with four new Invincible-class submarines. The first was launched recently in Germany, with the other three being built. The Invincible-class submarines will have longer endurance, and also the latest locally-developed sensors and automated systems designed for optimal use in our surrounding waters. We have launched our submarines lately in Kiel, facing the North Sea. We launched our previous class of submarines in the Baltic Sea but you know, those cold waters there are much colder. So we have to optimise them for our warm waters here. We aim to have a full fleet of four Invincible-class submarines by 2025. 

For surface ships, our ageing missile corvettes have served with distinction since 1989. They are also pioneer generation and will have to be retired soon and they will be replaced by the new Multi-Role Combat Vessels (MRCVs). The first of these will be delivered around 2025 with full delivery expected 2030. More than just improving capabilities, the new MRCVs will incorporate many new ideas. First of all, they will use less manpower. I think many MPs have asked how we will deal with the one-third reduction in manpower. The MRCVs will use less manpower, about half the size of that found on modern frigates. This is quite an achievement. This is possible because we designed it from the onset, custom-built for lean manning, using technologies which automate many functions, including maintenance, and as a result, there is also a cost saving of up to 10% in operating them, compared to other similar-sized frigates. The MRCVs will also have unmanned air and sea drones, so it will not be just a manned ship, it will have air and sea drones, a modular package to extend their reach and flexibility against threats. Many of you are familiar with our LST, our Landing Ship Tank. I think many of you have sailed on them and they have proved their worth time and again. Each time we deploy them in exercises, we say, we are so grateful that we have this platform – so versatile, and able to meet mission objectives. It has been the workhorse in our humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and other missions. Our LSTs are aging too, and will need to be replaced in the next decade by larger and more flexible Joint Multi-Mission Ships. 

Let me move on to the Army. For the Army, the Next-Generation Armoured Fighting Vehicle will replace our M113 Ultras as the mainstay of the SAF's mechanised forces from this year onward. Singaporeans will see them soon on our roads at this year's National Day Parade. These Armoured Fighting Vehicles have better armour protection and mobility through urban environments. Another addition to the Army will be the Next-Generation Howitzers with extended range and greater precision strikes compared to our current platforms.

SAF – A Hybrid Force

I have talked about air, land, and sea platforms. But the signature change I think for the SAF of 2030 and beyond is that the SAF will become a more hybrid force. We will use many more unmanned platforms. Some of the RSAF's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been operating for more than a decade and they will be replaced by newer UAVs with better capabilities over the next few years. I mentioned the MRCV's unmanned surface vessels too. But in the Army, soldiers within the Army will soon use micro-UAVs, for the first time, which will be particularly useful in built-up and urban environments. These unmanned platforms will complement traditional manned equipment, to enhance responses across the full range of operational scenarios. 

In all, the Next-Generation SAF of 2030 and beyond, with this full complement of assets in air, land and sea, will be able to defend Singapore for another generation. This is the SAF that will take us into and guard our future. This is the SAF that our investments have bought, or will buy.

This is the SAF on air, land and sea, with which the next generation of Singaporeans will celebrate for SG75. By then, we will have a state-of-art coastal surveillance network and air defence systems to form a shield around Singapore against incoming threats. The RSAF will fly F-35s and F-15SGs over our skies, supported by A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft, G550 Airborne Early Warning Aircraft, new helicopters and a host of new UAVs. The RSN will have MRCVs, Invincible-class submarines, new unmanned surface vessels and larger Joint Multi-Mission Ships, in addition to existing frigates and Littoral Mission Vessels. The Army will be more protected and mobile, with soldiers mounted in the Next-Generation Armoured Fighting Vehicles and Terrex Motorised Vehicles. Leopard tanks, High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Next-Generation Howitzers will support them, complemented by a full suite of combat engineers, signals, logistic and maintenance platforms. But hardware alone will not build you a strong army and a strong military. We will have to have new training, both here and overseas, which will ensure that our national servicemen and Regulars can build a modern and capable SAF that can defend Singapore and our interests. I know members here have asked that, Mr Zainal Sapari among others. 


The SAF of 2030 and beyond has been designed to be operated with a leaner manpower pool. Mr Baey Yam Keng, Mr Chong Kee Hiong, Mr Zainal Sapari and Mr Pritam Singh asked about this. In other words, we designed the SAF of 2030 and beyond to work with a reduction in our manpower supply by a third after 2030. I have already mentioned the MRCVs for the Navy, which need a smaller crew. The Next-Generation Howitzer, that I earlier mentioned will only need three men to operate, compared to nine now, so it is a significant reduction and yet the Next-Generation Howitzer will fire more rounds accurately per minute. Autonomous and automated systems will reduce labour-intensive tasks, for example runway damage assessment of our air bases and air strips. The modern systems and platforms of the SAF can also be operated by NSmen who are not PES A or B, and therefore effectively increase our utilisation of manpower pool. 

Overcoming Training Area Limitations

Pari passu with the acquisition of hardware, we will also invest more into training facilities for SAF soldiers. 

I last spoke to this House about SAFTI City in 2017. The Pioneer and Merdeka Generation are all too familiar with the old SAFTI. You remember FOFO Hill, Pengkang Hill, the Pasir Laba Boat Shed, and Elephant Hill. We charged up them, and sometimes charged down them. Well, SAFTI City will complement these traditional terrains with urban settings to better prepare our soldiers for a wide variety of operations in the 21st century. SAFTI City will be a wired city. We talk about a Smart City – we are hoping that SAFTI City will be a smart training ground. It will use more simulation, detailed monitoring, to help our soldiers to learn better. It will be a far cry from the days we did our NS and charged up hills or against enemy battalions shouting, “Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang”, and they shouted “Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang” back. The method is not new. For instance, our fighter pilots have been using this for decades to train for high-speed manoeuvres. So after every manoeuvre, they sit down and you say what you did, he says what he did, this is the objective, they show the tracks, they show where your weaknesses. And they have been able to that because planes are expensive and pilots even more so. But, it is only now that modern technology has allowed us to scale up the same processes for individual soldiers within the Army. So we have been doing this over the years, where you can no longer assume that you have hit the target, and we actually have electric sensors on soldiers and platforms, and attrition rate is real. I am glad to report that SAFTI City is taking shape and on schedule. We will build more roads and bridges so that motorised and mechanised troops in Army vehicles can start training this year. SAFTI City will be progressively built and when finished will have more than 200 buildings of varying heights and types when completed – all wired up.

But with this kind of SAF for 2030 and beyond, which can move at great distances – our Terrexes can move 70km an hour and our Leopards close to that, slower perhaps across more difficult terrain. But if we only have space to train in Singapore, you could reach one end to the other within less than 1 hour. So we will need larger training spaces. In particular, the training areas at Shoalwater Bay will be expanded. There will be new developments in Townsville Region in Northeast Australia, and under the Singapore-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, new facilities such as Instrumented Combined Arms Air-Land Ranges and Urban Operations Live-Firing Facilities are on track to being built. I have said that very quickly, but an Air-Land Range is priceless. We can only do this in very few places now, some in the US because they have the land. But they are needed for coordinated strikes between land and air platforms. So, when the facilities are completed over the coming years, we will be able to train large groups of troops for up to 18 weeks annually, a significant increase from the current 6-7 weeks. About a three-fold increase.

Digital Defence

Many members have talked about Digital Defence. I completely agree. It is a battlefront that we cannot choose to ignore, or we ignore at our peril. I think Mr Charles Chong, Mr Desmond Choo, Mdm Fatimah Lateef, Mr Tan Wu Meng have spoken about this. I spoke to this House about the threat of hybrid warfare, and its effect on the real world previously. We have seen this played out against the Baltic States and Ukraine, to name some. As a culturally and ethnically diverse nation, we too are vulnerable to such hybrid attacks, including targeting of our IT networks to disrupt services and capabilities.

Members have asked what is our progress of protecting this front, and building up a force to protect this front. Two years ago, I announced the set up of the Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO). DCO has stood up the Defence Cyber Security Centre. In other words we have a defence cyber centre within MINDEF and the SAF for daily operations against cyber threats against MINDEF and SAF IT systems, especially our command and control computer networks. In place are incident response teams which can also be deployed to support other national agencies during cyberattacks on critical systems. 

To meet these needs, the SAF has to expand the pool of regulars for the cyber domain. And they will be Military Domain Experts Scheme (MDES) personnel, as well as the non-uniformed Defence Cyber Experts. We have recently announced that more than 300 will be hired in the first phase. 

But NSFs too will play an important role in digital defence, just as they do for kinetic operations. I think that was the point by Mr Zainal Sapari and Mr Vikram Nair. The 59-strong pioneer batch of the Cyber NSF Scheme enlisted in late 2018 after passing two rounds of rigorous tests. They are now undergoing an eight-month-long Cyber Specialist Cadet Course, in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Technology, and will graduate this August. We expect to take in another 80 to 90 Cyber Specialists this year to beef up our cyber units.

Just as we have done for kinetic operations, many of you are familiar with our SAF firing ranges, many of you have fired there. Well, we have “cyber ranges” as well – the Cyber Defence Test and Evaluation Centre. In this cyber range, our cyber soldiers are exposed to realistic training. We created a mock-up, a simulation of the SAF's networks and online traffic. We use actual malware and attacks against these nodes. Like in live-firing ranges, you are supposed to shoot straight. The SAF aims to train soldiers that can respond to these attacks in a realistic and challenging cyber environment.

The SAF will also tap on NSmen with IT expertise as a result of their civilian jobs or training. One example is the existing NS Expertise Conversion Scheme. It allows non-officers, NSmen with industry expertise, to become Military Domain Experts Scheme officers for cyber vocations. We are exploring. The MINDEF and the SAF are exploring better matching of NSmen with their civilian IT vocations.

All of us have a part to play in Digital Defence for Total Defence. And in Singapore's digital fortress, we are only as strong as the weakest link. And Senior Minister of State (SMS) Maliki will share more.

A Meaningful and Rewarding National Service Experience

Training Safety

These acquisitions in hardware and facilities, together with the will and skills of our NSmen and NSFs that make up the bulk of the SAF, will put us in a good position to deal with security challenges for another generation. If it comes to pass, if all these plans come to pass, and I will add, it will take us 10 to 15 years, the SAF will be one of the more capable militaries in our region. 

Our NSFs and NSmen will be able to train well and, most importantly, must train safely. The Inspector-General for Safety has been recently appointed, and the office expanded with more safety officers. A number of members talked about safety: Mr Charles Chong, Mr Chong Kee Hiong, Mr Zainal Sapari. The Commanding Officers (COs) of individual units have also been charged with the responsibility and accountability of safety standards and outcomes. As a routine, the CO must identify activities each day that pose higher safety risks to his servicemen and women, and satisfy himself that the safety response plan and mitigating measures for such activities are adequate. Safety is more than ever a command responsibility, but each soldier must play his role too. And we are doing this, so that we can have realistic training, because if you cannot train safely, you will be set back. SMS Heng will address in greater detail, the measures the SAF will take to achieve zero training fatalities. 

Enhancing the NS Experience

MINDEF has also decided to build a central facility to better respond to the needs of the NS community. A new NS Hub, a National Service Hub will be built. It will bring together different services which are now scattered across Singapore. For example, today, pre-enlistees take their IPPT at Toa Payoh Stadium, then go to Depot Road Central Manpower Base, and then attend medical reviews at the Military Medicine Institute in Kent Ridge. Well, the new NS Hub will take all these services scattered across the island and put them into a central location. Where is this location? It will be opposite Cashew MRT Station, with easy access. The NS Hub will be built as a smart complex, using modern technology for a seamless (and) user-friendly experience, opposite Cashew MRT and MINDEF land. Do not worry, we will not take it from anybody. Construction will begin this year, and our national servicemen can look forward to their NS Hub by 2023. 

SMS Heng will elaborate the other measures to enhance the NS experience. 

Steady and Sustainable Investments in Defence

Mr Chairman, please let me conclude. To develop such a capable SAF that I have just described, which can protect Singapore's interest and keep Singaporeans safe for another generation, will require significant and steady investments. I make no bones about it. It will require resources and our commitment. I am grateful to members of this House and Singaporeans for their steadfast and unwavering support towards a strong SAF.

As I have previously committed to this House, we expect our nominal defence spending over the next decade to grow at 3-4% each year, to at least keep pace with inflation. Now this year's budget represented a 4.8% increase over last year. The commitment that I have put over the next decade of 3-4% holds despite this year's increase. There were just certain projects or acquisitions that have matured and therefore we had to spend more. However, the overall Defence expenditure will even out in subsequent years.


Defence, especially for a small island like Singapore is crucial, if we are to safeguard our interests and deter aggression. Singapore is on track to build a modernised tri-service SAF and perhaps even a quadri-service SAF, including the cyber force, that can meet security challenges both in the real and virtual worlds in the 21st century. If we continue our steady investments into defence and our NSmen maintain their commitment and resolve to defend Singapore, then our future will be secure for another generation. We can look forward to celebrating SG75 with the assurance that we have strong defences.

Thank you.

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