Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 12th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference Asia Opening Ceremony

Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 12th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference Asia Opening Ceremony

My colleagues at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF),
Senior Minister of State for Defence, Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman,
Permanent Secretary,
Chiefs of Defence Force,
Service Chiefs,
Heads of Delegation,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,


First, let me bid all of you a very warm welcome to the 12th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference Asia, or IMDEX Asia in Singapore. As you have heard from Experia Chairman Mr Vincent Chong, IMDEX first started in 1997, and it has grown over the years. Over 70 VIP delegations and 10,000 trade visitors from more than 60 countries now attend IMDEX to view exhibits put up by over 230 companies. But IMDEX has gone beyond exhibitions to serve an important focal point for defence and military leaders to exchange views, and arrive at a consensus on common security challenges in this region and ways to tackle them through collaboration and co-operation. I particularly welcome the 23 defence and navy chiefs, some of you who are really very far away from home, and heads of maritime agencies. My special thanks too, on behalf of the RSN and SAF, to the 21 ships that have sailed here.

Importance of the Sea to Singapore and the World

This region, at its heart, is a maritime region. From historical times, seminal influences have travelled across seas to impact countries here. In diverse fields – trade, religions, migrants, knowledge, even livestock and crop – these pivotal influences from lands faraway reached across the seas to fundamentally alter the lives of millions in this region. Medieval Arab traders brought Islam to Southeast Asia; Admiral Zheng He's expeditionary voyages consolidated a huge trade network; the Majapahit and Srivijaya Empires spread their cultural and military might through the maritime domain; and the European colonisers brought Western political systems and ideologies. These influences still run deep and last long after their epicentres have diminished or disappeared altogether. 

Wave upon wave, these maritime influences shaped us into what we are today, even the very name of Singapore. A Prince of Palembang sighted this island while hunting on a hill in Bintan, which is an Indonesian island south of us. His curiosity piqued, he sailed to this island but his ship nearly sank due to a storm. He and his crew took refuge here and it was then, according to folklore, he saw a hairy beast, and thus the name in Sanskrit – Singapura, or Lion City. I am not sure historically whether we had lions here, but we just accept folklores as they are.

Today, global connectivity has increased leaps and bounds through air, land, sea and the internet. But the seas still hold powerful forces that can continue to shape the destinies of our countries, individually or collectively. Indeed, as global commerce has increased, so too has the significance of sea lines of communication as global arteries for trade. Singapore sits at the confluence of the two key arterial networks formed by the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. As a result, 25% of all the traded goods in the world on more than 1,000 ships pass through the Singapore Strait each day. They carry every kind of product and commodity that are essential for modern economies to live, function and thrive. From there, ships go to over 600 ports in more than 120 countries – nine of the ten busiest ports in the world are in this region, including Singapore, the second after Shanghai. Despite global uncertainties, including trade disputes and security tensions, trade volumes through the seas have been going up and are expected to increase further. Experts estimate that global container throughput is projected to grow by four percent each year, exceeding 800 million TEUs, and generating earnings of over USD 25 billion for container ports around the world.
Maritime Security Challenges for the Region

Literally and figuratively, we need calm seas in this region to ensure that global commerce continues and good relations between countries are maintained. But there are dark storm clouds on the horizon that can threaten the global maritime commons and our shared prosperity. 

Traditional maritime threats persist, such as transnational maritime terrorism, piracy, armed robbery and the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans. Over the years, we have cooperated and better organised ourselves to deal with these threats, as we did through the Malacca Straits Patrol, the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement in the Sulu Seas, and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia, or RECAAP. The results speak for themselves. In 2006, just two years after the launch of the Malacca Straits Patrols in 2004, the Lloyd's Joint War Risk Committee dropped the classification of the Malacca Strait as a "war-risk area". The number of incidents of piracy and armed robbery along the Straits of Malacca has continued to fall, it was 20 in 2007 and it was 8 this year. 

But for other recently evolved security challenges, more work needs to be done. During the Trump-Kim summit held on Sentosa, terrorist threats from the seas on the southern flank were a concern, and the SAF had to mount considerable protection against potential threats. Our Maritime Security Task Force worked closely with the Indonesian Navy to secure these waters. We further collaborated with Indonesia subsequently to facilitate their proposal of an intelligence sharing network – ASEAN "Our Eyes" – among ASEAN militaries. As ASEAN Chair last year, Singapore helped push through the Indonesian initiative to be an ASEAN initiative. 

Collectively, we need to step up our intelligence efforts as the centre of gravity of global terrorism shifts away from the Middle East and moves to other regions of the world, including this region, which have been susceptible to radical ideologies. For example, experts believe that most of the weapons used by militants during the recent conflict in Marawi came across the sea. Other ISIS-linked terrorists like the Abu Sayaff Group also continue to threaten the safety of seafarers in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and the waters off East Sabah by abducting the crew of trade-transiting ships in exchange for ransom. The suicide attacks in Surabaya last May, and the June 2016 Puchong nightclub attacks in Malaysia, are grave warnings that terrorism can become endemic in this region, unless we come together to deal with this threat decisively. 

Of concern too in this maritime region are the different rules adopted by various countries that govern the use of the global maritime commons, not least the rules that relate to freedom of navigation but also extending to maritime territorial claims on fisheries and other resources. The number of military and law enforcement-related incidents has increased over the years. Even fatalities have resulted from disputes. You will remember in 2013, a fisherman from Taiwan was fatally shot by a Philippine Coast Guard vessel carrying out her enforcement duties.

The Way Forward

Maritime history teaches us that whenever and wherever there is conflict on the seas, surrounding countries and their common folk invariably suffer. We have a few guests who travelled from far away, and who border the Mediterranean. And the prime example is the Mediterranean Sea, which has witnessed many epic naval battles – as far back as that between ancient Rome and Carthage over nearly a hundred years during the Punic Wars, through to the Ottoman Empire against Athens and other protagonists, and famous sea battles during the Second World War. None of us here can imagine that kind of Mediterranean in today's context. The disruption of vital supply lines would be devastating. And because so much depends on the seas, we need a strong consensus from all countries for common rules for the seas and their use. For the South China Sea disputes, the Code of Conduct (COC) can pave the way for agreement on international maritime norms and conflict prevention. It is good that ASEAN and China have come to an agreement on a single draft negotiating text, and all of us urge quick progress and an expeditious conclusion of a meaningful and impactful COC.
In parallel, militaries can do much to build confidence and trust through cooperation and collaboration. We have seen this work in the Republic of Singapore Navy's Information Fusion Centre, which celebrates her tenth anniversary this year, and will be officiated by my colleague, Senior Minister of State Maliki. Established to strengthen regional maritime security through information sharing, the centre hosts liaison officers from all over the world. Over the past ten years, it has consistently delivered actionable information to various maritime agencies. Last year, there was the fishing boat MV Sunrise Glory. Suspecting the vessel of contraband trafficking, the IFC tracked her for three months as she sailed into our region, and worked with the Indonesian Navy to facilitate her eventual capture in the waters off Batam. Once on board, the Indonesian authorities discovered one tonne of crystal methamphetamine hidden in rice sacks. 

The Experts' Working Groups under the auspices of the ADMM-Plus is another live example. In November 2017, the ADMM-Plus navies adopted and practised the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and did so again at the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise last October, and at the recently concluded 18-nation ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Field Training Exercise. These military initiatives between regional navies reduce the risk of misunderstandings and unintended escalation between our warships.

Value of IMDEX Asia

Success breeds success, and this applies to joint efforts as well as meetings and events such as IMDEX. When IMDEX was first organised in 1997, there were only five participating navies. Today, we have service chiefs, directors-general and top-level officials from more than 40 navies, coast guards and maritime agencies, together with academics and industry experts. MINDEF and Singapore thank you all for being here as a show of commitment that we collectively seek peace and security, not discord and tensions. 


On that note, I am happy to declare IMDEX Asia 2019 open. Thank you very much.

Suggested Articles