Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, at the Committee of Supply Debates 2021

Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, at the Committee of Supply Debates 2021

Mr Chairman, Dr Ng's speech underlined how we need not just the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) but all of society to support Singapore's defence against conventional and non-conventional threats.

Total Defence remains Singapore's best preparation and response to crisis. With every Singaporean organisation, family and individual playing a part through Total Defence, we can deter threats, overcome crisis and emerge stronger from each test.

Total Defence in Action – Combating COVID-19

Member of Parliament (MP) Wan Rizal asked how Total Defence played a part in Singapore's fight against COVID-19. Our response to the pandemic is a good example of Total Defence in action.

COVID-19 has upended businesses and industries, affected jobs and disrupted the way we live. And together, we have rallied whole communities, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the public service, the Home Team and many other agencies who have worked hard to contain and manage the pandemic. Our people have stepped up in support – from retired doctors and nurses to national servicemen, participating in COVID-19 operations. Community and religious groups, volunteers and the everyday resident made efforts to reach out to those who are more affected, such as retrenched workers, lower income families and the elderly. Some even played their part to debunk misinformation and scaremongering on social media.

The result is that we have been able to keep our communities safe, and keep infections and hospitalisations low. We are in a better position today to reopen our borders and restart our economy, and hopefully host major international events such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and the World Economic Forum later this year. Working together has moderated the impact of COVID-19, and strengthened the resolve and cohesiveness of our society, not just in dealing with COVID-19, but for future threats too. Now, this is Total Defence in action – a demonstration of what we can achieve with the pillars of military, civil, economic, social, psychological and digital defence all working in concert.

In Total Defence, there are many everyday heroes and heroines. I've been privileged to meet many of them. One such person, is full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Lieutenant Karthikasan S/O Natarajan, an Air Warfare Officer from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). During Karthikasan's full-time National Service (NS), he volunteered to serve at the SAF-led Medical Operations Task Force. He meticulously verified the records of thousands of workers, ensuring that they would be transported, housed and cared for at the right facilities. What struck me about Karthikasan was his strong sense of duty. He extended his NS commitments for eight months so that he could continue contributing to Singapore's fight against COVID-19, and watch over Singapore's skies.

Another such person is Military Expert (ME) 4A (NS) Muhammad Nurhafiz Bin Juma'at, a 34-year old Operationally Ready National Serviceman (NSman) from the Singapore Army's 8th Combat Support Hospital. Last year, Nurhafiz volunteered to serve as a Nursing Officer at the Singapore Expo Community Care Facility during his In-Camp Training. Nurhafiz took care of the migrant workers, pulling 12-hour shifts to ensure their well-being and facilitated their recovery. He even missed the first week of Hari Raya. Nurhafiz said, and I quote, "The sacrifice was worth it as it was not only for our loved ones and [the] nation, but also to care for the migrant workers who are in need of our medical care and support during this [critical] period". Today, Nurhafiz is a senior staff nurse at the Sengkang General Hospital, and continues to contribute tirelessly at the front-line.

These contributions, along with so many others, demonstrate how Singaporeans have gone beyond their call of duty to help others during this pandemic. They exemplify the spirit of Total Defence. Every action, no matter how big or small, counts in our fight against COVID-19.


Mr Chairman, even as we focus on recovering and emerging stronger from COVID-19, we must remember that threats facing Singapore are never completely eliminated. We must therefore continue to emphasise Total Defence to prepare Singapore for the threats of today and tomorrow. Pillar by pillar, we must strengthen each of them so that they are even more ready and resilient.

Take for example the Military Defence pillar. I echo Senior Minister of State (SMS) Heng who shared our efforts to transform NS for the Next-Gen SAF. NS is the foundation of our military defence. As we continue to transform NS, we must continue to strengthen social, societal, business and family support for military defence and NS. This way, we can continue to motivate our servicemen to do their best as they defend Singapore.

Last year, I was pleased to welcome new members to the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, or what we know as ACCORD. The new ACCORD is well-placed to provide fresh perspectives that will enhance its work to strengthen societal support for NS and defence, with members that hail from diverse backgrounds. The Council includes representatives from the banking, logistics, technology and e-commerce fields, such as new member, Mr Quek Siu Rui, CEO of Carousell, on board. ACCORD also welcomes new members from youth-oriented organisations, such as Ms Tan See Leng, Executive Director of Heartware Network and Ms Samantha Ng, National Youth Council INSPIRIT Youth Leader.

MP Yeo Wan Ling asked about the focus areas for the new ACCORD term. ACCORD members have identified a few, including stepping up engagement with youth and women on defence and NS issues, raising public appreciation for NSmen, and employer recognition of the skills they gain from NS. To enhance outreach, ACCORD is pushing for more digital engagement channels. MINDEF/SAF has begun working with ACCORD to put these new plans into action, and ACCORD members themselves have led some of the initiatives.

Expanding Digital Outreach

One example of digital engagement was a well-received webinar hosted last year by ACCORD Member and Director of Mums@Work, Mrs Sher-Li Torrey, for mothers with sons entering NS. The mothers gained insights into what their sons can expect from NS, and were assured that their sons would be well-taken care of. They also provided useful feedback for us to consider. And we will work with ACCORD to organise more of such webinars on a larger scale this year.

For parents whose sons are liable for NS, a visit to the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) is important to understand what their children will go through. Due to COVID-19, such visits had to be temporarily discontinued. In its place from September last year, we piloted virtual visits to the BMTC. More than 180 families got to explore the BMTC via an online video, and engage in a virtual dialogue with senior commanders. Many families said that the visit gave them a better understanding of NS training, and felt that their sons' safety would be well-looked after. MINDEF will soon expand these virtual BMTC visits to a wider group, including Singaporean families residing overseas.

The Singapore Discovery Centre Reimagined

Besides going digital, we will develop other channels and more creative ways to engage Singaporeans on NS and Total Defence. Here, I am happy to announce that a fully revamped Singapore Discovery Centre (SDC) will be opened at the end of this year. The refreshed SDC will be a one-stop destination for visitors to learn and experience Singapore's history and imagine its future in a fun and immersive way.

SDC re-opened partially last October, enabling visitors to experience the augmented reality (AR)-enhanced exhibits in the upper gallery that provide a cinematic journey into Singapore's history. When the renovations are completed, SDC will unveil a refreshed lower gallery on contemporary issues confronting Singapore. The public can look forward to more interactive features that encourage visitors to envision Singapore's future, through group activities, discussions and AR-enhanced exhibits. Visitors will go away with a better appreciation of what we are defending, against potential challenges confronting Singapore.

SDC will also expand its outreach through new programmes for different groups, such as students, youth, national servicemen and members of community organisations. A new "Friends of SDC" volunteer group will also be formed to tap on the energies of volunteers. For example, individuals passionate about sharing our Singapore Story can sign-up as volunteer guides for the galleries.

Strengthening All Total Defence Pillars

We will continue to strengthen all the pillars of Total Defence through collaboration with our partners. MP Patrick Tay had asked about Digital Defence, which was added two years ago. We have been working to strengthen Singaporeans' defences against cyber and disinformation attacks, which can be particularly damaging to our community especially in crises like COVID-19. We have collaborated with our partners to develop educational programmes on Digital Defence, to increase Singaporeans' understanding of digital threats, and equip them with skills to detect and deal with fake news. One such example is our collaboration with the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) to introduce the topic of Digital Defence in a module on Digital Transformation. Following a successful pilot with SUSS in 2020, we will work with ACCORD to reach out to other universities to potentially introduce Digital Defence into relevant course modules. Another example is our collaboration with SkillsFuture Singapore, National Library Board and the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore to add a Digital Defence component to the SkillsFuture for the Digital Workplace programme. This is currently being offered at 19 institutions, including polytechnics and the Institutes of Technical Education. So we are slowly expanding our reach. Through these programmes, we will continue to encourage actions that Singaporeans can take to be secure and responsible online, strengthen our defences against online falsehoods that threaten to divide our people.

There have been suggestions to add new Total Defence pillars – such as the biological defence pillar, or climate defence pillar, as MP Seah Kian Peng and MP Don Wee have suggested. Now we agree that pandemics and climate change are both serious threats that require concerted responses by government, businesses, communities and individuals. We can take efforts on preparedness, actions and resilience in the physical, digital and psychological realms. Be it to address climate change or biological threats, we believe that the existing concept and pillars of Total Defence are relevant and can be put into action.

For now, we will focus on the present six pillars, and incorporate pandemic responses and environmental sustainability themes where appropriate within each pillar. So what is more important is that we act, and our actions translate into impact. This is why the government has been strengthening our infectious disease infrastructure and we have just announced the Singapore Green Plan 2030 that we are all committed to. On our part, MINDEF is fully committed in supporting these efforts. Earlier, Dr Ng announced our plan to upgrade our facilities within DSO to the highest bio-safety level, Biosafety Lab Level 4 (BSL-4), and MINDEF's efforts on environmental sustainability. These are not small. These are major moves that we are making within MINDEF. Here, I would add that the revamped SDC will have a sustainability theme in its infrastructure and programmes. And these include the deployment of over 2,000 solar panels to generate power for about half of the SDC's electrical consumption; as well as new education programmes on urban farming and sustainability for the public.

Public Engagement and Conversations

MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim asked about how MINDEF will support and empower more Singaporeans to play a greater role in Total Defence as we emerge from COVID-19. We will do so by encouraging Singaporeans to be more active in conversations about defence and NS issues. And it is for this reason that we launched two series of engagements last year – Strengthening Commitment to Defence and Total Defence for a Future Singapore – in conjunction with the Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations. In these sessions that I have attended, participants shared with me that COVID-19 had reinforced the importance of NS and Total Defence in preparing Singapore for crises. Many of our youths felt it. They felt the commitment. I am heartened by their valuable suggestions to strengthen the public's commitment to NS and Total Defence. Their opinions demonstrate their determination and their will to shape Singapore's future and protect its well-being. We will hold more engagement sessions this year to reach out to more people on NS and Total Defence.

MP Zhulkarnain asked about how MINDEF would take outcomes of our public engagements forward. This is an important question too. We are excited to embark on the suggestions raised. Some will be taken through ACCORD, such as developing fresh content on how our national servicemen have contributed to the COVID-19 national response. And we hope that this showcases the invaluable skills and efforts by our national servicemen, and inspires others who have yet to serve NS. We are also exploring forming or tapping on the Singapore Together Alliances for Action, or AfAs, that will bring together stakeholders from the government, businesses, and community, to follow up on initiatives to strengthen Total Defence and all our support for NS.


Mr Chairman, I would like to end by quoting a thank-you note addressed to all national servicemen who contributed to our COVID-19 operations. Then a Primary 6 student from Nan Chiau Primary School, Miss Lin Yitong wrote this note last year, and I quote, "Thank you Mr Soldier. I appreciate everything you have done for the nation to fight the virus. Thank you for your sacrifices. Let's all stay strong and fight the virus! You are the best!". I echo Yitong's words of appreciation, determination and hope.

We thank our servicemen and every Singaporean for their contributions in the fight against COVID-19. Your actions have shown that with everyone doing their part for Total Defence, we will emerge stronger from this crisis of our generation, and with greater confidence in our future. This is why we continue to invest in Total Defence – to best prepare for, to respond to and to recover from any crisis. We will continue to build Total Defence into every Singaporean's DNA to meet the threats of today and tomorrow. Together, we will keep Singapore strong – for now, and for future generations to come. Thank you, Mr Chairman.

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