Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at The Committee of Supply Debates 2024

Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at The Committee of Supply Debates 2024


Mr Chairman, Mr Vikram Nair began his cut by asserting that our world is a much more dangerous world. Subsequent Members of Parliament (MPs) gave a spiel on the events around us. I do not think anyone in this House, or out of it, needs to be convinced that our world has become a more dangerous place. Just last week was 24 February. Another day in infamy. We are now in the third year of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As many of the Members rightly pointed out, the Israel-Hamas conflict risks a contagion effect over the Middle East. There is a de facto trade war between the US and China. We are all concerned that the US and China could clash over Taiwan. If that happened, it would be a very bleak Asia for a very long time.

When was this region beset with such trouble? If you remember your Shakespeare, "Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble." The last time the region experienced this kind of turmoil and potential danger was probably in the 1980s, during the Sino-Vietnam conflicts from 1979 to 1991. Singapore's Pioneer Generation lived through those tumultuous and perilous times – not only through that period, but for sixty years – the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Konfrontasi. Mr Lee Kuan Yew recounted that he had to sing four national anthems because of the political upheavals that lasted sixty years. Those experiences hardened the Pioneer Generation, born in the 20s and 30s, and the first order of the day when we gained independence was to form the SAF. It was a visceral reaction.

My generation, the Merdeka Generation born in the 50s and 60s, lucked out. Many families like mine were poor at the start. But as Singapore prospered, so did we. It was the heyday for open trade and liberalisation, and when the Cold War ended in 1991, the global economy took off, lifting standards of living even higher. Today, Singapore's per capita GDP is the highest in Asia. When did we exceed Japan? In 2007. With a strong dollar, overseas travel has become less expensive. I still remember as a boy, when one British pound was more than seven Singapore dollars. Fish and chips was expensive at that time. Prices in Japan were prohibitive. Now, hordes of Singaporeans go to Japan. Sixty years of confrontation that the Pioneer Generation lived through. The Merdeka Generation lived through thirty years of relative peace. We have assumed that this is the norm. Which is the norm, what the Pioneer Generation went through, or what the Merdeka Generation went through?

If you had asked me even five years ago, I would have said that the current generations – Gen X, millennials and Gen Z – would be just as lucky as the Merdeka Generation. Despite Brexit, the European Union (EU) held. If you remember the EU was formed in 1993, and during that time, there was a rising economic co-dependency with Russia, even in energy supplies. Before the Ukraine invasion, Russia supplied 55% of gas consumed in Germany. You do not buy gas in that proportion if you did not believe in lasting peace. Russia's invasion of Ukraine dealt a death blow to Europe's integration for a generation at least. Worse still, seeds of future discord and conflict have been sown. As the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said at the Shangri-La Dialogue held here last year, "This war is changing the role of Europe. Europe was and is a project for peace and about peace. But now we face a world where war is something that is in every corner, and these corners are close to our houses."

In the Middle East, the signed Abraham Accords held out the future of accelerated peace and progress in that region. The zeitgeist following the Abraham Accords, not seen or thought possible for a long time, was to avoid conflict and find common cause so that region could develop economically. This was the dictum credited to Deng Xiaoping – "to get rich is glorious", instead of war. For this higher cause, even Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman reversed his position with the Houthis in Yemen, whom he had unleashed deadly strikes on earlier on. But that attack by Hamas on 7 October 2023, upended, delayed, if not decimated these aspirations in the Middle East.

Between the US and China, a trade war has already started. The plan on the US side is to conscribe it to limited areas, particularly high-end technology that has a bearing on their national security. In theory, this seems possible. "Small yard, high fence" is the neat way that the US puts it. But in practice it is much harder. Because in the name of national security, the yard could get bigger. Right now, a bill in the US Congress targets to exclude Chinese biopharma manufacturing, because, I suppose, one could produce pharmaceuticals that could weaken national security. Tomorrow it may be electric vehicles. And of course, there is capital, the most fungible of all assets. If a country or company invests large sums in China, would it be seen as helping the potential adversary? And if so, what punitive measures or restrictions might be taken against that country? In this interconnected world, will borders erected for national security regress the world to alliances and trade blocs as it did pre-World Wars I and II, and the Cold War?

We are seeing this before our very eyes, and that is the privilege of this generation. We are seeing it play out. All the world's a stage. It will take one, two decades for these various scenarios to come to fruition, whatever the outcomes. Two weeks ago, I was at the 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC). They have titled this 60th MSC "Lose-Lose?", because everywhere they turned to analyse the situation, and in every scenario that they talked about, both sides lose, and the world also loses.

In 2014, I attended the 50th MSC. There was a special session organised. I will never forget it. On stage were Henry Kissinger, Helmut Schmidt, former French President Valéry d'Estaing. All three gentlemen have passed away since. Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger had been present at the inaugural MSC in 1963. It had been fifty years of peace. The mood was one of celebration, and I remember President Valéry d'Estaing saying that Europe had eliminated the concept of war. It was just one decade ago. All those dreams have been decimated. I can assure this House that surprises and unintended consequences are in store, some linked, others completely out of the blue. When the ambient temperature of geopolitics rises, sparks and fires will arise from multiple sources. So, I have reversed my assessment for today's generation in Singapore and elsewhere. The risk of regional and even global conflict even in the next decade has become non-zero. I do not make this assessment lightly.

What are the precise odds? We are not Nostradamus. It is imponderable, and your guess is as good as mine. The most important question is what some Members – Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Alex Yam, and others – have said, what can Singapore as a small country and Singaporeans do realistically to prepare ourselves as best as we can for disruptions and unintended consequences? Because there will be disruptions and unintended consequences. We can be sure of that.

I remember then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, I quote him often on this, addressing West Point graduands. He told the West Point graduands that for the last decade, the US Department of Defense's record for predicting the nature and location of their next military engagements since Vietnam was perfect – they had never once gotten it right. With all its machinery of intelligence collection and prediction, the US administration never got it right. So we cannot pretend to know what will come, and yet we have to prepare. How do we prepare Singapore for this uncertain future?

First, we should recognise that Singaporeans have more to protect, and with more resources to do so, compared to the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations. Some Singaporeans may remember the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990. Among the justifications for the invasion, Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing oil. There was a particular field called the Al-Rumaylah oil field, which straddled both states across the borders. Wealthy small Kuwait with its rich resources was a tempting and lucrative victim. Wealthy small Singapore can be a very lucrative target, without a strong defence.

In that invasion, the US came to the rescue of Kuwait, and led 42 countries to join forces in an air and ground war. The SAF provided support for casualties. We deployed a 30-member medical team to that region.

I want to make clear here, that if ever something similar happens to us here in Singapore, this government, MINDEF and the SAF do not plan on the basis that we can depend on another country to come to our rescue. If Singaporeans will not or cannot defend Singapore, there is no backstop. That is the simple truth. A strong SAF acts as a deterrent against aggression towards us and keeps adventurism at bay.

When I listened to the speeches of MPs, it was heartening because all of you understand, across the aisle and of whatever political persuasion, that we are on our own. I want to thank Members of this House for supporting the budget for MINDEF every year. We do spend precious dollars consistently on defence, some of you have observed, money which could have benefited other causes. But we know that without security, there can be no progress. Singapore was ranked the sixth most peaceful country in the world in the latest Global Peace Index. I do not know, and do not want to find out, what our ranking would have been if we had not put in the necessary investments to build a strong SAF. I think that experiment would be too costly.

Investing in Defence

Mr Chong Kee Hiong asked for details on the defence spending for this year and subsequent years. Let me share that. 

In the coming Financial Year, MINDEF projects an expenditure of about S$20.2 billion – it is a 2.5% increase from last year. If we compare this to 2022, the increase is higher, but that was because we were gradually catching up with projects and activities disrupted by the pandemic.

Despite nominal increases for defence spending over the years, the share as a percentage of GDP has been falling, mainly because our GDP has been growing faster than defence spending. That is a good outcome.

With your permission, Mr Chairman, I have asked the Clerks to distribute handouts. These handouts are instructive. Members may also access this through the SG PARL MP mobile app. As Members can see, two decades ago, we were spending 5% of GDP on defence. Every time when the Budget comes around, I pick up and compare figures. The average defence spending of Middle Eastern countries is about 4% of GDP. Europe is undergoing huge turmoil, and has not even spent 2%. But two decades ago, we were spending 5% of GDP on defence. Now, we are down to about 3%. That is a 40% reduction. This is even as total government spending as a percentage of GDP has increased, from an average of 16% in the early 2000s to an average of 18% in recent years. If you listen to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, there are structural reasons why our revenue flows will not be as high as before. It is good that we have reached this level. Some of you, including Mr Chong, have asked what our future defence spending is. I would say that our spending will stay within the 3% range over the next decade, with one important caveat – barring conflicts and wars obviously.

Building the SAF for the Future Operating Environment

Mr Alex Yam, Mr Henry Kwek, Mr Don Wee, asked, "That is the overall picture but where has this spending gone? How are you preparing the SAF?" These are excellent questions. Now, let me make clear that the decrease in defence budget as a percentage of GDP was not because the SAF cut back on what is necessary to defend Singapore. Our defence capabilities have never been compromised. It is also not because our manpower has come down. Mr Vikram Nair noted that our National Service (NS) cohorts, he said, "will be coming down", but I must tell him, that it has already come down. It has come down because as various Defence Ministers, and including MPs have said, we sustained defence spending and that was the most efficient and effective means of building a strong military over the longer term. So today, we are reaping dividends of the sums we put in steadily over the past 20 years. And if we continue to invest wisely, we will reap more dividends in the future. If you read the newspapers today, Danish Prime Minister (Mette Frederiksen) was saying that Europe should cut back on welfare to increase our defence spending. We never want to be in that position. Steady long-term defence spending enables platforms and capabilities to mature over the necessary timelines to enhance synergy and reap efficiencies. Let me illustrate, to make it clearer, with practical examples along the way.

Ms Poh Li San asked about our F-35s, so that is a good place to start, to illustrate what I mean. The F-35s, when operational, will put the RSAF in the premier league. The sixth generation is being developed but it will take some time. When the F-35s are operational, we will be in the premier league. We started evaluating the F-35s in 2004, 20 years ago. First as a Security Cooperation Participant, then we dipped our feet in the water, tentatively ordered four for evaluation. But since then, as Ms Poh Li San recognised, events have overtaken that. Because since that period, the F-35s have been deployed by other air forces for real missions, which is the final test of any evaluation, final test of any combat platform. For example, the US' and UK's F-35s conducted successful strikes against ISIS in the Middle East. More recently, the US used their F-35s to locate and identify surface-to-air missile sites of Russian units in Ukraine, and this information was shared with NATO countries.

So, to date, more than 900 F-35s have flown in operations around the world. When we began our evaluation, these were not the numbers. And their battlefield successes have prompted more countries, like Switzerland and Germany, to jump on board the F-35 programme. Other countries such as South Korea, Japan and the UK have placed additional orders. A question was asked whether there are supply chain disruptions. Not for the F-35 – in fact the reverse. More orders have gone in because around the world, they've recognised that the F-35 is a proven fifth generation fighter aircraft – with advanced sense and strike capabilities.

So globally, there are close to 2,500 F-35s, and that is a healthy pipeline, on the order book. Because of that, the price is now more competitive – in fact, if you put in an order for the F-35 today, the price is comparable to an F-15EX. We will capitalise on this window of opportunity to accelerate our F-35 programme. We have ordered, as Ms Poh Li San said, four plus eight F-35Bs. And this time, we are putting in an order to acquire eight F-35As, adding to our 12 F-35Bs.

The RSAF could take these decisions deliberately in a cool and calculated mindset because of steady defence spending over the years. This allowed our mid-life upgrade of the F-16Cs, Ds and D+s, which the F-35s will replace. The F-16s, even after the mid-life upgrade, will be drawn down progressively from the mid-2030s onwards. We will receive the first four F-35Bs, which we ordered four years ago, in 2026 – seems to be on schedule – and the subsequent eight F-35Bs in 2028. Just a couple of years from now. The F-35A variant that I'm announcing today, if Parliament approves our budget, will arrive around 2030. We may have to deprioritise other projects for this opportunity buy, but we have done our calculations and we think that this is the best time to put in orders for the F-35As.

Why? Because the F-35As are designed for greater endurance and have the ability to carry payloads of higher capacity. They complement the F-35Bs which have short take-off and vertical landing capability. The F-35A is bigger and bulkier, and the bigger range provides more operational flexibility.

In sum, after the F-16s retire, the RSAF will operate the F-35As, F-35Bs and F-15SGs – the premier league – capable of performing the full suite of missions required to defend Singapore's skies. This will be a capable air force, above all, to protect our skies.

For the Navy, our first Invincible-class submarine returned to Singapore last year. You did not notice it, if you noticed it, then it is not doing its job. Submarines are a hefty investment and obviously we cannot use them for National Day Parade like we do with our planes. But rest assured that our submarines will silently and stealthily protect the waters around us.

Later this year, we will commission her, as well as launch the fourth and final submarine in Kiel. This submarine programme was custom-made for the RSN. This is the first time we've got custom-made ones. Previously we ordered used submarines, adapted for our use. But this is the first time from scratch, we dealt with the defence supplier, told them, "This is what we need". When did we start this? In the 2000s, twenty years ago. Defence is a long-term business, and as some of you rightly pointed out, including Mr Don Wee, you cannot decide that you are going to have your defences up. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke recently at the MSC in person. He sent a chill down the audience's spine when he said that European countries were not ready for an invasion. Ukraine, despite all its preparation, was not ready. For the next few days, this was the question back and forth: "Are we ready for an invasion?" If you look at the front page of The Economist, the title is "Is Europe Ready?" It is not. Because they have not committed to their defence spending. Questions were asked, "what happens if the US reduces its commitment?" Only now are the Europeans saying they have to be responsible for their own defence. Defence spending is a long-term business, and because we stuck to it, all four submarines will be operational around Singapore waters by 2028. Submarines are a strategic asset.

For the Army, the next-generation Armoured Tracked Carriers (ATC) and next-generation Howitzers will be brought into service. The ATCs will operate alongside the Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier, and replace the older BV206s, some of you may have used it, but more protected, more mobile. I know that some MPs here were from the artillery, and will appreciate the difference between the new Howitzers and the older Field Howitzer 2000 that they operated. You have your memories of the old howitzers that you operated. The new Howitzers are self-loading to shoot faster, and require 60% less manpower.

Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Henry Kwek asked about unmanned capabilities. The Ukraine situation and situation in the Middle East have proven that unmanned platforms are already part of today's current war, not even the future. It is a given in any modern military and it will be increasingly used and we will do the same. This year, the Navy's Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) goes fully operational. In other words, no person on it, fully unmanned and automated. It will patrol the Singapore Strait alongside our Littoral Mission Vessels and patrol vessels. Locally designed and manufactured, these USVs are fully autonomous and can navigate our busy shipping lanes. It is a busy shipping strait and these are unmanned, but they were put to trials and they performed.

In addition, our Navy ships will have Close-Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) by the second half of this year, to extend their range for surveillance.

The use of UAVs will also filter down to soldiers in the Army. Some of you are science fiction buffs, and know movies where you have your own personal android that follows you, and can shoot people and protect you. We are not there yet, but our Army soldiers can use their own micro-UAVs. They will be an asset for soldiers on foot for last-mile surveillance. We are tapping on a new generation of NSmen who are tech-savvy. For example, CFC(NS) Zubayr, from 3rd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment, who is an avid drone enthusiast. We tapped on his expertise to refine the drone tactics, techniques and procedures, including launching and operating from a Terrex. We will continue to harness the skills of NSmen to strengthen our capabilities.

Adapting to Defend Against Evolving Threats

Mr Desmond Choo and Mr Vikram Nair asked, if we can use it, whether others can use it against us. They are absolutely right. You have to assume that potential aggressors can do the same. Terrorists can use low-cost drones to launch attacks here. It makes very little sense to launch a couple of million-dollar missiles to attack a couple of thousand-dollar drones. The attrition of cost will bankrupt you. So that cannot be the modus operandi.

We are alive to these security threats. We have set up groups to brainstorm and develop sustainable counter-measures. They include off-the-shelf solutions, like Jammer Guns, or our usual rifles fitted with a Smart Fire Control System, an onboard computer to accurately shoot down a small drone.

Mr Shawn Huang and Mr Don Wee have said that the digital domain is an increasingly contested battleground. I agree completely with them and that was the reason we formed the Digital and Intelligence Service in 2022, to build up competencies and to work closely with other national agencies.

Mr Alex Yam also talked about this. The DIS co-organised the Critical Infrastructure Defence Exercise (CIDeX) in November last year. We had about 200 front-line cyber defenders from 25 other national agencies. The scenarios exercised included simulated attacks by both ransomware, some of you talked about it, and nation-state cyber attackers on our key infrastructure – power, water, and 5G telecommunications systems. So, you sit them in the room, you simulate the attacks, and then see how do we defend. This exercise will be like their live firing, which will be held regularly and expanded to cover more sectors. We are building a digital range because we cannot do it on live systems. But we have a digital range that will replicate these systems. That digital range will be completed in 2026. It will allow us to scale, add complexity and realism in this digital domain.

Investing in Our People

All in all, where it concerns hardware and systems for the SAF, our steady defence spending has built up an SAF that is modernised and effective with a full suite of capabilities against threats in the air, land, sea and cyberspace. This is a short summary statement and it belies the decades of hard work and commitment by our servicemen and women, including some in the House, and your constant support for MINDEF's budget.

I have shown you what it looks like in your handout. But we must never forget people. We are only as good as our people, no matter how advanced our platforms.

We have made sizeable investments in building up infrastructure to train our NSmen and Regulars. So, if you look at your handout, SAFTI City Phase 1, together with the three Instrumented Battle Circuits. During my time, maybe some of you also, when you do exercises, you use blanks. I pretend to shoot you, and you pretend to shoot back. Nobody "dies". Well, we have come a long way from that. Now, we depend on electronic RFIDs. If somebody shoots you, you are "dead". If your vehicle is shot at, it does not move. It has become more realistic. We built that up, but for urban built-up areas, we do not have that, and that is what SAFTI City Phase 1 will do. Instrumented Battle Circuits are very good training because you can do an after-action review (AAR) and video playback to see what you have done wrong.

Shoalwater Bay Training Area is near completion. Last year, we deployed 4,300 personnel and 450 platforms to Shoalwater Bay. It was the largest ever edition of Exercise Wallaby. So not only is Singapore committed to its defence, we have friends who are willing to open up their country to allow us to put all these platforms there. This year, the expanded training area will allow us to increase the scale of the exercise by close to 50%, with an increase in training duration from six to nine weeks. In the steady state, coupled with the development of the adjacent Greenvale Training Area, the SAF will have a combined training area 10 times the size of Singapore. We can deploy up to 14,000 personnel and 2,400 vehicles and equipment annually. It will have improved administrative and medical facilities by 2024. This took years to build up, but it is coming to fruition.

We have been training in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area since 1990, and I want to thank, on our behalf, the government and the people of Australia for these opportunities.

Leveraging Technology in Our Processes

I have tried to give various examples to see where our defence dollars have gone over the years. The overall picture is one of continuous progress and a virtuous cycle of spiralling up, even when new threats arise. But it is about the mindset among MINDEF and SAF personnel – the way we approach challenges, the constant emphasis to do things better, safer, not only to protect Singapore but to improve the lived experience of our soldiers. Mr Patrick Tay said this is "digital gain", and I agree with him.

For example, we are using smarter chatbots to answer HR enquiries, so that you do not have to go back and forth.

Another example is the use of biometrics. For some restricted areas in MINDEF HQ, facial recognition is the norm to control access. It just recognises you and if it does not, you cannot go in. For DSTA employees, they no longer require a camp pass to go to work because of this technology.

The 2nd People's Defence Force (2 PDF) is in the process of operationalising facial recognition for camp access. The aim is to progressively roll this out to the rest of our camps and bases, to be the norm during peacetime. During war and periods of tension, there might be issues. For applications of artificial intelligence, when there are opportunities, we will do it, and we will do it judiciously.

You will see in your handout, the new Central Manpower Base (CMPB) opposite Cashew MRT. For my generation, it was the Dempsey Parade Square. Now it's occupied by swanky restaurants. Some of us in the vintage, 18 years old, would go to Demspey and after that you would go to General Equipment Base (GEB). Some of you grew up in the area of Depot Road and that is your memory. Well, the new CMPB is opposite Cashew MRT, and I think this will probably be the permanent home. From the picture that you can see, Phase 1 will be opening from 2025, and Senior Minister of State (SMS) Heng Chee How will speak on this in more detail.

Working with Partners to Address Common Security Challenges

At the outset, I posed this question – what can Singapore do to secure our future in a turbulent world? The answer is mundane but never simple – build a strong SAF for deterrence. But even that is not enough. To survive, Singapore needs Total Defence.

We commemorated the 40th anniversary of Total Defence. DPM Wong launched Exercise SG Ready. It is an apt reminder. Members may have participated. SMS Zaqy Mohamad will speak more on this.

I also said that we must not expect another country to come to rescue us like Kuwait. But that certainly does not mean that we do not work with like-minded countries. This is what Members, like Mr Alex Yam and Ms Sylvia Lim, are talking about, dealing with transnational issues.

I agree completely with Ms Lim that we have critical underwater infrastructure, subsea cables and pipelines. In 2019, ASEAN developed guidelines for strengthening the resilience and repair of telecom submarine cables. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets an international legal framework to govern underwater critical infrastructure. Singapore works with partners to protect this infrastructure, because we are either the intermediary or at the tail-end, and the hub for fibre-optic subsea cables. But in truth, it is thousands and thousands of miles of gas pipelines and subsea cables, and they can be sabotaged. We cannot run away from it, and we should not give false assurance. Certain militaries have now commissioned ships to map the entire universe of subsea cables all around the world. We have some redundancy because we have more than one fibre optic subsea cables.

The natural gas pipelines of Singapore are designed and built to international standards. Within Singapore's waters, they are protected with rock-armour and laid in no-anchor zones. But of course, they move elsewhere. For redundancy, we have the capacity to import liquefied natural gas to meet our electricity needs.

Terrorism is another prime example. And Mr Alex Yam talked about the ACICE – the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence. We have to deal with cyber disinformation and information threats. We officially opened its physical centre last year, and held our Inaugural Digital Defence Symposium and ASEAN Roundtable. We have to work with other partners, but that does not mean all problems can be solved, and we have to build credibility and partnerships.

Lastly, Mr Zhulkarnain Rahim talked about humanitarian efforts. Our Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre was set up in 2014 to better coordinate our efforts with local and international agencies.


Mr Chairman, I want to close, and SMS Zaqy and SMS Heng will deal with other issues that Members have addressed. Let me, again, reiterate my deep thanks to Members of this House. We have not had difficulty passing MINDEF's budget. For the last five years, it has not been difficult to sell defence. It reflects the understanding that we are so vulnerable. There are so many examples. We see a turbulent world, but we must remember that even in peaceful times we must be vigilant. I gave the example of the Pioneer Generation that underwent sixty years of turbulence versus this generation's thirty years of peace. Which is the norm? We may very well revert to the Pioneer Generation's sixty years of turbulence. We do not know what the future will bring, but as long as we have a strong SAF, we will have some deterrence and protection. We can determine our own future, if our people are united with a strong SAF and various other agencies. Thank you for your support.

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