Saturday, April 11, 2009

Our bloated defence budget: What is the perceived threat?

By Gunslinger, Guest Columnist
While many prominent Singapore bloggers have written about the top civil servant who splurged on a cooking class in Paris and about the inadequacies of the 2009 budget in aiding the needy, none has complained about the 6% dollar increase in the 2009 defense budget to $11.447 billion, which is about 4.7% of 2007’s GDP of S$243.2 billion. The 2008 defence budget of S$10.8 billion is 4.4% of 2007 GDP, and with a nearly flat GDP growth for 2008, Singapore is actually committing more to defence.

GDP Growth Defence Budget (S$ BN) Budget Growth Remarks
FY 2000 10.06% 7.42 -%Actual Expenses
FY 2001 -2.44% 7.82 5.35%Actual Expenses
FY 2002 4.18% 8.2 4.91%Actual Expenses
FY 2003 3.50% 8.24 0.39%Actual Expenses
FY 2004 8.99% 8.62 4.66%Actual Expenses
FY 2005 7.30% 9.25 7.31%Actual Expenses
FY 2006 8.17% 9.63 4.11%Actual Expenses
FY 2007 7.72% 10.01 3.95%Actual Expenses
FY 2008 3.98% 10.8 7.89%Approved Budget
FY 2009 -???% 11.45 6.02%Approved Budget
Source: Ministry of Finance

Why the increase in the defence budget?
To put things in perspective, let’s take a look at how much others spend on defence relative to their GDP. The US spends 4.06% of her GDP on defence but does not include the current war expenses in Afghanistan or Iraq. France spends 2.6% and most other western nations spend 2% or less. Singapore is ranked 20th with 4.5% (2005). It is interesting to note that the top 19 countries are mostly developing nations in trouble spots such as the middle east and Africa. India is a distant #66 with 2.5%. This does not imply that Singapore should follow “western standards” in planning defence budgetary layouts. It only indicates that the government of Singapore must perceive a threat in order to commit such a large proportion to defence in the midst of her worst economic crisis.
Thus, what is the perceived threat? Terrorism is the first obvious answer that comes to mind. The last known “terrorist attack” in Singapore occurred in 1991 with the hijack of Singapore Flight 117 that ended abruptly and violently for the hijackers. A few years ago, Singapore was also threatened with 9/11 style aircraft attacks and embassy bombings. In contrast, some European nations have suffered actual attacks, which includes the 2004 Madrid train bombings and 2005 London bombings. The most recent attack of significance took place in Mumbai claiming the first Singaporean casualty to international terrorism. With the exception of India where the jury is still out, there has been no increase in the following year’s defense budgets of the scale that we now see in Singapore.
In the official publication “Fight Against Terror”, the government claims that while “terrorism does not threaten the existence of Singapore as an independent nation, it has the capacity to inflict serious shocks on our economy and society, causing not only material and human damage, but also psychological injury. It also has the potential to pit different communities against each other, weakening multi-racial, multi-religious character of Singapore that is vital to our success.” (Pg 59). While prevention is the best cure, it must be noted however that there has been no historical precedence showing that foreign investment will flee a country without considering the national capacity to handle the crisis that might ensue. Neither is the strain on the social fabric a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. On the contrary, many societies, even divided ones have historically shown resilience and cohesion against a common external threat. The nationalistic American rally post 9/11 is an example. Nearer to Singapore, the peace accord between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Rebels after the 2004 Tsunami provides further cause for optimism.

Although the SAF is a key player in counter terrorism, she is not the only player. Her counter terrorist efforts can also be described as incidental. Today, conscripts guard key civilian installations such as Jurong Island without imposing on the budget. The security of air and maritime lanes of communications is a daily job that preoccupies most air and naval forces regardless of terrorism activities although the level of activities and vigilance is possibly higher. Yet, these activities should have been accounted for in the years following the 9/11 attacks. It is also widely recognized that while military forces are important, police forces, national intelligence and non security organizations play equally if not greater roles in attack prevention and post attack rehabilitation. Yet, no similar increase in budgets is noted in other Singaporean ministries in the 2009 budget.
Thus, we can safely conclude that the terrorism is not the dominant factor in augmenting the defense budget in the midst of an economic crisis. The perceived threat has to be external.

What is the perceived threat?
The stated mission of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is for deterrence. And if deterrence is to fail, its mission is to achieve a swift and decisive victory.

The question that one should ask is, deterrence against who and achieve a swift and decisive victory against who? This may be an open secret but let’s go back to basic geopolitics to see which state actor could pose a threat to the security of Singapore.

At the global level, there are currently few countries that have the capability to project their forces to threaten Singapore. In this aspect, the US military is unparalleled. If the US wanted to, the SAF would be of little consequence. The fact that Singapore has extremely close military ties with the US and that all her fighter aircraft are American practically rules out this possibility.

China, while a military giant in her own right, does not have power projection capabilities yet. While she is planning to build her own aircraft carrier(s), her strategy is clearly aimed at containing the US. Her main territorial interest is still Taiwan and keeping the country intact, and preventing the secessionist states of Xinjiang and Tibet from breaking away. Without air support and with long communications line, it is not inconceivable for her to be defeated at sea. Furthermore, any seaborne invading force that approaches narrow straits of Malacca or the narrow waters east of Singapore is exposed to air, sea and land attack. Another option is for China to approach via the land route. In all the described scenarios, an attack by China on Singapore is tantamount to starting World War III. This would not happen without intervention from at least the US. Finally, there is no motive for China to attack the tiny island state thousands of kilometres away.

Russia while trying to re-assert her influence on her borders, is but a pale shadow of her former self, the great Soviet Union. Even at the height of her power, she did not have the capability of projection like the US. Today, she has neither the will, the desire nor the capacity to threaten Singapore.
If you look into India’s strategic outlook, you will find that her priorities are firstly to keep the country together and secondly to contain Pakistan and China. Although she is nuclear and has a formidable conventional force and a somewhat “blue water navy”, she faces immense challenges on any military adventure in south east asia.

Today’s Japan is pacifist, and her forces are not configured for force projection nor for offensive operations. Merely supplying the US forces with a single supply ship had to be debated in Parliament, which eventually led to the cancellation of the said mission.
With regards to the other regional states, most can be ruled out for reasons of distance, lack of military capacity, natural obstacles, or internal problems.

With that, we have only Indonesia and Malaysia, the two closest neighbours to Singapore. Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in the world today, is extremely weak militarily relative to her size. Her equipment is old and obsolete with the exception of a few recently bought Sukhois. To highlight the state of derelict, the four Sukhois that were bought in 2003 are inactive, did not have compatible communication systems, and lacked weapons. Furthermore, the Indonesian military is still configured for counter-insurgency and non-conventional operations rather than conventional major combat operations and reforms continue to be extremely slow.

Finally, we come to Malaysia. Separated by a narrow strait, Malaysia is a hot destination for Singaporeans looking for cheap food, thrills and beaches. The Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) has an impressive order of battle. These include Sukhoi-30MKMs, MiG-29s, F-18s, PT-91 main battle tanks from Poland, Astros MLRS, Scorpene submarines, Leiku class frigates and so on and so forth. Furthermore, relations has not always been good between the two countries. Disagreements between the leaders of both countries with regards to the “Bumiputra” policies led to the ejection of Singapore from the Federation of Malaya in 1965 and several disputes have soured relations in more recent years although relations are currently good. Nonetheless, of all the countries mentioned, Malaysia represents the most likely threat perceived by Singapore leaders.
(Read part 2 of this article “A swift decisive victory” tomorrow)

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