Singapore's Defence Budget FY 2011/12Saturday, February 19, 2011
For military buffs, the proposed FY2011/12 defence budget is likely to trigger spirited debates over the type and number of war machines on the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) shopping list.
For government critics, the largest slice of the planned Budget provides ammunition to attack the spending plans of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
Singaporean journalists from the mainstream media are likely to churn out arguments defending MINDEF's war chest. And while some reports may build up a case along the lines of "how much is enough", just wait for the "but" in the story for the usual catch phrases and predictable quotes to kick in. *yawns*
With a General Election looming as early as the April-May 2011 timeframe, such arguments better be good.
To skeptical tax payers, painting a doomsday scenario of an underfunded Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) falling victim to threats unseen, unexpected and unfriendly towards Singapore may not sit well with the voting public. They have heard this tune replayed for the past 45 years and the rehashed public relations (PR) script is looking far too predictable.
What Singaporeans need to hear is how the SAF is earning its keep.
And this, in my opinion, is an area MINDEF's spin masters from the Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) have to work hard to excel at. Spending more than S$100,000 on expen$ive media offensives to carpet bomb Singaporeans with Total Defence messages and televised sing sings is not the way to win hearts and minds.
As Singaporean parliamentarians gear up for the Committee of Supply (COS) debates in March'11, one would hope PAFF would be more creative in selling the SAF's story.
The cookie cutter approach to churning out MINDEF/SAF-friendly media reports based on a rigid PR stylebook and predictable punchlines may not work as threat-weary Singaporeans and carefree Gen Ys throw caution to the wind. Add left-leaning Singaporean politicians into the mix, plus sweet talking politicians north and south of the Lion City and PAFF's storyline may border on paranoia.
It would be tragic for the Republic's defence and security posture if money assigned to protect its national interests ends up triggering voter discontent. Restive voters and a complacent attitude towards national security could undermine the political system that pencilled in that amount for the FY2011/12 spending in the first place, thus contributing to the freak election result theory.
Explaining what makes up operating expenditure should take Singaporean readers and viewers behind the fencelines of vital installations. This way, the media can help citizens see and understand what Island Defence is all about. Such operations, carried out 24/7, have kept the SAF at a high operational tempo since the 9/11 attacks a decade ago.
The security threats are real. Question is: Are heartlanders convinced?
Operating expenditure also embraces SAF missions overseas. Singaporeans need to know why sons of Singapore put their lives on the line on foreign soil and on the high seas far from Singapore's shores. I bet many do not realise what is at stake.
At the same time, MINDEF/SAF must show citizen soldiers that the defence system uses its soldiers' time and commitment prudently. It must also demonstrate that the system is financially prudent and astutely managed. Damage is done whenever citizen soldiers see, sense or experience wastage in terms of their time (through administrative cock ups) or poorly executed military training. Stir coffee with any operationally ready national servicemen and each would have his own stock of stories about the SAF's infamous hurry up and wait culture.
The development expenditure side of the story could provide a tantalising glimpse into the SAF's 3rd Generation transformation effort. Many defence systems and platforms take years to develop, and then some, before the new acquisition attains Initial Operational Capability.
A lot of work also takes place behind the scenes so that SAF war machines can meet its specific operational requirements. Such vital work accounts for part of defence spending and tax payers ought to know more about what they are paying for.
In doing so, one need not give MINDEF/SAF censors a heart attack by revealing trade secrets. PAFF can cherry pick the list of retired SAF war machines for compelling examples - and there are many - of MINDEF's concept-to-retirement approach in defence development. Along the way, introduce the defence engineers, scientists and SAF warfighters who were involved in everything from Project Almond to Project Archer to Project Zebra to make the story come alive. This way, even the Singaporean layperson can appreciate the amount of effort in Ops Tech integration needed to sharpen and maintain the SAF's defence readiness.
Such stories would probably amaze young Singaporeans, many of whom know more about foreign soccer teams than their own country's armed forces.
The PAP's critics have already got their defence themed counter arguments prepared. Red button topics include the need for and duration of National Service, as well as the amount of money spent on defence... with no enemy in sight. When told by a natural orator in front of a crowd hungry for political entertainment, such defence themed jibes are likely to stir listeners into a frenzy because they touch on issues every Singaporean son can relate to.
Such political entertainment comes at a price and a dip in yardsticks used to measure fuzzy concepts like commitment to defence (C2D) is the least of the problems MINDEF/SAF planners need to worry about.
The real worry comes when vigilance fatigue extracts a price in blood from Singaporeans - whatever their age, skin colour or political persuasion.
The FY 2011/12 budget estimates for MINDEF/SAF are a done deal. This is the reality of a one party system. The green light to spend will not mark the end of the story. The real action starts when various political parties hit the campaign trail to woo voters to their camp.
Record defence spending may be needed to make Singapore more secure. At the same time, the billions of dollars proposed for MINDEF/SAF make the system more vulnerable to barbs from its critics.
Such is the irony of politics.