The figures for Singapore’s fertility rate is at a low of 1.23, far below the population cut-off of 2.1 that is required population renewal. This would have obvious implications and one of them would be manpower for our national defense. Singapore is currently among the countries with compulsory military conscription together with Turkey, Switzerland, Taiwan, Israel and others.
The duration of service in the Singapore Armed Forces used to be dependent on rank – corporals and above used to serve 2 years and 6 months before 2004, whilst Lance-corporals and below served 2 years. After 2004, everyone regardless of rank are required to serve for two years.
Now, with our population renewal below the desired level, maintaining defense manpower at current levels will be difficult in the near future, assuming Singapore sticks with compulsory conscription. Questions regarding the decreasing numbers of renewal by future cohorts and its implications will be raised: 1) Will the length of national service be increased from the current duration of two years to make up for reduced numbers of renewal? 2) Will the length of reservist term, frequency of reservist call-ups and duration of reservist service during call-up increase?
Increasing the term of national service, prolonging reservist term, increasing frequency and duration of reservist call-ups are mere treatment to the symptoms of decline in renewing manpower. There is another popular measure, something which some male counterparts have always raised in the spirit of ‘gender equality’ – requiring females to serve in the military. Female conscription is practised in Israel for instance. Females do not necessarily have to play a combat role; they can play a supportive role. That being said. all the aforementioned measures go against popular sentiments, and supporting plus implementing them will lead to mass disapproval and unhappiness. It is also disruptive to firms to have their employees reporting for reservist call-ups at greater frequencies and for longer durations. It will be even more disruptive to have both male and female employees reporting for their reservist cycles.
Thus, what other alternatives are there? One popular alternative is to modernise our defense force in a way that our military capability is projected with a smaller manpower base. Coincidentally, our ASEAN neighbours also embarked on a goal to modernise their defense forces as far back as the past decade under the perception of a common threat from China and apprehension of its intentions, according to a document from RAND corporation, a global policy think-tank on defense issues.
It goes without saying that the modernisation of our defense forces will require an increased defense expenditure, which means we may possibly have to maintain our defense budget at current levels or even expand on it if we were to modernise our defense forces.
Besides the alternative of modernising our defense forces, there is another option we can pursue – a military alliance with our ASEAN neighbours. The advantage of a military alliance is the achievement of economies of scale in the provision of defense, i.e. lower defense expenditure per capita is required to achieve the same level of protection. The prospects of an ASEAN military alliance materialising becomes a possibility when just recently, Indonesia called for increased synergy of ASEAN defense forces chiefs in order to respond to various challenges and threats to regional stability. The issue of synergy was one of the topics of focus at the 8th ASEAN Chief of Defense Forces Informal Meeting from March 30 to April 1 2011 in Indonesia.
“Defense forces chiefs must be more synergic and productive to be able to respond to various challenges and threats that could endanger regional security.”
“Based on monitoring security in the South China Sea is now escalating following a shift of issue to the region.”
- Indonesia’s defense forces commander Admiral Agus Suhartono in a meeting with defense attaches of ASEAN countries
Although scholars maintain that Singapore plans its defense strategies on the basis that Malaysia and Indonesia are its primary sources of threat, the recent developments in the South China Sea with respect to China may be the stimulus for the formation of an ASEAN military alliance. The source of conflict with China lie in the multiple overlapping claims to the South China Sea. China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan have asserted claims to some of the islands in the sea. The 3.5 square kilometres body of water is resource-rich with minerals, oil and natural gas reserves, especially the Spratly and Paracel chains of Islands. Besides being a potential source of oil and natural gas, the islands are a source of valuable fishing grounds and straddle shipping lanes.
How possible is an ASEAN military alliance and what would be its consequence? According to the aforementioned RAND document, there have been increased mutual use of military training facilities and joint military exercises among ASEAN nations with a focus on air and naval operations in maritime scenarios, even going back as far beyond the past decade. Excerpts of examples of military cooperation between ASEAN nations are appended below:
The Thai and Singapore air forces train together in the Philippines, and Singapore has also had access to excellent training facilities in Brunei.
Malaysia and the Philippines have a bilateral defense cooperation agreement that provides for regular joint military exercises, military information exchanges, and the possible use of each other’s military facilities for maintenance and repair.
Singapore cultivated defense ties with Indonesia and reached agreements that allow Singapore to conduct naval exercises in Indonesian waters and to use air combat ranges in Sumatra.
The consequences of an ASEAN military alliance is a belligerent response from China. As far back as March 2010, Beijing declared the South China Sea a “core national interest” which in diplomatic parlance is tantamount to the use of military means to defend it. It has already established a base in Hainan Island that will place its fleet closer to the South China Sea. It is also currently developing a new missile, the Dong Feng 21D, designed to hit an aircraft carrier from a distance of 1500 kilometres.
That being said, a belligerent response can be mitigated with diplomatic overtures or confidence-building measures with Beijing. Such a point is not lost on Beijing as it has used economic enhancements to improve ties with ASEAN especially in its proposal of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and its subsequent materialisation, making the former ASEAN’s largest trading partner. Under the auspices of the FTA, tariffs for imported goods from various product categories will be reduced to zero, in effect, it means a reduction in tariffs of ASEAN goods sold in China and that of Chinese goods sole in ASEAN.
Thus, in conclusion, the issue facing Singapore’s below expected rate of population renewal would have implications on the manpower of its future defense forces. Extending the duration of full-time national service, increasing frequency of reservist call-ups and duration of reservist training or even enforcing mandatory female conscription are temporary measures to make up for the lack of manpower but such will not go down well with populist sentiments among locals. Therefore, one alternative will be to modernise our armed forces to the extent that the same military capability can be projected with a smaller manpower. However, modernising our armed forces will mean a possible increase in our defense budget. The other option we can pursue is the possibility of a military alliance with our ASEAN neighbours, that allows us to achieve the same defense capability with lower expenditure, with the benefits of preserving regional security. Such a move may not be perceived in a positive light by our Chinese counterparts, but can be circumvented with ASEAN-Chinese diplomatic overtures for instance, in facilitating greater economic cooperation. After all, trade is the most rational preference over conflict where parties involved stand to gain economically.