Singapore's Defence: Capabilities, Trends, and Implications

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Singapore's economic importance and military capability rank it among Southeast Asia's middle powers despite its small land area and population. Trends indicate that Singapore is determined to maintain an advanced military capability utilizing the latest military and information technologies which were proven in the Gulf War. However, this could lead to enhanced regional suspicions and have negative implications for the very security that the build-up was supposed to achieve. What this means is that Singapore's defence policy and foreign policy have to go hand-in-hand. Full use of its substantial military capability to support political and security objectives will only be achieved in the context of an integrated defence and foreign policy framework. Both Singapore and Malaysia also require political will to work together to achieve overriding common objectives, given the fact that the defence of both countries is indivisible.


Singapore's defence policy is an important subject for study because Singapore's economic importance and military capability rank it among Southeast Asia's middle powers despite its small land area and population. In most assessments of position in the international hierarchy, five elements of capability are usually considered: economic power, military power, motivational power, achievement, and potential. Based on at least some of these elements, Israel in the Middle East and South Korea in Northeast Asia would fall into the category of middle powers. [1] In the context of Southeast Asia, Singapore, with its economic strength and stability (demonstrated during the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98), technology, and size and sophistication of its armed forces could be considered a middle power. According to Martin Wight, the great powers would bid for the support of such middle powers in peacetime. In war, middle powers might also be able to deter a direct attack because of their ability to inflict costs out o f proportion to what a great power could hope to gain by attacking it. [2]

Unique among the ASEAN states, Singapore has ignored the economic crisis affecting the region since 1997 by continuing its military build-up, a relentless process that began in 1965 following Singapore's independence. The development of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) could have been halted by the economic recession in 1984-85, or by the more relaxed international environment since the end of the Cold War in 1990. However, Singapore's relentless pursuit of military security highlights its own sense of strategic uncertainty. Singapore fears sudden political developments in the region, particularly in the neighbouring states of Malaysia and Indonesia, which might require its armed forces to be used either as a deterrent, or as a means of national defence. This suggests that Singapore's leadership perceives that under certain circumstances, conflict could in fact occur, and the nation's military capabilities must be credible at all times. The fact that it takes a very long time to build up such capabilities ha s meant that Singapore's military development has been continuous and sustained. This development also reflects other factors, such as political will, aided by the longevity of the same regime in power since independence; Singapore's sustained economic development (except during the short recession of 1984-85), which has given it the ability to devote resources to defence; and the lack of real progress in the development of a regional security community. Singapore's sustained military build-up also reflects its perception of basic insecurity as a city-state in a volatile region. This would have been borne out by the current political instability in Indonesia, which, together with the violent expression of anti-Chinese sentiments in the May 1998 riots, could not have been comfortable for Singapore's leaders. After all, Singapore, with its economically successful Chinese majority, represents for neighbouring states a tempting means of diverting attention from domestic economic ills and a ready-made racial scape goat for populist leaders seeking support in the context of a breakdown of social, political and economic order. …


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