Singapore's approach to defence spending is premised on the belief that security threats do not disappear. Hence a steady defence budget that accounts for 5 per cent of GDP is necessary to maintain readiness of the SAF (photo : Cari)
In his Utusan Malaysia op-ed on Dec 30 last year, Professor Azmi Hassan, a geostrategist at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, suggested that the 'acquisition of the SAF defence assets... normally does not take into account the cost involved, but only on one factor, which is strategic interest to ensure the country's sovereignty'. The writer further argued that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 'can afford to plan its defence strategy thoroughly because of its huge yearly allocation'.
These assertions of Singapore's defence spending as a sacred cow and its defence strategy as being based on supposedly endless 'blank cheques' are off the mark.
Firstly, Singapore's defence strategy is based on real-time and long-term security needs. Secondly, Singapore's defence spending takes a long-term view of actual security needs. And finally, Singapore's defence procurement process is based on a rigorous evaluation system guided by the principle of seeking the most cost-effective system.
Singapore's inherent vulnerabilities stem primarily from its small size and virtual lack of natural resources. In addition, any serious disruption of its maritime links threatens not just its economic wellbeing but also its very survival. In short, even in the absence of a clearly defined enemy, the strategic vulnerabilities inherent in Singapore's geostrategic position provide the main basis for its strategic planning, defence doctrine and strategic posture.
These vulnerabilities are further accentuated by contemporary threats such as piracy, transnational terrorism and the increasing range of Operations Other Than War-type missions that the SAF is expected to undertake now and in the near future.
It is undeniable that certain painful historical memories from its colonial past and early years of independence have reinforced Singapore's sense of vulnerability. Its fall to the Japanese in 1942, the shattering of the impregnable 'Gibraltar of the East' myth and the subsequent Occupation years formed a traumatic experience from which two lessons have been drawn.
First, Singapore's lack of strategic depth requires a 'Forward Defence' posture; and second, it must have robustly self-reliant armed forces capable of independent deterrence. The latter was further ingrained into the national psyche after the British withdrawal 'East of Suez', announced in 1971.
But despite all this, Singapore's defence strategy is not premised on a limitless pot of gold but actual and perceived security needs.
In justifying an $11.45 billion budget for 2009, Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean cautioned against taking a 'feast and famine' approach to defence spending. In short, its approach to defence spending is premised on the belief that, regardless of economic conditions, security threats do not disappear. Hence, a steady defence budget that accounts for 5 per cent to 6 per cent of national gross domestic product is necessary to maintain the operational readiness of the SAF and indicate the Republic's firm resolve to defend its sovereignty and strategic interests.
That commitment is not the same as Prof Azmi's assertion that it 'does not take into account the cost involved'. In fact, Singapore's defence procurement process is based on a rigorous evaluation system guided by the principle of seeking the most cost-effective system.
For instance, Singapore's acquisition of Air Independent Propulsion-equipped Archer-class submarines from Sweden costs less than half that of the Royal Malaysian Navy's brand-new Scorpene Submarines of the basic non-Air Independent Propulsion configuration. The Archer-class vessels were former Swedish Navy Vastergotland-class submarines, purchased and refitted to Sodermanland-class standards at less than half the cost of a brand new Air Independent Propulsion-equipped submarine.
When the time came to replace the ageing A-4 Skyhawks of the Republic of Singapore Air Force, the eventual selection of the F-15SG was made over a seven-year evaluation period. The F-15SG based on the venerable F-15 platform is a formidable combat-proven aircraft with an air-to-air combat record of 104 kills to zero losses. Singapore's selection of the F-15SG was not based on preferences for any particular country or supplier, but on cost-effectiveness and operational requirements. Indeed, defence analysts have referred to Singapore's rigorous selection process as a model for fighter acquisitions on the global market.
Tender proposals for the SAF's major programmes are subject to rigorous evaluation, with the financial, technical, scheduling and commercial aspects being assessed to ensure that the most cost-effective system is selected. Our defence acquisition policy is not to buy the newest piece of kit that money can buy, but to meet the SAF's operational requirements while maximising the defence dollar.
In his article on multi-role combat aircraft, Prof Azmi concluded that 'US-manufactured jet fighters like the F-5, F-15 and F-16, like those owned by the Singapore Air Force, cannot beat the SU-30'. He added: 'If the acquisition of the 18 SU-30 jet fighters can place the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) as the dominant air master in the region, then the acquisition of the SU-30 and multi-role combat aircraft will have made it so. Such a perception is not only important for the country's defence, but more important, to ascertain the sovereignty of Malaysia.'
Rather than challenge the sovereignty of any regional neighbour, Singapore's recent acquisition of the Block-52+ variant of the F-16 and F-15SG is to meet its genuine defence requirements. And contrary to Prof Azmi's claims, any planned replacement of the RMAF's MiG-29s will be undertaken in the context of Malaysia's ongoing efforts to modernise its aircraft inventory - not to establish itself 'as the dominant air master in the region'.
Both Singapore and Malaysia have common interests in the continued stability of the region and the close links between their armed forces at the unit and individual levels stand as a testament to that fraternity in arms. (Ong Weichong/NTU)