Asean's unanimity in condemning ISIS a 'powerful statement'

THE unanimous condemnation of terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by Asean defence ministers is a significant statement, said Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Langkawi yesterday.

Noting that there are Muslim-majority nations in the 10-member grouping, Dr Ng said the defence ministers, at their annual meeting, had acknowledged that Asean citizens faced a danger of radicalisation by ISIS and other extremist ideologies and that this threat needed to be neutralised.

"The fact that (condemnation) is unanimous; the fact that the threat is clearly identified (and) is against all Asean member states; the fact that this threat needs to be neutralised - I think (this) is a very powerful statement by Asean," he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Adding that the Asean countries are committed to sharing intelligence to combat the terrorist group, he said: "It really is about early warning to one another."

Dr Ng said for Asean members' domestic audiences, the defence ministers' unanimity on the issue "reduces the risk of racial tensions".

"It reduces the risk of racial misunderstandings because as we all said, this has nothing to do with Islam. This is really false ideologies perpetuated by these extremists."

In the wide-ranging interview after the one-day meeting, Dr Ng spoke about tensions in the South China Sea and the growing influence of India in the region.

He was asked about Singapore's defence budget and concerns over whether social spending is sustainable. Last week, Parliament passed a record $79.9 billion budget for the year.

Dr Ng said Singapore's defence spending is not growing, but keeping pace with inflation. This long-term plan gives the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) the "stable environment and longer timeline" that a small country requires, he noted.

By avoiding a "peak-and- trough" situation in defence spending, the SAF can plan ahead; it can also make "opportunity buys" of military equipment when prices are low.

But he emphasised that Singapore is monitoring the spike in defence spending in the region.

"Asian defence spending has gone up quite a lot. We are watching it. It helps that we have started modernisation quite far back and that we've kept a steady trajectory so we don't need to respond to it at this time. But I'll have to be realistic. At some point of time, we may have to adjust."

rchang@sph.com.sg