Thanks to the circumstances of its birth as a little red dot in a not-always-friendly sea and, subsequently, the shock of Britain withdrawing its security cover as it pulled back from east of the Suez Canal, Singapore has always sought to meet its sense of vulnerability by protecting itself adequately. The emphasis has always been on deterrence and an ability to hold off attacks from more than one front. Spending on defence, thus, has been a major chunk of the annual outlays that successive finance ministers have laid out. This proportion had come down in recent years as the region integrated swiftly and the Government also turned to address other issues, including that of an ageing population. Even so, one in five dollars continued to be spent on defence.
This is entirely appropriate for the times, never mind some voices that believe Singapore could pare its defence spending further. The Asian region is undergoing a scale of militarisation without precedent and issues of territory and national sovereignty are again gaining salience, particularly in the South China Sea. While Singapore is not a claimant state in the disputes, it is an interested party that is fully conscious of its status as a responsible Asean member and one that depends on continued open access to the sea and skies for its subsistence. It is also aware that in a world where terrorism is coming to the forefront as never before, security is emerging as the paramount existential concern in many states.
To be prepared, therefore, is merely being wise. Carelessness is not an option. For this reason, sustained defence spending is the sensible path to follow. Because defence platforms, like doctrine, cannot be produced overnight. The investments in weaponry, maintenance, deployment and training have to be made over years and, sometimes, decades. Indeed, there is a strong case to be argued that the Republic's resolute attempts to build up its military power in a credible and transparent way, combined with its proactive diplomacy, helped it to avoid conflict with others and also keep terrorists at bay.
That besides, Singapore's defence spending should not be seen in isolation from its social and other expenditure. It is only the successful defence of sovereignty, free from unwanted outside interference and unacceptable pressure, that makes spending on education, health and social welfare possible. In the world that is emerging, all sorts of threats are melding as geopolitics mixes with deep-rooted instincts of tribalism and conflict to produce a potent brew. That is why calls to cut defence and raise social spending represent a false dichotomy. A nation's capacity to repel threats is a form of insurance that none can afford to do without, as history has repeatedly shown. Ultimately, Singapore is only as strong as its will to defend itself.