Insights into Singapore's soft and hard power

Diplomat and ex-defence chief share their views on nation's defence and foreign policy

Devoting about 6 per cent of Singapore's yearly GDP to defence spending is a necessary commitment for an effective deterrent to any country that might want to attack Singapore, said former Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo.

He was responding to Straits Times (ST) readers Steve Lau, Steve Teng and Termsak Chalermpalanupap yesterday at the EDB-ST forum on defence and diplomacy at The Arts House. They had asked, among other things, if such heavy spending had set off a regional arms race. The forum's other speaker was trailblazing diplomat Tommy Koh, 77. The audience gave them two standing ovations.

Their two-hour dialogue with a near-capacity crowd of about 250 was the fourth in a series of six organised by the EDB Society and ST. They covered such issues as how good leaders treat subordinates and how to be a good global citizen.

A 2015 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found Singapore to be among the five countries with the biggest defence budgets.

Mr Choo, 74, said the figure of 6 per cent in itself did not indicate over-spending: "We have not started any weapons race in the region. Whether we buy or don't buy, they will buy. If they need money for other things, they won't buy."

JUST SAY YES

When you were working with these two people, the word "No" did not exist.

RETIRED CHIEF OF DEFENCE FORCE WINSTON CHOO, on his working relationship with founding premier Lee Kuan Yew and his deputy Goh Keng Swee.

After an audience member asked him about the old saw that Singapore would send its soldiers into Malaysia if the latter "turned off the tap", Mr Choo said, to thunderous applause: "The Singapore Armed Forces has achieved its mission for every day that we do not go to war."

OPENING DOORS

I think I should send EDB a bill for 20 years of unpaid work.

PROFESSOR TOMMY KOH, who as Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations and then the United States helped open doors to American banks and corporations for EDB officers.

He added that Singapore's defence strategy was to project "the ability to bring firepower on people you want to hit". It had achieved that by amassing enough arms to keep the Republic at least five years ahead of its neighbours.

DEFENCE AND DIPLOMACY

We want everyone to love MFA and fear Mindef.

PROF KOH, on how defence complements diplomacy.

He noted it was the same strategy the Israelis had used in the 1967 Six-Day War against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Still, he stressed, all that technological advantage would be lost if Singapore did not train its soldiers well, to make the most of their weaponry.

WHAT, ME ARROGANT?

We Singaporeans have been too well-taught by the British. We are very analytical, clear and put our points across without subtlety. The Chinese value nuance... We are not arrogant. We may seem arrogant, but we are very straightforward.

PROF KOH, when asked what he thought of China's former ambassador to Singapore Chen Baoliu's remark made in 2000 that Singaporeans were "arrogant".

Projecting military might was one of four essentials the Republic must maintain, no matter how much it evolved, said Professor Koh, in response to a query from architect John Ting, 60, on Singapore's "immutables".

The second was a diverse but united society. "If we lose that, we lose everything," he said. Third, Singaporeans must keep reinventing themselves, as their regional competitors were "catching up fast".

Last but not least, Prof Koh lauded Mr Choo for having "cultivated" relationships with the chiefs of armed forces in the region so that they, too, felt they had a stake in keeping Singapore independent.

That, he added, was the essence of Singapore's foreign policy: to be a friend to as many countries as possible, without aligning itself with any of the major powers. Doing so would help it extend its influence and so expand its political and economic space internationally.

Prof Koh, who has followed US affairs for 50 years, said the US presidential candidates would soon tone down their incendiary rhetoric because "you need to be a centrist to become president".

When dialogue moderator Han Fook Kwang, also ST's editor-at-large, asked Mr Choo what about the future worried him, he said he hoped Singaporeans would be "willing to explore and share, and not always wait for the Government to do the work for them".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Insights into S'pore's soft and hard power'. Print Edition | Subscribe