From the gallery

No better defence against threats than keeping Singapore united from within

In today's physical or ideological battleground, the threats to a small country like Singapore are not limited to hulking tanks and screaming fighter jets.

Cyber warfare, transnational terrorism and economic survival are just some of the other threats in play, and that was also very much on the minds of MPs for much of yesterday's debate in the House.

To be certain, traditional threats to Singapore remain a real and present danger, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said.

He cited rising tensions in the South China Sea, surging military spending in Asia and the growing threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group, all of which warrant a strong military to deter would-be aggressors.

Similarly, Singapore's ability to secure its economic future will underpin its very existence. That is why companies and workers need to prepare themselves for the future economy by gaining new skills and upgrading their capabilities, said Trade and Industry Minister (Industry) S. Iswaran.

But what was also clear from the debate yesterday is that what happens within the confines of Singapore remains as important as stiffening its external defences.

And there were two instances in the course of yesterday's debate that underlined the importance of keeping Singapore's multiracial society united.

The first was in remarks by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Josephine Teo on Singapore-China relations. Ties are strong with both sides engaged in various projects, and Singapore has been China's top foreign investor since 2013.

Speaking then in Mandarin, Ms Teo went on to explain how Singaporean Chinese are different from those in China, despite sharing some similar traits. There is a cultural affinity, both celebrate common festivals and speak the same language. But the Singaporean Chinese community must retain its sense of identity as being part of a multiracial society that it helped build up.

"Having joined hands with other races and successfully built up modern Singapore over the last 50 years, the Chinese community in Singapore can engage our Chinese friends with a sense of confidence, as well as demonstrate our independence and uniqueness as a nation," she said.

Coming against the backdrop of an economically strengthening and more assertive China, her remarks can be seen as a reminder to the community, perhaps especially to new citizens, that they are part of Singapore and need to embrace and uphold its multiracial character.

The second instance came during the debate on the Defence Ministry's budget plans.

The Workers' Party's Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) wanted Singapore's naval vessels to be equipped with halal-certified kitchens, so as not to deprive Malay-Muslim Singaporeans of the opportunity to serve on board ships.

Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman said that while all Singaporeans have the right to practise their religions freely, Singapore remains a secular state. And while the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will accommodate where possible and make provisions for the dietary requirements of Muslim servicemen and those with other dietary requirements, the military's operational needs come first, he said.

Not satisfied with the answer, Mr Faisal pressed for reasons why the needs of Muslim servicemen could not be met on ships. This brought Defence Minister Dr Ng to his feet to deliver a sharp response.

"Mr Faisal Manap says he doesn't need to be reminded we are a multiracial, multi-religious society but he is only championing in his speech for Muslims," he said.

He said there are other groups with religious observances apart from Muslims, and the SAF can accommodate such needs wherever possible.

But the "overriding principle must be that SAF operational concerns must come first and individual needs sometimes must subsume under that", he said.

Subtle or direct, comments of the kind from Dr Ng, Dr Maliki and Mrs Teo need to be aired now and again.

Because if Singapore is where people have chosen to make their home, then tolerance and a level of give-and-take must also prevail in that common space.

With potential external threats to Singapore looming, keeping the country's diverse social fabric tight becomes as critical as buying the latest military hardware.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'No better defence against threats than keeping S'pore united from within'. Print Edition | Subscribe