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Beefing up defence a must, but make every dollar count

The reality of information warfare in this information age came into sharp focus yesterday when Parliament debated the Defence Ministry's budget, and its minister Ng Eng Hen warned of the "utter chaos" that cyber attacks could wreak on Singapore.

He cited two vivid examples of countries that had been hit: The first was Ukraine, where cyber attacks on the country's power grid in 2015 cut off power to an area about 20 times the size of Singapore - in the depth of winter.

The second was Estonia, which has been the target of orchestrated cyber attacks since 2007. It plans to make a digital copy of the entire nation's details - everything from birth records to property deeds to bank data - and store it in a secure location in Britain or Luxembourg.

Dr Ng asked the House to imagine what would happen if cyber attackers accessed and destroyed Singapore's Central Provident Fund records. The result would be "utter chaos", he said.

The threat is all the more serious as countries like Russia, which spends some US$300 million (S$420 million) a year on its cyber army, consider such warfare to be legitimate.

The debate on Mindef's budget, standing at a total estimated expenditure of just over $14 billion - the highest among all ministries - confirmed a remarkable consensus among members across the political divide on the need for substantial spending on defence.

 
 
 
 
 

Singapore will strengthen its defences by setting up a high-level cyber command to oversee policies and train cyber units to monitor its networks 24/7. This new Defence Cyber Organisation will have about 2,600 soldiers and be supported by defence scientists and engineers - "a significant build-up from the current numbers", Dr Ng acknowledged, and one which "reflects the importance of this new battlefront".

The new cyber command was one among a suite of measures the minister announced in a muscular speech that set out how Singapore planned to adapt and stay ahead of new threats arising from hybrid warfare, a military strategy that blends conventional, irregular and cyber warfare.

Mindef will also invest $900 million in a new training ground that will allow soldiers to train in a dense urban environment, and set up two new defence technology labs, one in robotics and another to exploit artificial intelligence and data analytics.

The debate on Mindef's budget, standing at a total estimated expenditure of just over $14 billion - the highest among all ministries - confirmed a remarkable consensus among members across the political divide on the need for substantial spending on defence. No opposition MP questioned the allocation, and it was left to a PAP MP to inject a cautionary note.

Ms Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC), the Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Education, reminded the House that Singapore had entered a new normal of slower economic growth and quoted Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on the need for the Government to "spend judiciously, emphasise value for money". Ms Low said "every ministry has a part to play in ensuring prudent spending". But she also acknowledged that when it came to defence, countries in the region were spending more than ever and had since 2012 been outspending Europe. She cited research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute which showed that from 2014 to 2015, there was a 5.4 per cent increase in military expenditure in Asia and Oceania, which far surpassed the 1 per cent increase in defence spending globally. Still, she asked Mindef to elaborate on how it would watch its spending even as it ensured enough resources for the Singapore Armed Forces to keep the Republic secure.

In his response, Dr Ng said Mindef would cap the defence budget's growth to between 3 per cent and 4 per cent a year, which would allow for keeping pace with inflation. He thanked MPs and Singaporeans for their support and pledged to "stretch each defence dollar to the fullest" and cut costs where possible.

By comparison, the debate on the Trade and Industry Ministry's budget struck a more tentative note as the House dwelt on economic headwinds. Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) highlighted insourcing by China and the US, disruptive technology and Singapore's constraints of an ageing population and limited workforce growth. "We will soon reach the full potential of the economy unless we add new capacity and capabilities, and create new growth drivers," he said.

Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang acknowledged the global outlook was clouded with uncertainty, but said: "Against this backdrop, the Singapore economy as a whole is on a steady and stable growth trajectory." Its restructuring efforts were gaining traction, its labour market remained resilient and it was globally competitive, he added.

Businesses and workers would do well to exploit those strengths, and issue a response as muscular as Mindef's to the threats and opportunities of this new era.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Beefing up defence a must, but make every dollar count'. Print Edition | Subscribe