Don't be jumping like a jumping bean: Ng Eng Hen on how to take Mahathir's remarks, and other questions

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen covered questions in an hour-long interview at Mindef Headquarters. PHOTO: MINDEF

SINGAPORE - In an hour-long interview at Mindef headquarters on Thursday (June 30) ahead of the 55th anniversary of National Service, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen took questions from the media such as how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can remain attractive to young people, and his views on former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's remarks on reclaiming Singapore.

1. On Dr Mahathir's June 19 comments that Malaysia should reclaim Singapore and the Riau Islands as "Malay lands"

"I'm not sure that I need to give a response because Dr Mahathir wasn't talking to us... He's a known entity, is respected as an elder and he has dealt with previous prime ministers, including (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong). This is all on record.

If you want to jump up and down each time Dr Mahathir speaks, then you will be jumping like a jumping bean. You have to take a few breaths and give him the respect that he is due. He says it for different audiences and he himself said that those comments were not for us, so we should just take it at face value."

2. On possible exemptions for the conscription of sportsmen, and the inclusion of women in the armed forces

"These topics are not new. They, of course, refresh with every generation giving different complexions. What we will have to continue to address is the framing and it will come back down to the fundamentals.

"Is NS important? How do we implement NS? Can exceptions be given, special treatment, preferences, privileges, and to whom, why, and why not to more people? These will be perennial questions that I don't think will ever be settled.

"For Mindef, we work on a very strict basis that we have to apply fairly, transparently, openly, and that's the surest way of maintaining support for NS. Otherwise, if people feel some people are treated, or given privileges for whatever reasons, unfairly, then support will drop. So it has to be explained properly, and it has to be accepted."

3. On how increasing energy costs will affect Mindef's budget

"Inflationary pressures will impact all budgets. Energy as a proportion of (Mindef's) total budget isn't big. Yes, we have a lot of platforms but it's the acquisition themselves that have large capital costs and data. Data consumes a lot of cost.

"The answer is that the energy component alone won't cause a huge spike in defence spending, but inflationary pressures on all items, including labour, including platforms themselves, will. It will be no different from other agencies. I don't think Mindef itself will be more affected than other agencies."

4. On whether Singapore will consider setting up a space division like Australia, Japan and Korea

"We don't have outsized ambitions, or outer space ambitions. We build for our needs. I don't foresee that we need a space command. It will be a command with very few ships.

"We do buy services from satellites that we need and we will watch the technology, because there are technological aspects of satellites coming down in size... Where it's applicable (for early warning) I can imagine us either acquiring or developing our own but as for (a) space command, it really isn't for small countries."

5. On the SAF staying attractive to young Singaporeans

"Recruitment for SAF regulars hasn't come down and in fact it's been very attractive. Neither has attrition gone up. In fact, attrition is lower than normal. We haven't seen that manpower crunch that other agencies are seeing.

"We are taking that challenge very seriously. Part of that is transforming our work environments as well. There will be a military hierarchy and that's the understanding - some people are drawn to that kind of structure and hierarchy.

"But at the same time if you look at the work environment, we have liberalised significantly. A lot more hotdesking, with security safeguards. If you can't work from home because there are security elements, (then) you work near home, and we've set up offices around Singapore. (There is) a lot more automation and working on processes.

So it's the whole ethos of the younger generation. I think if you transform steadily, the younger generation will say 'I can understand why there has to be some hierarchy. I can understand why there has to be additional security arrangements but actually, its a workable environment and one that I can grow my career in'."

6. On why defence was not included in the Forward Singapore conversations

"Omission doesn't reflect a lack of importance. Also not included were home security and foreign affairs. This triumvirate don't always lend themselves to public discourse. I wouldn't read too much into that."

7. On the next candidate for defence minister

"That is something which the Prime Minister will have to decide. I serve at the pleasure of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet. When he decides there should be succession is his job, not mine."

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