Strong SAF a result of decades of commitment: Ng Eng Hen

Substantial investments by past governments in building up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will allow Singapore to keep its defence spending steady, even as countries in the region are spending more and against wide-ranging security threats, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday.

He said there is a need to prioritise and optimise resources, such as investing in new technologies to overcome Singapore's constraints.

Dr Ng said Mindef should maintain a spending that keeps pace with inflation - of around 3 per cent to 4 per cent each year. Defence spending rose from about $14.2 billion in FY2017 to a budgeted $14.76 billion for FY2018, an increase of 3.9 per cent.

"Even for the next decade, Mindef does not foresee any spike in defence spending. Obviously, this will not apply if there are exigencies or unexpected scenarios," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

He said that in the last decade, other Asean countries have been spending more to modernise their defence capabilities, with Singapore's defence spending keeping pace with Asean's until about 2006.

"The gap between Singapore's spending compared to the rest of Asean has increased, but Singapore need not increase its defence spending radically now to play catch-up," he added.

This is because decades of commitment from previous generations in both financial resources and support for national service and the SAF have resulted in a strong SAF today, Dr Ng said.

This is despite the fact that defence spending as a percentage of government expenditure has dropped "substantially" in the last decade to around 19 per cent last year, from a high of nearly a third in the mid-2000s.

He pointed to two lessons learnt from Singapore's experience, as well as that of "negative examples" from other countries.

He said: "First, the best time to prepare for trouble is during peace. Second, in the long run, steady investments into military capabilities maintain peace through deterrence and result in more effective outcomes."

In Germany, due to 25 years of cuts to the defence budget, its military is underfunded and fewer than half of its submarines and planes are operationally ready, according to its government's own assessment, Dr Ng said.

In terms of cyber attacks, he said, senior Mindef and SAF leaders have been deliberately targeted by "spear-phishing" attempts - innocent-looking e-mails containing malicious software - conducted by freelancers, as well as organised state and non-state actors. "They have not succeeded, but they will keep trying."

He agreed with the view of Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) on the need to harness new technologies to overcome Singapore's constraints. He cited the army's unmanned surveillance towers, the navy's unmanned vessels for patrols and underwater surveys, and the air force's drones to perform runway damage assessments.

Lim Min Zhang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2018, with the headline 'Strong SAF a result of decades of commitment: Ng Eng Hen'. Print Edition | Subscribe