In Defence of Singapore’s High Defence Expenditure – by Singapore Matters (blog)

Over the past few years, calls to reduce our defence spending have been getting increasingly strident. During the general elections last year, many opposition parties specifically brought up this issue. They broadly argued that our defence strategy was based on an exaggerated sense of threat and that resources devoted to defence could be better spent on improving our people’s life directly through investments in education,healthcare etc.

First of all, regardless of which side of the fence we sit on, the fact that we do devote a massive proportion of resources to defence is irrefutable. This year, defence expenditure would constitute 25% of all government spending. The 12 billion dollars allocated to our military is greater than the sum of our two closest neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia put together. Our per capita defence expenditure is second only to Israel.

So yes, it is true that our defence spending is substantially higher than other countries. But this doesn’t mean that calls to cut our defence budget are warranted.

In the past, the tenuous geopolitical situation we found ourselves in was used to justify the high levels of expenditure. I do believe that the line of argument still holds true today. But our own domestic uncertainties compel us to keep to this policy as well.

Furthermore, while the opposition’s suggestion that by slashing defence expenditure, we can devote more resources to other sectors might have intuitive appeal, but my contention is that these freed up resources would be likely parked in the reserves rather than spent as desired. In Singapore, the government’s decision to fulfill any need (e.g. subsidising Healthcare further, lowering transport fares) is not so much limited by the availability of resources but rather more importantly dependent on whether it fulfills government’s macro policies such as ensuring personal responsibility, sustainability etc.

Our “Unfriendly” Neighbours

Most of us would be familiar with the argument that we live in a hostile neighborhood, and it is imperative that we shore up our defence to continue to remain sovereign. In his book “Hard Truths”, former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew cited examples of the 1991 joint exercise between Malaysian and Indonesian special forces in Kota Tinggi during our National Day celebrations as well how Malaysians dragged the water negotiations to buttress his claim that our neighbours don’t want the best for us.

To be honest, bilateral ties between us and our neighbours have improved. Now both Malaysia and Indonesia have rational leaders who seem keen on cooperating to create win-win partnerships. They don’t want to bicker and raise tensions like their predecessors.

Malaysia is aggressively courting the Singapore government for investments in the neighbouring Iskandar development region. Its authorities were also cooperative and played a significant role in recapturing Mas Selamat, who had escaped from our detention centre.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is also very much focused on making Indonesia prosperous rather than flexing its military might. (It is worth noting, that in the past decade the Indonesian military in terms of size has shrunk due to the inability of the government to pay for the soldiers’ wages)

At the moment, the prospect of our security being undermined by our immediate neighbours remains admittedly low. But we can’t forget that the political situation in these countries remains shaky. This is especially evident in Malaysia, our closest neighbour.

Currently, the opposition coalition has about ⅓ of the seats in Parliament. It is very much possible that the opposition Keadilan coalition, which includes the Islamist PAS party, forms Government sometime soon. How would this Government work ? What would its stance towards Singapore be ? Would it be jealous of our success or work to emulate it ? We can’t be sure.

If the opposition coalition does indeed form government, there would likely be a high degree of domestic squabbling within the coalition itself regarding each individual party’s status. Also, Barisan Nasional, while weakened would still retain some of its formidable political machinery to give the new government a hard job governing. Given such a tense domestic environment in Malaysia, Singapore could be likely used as a punching bag to draw the country together. Through aggressive posturing and heated rhetoric, the government could shift the national conversation to an “us vs them” battle.

Ultimately, we must understand that no one needs to launch an attack to harm us and mere threatening itself might have a crippling effect on our nation. It is often said that the fear of suffering is worse than suffering itself. What this means is that our defence capability must ideally go beyond just protecting us when harmed and also ensure that people can live without any worries regardless what the nature of the threat is.

To ensure this, a strong emphasis on defence is required. Given our superior edge gained through far greater levels of investment in defence, politicians from our neighbouring countries have little ground to even skirt with the possibility of harming us.

Our high level of expenditure on defence, gives the local and foreign population a peace of mind facilitating commerce and long term engagements with us.

Our own domestic uncertainties; better to prepare when we can

Since our independence, our economy has been growing robustly with very few bumps along the way. This has given us lot of leeway in our budgeting. But this cannot be said of the future.

With talk of inclusive growth, increasing public sector expenditure expected due to burgeoning number of senior citizens and a shrinking working population, our economic prospects would be dimmer in the future. Hence, it only makes sense that we improve our defence capabilities, when we can, to stay ahead of the curve. Doing so cannot be construed as wasteful spending or as being “kiasu”. It is common sense.

No military would remain content and endeavour to just maintain its current capacity. Every military would be keen on upgrading and being ahead of its adversaries.  At the moment, Singapore might be very well ahead of our neighbours but investing and building up a bigger gap now, would give us more space to manoeuvre in the future, with regards to how our resources are allocated.

Let me illustrate this point with a real life example. Many of us use smartphones. Suppose you are on the move, and your Apple iPhone has 50% charge left and there is a charger available. Even if you determine that the battery level would be sufficient to last you for the day, what harm would it be to use the charger to pump more juice into your iPhone. After all, doing so means you don’t have to desperately look for the charger or worry about limiting your usage.

Ultimately, the point I want to get across here is that we can’t be entirely sure of what the future holds for us. Investing in defence now when we can afford it, is the best insurance policy,offering greater freedom in the future.

Cut defence expenditure to improve people’s welfare directly ? 

Often the opposition urges the Government to invest more in our social sectors (Healthcare, Education, Community Development etc.). It advocates for policies which often require high levels of financial commitment. When prodded on how the government can afford such expenditure, it almost instinctively points to cutting our defence budget. ( In the past, they used to mention slashing political appointees’ salaries as well, seemingly oblivious to the fact that remuneration of political appointees is a minute fraction of the Government’s total expenditure)

Would cutting our defence expenditure free up  more resources ? Yes. We would have more in our hand to spend elsewhere. But it is unlikely that the current’s government budgetary decisions would be significantly different.

Unlike many other countries, what dictates budgeting decision in Singapore is principle rather than the availability of resources. Almost every year, the government manages to end the year with a surplus and has accumulated a sizeable portion over the decades. If the government did indeed see the need to spend more money on the social sector it could have easily drawn some money from the surplus.

So why the government hasn’t increased the healthcare subsidy for our senior citizen folks or not invested more in schools has little do with the shortage of financial resources.

The restraint approach to spending on the social sector has more to do with the government adhering to its principles- individuals need to be self-reliant, government liabilities must be kept minimal.

Hence, it is wrong to consider the high levels of defence expenditure as the limiting factor to increasing investments in other sectors. In fact, it is the government’s principles and priorities which need to change if more resources are to be devoted to the social sector rather than resources freed up through slashing our defence expenditure.

Accountability and Prudence still necessary 

Unlike many other militaries around the world which face the grim prospect of their  budgets being slashed, the SAF has been fortunate to be not put through such challenges. The government as well as society recognizes the need for a strong deterrent force and the need for sufficient financial resources to be channelled to the SAF for it to be effective. There is a fairly high degree of trust in the SAF.

Given that such a large amount of resources are dedicated to the SAF, it is important that the organisation still stay prudent. Efforts must be taken to minimise wasteful spending, otherwise public confidence would certainly dip. Unlike, corporate companies which can publish annual reports laying out how the dollars and cents were spent the SAF can’t be expected to do so. There is a certain degree of secrecy any military would need to maintain to be effective.

However, it is inadvisable for it to remain a complete black box. To maintain the confidence, it would be a good idea if the public could get a rough breakdown of how such a large amount of tax payers money is spent. Example, show how much of it is going into training,manpower development, weapons acquisition etc. ? Sharing such information is likely to shore up the public’s confidence without undermining our security.

In addition, at the end of each financial year,  GPC for Defence members could be allowed access to look at the detailed spending records of the military and be given the opportunity to voice out their concerns, behind the closed doors. While I am not that certain, if such a practice exists no, institutionalizing it, while still keeping all discussions private would further help assure the public that their tax payer money is well spent, without jeopardizing our security.


Having a strong defence is an integral part of keeping Singapore safe and free. Given the uncertainties which lie ahead, both in the region and domestically, our safest bet is a strong SAF which only be sustained through high levels of defence investment, in a resource scarce, small city-state.

While it is certainly easy to get lulled into believing that our shores are safe and that we should channel the money for other purposes; we must be cognisant that sustainable progress can only be rooted with a strong SAF.

This however doesn’t mean that defence expenditure is a sacred cow. I do believe calls for greater accountability are justified. But people must also understand that military has to retain some degree of confidentiality to be effective.

Maintaining our current policy of allocating a sizeable portion of budget helps cement our security. Keeping Singapore secure, and Singaporeans free from worry does seem to come with a hefty price tag but we have few other viable options.

The continued emphasis on staying ahead through high and sustained investments in defence is vital; for it ensures that this nation built through the blood, sweat and tears of so many lasts for our posterity as well.

Source : Singapore Matter ~In Defence of Singapore’s High Defence Expenditure

** Ref from  : Fabrications About The PAP


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