Singapore’s Defense Metamorphoses

October 3, 2023 Topic: Singapore Region: Southeast Asia Tags: SingaporeMilitary Strategy

Singapore’s Defense Metamorphoses

As the city-state faces an increasingly complex security environment, Singapore is adapting to meet new challenges.

Analogies and other symbols can be helpful to reduce and simplify more complex ideas. Along these lines, Singapore’s defense policy and its Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have been likened to various images, which enable a quick grasp of its primary components.

Today, the security environment confronting Singapore is increasingly complex, and unconventional threats from the information and digital domains have progressively featured.

The last few years also saw “two significant disruptive events—the COVID-19 pandemic and the unlawful invasion of Ukraine by Russia,” as Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen highlighted during the 2023 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD).

This is coupled with intensifying U.S.-China competition. In 2020, as the pandemic forced the cancellation of the SLD that year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that “the troubled U.S.-Chinese relationship raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order.” He stated that “Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore,” are “especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”

At the same time, the Next Generation SAF enters its fourth incarnation, following the first generation from its establishment to the early 1980s, the second generation’s modernization until the late 1990s, and the third generation's transformation from 2004 onward. As part of this makeover, a new fourth service, the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS), was also launched in 2022.

How, then, should Singapore and the Next Gen SAF deal with these myriad security challenges, and which image best represents such?

To begin with, it is helpful to consider the appropriateness of the analogies for the previous generations of the SAF and Singapore’s defense policy.

Singapore had to provide for its own defense upon independence in 1965. There was an inherent sense of vulnerability due to the island’s geostrategic context, which included the lack of strategic depth, natural resources, or a domestic market, and being “wedged between the sea and airspace of two larger neighbours.” Furthermore, there was also a substantial threat perception shaped by historical episodes such as the Japanese Occupation, “Confrontation” with Indonesia, and the Malayan Emergency against the communists. Separation from the Federation of Malaysia and the subsequent British “east of Suez” withdrawal exacerbated matters.

Yet, the first-generation SAF started humbly. It only had two infantry battalions without noteworthy armor or artillery. Singapore only set up its navy formally in 1967 and the air force in 1968. It began conscription in 1967.

Singapore’s defense policy at that point was hence likened to a “poisonous shrimp” strategy by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a speech in 1966, “Big fish eat small fish; small fish eat shrimps . . . Species in nature develop defence mechanisms. Some shrimps are poisonous: they sting. If you eat them, you will get digestive upsets.”

As far as I know, there are no poisonous shrimps in nature. The “first venomous crustacean known to science,” Speleonectes tulumensis, was described in 2007. There is a mantis shrimp that punches, though, packing “the strongest punch of any creature in the animal kingdom,” as well as a pistol shrimp that makes a snap with its pincer to stun prey.

Regardless of its actual existence, the image of a poisonous/poisoned/poison shrimp – the exact term manifesting differently – signified a defense policy based on deterrence by punishment, aiming to make the cost of aggression against Singapore overly prohibitive. 

However, such a strategy, though “necessitated by the then poor state of the SAF, its lack of manpower, firepower and mobility – basically an armed force incapable of offensive operations, was essentially defeatist” since the shrimp would have to be eaten to upset its predator’s stomach.

Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had likewise indicated in 1984 that under such an approach, survival was problematic: “What happens if you step on a poisonous shrimp? He dies, but he will kill you . . . So we need a policy which says: ‘If you come I’ll whack you, and I’ll survive.’”

As the SAF continued to strengthen with impressive additions to the navy and air force, such as the creation of the SAF’s Joint Staff in 1984, Singapore’s defense policy shifted to deterrence by denial. This strategy seeks to prevent the putative aggressor’s victory, ensuring the city-state’s survival.

Singapore’s then Minister for Defense, Goh Chok Tong, likened such a strategy to a “porcupine” in a 1983 speech: “To have permanent peace, all Singaporeans must be ready, operationally ready, to keep out threats from any direction…Take the porcupine, for example.”

It did not only shift to denial; deterrence was omnidirectional instead of being targeted against a specific adversary, just like a porcupine curls into a ball.

Simultaneously, for this second-generation SAF, “it was hard to escape the conclusion that doctrinal emphasis was increasingly placed on the offensive.” However, others have argued that “contrary to common wisdom, no discrete policy or strategic change actually took place during the early 1980s,” and “Singapore had consistently undertaken an offensively-oriented buildup of its military since the late 1960s.”

This signifies a more proactive and perhaps even preemptive stance towards potential conventional adversaries, in contrast to an arguably purely defensive “porcupine.” As a SAF officer noted, the “presence of a strong SAF also played a key role in enabling Singapore to stand firm on her sovereign rights while resolving disputes with Malaysia arising from the water agreement, the 1990 Points-of-Agreement (POA) and the sovereignty of Pedra Branca.” Notwithstanding, deterrence via denial was still meant to mitigate Singapore’s inherent vulnerabilities.

If anything, these vulnerabilities would only be exacerbated with “a shift in the security landscape, which widened to include non-conventional threats such as terrorism and piracy,” especially after the watershed of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. In December 2001, Singapore uncovered a plot by the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network to attack various targets in the city-state, which only served to emphasize the threat of terrorism.

The third generation (3G) transformation of the SAF started in 2004 to morph it into a full-spectrum force able to contest the entire spectrum of conflict from peacetime to war and anywhere in between, against both conventional and unconventional threats. This was done with a focus “in improving Command and Control Systems which allows field units to have a clearer picture of the battlefield” for greater synergy and effectiveness, taking full advantage of the technological developments of the so-called revolution in military affairs.

The 3G SAF is an “advanced networked force” fulfilling the mission of the Ministry of Defense and the Singapore military to “enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor.”

In balancing both the deterrence and diplomacy pillars of Singapore’s defense policy thereby, analysts have likened such a posture to the image of a dolphin: “smart, agile, manoeuvrable, and able to move quickly away from danger; and yet armed with sharp teeth and an ability to defend itself ably against larger and often more fearsome predators,” suggesting “a Singapore that is increasingly willing to use its wits, its flexibility and its manoeuvrability to outwit potential aggressors, all the while confident that in the event that such non-violent measures failed to dissuade the potential aggressor, it still maintains sufficient military capability” to prevent harm to the island. At the same time, this analogy surely works better if it were about a pod of dolphins instead of a single one.

According to the Ministry of Defense, the Next Gen SAF “will take shape by 2040 with new assets and capabilities,” and “will be more networked and capable of conducting operations in the air, land, sea and digital domains to better defend Singapore’s peace and security.” Dr. Ng Eng Hen further remarked that: “This Next Gen SAF will provide for this and the next generation, our children and theirs, greater confidence in dealing with potential aggressors, to fulfil the SAF's core mission.”

With traditional and non-traditional threats across different domains—the conventional land, sea, and air; as well as the unconventional digital and cyberspace—coupled with inherent vulnerabilities, the next image symbolizes a secure Singapore. Singapore’s national icon, “the mythical Merlion, which possesses the body of a fish and the head of a lion,” conceivably comes to mind here.

Arguably like the “dolphin,” the Merlion similarly “conjures the image of friendliness and intelligence,” attracting tourists to take photos with the statue, and yet clearly “possesses the ability to hold its own against aggressors” with its noble, majestic and fierce features.

On top of that, the part-fish, part-mammal nature of the fantastical Merlion may further suggest a multi-domain nature, invoking the more “networked and capable” Next Gen SAF and its new digital service contesting a non-physical space.

Further representing Singapore, the Merlion alludes to the unique circumstances of the city-state and its strategic choices and policies, accountable only to itself and its sovereignty and autonomy instead of having to choose sides between the great powers.