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Archive for May 2014

Parliament: Debate on the President’s Address (Pritam Singh) – 28 May 2014

Thank you, Madam. This motion of thanks for the President’s Address takes place amidst worrying developments in our neighbourhood. At the recent ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement on 10 May 2014 expressing their serious concerns over the on-going developments in the South China Sea, which increased tensions in the area. There have been many references from the Government over the last few months about hostilities between Ukraine and Russia, and the implications for Singapore.

Increased tensions in the South China Sea 

In the South China Sea, tensions are increasing between China and a whole host of countries. It is a sea line of communications central to our survival. US$5.3 trillion worth of trade passes through it every year. Needless to say, the South China Sea is right at our doorstep, too. The geopolitical jockeying taking place in the region takes place in a year when we celebrate 30 years of Total Defence, a national initiative that first began in 1984.

Madam, my colleagues have already spoken and will continue to speak during this debate on a wide range of important domestic matters, as covered in the President’s Address. I will focus my speech on national security, specifically to issues pertaining to foreign affairs and defence.

In spite of the American pivot towards Asia, the fact remains that the benign American security umbrella in Asia has to accommodate China’s economic and growing military power. The real manifestations of a changing power equilibrium in East and Southeast Asia are taking place. Over the last year, developments in the East and South China Sea in particular are causing serious concerns amongst several Asian countries, including Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam – all in the eye of the storm.

A Code of Conduct on the South China Sea to address these territorial spats is unlikely to come to pass anytime soon. This is in spite of hopes for it to be hurried along, as most recently expressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in his visit to Washington two weeks ago. In contrast, the Prime Minister’s more sober remarks in Tokyo on the back of the Nikkei International Conference last week that any nation would be cautious about signing on to a set of guidelines which may constrain its freedom of action are noteworthy.

Seen from this perspective, while the early agreement of a Code of Conduct would be warmly welcomed by Singapore, it is not terribly realistic to expect this of China, or any other major power in its shoes. As China grows economically, it has taken a long view of history to ensure that it is in the foremost position to determine the power dynamics of its immediate neighbourhood, which it sees as a core interest.

Such big power behaviour is not unusual. Big powers march to their own drumbeat. Even the US, while accepting the widely ratified United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as customary international law, has not moved to ratify the treaty for reasons best known to American lawmakers.

In a sense, China’s reactions can be read as a direct response to the perception of a gradually minifying ability and keenness of the United States to impose its will on the world. This is coupled with the slow and uneven post-Cold War shift to a more multi-polar world. As part of this process, it would have come as no surprise to hear of the 30-year $400 billion gas deal between China and Russia last week, even as a barbed exchanges and spats were taking place over the South China Sea.

For Singapore, the jockeying in our neighbourhood suggests that the external environment in the years to come is likely to be more, and not less, unpredictable. In the event our external trade is affected by skirmishes and hostilities in the South China Sea or a chill permeates through the markets and business confidence sinks as a result of it, our resilience as a people is likely to be severely tested.

Whither Total Defence? Foreigners and National Defence.

Beyond hosting a strong SAF that is ready for battle, how prepared are we as a country if conflict in a foreign region has a debilitating effect on our economy and society? With our fast-changing population, have the pillars of Total Defence been unwittingly weakened? Is our economy strong, resilient and diversified enough to survive a crisis in the South China Sea?

With close to 40% of Singapore comprising of non-Singaporeans, will Singaporeans and foreigners look out for each other or turn to look after their respective communities? These numbers should inform the Government that the next 30 years that undergird Total Defence will be much more important than the last 30. While SAF and Home Team National Servicemen reinstate their commitment to Singapore, the Government should assess if we have over-extended ourselves in outsourcing many critical public functions.

In times of conflict, we can certainly expect job losses and some foreigners returning to safer pastures. How will our municipal, health, transport and telecommunication services hold up, given the large number of foreigners manning them? Will some of our foreign friends among us respond nationalistically, favouring the Philippines or Vietnam, depending on their ethnicity and original citizenship, even as Singapore would prefer to stand as a neutral party?

We would need to prepare for these unexpected outcomes and review our crisis strategies even as the Government presses ahead with economic growth and with the expansion of foreign manpower continuing. Insofar as national resilience is concerned, the announcement by the Committee to Strengthen National Service in recommending a Volunteer Corps is a laudable initiative. This is even if it is, for all intents and purposes, a pilot initiative and a small baby step targeted at new citizens, first-generation PRs and women.

I would urge all new citizens, in particular, to apply to join the SAF Volunteer Corps and join hands with Singaporeans who already dedicate a minimum of 12 years of their life to National Service.

As a young nation, but with close to 40% of our population comprising non-Singaporeans, questions of identity and commitment of the new arrivals are likely to remain in the minds of Singaporeans for the foreseeable future. This has a direct consequence on our resilience as a country and a people. The Government should continue to explore how new citizens and PRs can contribute to our national security and how the total defence concept can be reinforced in light of the new realities.

Our Near Abroad. The centrepiece of our foreign policy.

Mdm Speaker, it was instructive to note the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Addendum to the President’s Address referring specifically to the fact that good relations with our immediate neighbours, namely, in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are essential for our security and prosperity.

I recently attended the 34th Singapore Lecture delivered by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei in April this year. The Sultan took the opportunity to applaud Singapore’s offer of the Changi Command and Control Centre as a regional humanitarian disaster and relief co-host centre. Such Singaporean initiatives are hallmarks of effective defence diplomacy and we should build on this. Going forward, it may be appropriate to us to explore how our defence ties with our immediate neighbours in particular can be further improved. This would be solely to increase reservoirs of trust with our neighbours with the view to completely eradicate the prospects of hostilities as far as practically possible. This would have to be a long-term strategy but it is not impossible.

We can start with Malaysia. As our populations and economies become more interconnected with Iskandar Johor and the rapid transit system between Johor Baru and Woodlands in the works, the logic of conflict between us will make less and less sense as the years go by. To this end, a new multilateral architecture between Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei that eradicates the prospect of conflict and promotes military inter-operability and joint training may well operate to create a far more benign security environment in our immediate neighbourhood so as to allow for a more flexible and targeted use of our defence dollar in the long run.

Whilst Singapore must ultimately remain responsible for its own security, steady and determined confidence-building measures with our neighbours and the willingness to put the past behind can alter the security landscape. I would suggest that we are in a much better starting position. The Government already actively encourages Singapore businesses to operate in Iskandar Johor as evinced most recently in the Prime Minister’s remarks during the Malay/Muslim business conference held earlier this month.

Singapore already conducts a wide range of military exercises with our immediate neighbours. It would also be helpful to add some cultural ballast to deepening defence ties by restating the importance of the Malay Language and encouraging its use, even informally, since Singapore will always be located in the Malay Archipelago.

We should also take the opportunity in so far as our local discourse is concerned, to remind policy-makers that the fear of putting a Malay serviceman behind a machine gun is already over. We are all Singaporeans and with 50 years of independence behind us, now more than ever, when you are conscripted to defend your home Singapore, in whatever capacity, your race is not a factor.

Trans-Pacific Partnership. Implications for Singapore businesses?

Mdm Speaker, much has been said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP), a trade agreement to expand the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement. The TPP seeks to enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth and development.

For Singaporeans, the implications of the TPP for Singapore have not been discussed beyond broad motherhood statements even as many groups and lobbies in potential TPP signatory countries are protesting against the treaty, especially those economies heavily weighted in favour of particular industries such as automotive and agriculture amongst others. Even environmentalists and Internet freedom advocates have raised a hue and cry about the implications of the TPP.

Whilst Singapore’s considerations will be different in view of the externally oriented nature of our economy, it would be important for the Government to inform Singaporeans what is in it for us. These questions are especially important for Singapore businesses and for the world we want to bequeath to our children, questions that go beyond economics in view of the implications of the TPP for the Asia Pacific region. Will the TPP allow Singaporean companies to go overseas and do business the same way big companies are allowed to come to Singapore and compete for major contracts with local businesses? Which businesses and industries, if any, are likely to be killed off by the TPP?

Mdm Speaker, it would be helpful if the Government flesh out the opportunities and pitfalls awaiting our local SMEs should the TPP come to pass so that our businesses are not blind-sided by it. In fact, such a strategy going beyond communication with Chambers of Commerce and business federations may well encourage greater entrepreneurship amongst our people. Equally, greater sharing of information with budding businesses, start-ups and those that are still primarily locally oriented will vindicate and justify the policy-making hours spent by our civil servants and Government officials on TPP negotiations.

In conclusion, Mdm Speaker, with our total external trade hitting almost one trillion dollars according to 2013 statistics, Singapore will be acutely vulnerable should a conflict erupt in the South China Sea. Beyond our neutrality and our relentless diplomatic efforts, Singapore will have to adjust and deal with the reality that comes our way. A former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs once observed, not incorrectly, Singapore will always be a price taker, not a price setter in the international realm. Nonetheless, we may be in a better position to determine the price we take with regard to our immediate neighbours, given the greater inter-dependence between Singapore and Malaysia in particular.

Unfortunately, we are not in a position to determine or prevent a conflict in the South China Sea, beyond offering ourselves as a neutral arbiter and an advocate for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. We can, however, start working on scenarios to determine how we can better be prepared for a regional conflict, especially given the deep changes that have taken place in our society over the last 10-15 years with regard to our population policies and economic strategies in particular. The standoff between Ukraine and Russia is not wholly relevant to Singapore, but there are more immediate worries closer to home.

Mdm Speaker, I support the motion of thanks on the President’s Address.

Mdm Speaker: Mr Zainal Sapari, you have a clarification?

Mr Zainal Sapari: Mdm Speaker, I would like to ask Mr Pritam Singh whether, in his speech, he was alluding to the fact that Malays in the Armed Forces are not deployed to handle machine guns. That is my first clarification.

My second clarification is to ask Mr Pritam Singh whether he is aware of the fact that today, many Malays are actually deployed in different parts of the Armed Forces – artillery, signal, and whether he would agree with me that that signals that the Armed Forces has actually opened up these places to the Malays as well.

Mr Pritam Singh: I thank the hon Member for the question. It is a very important one. Indeed, he is right. I remember my own experience as a National Serviceman in the Combat Engineer Unit, as a platoon commander, where we had no Malay servicemen in the rank-and-file, at least when I was there. And a few years ago, one of my best friends took over command of a similar unit and I was pleasantly surprised actually to see Malay Servicemen in the rank-and-file. So, in that sense, it is very good to know that we have moved.

Unfortunately, on the ground, you have certain noises, sometimes coming up from the Malay community, that somehow these messages of earlier political leaders in Singapore suggest that we have not moved. But as the hon Member rightly pointed out, we have moved forward. As I mentioned in my speech, I think we have to move forward with this idea that right now, we are moving forward as one united people, no matter what your race and religion is, you will defend Singapore with no one doubting your intentions because of your race.


Follow-up Paliamentary questions on the subject on Malay servicemen and women in the SAF and uniformed services

Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for Defence if he can provide (i) the racial breakdown (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others), in percentages, of full-time national servicemen and regulars who are currently serving in the Air Force, Navy and Army respectively; and (ii) the racial breakdown (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others), in percentages, of NSmen in the Air Force, Navy and Army respectively.

10 Mr Pritam Singh asked the Minister for Defence if he can provide (i) the racial breakdown (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others), in percentages, of full-time national servicemen and regulars who are currently trained in the artillery, signals and armour vocations of the Army respectively; and (ii) the racial breakdown (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others), in percentages, of NSmen in the aforesaid vocations.

11 Mr Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap asked the Minister for Defence of the full-time national servicemen and regulars currently serving in the Air Force, Navy and Army (a) what is the breakdown in percentages of those who are (i) commissioned officers (ii) warrant officers (iii) specialists (iv) enlistees, respectively; and (b) for each group, what is the racial breakdown in percentages for (i) Chinese (ii) Malay (iii) Indian (iv) Others, respectively.

12 Mr Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap asked the Minister for Defence of the NSmen currently serving in the Air Force, Navy and Army (a) what is the breakdown in percentages of those who are (i) commissioned officers (ii) warrant officers (iii) specialists (iv) enlistees, respectively; and (b) for each group, what is the racial breakdown in percentages for (i) Chinese (ii) Malay (iii) Indian (iv) Others, respectively.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: National Servicemen are deployed to various vocations based on the SAF’s operational needs and the individual’s factors such as educational qualifications, skills, physical attributes and aptitude to adequately perform the requisite tasks and responsibilities. All vocations within the SAF contribute to and collectively strengthen the defence and security of Singapore.

The ethnic composition of servicemen in the SAF corresponds broadly to the ethnic profile of our population, with major ethnic groups represented in each Service. In the Army, where the bulk of full-time national servicemen are deployed, the ethnic compositions of the combat vocations (which include Infantry, Guards and Armour) and the support vocations (which include Signals, Engineers and Logistics) are again similar to that in the general population. Due to operational security considerations, MINDEF does not release detailed data within each specific vocation.

The selection of commanders (which include Officers, Warrant Officers, Specialists, and Military Experts) is based on similar criteria for deployment into vocations and merit. The ethnic composition of commanders is similar to that in the general population.

Post-script- Defence Minister’s reply is noteworthy. Which vocations our Malay servicemen are serving in and their numbers respectively are important. I can certainly expect many to be logisticians and infantrymen. Zainal Sapari said Malays serve in the Artillery and Signals vocations. A close reading of the Minister’s answer does not say that Malay representation in these vocations are similar to that of the general population. By lumping Infantry, Guards and Armour, the manouvre arms together, it is probable that Malay representation is more extensive in the first two. Likewise, the reply for the support vocations. Without more information, Malay representation is likely to be disproportionately weighted in the Logistics vocation. I would love to be corrected on this conjecture because it would show progress. Until then, we have many more miles to go. Ironically, this issue is much bigger than that of Malays in the SAF. It is about equality in Singapore – that one star in our flag that means so much. 

Written by singapore 2025

28/05/2014 at 8:07 am

Posted in Parliament

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