Singapore-Australian defence deal puts military might on show in Queensland exercise
Singapore-Australian defence deal puts military might on show in Queensland exercise published by Mooba
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Posted on 2016-05-28
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For those in the immediate neighbourhood it's a roar overhead, the planes already out of sight.
Australia is set to host thousands of troops from the tiny South-East Asian state, part of a major defence and trade deal struck earlier this month that seeks to bring the two countries closer together.
At just under 720 square kilometres, Singapore is taking no chances when it comes to defence.
The country's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once likened the city-state's strategy to being a "poisonous shrimp" — small, but able to extract painful, even deadly, retribution if attacked.
Singapore's relations with its neighbours are now better than at independence in 1965 — and the zoological analogies have evolved to "porcupine" and "dolphin" — with the need for constant vigilance drummed into every citizen.
"Singapore's policymakers have always seen a strong and well-equipped armed forces as the only insurance policy that it has," S Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate professor Bernard Loo said.
That policy doesn't come cheap, with 19 per cent of government spending, totalling SGD14 billion ($14.09 billion), allocated to defence in the 2016 budget.
And the country has conscription, meaning male Singaporeans and permanent residents between 18 and 22 are required to serve in either the military or the civil defence force for two years.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, tiny Singapore was the 13th-largest arms importer in the world between 2011 and 2015.
With so much military hardware and well over 70,000 service personnel, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) often runs out of space.
"The Terrexes [armoured infantry carrier vehicles] can go at 70 kilometres per hour, even 90 kilometres per hour, and a training exercise might be finished in 15 minutes if you are going at that speed," Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said during his budget speech.
The centrepiece of this month's new defence co-operation deal with Australia more than doubles Singapore's access to military training facilities in Queensland.
There's another benefit to bilateral overseas training exercises — showing off the SAF's capacities and reminding observers that Singapore has some pretty sharp teeth.
"We need ... not only to validate our systems, but in joint exercises to benchmark our own capabilities and to show others our capabilities," the Defence Minister said.
"Because when the SAF is able to perform in exercises, people will take us seriously."
Security rhetoric echoes through many aspects of Singaporean life.
The anniversary of the British surrender to the Japanese in February 1942 is commemorated annually as Total Defence Day — a reminder that Singapore can only rely on itself for its own security.
Every Singaporean is asked to enhance security by reporting suspicious activity, supporting conscripts and maintaining social harmony in everyday life.
"Innocent-looking civilians can disguise terrorist intentions. Travellers may unknowingly carry diseases. An insensitive deed or word can, directly or indirectly, spark off social tension. What began as a domestic economic problem elsewhere can turn into a global economic crisis that hits us, too," the Total Defence website warns.
"If you think about it, I think [the previous] generation was prescient and very clever in launching Total Defence — this was more than 30 years ago — because hybrid warfare is an orchestrated campaign to weaken and fracture the solidarity of a target nation," the Defence Minister explained.
Mr Ng Eng Hen was referring to terrorist groups like Islamic State employing a variety of means — from violent conflict to propaganda on social media platforms — to undermine societies and radicalise vulnerable individuals.
But according to some, the impact of Total Defence comes at a cost — on another level — to Singaporeans.
"It reinforces a sense of vulnerability and fear, that there is some threat lurking around the corner," National University of Singapore assistant professor Ian Chong said.
"This tends to also create a sense that it is OK to accept greater state regulation and intrusion, some suspension of rights, freedoms and some sacrifice for a sense of greater good, however defined."
Conscription, or National Service, which provides about 80 per cent of the armed forces, has also been under scrutiny in recent years.
Viswa Sadasivan, editor-in-chief of the online magazine-style publication Inconvenient Questions, provided this view of its impact on Singaporean men: "When his female counterparts go on to further their studies or start working, the National Service man is doing something he did not choose and that is likely to have very little direct relevance to his studies or career.
"Later, when he starts working, the requirements of annual in-camp training could result in him missing choice projects and postings, as well as not being there for important family events.
"For some, especially in the private sector, the opportunity cost can be significant."
But analysts believe Singapore's model of conscription is not going to change any time soon.
"Studies and surveys [commissioned by the Ministry of Defence] have consistently shown a high level of public support for the institution of National Service," Associate Professor Loo said.
"If you visit some of the chatrooms, however, you begin to see a somewhat different picture regarding public sentiments, sentiments that are at the very least cynical, if not downright hostile, towards National Service."
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