Saturday, February 19, 2011

Singapore's Defence Budget FY 2011/12

The record amount of $12.08 billion (US$9.5 billion, RM 28.8 billion, Rp 84 trillion) earmarked for Singapore's defence this coming financial year provides much food for thought for Singapore watchers.

For military buffs, the proposed FY2011/12 defence budget is likely to trigger spirited debates over the type and number of war machines on the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) shopping list.

For government critics, the largest slice of the planned Budget provides ammunition to attack the spending plans of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

Singaporean journalists from the mainstream media are likely to churn out arguments defending MINDEF's war chest. And while some reports may build up a case along the lines of "how much is enough", just wait for the "but" in the story for the usual catch phrases and predictable quotes to kick in. *yawns*

With a General Election looming as early as the April-May 2011 timeframe, such arguments better be good.

To skeptical tax payers, painting a doomsday scenario of an underfunded Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) falling victim to threats unseen, unexpected and unfriendly towards Singapore may not sit well with the voting public. They have heard this tune replayed for the past 45 years and the rehashed public relations (PR) script is looking far too predictable.

What Singaporeans need to hear is how the SAF is earning its keep.

And this, in my opinion, is an area MINDEF's spin masters from the Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) have to work hard to excel at. Spending more than S$100,000 on expen$ive media offensives to carpet bomb Singaporeans with Total Defence messages and televised sing sings is not the way to win hearts and minds.

As Singaporean parliamentarians gear up for the Committee of Supply (COS) debates in March'11, one would hope PAFF would be more creative in selling the SAF's story.

The cookie cutter approach to churning out MINDEF/SAF-friendly media reports based on a rigid PR stylebook and predictable punchlines may not work as threat-weary Singaporeans and carefree Gen Ys throw caution to the wind. Add left-leaning Singaporean politicians into the mix, plus sweet talking politicians north and south of the Lion City and PAFF's storyline may border on paranoia.

It would be tragic for the Republic's defence and security posture if money assigned to protect its national interests ends up triggering voter discontent. Restive voters and a complacent attitude towards national security could undermine the political system that pencilled in that amount for the FY2011/12 spending in the first place, thus contributing to the freak election result theory.

Explaining what makes up operating expenditure should take Singaporean readers and viewers behind the fencelines of vital installations. This way, the media can help citizens see and understand what Island Defence is all about. Such operations, carried out 24/7, have kept the SAF at a high operational tempo since the 9/11 attacks a decade ago.

The security threats are real. Question is: Are heartlanders convinced?

Operating expenditure also embraces SAF missions overseas. Singaporeans need to know why sons of Singapore put their lives on the line on foreign soil and on the high seas far from Singapore's shores. I bet many do not realise what is at stake.

At the same time, MINDEF/SAF must show citizen soldiers that the defence system uses its soldiers' time and commitment prudently. It must also demonstrate that the system is financially prudent and astutely managed. Damage is done whenever citizen soldiers see, sense or experience wastage in terms of their time (through administrative cock ups) or poorly executed military training. Stir coffee with any operationally ready national servicemen and each would have his own stock of stories about the SAF's infamous hurry up and wait culture.

The development expenditure side of the story could provide a tantalising glimpse into the SAF's 3rd Generation transformation effort. Many defence systems and platforms take years to develop, and then some, before the new acquisition attains Initial Operational Capability.

A lot of work also takes place behind the scenes so that SAF war machines can meet its specific operational requirements. Such vital work accounts for part of defence spending and tax payers ought to know more about what they are paying for.

In doing so, one need not give MINDEF/SAF censors a heart attack by revealing trade secrets. PAFF can cherry pick the list of retired SAF war machines for compelling examples - and there are many - of MINDEF's concept-to-retirement approach in defence development. Along the way, introduce the defence engineers, scientists and SAF warfighters who were involved in everything from Project Almond to Project Archer to Project Zebra to make the story come alive. This way, even the Singaporean layperson can appreciate the amount of effort in Ops Tech integration needed to sharpen and maintain the SAF's defence readiness.

Such stories would probably amaze young Singaporeans, many of whom know more about foreign soccer teams than their own country's armed forces.

The PAP's critics have already got their defence themed counter arguments prepared. Red button topics include the need for and duration of National Service, as well as the amount of money spent on defence... with no enemy in sight. When told by a natural orator in front of a crowd hungry for political entertainment, such defence themed jibes are likely to stir listeners into a frenzy because they touch on issues every Singaporean son can relate to.

Such political entertainment comes at a price and a dip in yardsticks used to measure fuzzy concepts like commitment to defence (C2D) is the least of the problems MINDEF/SAF planners need to worry about.

The real worry comes when vigilance fatigue extracts a price in blood from Singaporeans - whatever their age, skin colour or political persuasion.

The FY 2011/12 budget estimates for MINDEF/SAF are a done deal. This is the reality of a one party system. The green light to spend will not mark the end of the story. The real action starts when various political parties hit the campaign trail to woo voters to their camp.

Record defence spending may be needed to make Singapore more secure. At the same time, the billions of dollars proposed for MINDEF/SAF make the system more vulnerable to barbs from its critics.

Such is the irony of politics.


Anonymous said...

well argued. few if any see the need for more money on defence. i certainly don't. the SAF also needs to clean up its act in other ways, going by all i hear about inefficiency and bullying of NSmen. explaining, communicating and making sense appear to be something quite foreign to the current govt.

at the same time, it's ridiculous that total defence does not extend to health. the health budget has been trimmed!

ML said...

Excellent analysis! As a former DSTA project manager, I appreciate your providing an insightful glimpse into the defence ecosystem that the vast majority of Singaporeans don't really understand.

The inherent tension (between real security needs and the SAF's culture of inefficiency) you highlighted is very real. Unfortunately, much of it is driven by the interests of the key decision makers in Mindef/SAF/DSTA/DSO--there are many junior officers and managers who genuinely seek to serve their country and make good use of taxpayer money, but alas too many of the senior people are obviously in it just to build up their own careers and make money.

David Boey said...

Hi ML and readers,
When we note that Singaporeans do not understand defence issues, we should ask ourselves whether this is because Singaporeans are:
1) Stupid
2) Can't be bothered
3) Ignorant because of lack of information

I feel the lack of defence awareness is a combi of 2 and 3.

The tens of thousands of Singaporeans who will make time to attend an Open House by any of the SAF Services shows that MINDEF/SAF have a ready and receptive audience.

Somewhere along the defence information management process, the messaging has missed the mark.

One opposition party has made clear it will campaign on the basis of a drawdown in defence. Promises to push for a reduction in National Service are vote magnets.

If the system wants to wait for a swing in votes against it before it realises something needs improving, then that is an expensive wake up call.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I must admit I have difficulty trying to fathom the point you are trying
carry across with this blog.

On the one hand I got the sense that you are arguing that the SAF and,
by extension MINDEF, must justify its keep -- to use your parlance -- but is
failing to do so. On the other, you seemed to be suggesting that it is time
a debate about defence expenditure needs to be raised. Could you
clarify the intent of your blog?

If you are trying to argue that MINDEF/SAF has not done a good job of informing
the public about how money is being spent than maybe it yes it maybe
MINDEF ought to be making their accounts more transparent. As you
point out maybe MINDEF/SAF ought to show it the accounts what money
has gone to where in more precise detail. However, if MINDEF did so,
it is not really addressing the question on WHY defence spending needs
to be that high. For example, telling people that you need more money
to say upkeep F-15 because cost has gone up is an accounting argument.
It does not address the question WHY we need F-15 in the first place, now
that is a budgetting issue. That whether one like it or not is a political
question, not as you put it an "irony of politics".

In any case, MINDEF and in particular, the SAF, should be working within
what is budgeted to them NOT expects the country to be a slave to its
whims and needs.

Yes, I can see MINDEF participate in advocating capabilities for the SAF and
as a policy making body I would not expect anything less. Yes it can be
asking for high spending but it would be another thing that they are
dictating the level of spending and effectively becoming an organ of the

In any case, if they want to make their case know than should they not be
making their (political) case to the political parties not just the PAP?


David Boey said...

Hi Michael,
I support a strong defence as a hedge against uncertainty. That much is clear in the essay I wrote on defence spending two years ago.

This blog post calls for more effort to make Singaporeans realise why higher defence spending is needed and justified. When the election campaign takes off, the lack of transparency will allow some political parties to use MINDEF/SAF's lack of clarity to take pot shots at the system.

From the line of thought advanced in your comment and the probing questions raised, I take it that you - and possibly the majority of netizens who visit this blog - can form your own opinion of S'pore's defence posture.

Many heartlanders cannot be bothered and these are the ones who may be swayed by smooth talk. In that light, I have raised a red flag.

Transparency is a state of mind, not the form that the reply takes.

Last year, when the media queried MINDEF about the shotgun incident in Thailand, it had the opportunity to talk about the NSF who was also hurt. It did not do so at the first instance(lack of transparency?) and relatives of the injured NSF had to raise this with the media themselves. This hurts people's trust in the NS system. I hear that PAFF did not talk about the NSF because the set of questions posed by the media queried the ministry about the Commando regular. The replies given were, ergo, correct and accurate. But I am of the opinion it could have been handled better. A transparent mindset would have gone one step further, thus sparing MINDEF/SAF the ensuing flak over this incident.

Like the example given above, an open mindset will also help MINDEF/SAF build confidence with Singaporeans and people in neighbouring countries, principally Indonesia and Malaysia.

To bring things back to the defence budget, telling tax payers how the SAF earns its keep need not focus solely on line items on an accounting ledger (the upkeep for F-15s, as you put it).

It should take proactive steps to help Singaporeans understand that building an integrated and networked fighting force means investing in the building blocks and some investments (ACC's F-15SGs subordinated to the AFCP to fight the air battle), while pricey, are necessary because of (name the reasons please).

The recent brouhaha in Malaysia over its multi-billion Ringgit Littoral Combat Ship project indicates why informed citizens are a precious asset for any defence ministry. In this case, Malaysia's KEMENTAH.

I may be wrong, but I believe the defence procurement process here does not see MINDEF/SAF acting as a passive consumer of state funds. Projects are proposed, some are thrown out, those that are approved are queried thoroughly.

MINDEF has also stayed within the cap on defence spending, which is pegged at 6% of the GDP.

Just because I have played devil's advocate by raising some difficult questions does not mean people should view me as the bad guy. :-)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

On this point as raised by you and I quote:

"From the line of thought advanced in your comment and the probing questions raised, I take it that you - and possibly the majority of netizens who visit this blog - can form your own opinion of S'pore's defence posture."

I am not quite sure what you meant by that. However, to clarify:

(a) My line of questions was basically to find a point for me to debate with you. I was not trying to paint you a bad guy or otherwise. By all means be the devil's advocate. I thought at least if I understood what the intent of this particular blog we could debate on the intent and not degenerate into a personality challenge.

(b) On my views about defence posture, I take a much more strategic view than any position on defence and spending in particular. In other words, I see defence as a cog in ensuring the viability a country as a sovereign entity. So I don't have a fix position about defence or a nation's military posture. Unlike others, if after (My personal) final analysis a nation's military posture don't add to or worst subtract from the viability of a country as a sovereign state, I am prepared to abolish it. Too me a defence (military) is not a must have. However, if it is necessarily to facilitate the need to ensure sovereignty then let's have it. If it cost to have that capability so be it. As to whether I think there is a case for SAF according to my analysis, I think it is best left to other forum.

On your point about:

"This blog post calls for more effort to make Singaporeans realise why higher defence spending is needed and justified. When the election campaign takes off, the lack of transparency will allow some political parties to use MINDEF/SAF's lack of clarity to take pot shots at the system."

With this clarity in my mind, I shall start the debate on this note.

Personally, I would be uncomfortable for the SAF as an institution to be partake of any position on the size of the defence budget. Their job is to execute with the best they got. They are charged with carrying out the missions and I would prefer if they stuck to that and nothing else. They can lobby through MINDEF for what they would like to have that it.

As for MINDEF as an institution, ideally it would be nice too if they didn't take any stands budgetary position other than to state what is needed for to do the job. I would ideally like to see their job confirming to providing threat assessment and what options (not just one position) to meet a particular assessment.

But given the fact that MINDEF as it is constituted now has to execute the wishes of the political master (in a single party one at that) it would be hard to see how they could not avoid taking PAP's stand. The danger I fear is that MINDEF just ends up becoming an arm of the PAP policy machinery. Least of all, and I as a tax payer, want to see MINDEF propaganda machine become a PAP one!


Anonymous said...

A 1 billion bucks FUND will go a long way to feed our 1st class country's needy poor/elderly.

Anonymous said...

$12B budget for SAF to buy stealth fighters and stealth helicopter gunships, plus another squadron of stealth corvettes. As for the PBI slobs, maybe DSTA & DSO will develop a warfighter suit like from Alien vs Predator that encompasses dynamic terrain-blending camo, bullet-proofing, strength-enhancing, super 1-shot-1-kill targeting systems.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Boey,

As someone who believes in the defense cause, I also, at the same time, see the need to watch over the military establishment carefully.

Mark the words by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter: "Created by the wars that required it (the military), the machine now created the wars it required." While he wasn't referring to modern military, his words still hold true about the potential excesses of an unchecked military, especially the military-industrial complex.


PanzerGrenadier said...

Hi David

I think the wastage is very real in a bloated organisation especially the army in the SAF. I still cannot understand how we can allocate $11-12b annually to defence and still require NSFs/Nsmen to buy their own insurance? Only recently did Mindef give higher allowances to NSFs so that they could use the extra to buy insurance (or not) but Mindef still did not provide insurance coverage. I recall my own BMT days when I had to buy my own NTUC Income insurance in Tekong when I was informed that I would get nothing much if I expired on Tekong for duty, honour and country.

The other thing that is fundamentally wrong with the SAF and Mindef is its inability to engage in any meaningful way with its reservists and NSFs and the public on the need for mandatory conscription.

Even Taiwan is moving towards an all-volunteer system and most modern NATO member countries have reduced or scrapped their conscription. Why can't we discuss rationally the need for and against mandatory conscription and its discriminatory impact on male Singapore Citizens without people jumping in to call you "unpatriotic" and asking for removal of our defence capability.

With $12b annual operating and development expenditures, can't we further review the need for conscripts being clerks and storemen as well as soldiers for 2 years + 10 years reservist and move towards a (mostly) volunteer force (like the AirForce and Navy?)

Anonymous said...


Taiwan got america, NATO is a military super monster back by no less then 3 nuclear superpower.

what does singapore has vis a vis NATO or taiwan?

ultimately, i dont want to end up kowtowing to either my "enemy" or my "defender" to keep my sorry ass from being *ahem*

Anonymous said...

when you are powerful, only fools will become your enemy.

when you are weak, only fools will NOT become your enemy.

do we want enemy at our doors?

Anonymous said...

Look at the recent Korean incident. U depend on a super power u will have to let it play ur strings. U can even do anything when 6 of ur citizens die. Keep in mind that the army is made up of NSF.

People can complain abt the waits and stuff but the fact is, the commanders are actually people from your cohort. What is stopping them from changing what they can? The top 40% is chosen to be leaders but how many actually lead? It's a question of whether u wanna do something about it or jus complain about it.

IMO, NSF are the biggest shot in the army because you have nothing to lose. Wen u have nothing to lose, u have everything else to gain. Just my 2 cents. Our kids could be one of those officers or specialist in future.

It's a bit off the topic but had to get it off my chest when I see issues about the army cultures.

DarkMind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DarkMind said...

Singapore is backed by the USA. There is a facility within Singapore's waters that is owned or managed by the USA. Attacking that facility is a declaration of war against the USA. As this may be top secret information which I have the privilege of accessing, I would decline to elaborate.