f t 01 Jul 2016

Asia Singapore’s Burgeoning Armed Forces, A Steadying Force

Singapore’s military has been undergoing constant upgrades and modernization since the city state’s independence; the strategic importance of the area has placed the nation in a unique position to play the role of a regional leader and power while allowing the larger hegemonic powers to jostle for control on the larger scene. This has allowed the nation to prosper, lead, and protect regional interests.    

Singapore’s Armed Forces boast a unique history; after gaining independence from the British followed by a short merge with Malaysia, the Republic of Singapore declared independence in August of 1965. The road to this independence coupled with an ideologically divided and tense relationship with Malaysia led Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to contract military advisors from Israel’s IDF (Israel Defense Force) to build a strong and independent Singaporean Military. Despite the fact that this Israeli military consultancy was held as a national secret for many years to avoid Singaporean-Muslim disapproval, the IDF officers did much to create the impressively advanced military force that is the Singapore Armed Forces today.

Currently, the Singapore Armed Forces are the most technologically advanced military in South East Asia; and, while all branches of the Armed Forces boast impressive capabilities, the Republic of Singapore Airforce (RSAF) is the flagship of the Total Defense plan of the Republic of Singapore. The RSAF is the largest and best equipped air force in the South East Asian theatre with expansion of numbers and capabilities at the forefront of RSAF priorities.         

However, Singaporean diplomacy has been at the forefront of foreign policy; the nation has been able to ‘bargain in the shadow of the law’ in the sense of being a regional military power, but in reality a ‘forward defense’ military policy, diplomacy and economic positioning are the default foreign affairs policies. Yet the Singaporean government allocates on average, 5-6% of GDP on military spending, courts highly trained military consultants, and is one of the most competitive markets for arms trades in the world. While this perhaps seems counterintuitive, this course must be continued if Singapore is to maintain Southeast Asian balance, regional prosperity, and hegemonic deterrence. 


Singapore’s Influence

Singapore lies at a naturally strategic crossroads having natural claim to the Singapore Strait and strategic interests in the Malacca Strait, both busy shipping lanes connecting much of Asia with the Middle East and beyond. Singapore however is extremely land insecure and is currently flirting with a population of only five million citizens, not much to speak about in terms of Southeast Asian nations. Furthermore, Singapore is a major financial, business, tourist and shipping center all of which are dependent on the nation’s strength to assert its interests in the region. However, in the face of (and due to) these challenges Singapore has been able to push forward as a military power in the region.


Balance, Regional Power

Southeast Asia is known as the most competitive arms market in the world for a good reason; nearly every nation in the area has aggressive plans to increase military capabilities not only through equipment retirement and replacement but also through significant technology upgrades. While Chinese military expansion immediately comes to mind, moves akin to Thailand’s acquisition of a Military Aircraft Carrier should not be ignored. However few Southeastern Asian nations are truly in a position to assert force strongly enough to quell the tide of the tit-for-tat arms race taking place. This is where Singapore comes into play. The United States and China are currently chest deep in an arms race, however, both are experiencing major ‘public relations’ issues with wary Southeastern nations. China has launched a ‘kinder, gentler’ approach to Southeast Asian foreign relations, while the United States is widely seen as having taken advantage of post 9/11 terror ‘reforms’ to increase hegemony in the area. Singapore has the benefit of being tied to both China and the USA through agreements, declarations and ASEAN; this, coupled with relative regional military dominance can and does play the role of a regional balancing force. Singapore is able to play both sides of the coin to ensure that the local economic interests attached the Singapore and Malacca Straits are properly protected.



Some speculate that the current military buildup by Southeastern nations is a response to inevitable and looming Chinese hegemony; while this may be a cause (though currently no nations have admitted publically that this is even a consideration likely due to ‘offending Beijing’) this is likely not the main contributing factor. Even the two largest Asian militaries trailing China, Vietnam and Singapore combined would not likely stand up to Chinese aggression for a sustained period of time, thus making it futile to attempt to counter China militarily. More likely are domestic tensions, terrorism, inner ASEAN tensions and political and economic position-jostling as reasons for this phenomenon.

Governments of Southeastern Asian nations including Singapore understand that countering China in a purely military fashion is fools-errand; to do so would sink local economies for little gain. China has been keen to present itself as a status quo, kinder/gentler hegemonic force and military challenges would simply disturb promising economic development.

Singapore’s economic development has always been at the forefront of the nation’s priorities; the recent batch of arms purchases are yet another move to ensure that strategic cooperation exists between the United States and that through taking the place as a regional power and thus leader, the nation can more effectively protect their regional interests. Singapore’s military planners and governmental policy makers understand the unique position that the city nation is in.  

Singapore, while touting the 17th highest defense budget as percentage of GDP, will continue to fly under the radar. The small nation will continue to play both sides of the coin to protect local economic interests while becoming a strong balancing force in the area using its technology as a force multiplier and dominating the skies. Singapore’s military history is one of quick adaptability and efficiency; this tradition is continued in their strategic strengthening of their capabilities, filling in the smaller regional gaps left by the enormous blundering naval forces of China and the USA. There is a need for a leaner and more concentrated military force in Southeast Asia; Singapore has stepped up to the plate to defend its interests by leading the way as a strategically placed nation with a formidable military to back it.   


Sources and Further Reading

University of Wisconsin – The Singapore Armed Forces
Mindef – Singapore Governmental Site
Washington Post
Military Asia Blogspot
Richard Bitzinger, The China Syndrome: The Chinese Military Modernization and the rearmament of  Southeast Asia
CIA World Fact Book Singapore