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No need for S’pore to raise defence spending to ‘play catch-up’: Ng Eng Hen

SINGAPORE — While Singapore has been outspent militarily in the last decade by its neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Government does not foresee a spike in defence expenditure in the next 10 years, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Friday (March 2).

No need for S’pore to raise defence spending to ‘play catch-up’: Ng Eng Hen

Commandos in training for specialised operations seen during the Media invite of the Best Combat Unit Award – 1st Commando Battalion, taken at Pasir Ris Camp on 24 June 2016. TODAY file photo

SINGAPORE — While Singapore has been outspent militarily in the last decade by its neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Government does not foresee a spike in defence expenditure in the next 10 years, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Friday (March 2). 

Still, Dr Ng cautioned during the debate on his ministry’s budget that spending could go up owing to unexpected situations such as terror attacks.

He noted that the “modern and professional” Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) seen today was born of the “deep conviction and sacrificial commitment” of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneer generation, who were “unwavering” in investing heavily into building a strong armed forces despite many competing needs. As a result of these efforts, the SAF’s capabilities can be maintained with a defence spending that keeps in step with inflation, rising about 3 to 4 per cent yearly.  

Nevertheless, it will be prudent for the Government to review military spending after the next decade, taking into account security threats, as well as the military spending and capabilities of other countries, Dr Ng added.

Until about 2006, Singapore’s defence spending had kept pace with that of its Asean neighbours, the minister noted. In the last decade, however, Singapore’s neighbours in the region have been spending more to modernise their militaries as their economies expanded.

“The gap between Singapore’s spending compared with the rest of Asean has increased, but Singapore need not increase its defence spending radically now to play catch-up,” he said. “We intend to keep our defence spending steady despite countries around us spending more and against wide-ranging new security threats.” 

He added: “Obviously, this will not apply if there are exigencies or unexpected scenarios. For instance, if there is a terrorist attack or if the security environment deteriorates, our agencies will have to spend more to protect Singaporeans.”

At its height — in 2005 and 2006 — defence spending made up nearly one-third of total government spending. This has since fallen sharply from about a decade ago, to 19 per cent presently, with the SAF now “modernised and doing more with people and technology”, said Dr Ng.

While steady military investment yields more effective results and “the best time to prepare for trouble is during peace”, many European countries have learnt these lessons in “bitter ways”, Dr Ng said. Last October, for instance, Denmark announced it would raise defence spending by 20 per cent over the next five years, with Dr Ng noting the “pain it will cause their population”. 

France also unveiled a bill last month that would bump up spending on its armed forces by more than 40 per cent by 2025. And after more than two decades of cuts to Germany’s defence budget, its military, the Bundeswehr, is now underfunded, “entire weapons systems unusable because they either lack spare parts or have been poorly maintained”, said Dr Ng.

With the German government saying that less than half its submarines and planes are operationally ready, it will be many years before its military makes up for lost time, Dr Ng noted. “These are salutary lessons that we must voraciously imbibe because someone else has paid to learn them,” he said.

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