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Eng Hen: Why Mindef must maintain steady defence spending

Need to build an SAF that can deter would-be enemies

[SINGAPORE] Singapore will continue to spend steadily on arms to build a defence capability that will keep potential enemies at bay, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament yesterday.

"In other words, we will avoid sharp spikes unless security risks require increased spending," he said during the Committee of Supply debate on the Ministry of Defence. "We will also avoid sharp dips that will undermine our defence capabilities over the medium term."

This approach has delivered, over time, a strong Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) respected by even advanced Western militaries, according to Dr Ng.

The defence budget, which hit a record high of $12.56 billion for the financial year 2014-15 and is the single biggest government expenditure this year, has come under scrutiny during the current debate on the Budget.

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While the majority of the Members of Parliament who spoke on it supported the spending, there were some who questioned the necessity of spending so much on defence while others wanted the spending capped.

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam feared heavy military spending would widen the arms expenditure gap between Singapore and its neighbours - that it would lead to an arms race in the region.

Dr Ng noted that Asia has outspent Europe in arms build-up - and it will spend more than the US in the next decade.

"A militarisation of many countries within Asia, of this magnitude, has no historical precedent. This is the larger strategic backdrop against which territorial disputes and incidents should be viewed," he said.

But pinpointing the specific type of security threats to Singapore would be impossible, Dr Ng said. "We therefore must adopt a more robust and resilient approach by building an SAF that can deter would-be aggressors and meet a wide range of security threats so that we would not be caught off-guard or flat-footed.

"A robust approach in building our defence capability to achieve strategic deterrence is why Mindef maintains a steady defence spending," he said.

This year's defence budget is up 3.2 per cent from 2013.

Dr Ng said Singapore's arms spending was $8.6 billion in 2004 and $12.2 billion last year. "In other words, it has kept pace more or less with inflation and, going forward, I expect our defence spending to continue on this trajectory that more or less keeps pace with inflation over the long term."

The minister also disclosed that National Service stints may be shortened by a few weeks, thanks to the army's move to recruit as many as 1,100 more career soldiers to better train full-time national servicemen.

Having more seasoned hands to teach the soldiers will make NS training more effective and efficient. It will also result in "greater impact on training outcomes, inculcating discipline and transmitting values".

Even with likely time savings, Dr Ng said his ministry "makes no promises" about a shorter NS stint because the army has to study the details to ensure Singapore can continue to produce operationally ready units.

But Dr Ng was sure - even with a ramped up recruitment - that there will be no cutting back on the number of in-camp trainings that Operationally-Ready National Servicemen have to fulfil. Currently, they are called up annually for 10 years.

"We need the 10 ICTs (In-Camp Trainings) and those in Mindef reserves to maintain the strength in our standing force. This will meet our defence needs, even with falling birth rates, until 2040," he said.

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