Whatever you can’t defend doesn’t belong to you.1
– Mr Chong Yu Meng, 3rd Sergeant
At 10am on 9 August 1965, Radio Singapore went on air to make the shock announcement that Singapore was out of Malaysia.2 Two hours later, at independent Singapore’s first government press conference, the Prime Minister broke down in front of the assembled journalists in a packed room at the Broadcasting House.3 The very first question posed at the press conference was on the issues of defence and diplomacy.4 That same morning, Dr Goh Keng Swee called the Head of Special Branch, Mr George Bogaars, to his office.5 Together, they were to lead a new Ministry of Interior and Defence (MID), with Dr Goh as Minister and Bogaars, an internal security veteran, as Permanent Secretary.6
Southeast Asia in the 1960s was a volatile region, rife with regional rivalries amid the looming spectre of the Cold War. To the north, the United States (US) was escalating its military involvement in South Vietnam against an externally supported, domestic communist insurgency. Relations with neighbouring Malaysia remained tense following the sudden Separation.7 Malaysia maintained an infantry regiment in Singapore following Independence.8 Dr Goh recalled that:
Their commanders were Malaysians, most of them, and they had no loyalty to us. Try to be funny at that time and they could easily arrange a small coup or whatever. I doubt whether they’ll do it, but under extreme provocation, I think they will.9
In a 1967 conversation between then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Richard Nixon before he became President of the United States (US), Mr Lee likened the world to a forest:
There are great trees, there are saplings, and there are creepers... The great trees are Russia, China, Western Europe, the United States, and Japan. Of the other nations, some are saplings that have the potential of becoming great trees, but the majority are creepers, which, because of lack of resources or lack of leadership, will never be great trees.10
To survive, Singapore had to be an extraordinary “sapling” from the outset. Or it would be condemned forever as a creeper, overshadowed by forest giants:
…an island city-state in Southeast Asia could not be ordinary if it was to survive. We had to make extraordinary efforts to become a tightly knit, rugged and adaptable people who could do things better and cheaper than our neighbours, because they wanted to bypass us and render obsolete our role as the entrepôt and middleman for the trade of the region. We had to be different.11
But success and prosperity would also need to be defended. In 1967, Mr Lee remarked to an assembled group of foreign journalists:
This is a place that has more luscious fruit trees and suits in the shop-windows and more television sets than any other in the whole of South Asia. If I haven’t a bit of muscle, I am just asking somebody to push me in the face and walk off with all these clothes and television sets and washing machines and motor cars and everything else. So, we have to have the sinews… Otherwise, we will be just inviting aggression.12
The bombing of MacDonald House by Indonesian saboteurs on 10 March 1965 served as a powerful reminder of the security challenges faced by Singapore.
There were real causes for concern. Malaysia had threatened to use the Royal Malaysian Navy to blockade an offshore island that Singapore intended to use as a barter trade zone as a way to kick-start the moribund local economy, forcing Singapore to abandon the move.13
Indonesia, the dominant military power in the region, had carried out a Konfrontasi policy of non-conventional warfare against Singapore – despite talks of ceasing hostilities in the wake of Singapore’s independence.14
When Singapore hanged two Indonesian saboteurs for terrorist activities during Konfrontasi in 1968, Indonesia responded with military threats.15
At the time, Singapore’s external security was still in the hands of the British and Commonwealth military forces.16 But high defence expenditure coupled with weak economic performance forced the United Kingdom to withdraw the bulk of its military forces East of Suez by 1971 to avert an economic collapse at home.17 In the US, mounting domestic opposition to rising troop casualties in the Vietnam War resulted in the US disengaging militarily from mainland Southeast Asia by 1973; the last American troops left South Vietnam in 1975. Nor could intervention from the United Nations be counted on to safeguard Singapore’s sovereignty. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asked, “How many battalions has [United Nations Secretary-General] U Thant got that he can order around? I would like to have something more secure.”18
The only way to secure Singapore in the long term and defend our national interests as a sovereign nation was to develop a credible military force of our own. For a tiny island city-state, it was a daunting prospect.
Answering the call – National Servicemen being sent off at Telok Ayer
When National Service (NS) was first introduced in 1967, only 900 of 9,000 eligible enlistees served as full-time servicemen. The rest served part-time in the People’s Defence Force, the Vigilante Corps and the Special Constabulary. National Servicemen began to serve full-time with the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) in 1975 and 1981 respectively. Servicemen initially served for two or three years depending on rank. This was reduced to two-and-a-half years or two years in 1971. With improvements to training and technology, the full-time service period was reduced to two years in 2005.
NS, as the bedrock of our fighting force and national security, remains critical for Singapore’s continued survival and success. It is crucial that our future generations continue to believe in the value and purpose of NS, and firmly support this national institution. The 2013 Institute of Policy Studies survey findings indicated a healthy level of support for NS. Singaporeans affirmed that NS is a vital institution for securing the peace and prosperity of our homeland. Most also believe that NS reinforces our Singaporean identity and feel that the values and skills our young men gain from NS training are valuable for character building.19
Answering the call – taking the pledge at the Central Manpower Base in Kallang
Building up a military force from scratch was no easy task. Initial requests for military assistance from non-aligned nations such as India and Egypt were politely rebuffed. Eventually, Defence Minister Dr Goh persuaded the Israelis to provide military training. To avoid incurring a large military expenditure and to avoid depriving the economy of the manpower it needed to grow, Singapore decided to develop a conscription army, built around a small professional core model. Today, National Service is a rite of passage for all male Singaporeans, but it was born out of one dire need: to defend our homeland by ourselves. Early conscripts served with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the People’s Defence Force, the Singapore Police Force (SPF), Special Constabulary and Vigilante Corps before passing into the reserves where refresher training was regularly conducted. In this manner, a large pool of trained military and security personnel was quickly accumulated and could be mobilised at short notice.20
By 1969, Singapore’s National Day Parade was able to feature a procession of tanks and armoured vehicles for the first time. This show of military strength marked the beginnings of a credible defence capability.21
Slowly but steadily, we plugged our vulnerabilities one by one. The British troop withdrawal would have left Singapore bereft of air and naval protection, so a squadron of British-made Hawker Hunter fighters was quickly procured, and local pilots trained in Britain to form a fledging air force. British-made Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles were acquired to provide a minimal ground-based anti-aircraft defence. New naval patrol vessels were also purchased to provide coastal defence to guard the Singapore Strait and port limits. By 1971, Singapore had a rudimentary and balanced armed forces to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of British military forces.22
In a 1967 conversation with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Mr Lee remarked that “the maintenance of confidence was vital to the continued prosperity of Singapore. The Malaysians had bought jets. Singapore had to have some answer to this threat when the British deterrent disappeared."23
In 1970, to address the growing complexity of security needs, MID was split into the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) – both of which continue to safeguard our defence and security to this day.
A group of far-sighted leaders – figures such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Lim Kim San – were instrumental in establishing Singapore’s security forces, including the SAF, in the anxious years after Independence. Their vision was broad-minded and bold: economic prosperity and a capable defence went hand in hand. In Mr Lee’s opinion, “trade and industry is as important to us as defence and security”; “defence and security is indivisible from trade and industry”.24
A strong defence capability and a stable society with low crime gave confidence to foreign investors, who sparked economic development and created badly-needed jobs and general prosperity. In turn, a growing economy and healthier public coffers meant more resources could be set aside for defence and security needs, continuing the virtuous cycle.
As Defence Minister, Dr Goh kick-started the development of a domestic defence technology sector from the very beginning, with a strong research and development (R&D) capability. He foresaw that military R&D activities would create a demand for highly qualified engineers and the development of a precision engineering industry that would have knock-on benefits elsewhere in Singapore’s economy. Such activities laid the groundwork for Singapore’s manufacturers to engage in advanced industry, for instance, in the aviation sector, reaping benefits to this day.25
Singapore’s defence industry has since leapt in capability – from producing small arms under licence in the early years of independence to the manufacture of home-grown mini tactical unmanned aerial vehicles, armoured fighting vehicles and warships.26 The local defence industry, including public sector R&D agencies such as the Defence Science and Technology Agency as well as the Defence Science Organisation’s National Laboratories,27 continues to produce dual-use technology that can be applied to the civilian sector. For example, infra-red thermal imaging scanners were adapted from combat equipment and quickly deployed to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s checkpoints during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.28 The Red Rhino light fire attack vehicle, originally conceived for use by the SAF’s helicopter-borne infantry, is now used for firefighting in confined spaces.29
The many aspects of developing a credible armed forces – from military doctrine to weapons platform development to training – all take considerable time, effort and consistent investment. Singapore built up national security capabilities in phases, with defence spending invested steadily and purposefully over the years. The core institution we know as SAF today evolved through decades of methodical development, with each generation modernising and upgrading its combat capabilities, eventually incorporating locally developed technology and expertise.
As Singapore became more educated and economic resources grew, it became possible to create an increasingly sophisticated, integrated and information-rich defence force despite the small population pool.30 Today, the SAF – comprising the Army, Navy and Air Force – works as a powerful joint force, capable of exercising defence, deterrence and other functions. It operates combined arms divisions with infantry, heavy armour, artillery, combat engineering and signals components, as well as squadrons of modern fighter and strike aircraft, missile armed warships and submarines.31 The SAF’s comprehensive development and tight integration of people, technology and systems have helped Singapore to overcome an inherent disadvantage in size and manpower. We have worked hard and long to make sure we can punch above our weight if need be.
A Total Approach to Defence and Security
[T]here are other aspects of security which are equally pertinent in the long run – your economic viability, the capacity of your political structure to withstand pressures either of a social, cultural or whatever nature. It is a multicoloured question.32
– Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister
Singapore took a broad view of security from the outset. For instance, Singapore’s defence policy is based on the twin pillars of deterrence and diplomacy. Building an extensive network of bilateral defence relationships with countries within and outside our region through diplomacy has enabled us to work together to enhance peace and stability in our region. Concurrently, having a strong and capable SAF that is able to secure a swift and decisive victory should diplomacy fail lends weight to our words and ensures that negotiations with Singapore are taken seriously.
Introduced in 1984, Total Defence is an approach to security that involves every Singaporean playing a part, individually and collectively, to build a strong, secure and cohesive nation that is prepared and able to deal with any crisis.
The five pillars of Total Defence reflect different aspects of security in which every Singaporean plays a part – Military Defence against external threats; Civil Defence during times of crisis and disaster; Economic Defence through a strong and resilient economy able to sustain the country through economic challenges and other emergencies; Social Defence with Singaporeans living harmoniously together despite our diversity and taking care of one another; Psychological Defence through the resolve and determination to overcome any crisis together as a nation.33
When a cyclone devastated East Pakistan in 1970, the SAF sent its first military medical mission to help. Since then, the SAF has engaged in a variety of humanitarian relief operations abroad. These missions help bolster the operational experience and readiness of the SAF in realistic environments. They also demonstrate Singapore’s contribution to international order as a responsible global citizen, and strengthen our relations with other countries. An example was the SAF humanitarian relief operations in Sumatra and Thailand after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in December 2004, which earned the gratitude of the affected Indonesian and Thai communities. In March 2014 and December 2014 to January 2015, the SAF participated in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the search and recovery of Indonesia Air Asia flight 8501; it also deployed a relief contingent to earthquake-ravaged Nepal in April 2015.34
Operation Flying Eagle saw Singapore Armed Forces personnel and resources mobilised in 2004 to assist with relief efforts in Sumatra.
It was an alert member of the public who first raised the Internal Security Department’s (ISD)’s attention to the existence of a home-grown terrorist plot planned by Singaporean members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional affiliate of transnational terrorist group Al-Qaeda that had carried out the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The JI members had planned to attack targets across Singapore using truck bombs. They were also planning to crash an airliner into Changi Airport. ISD’s swift pre-emptive operations foiled the JI plans, leading to the arrests of 31 persons under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 2002. Subsequent ISD arrests and detentions further curtailed the JI’s terrorist activities. There are currently 37 persons detained under the ISA for terrorism related activities.35
DEFENDING OUR HOME AND NATION
Today, the SAF – comprising the Army, Navy and Air Force works as a powerful joint force, capable of exercising defence, deterrence and other functions. It operates combined arms divisions with infantry, heavy armour, artillery, combat engineering and signals components, as well as squadrons of modern fighter and strike aircraft, missile armed warships and submarines.
THE HOME TEAM
In 1997, MHA launched the concept of the Home Team, an integrated, inter-operable force able to address a full range of threats to internal security from transnational crime to terrorism.
Maintaining Internal Security, Law and Order
In the immediate aftermath of Independence, communism and communalism were the two salient threats to Singapore’s internal security. In 1969, the Kuala Lumpur communal riots on 13 May spilled over into Singapore in the form of communal disturbances.36
Between 1969 and 1976, communist terrorists – including elements of the Communist Party of Malaya’s armed wing – committed 22 acts of arson and carried out 11 bombings.37
In 1974, international terrorists attacked an oil refinery on Singapore’s Pulau Bukom, and later hijacked the ferry Laju. Such incidents had to be met with a joint civil-military response, with the police forces, the Internal Security Department (ISD), and the SAF working as a team to neutralise dire threats to Singapore’s internal security. While the communist threat eased after the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in the US and the Jemaah Islamiyah plot in Singapore served as chilling reminders that we could never afford to let down our guard on the home front.
The period between the 1970s and 1990s was a time of innovation and modernisation in MHA. This was a time of growing affluence and improving security in Singapore. But new threats were also surfacing. As the drug scourge gained ground among young, impressionable Singaporeans, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) was established in 1971 to combat the worsening drug situation.
In 1973, the Misuse of Drugs Act was enacted, followed by the passing of the Intoxicating Substances Act in 1987. Arrests of large numbers of drug abusers had a knock-on impact on prison facilities, with nearly 7,000 new drug addicts entering the prisons system by 1977. This led to a greater emphasis on rehabilitation of prisoners to reduce recidivism. In 1976, the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises was established to lead this effort. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) embarked on multiple campaigns to improve inmate rehabilitation through the Captains of Lives and Yellow Ribbon Project initiatives. These successful efforts have led to Singapore enjoying one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.38 In 1997, MHA launched the concept of the Home Team, an integrated, inter-operable force able to address a full range of threats to internal security – from transnational crime to terrorism – with a common, coordinated sense of purpose.39 The Home Team incorporates more traditional civil institutions of law and order such as SPF, CNB, SCDF and SPS, as well as more specialised agencies such as ISD, which gathers intelligence to protect Singapore from international terrorism, foreign subversion and espionage. It also involves the work of agencies such as the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, which keeps Singapore’s borders secure (a formidable challenge for an open economy and a major tourist destination), as well as the recently established Casino Regulatory Authority, which ensures that the management and operations of Singapore’s casino industry remains free from criminal influence and exploitation.40
Following the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Coordination Secretariat was set up to coordinate Singapore’s counter-terrorism efforts across both internal and external security forces.
In the early 1980s, SPF spearheaded a new initiative to improve community relations and involve the public in keeping Singapore safe – the strategy of Community Policing.
Schemes such as the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme were introduced; innovations in later years included the Community Safety and Security Programme in the 1990s and the Community Policing System in 2012.41
Under the community policing framework, police officers make regular house visits, patrol the community they are assigned to, engage in community liaison work, and work with community partners on the ground to enhance community safety.
Singapore today is well-known for its low crime, social stability, and confident, capable defence force and Home Team. This is the outcome of decades of painstaking commitment to safety, security and vigilance. New dangers and vulnerabilities have also emerged in the world and in our own backyard. Extremist militants are courting new recruits from communities across the globe. Para-military groups have been used to subvert the sovereignty of Ukraine, on the doorstep of Europe.42
The advent of cyberwarfare, cybercrime and lone wolf attacks by self-radicalised individuals continue to demand constant vigilance and new ways to secure our nation in a borderless new world.43
Closer to home, the discovery of a JI cell, bus workers’ strikes and the Little India Riots remind us that our safe, orderly society, and the prosperity it has enabled, remains vulnerable and should never be taken for granted. Our safety and security, and peace have been hard won, and depend critically on strong public support for the efforts of our security institutions, as well as continued cooperation between the community at large and those who serve in uniform. Singapore can look to no other power save for our own people for help in difficult times. Ours is a citizen army; our fellow Singaporeans keep law and order. We must stand together, ever vigilant, in order to secure Singapore for decades to come.