Leadership: Singapore Pays The Price


June 1, 2016: Tiny (633 square kilometers, 5.5 million people) Singapore is spending billions to update and expand its armed forces. Defense spending is only about $1o billion a year, but that is up more than 20 percent since 2008. The armed forces consists of 71,000 active duty troops, of which 55 percent are conscripts. On a per-capita basis, Singapore spends more on the military and has more people in uniform than the United States. The police and intelligence organizations add another 50,000 personnel and cost about $2 billion a year. This is also high, on a per-capital basis but Singapore has the lowest crime rates on the planet. Several surveys of crime rates world-wide place Singapore at or near the top of lists for safest countries. But Singapore, like many nations that built modern armed forces during the Cold War, found that it now has to spend money on a lot of expensive new aircraft and ships to replace the Cold War era models that are wearing out.

For Singapore the biggest threats are external and some of those did not disappear when the Cold War ended. Thus the Singapore military is willing to spend what it takes to remain one of the best equipped, trained and led military force in the region. Singapore is not only quite wealthy but occupies a crucial strategic position as it is astride the most important shipping channel (the Malacca Strait) in the world. Singapore has the best educated and most affluent population in the region. With so much worth defending, Singapore is ready to take on any hostile neighbors (mainly Malaysia, which Singapore used to be part of) and an increasingly aggressive China. To enhance their defenses Singapore has always had close ties (diplomatic, economic and military) with the countries with powerful military forces in the area (United States, Australia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea).

Singapore attributes its unique characteristics to its population, which is 75 percent Chinese. These are the descendants of ambitious emigrants who left China over the past two centuries looking to make a better life as "overseas Chinese." None have done better than the Chinese who ended up in Singapore, which was founded by the British in 1819 on what was then a thinly populated island at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. The British considered the local Malays rather too laid back and brought in thousands of Chinese and Indians to make the booming port city work. Within six years, the population exploded from a few hundred, to over 10,000. By the 1820s Chinese were the most numerous ethnic group. They eventually came to dominate the rich port of Singapore, providing administrators as well as traders and laborers. The British kept the key jobs but otherwise ran a meritocracy. When Malaysia, which Singapore was a part of, became independent in 1963, many Chinese in Singapore openly opposed being ruled by the Malay majority. The Malays also resented the more entrepreneurial and economically successful Chinese. Although most Singapore residents wanted to be part of Malaysia, it didn't work out. In 1965, Malaysia basically expelled Singapore, which become a separate, mainly Chinese, country. Over the next three decades, the Singaporean economy grew an average of nine percent a year and Singapore became the wealthiest (on a per-capita basis) nation in the region.

With so much to defend, the Singaporeans developed, early on, a strong military. This was prompted by Britain withdrawing its garrison in 1971 and, in effect, telling the Singaporeans they had to defend themselves. Singapore asked Israel to help it develop a force similar to the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). That is, a large reserve force with a small active force to handle training and any immediate military needs. The two countries have been close allies ever since. Thus the 71,000 full time troops exist in large part to train conscripts to be reservists. There are only about 30,000 full time, professional troops. In wartime, there are 310,000 trained reserves who can be mobilized, plus nearly has many who have had military training, but are no longer in reserve units. Like Israel, Singapore can mobilize a force that can defeat any of its neighbors.

The main criticisms of Singaporean armed forces were their training, promotion and retirement policies. Singapore troops are the best trained in the region, and all forces train regularly, much like American troops do. But Singapore is also very safety conscious, and this limits many of the things troops can do. The reason for this caution is the low birth rate in Singapore (a universal side effect of prosperity), and the popular outrage every time a soldier is killed or seriously injured during training. The promotion policies are criticized because they emphasize test taking over practical experience. The retirement policies force every soldier to leave active service by age 45. This is done to keep the military leadership young, and provide a supply of experienced military commanders for management jobs in government and the civilian economy. Other criticisms knocked ethnic Chinese dominating the military and sundry administrative policies. But in realistic training exercises with their allies, the Singaporean troops regularly demonstrate a high degree of effectiveness. Despite these issues most major military powers believe the Singaporean forces would be very effective in combat.


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