Take a look at Singapore’s challenges: or what globalization, changing social needs and a deteriorating security climate mean for the Lion City.
It is a well-known fact that Singapore, a tiny city-state in the heart of Asia, has always placed a premium on its security. The Lion City is a highly militarized country that dedicates huge resources to its defence establishment, making it one of the five largest importers of arms in the world in 2012. Singapore still retains its mandatory conscription policy (called National Service) for young male citizens around the age of 18. One-third of the current Cabinet is made up of ex-professional soldiers, indicating that issues of security and defence remain high on the agenda of the ruling elites in the country.
Beneath the façade of immense wealth and a majestic skyline is a nation that never really shook off its sense of vulnerability. When Singapore first gained independence in 1965, it looked like it was set to be a client state of its bigger neighbours. According to the late Michael Leifer, an expert on Singapore’s foreign policy, the ethnic composition of its population, different from that of Indonesia and Malaysia, “registered the alien regional identity of Singapore through an analogy with an embattled Israel standing alone in the Middle East against its adversary Muslim neighbours”. The Athenian invasion of Melos in 416 B.C. and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are doomsday scenarios which defence planners in Singapore can relate to. The scenes from a recent locally produced film showcased a war-torn Singapore served as a firm reminder of its precarious situation to a generation that has not witnessed the early turbulent days of the nation.
Similar to other small states, Singapore’s approach to foreign policy is one of expediency. Singapore’s security policy is built on the “twin pillars of deterrence and diplomacy”, a consistent theme that its leaders advocate. A sophisticated and well thought-out foreign and diplomatic policy, based on but not an exact replication of the classical balance of power, seeks to engage various great powers so that they would have vested interests in the survival and well being of the country. Coupled with the well-trained and technologically advanced Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as a credible deterrence force, these twin pillars tilt the cost-benefit analysis against any potential adversary to display the imagery of what Leifer called, a “poisoned shrimp”.
The road for ensuring Singapore’s security, however, continues to be bumpy. Challenges brought about by challenges, changing social needs, and a deteriorating security climate indicate higher political risk brought about by likely policy changes.
Globalisation versus militarisation
Despite Singapore’s significant achievements in the realm of economics and in the international arena, the leadership still lacks confidence in the allegiance of its citizens. The roots of a strong need to enforce loyalty can be traced back to the early days of independence when Singapore was separated from the Malaysia federation. The 1965 separation happened abruptly, and people on the island were then forced to decide, to which side to pledge their allegiance.
An important yet rarely mentioned topic is that of dual citizenship, which the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) government refuses to grant. At the crux of the issue of dual citizenship is a dilemma with which policy-makers in Singapore are struggling. A defence policy that relies heavily on a citizen military force through conscription is at odds with allowing dual citizenship and not compatible with a globalised world, in which human mobility is extremely high. Although the topic of dual citizenship is an important one that has implications for Singapore’s global status and the well being of many Singaporeans, political leaders have constantly paid only lip service and swept it under the carpet on the pretext of the citizens “being not ready” and “unlikely to enhance their long-term commitment to the nation”. Officials have been sketchy about defining what that means.
One key argument put forth by the government emphasises that in a small country with limited resources, a diligent and strict immigration policy ensures that foreigners who want to become citizens have to be committed, put in serious considerations, and pay a significant price (in the form of giving up their citizenship in another country). This argument, however, flies in the face of an (until recently) lax immigration policy which has led to an admission by its Prime Minister (PM) of “ a lack of 20/20 foresight”, when infrastructure and housing failed to catch up with the boom in population.
Singapore’s leaders constantly stressed that to continue to be economically vibrant, it needs immigrants to augment its workforce (Singapore is facing an ageing population due to low birth rates as the total fertility rate fell to 1.20 child per woman in 2011). Herein lies an uneasy conflict of ‘interests’ for the government. As it is unfeasible for new immigrants to be conscripted, Singaporeans have complained about the unfairness of a free-rider problem (immigrants enjoy a safe and secure environment, ‘paid for’ by two years of conscription of most young male Singaporeans) and questioned the rationale behind why they have to ‘earn their citizenship’. While the Singapore government has been trying to sharpen the distinction (in terms of their existence in the country) between Singaporeans, Permanent Residents and foreigners to appease dissenting opinions, there is a limit to such measures before they are labeled as ‘xenophobic’. A member of parliament from the incumbent PAP even proposed a “National Defence Duty” to correct the “current imbalance”, a move that some criticised as ‘cheapening a solemn duty’.
While the public discourse in Singapore is predominantly about the implications of immigration on the local population, it should be noted that not all is rosy for foreigners either. In a world where expatriate packages are becoming increasingly rare, more emphasis is going to be placed on long-term living costs, which can be alleviated with potential citizenship in a work destination. This, coupled with sharp rises in the cost of living and the significant ‘price’ to pay for a citizenship, means Singapore may have a harder time convincing talent to set roots in the country. The world-class reputations of Singapore schools and businesses account for little if they are unable to retain talent in the workforce. Cases of foreign talent and overseas students sponsored by the Singapore government who treated Singapore as a “stepping stone” have already caused dissent in the local population.
The issue of disallowing dual citizenship also presents many Singaporeans with hard choices and deprives them of potential gains. Consistent with the large proportion of foreigners in the country (according to a population report in 2012, permanent residents and foreigners make up almost 40 percent of the total population in Singapore), marriages between citizens and non-citizens accounted for 39.4 percent of total marriages in 2011. Many couples are thus faced with the difficult scenario of either spouse having to give up citizenship in another country if they wish to settle down in Singapore. Similarly, thousands of Singaporeans study and work abroad in various parts of the world, but are unable to apply for citizenship in their host country. All these have significant repercussions because it affects job opportunities, property ownership and access to other wide-ranging benefits such as in healthcare and social welfare.
Changing priorities for changing needs
Singapore is often known for its prudent and sustainable public policies such as its healthcare and social welfare model. Strict fiscal discipline is the norm and the health of Singapore’s public finance has always been subject of envy. Upon closer examination, one notices that these models are built on strong principles of self-reliance and individual responsibility to guard against over-consumption and moral hazard. While these are much lauded principles, it also means that the Singapore government has been able to shift the financial burden of healthcare and social welfare to its citizens. In 2005, the out-of-pocket share of total health expenditure has increased to almost 70 percent and was the highest among countries of similar level of development. Faced with an ageing population and increasing costs of living, Singaporeans have begun appealing for more government spending, especially in healthcare. The low level of total government spending (at around 14-17 percent of GDP) is among the lowest in the developed world. Many (including economists and policy experts) have questioned the feasibility of such low level of government spending, particular in healthcare, in tackling the future social and demographic challenges the country will face. A well-known economist once criticised that “Singapore’s social policies are not future-ready”.
Given the strict discipline of maintaining the healthy status of public finance and a balanced budget, increasing spending on social welfare and healthcare would indicate an impending need for cuts somewhere else. Having reached the stage of a developed economy, it is unlikely that the additional spending can be supplemented with high rates of economic growth that the country has witnessed for the past few decades. The Singapore government is already exploring other possible options to boost revenue to finance increasing social spending (e.g. changes in the tax system) but is very mindful about the negative impact on the competitiveness of the economy. Despite efforts to prime the population, increasing income taxes will be an unwise and risky move in a political climate unfavourable to the current PAP government.
The bull’s eye may likely fall on the huge defence spending. A simple breakdown of the budget for 2013 unveiled that the amount of S$5.7 billion (£3 billion) allocated to the Ministry of Health and S$1.8 billion (£1 billion) to the Ministry of Social and Family Development pale in comparison to the S$12.3 billion (£6.5 billion) that is given to the Ministry of Defence, which accounted for 23 percent of the total government expenditure. This has been a long-standing pattern in government spending. While defence spending will probably remain opaque due to strategic concerns, it is likely that there will be increasing pressure from both the general public and the ruling elites to re-examine the fundamental rationale behind this significant slice of spending. The country’s leaders may have to reshuffle their existing policy priorities and introduce significant changes to the way resources are allocated to changing needs. Begging this question is a re-visit to the defence and strategic posture that Singapore has hold on to since independence. In other words, how can Singapore continue to safeguard its national interests and defend itself from threats in a less costly but more cost-efficient way? Singapore is not alone in this. Such questions are currently being asked in the United States.
How to do it better and cheaper in a worsening security climate?
Finding the answers will not be easy since surrounding conditions have always been tricky for Singapore and there are signs of more hostility in Southeast Asia. There is always the presence of an unnerving distrust in Singapore’s relationships with Malaysia and Indonesia. Frequent threats of cutting off its water supply (up to 40 percent of Singapore’s water supply comes from Malaysia) and provocative episodes such as the joint airborne exercise by Indonesia and Malaysia less than 20km from Singapore on its National Day in 1991 are still vivid memories in the minds of Singapore’s strategic thinkers.
Further military build-up as a response to the South China Sea dispute by ASEAN members such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines further contributes to the deteriorating security climate in the region. Recent cracks in ASEAN, due to the ‘divisive tactics’ employed by China have pushed Singapore towards engaging the United States (US) even more. Statesmen like former PM Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current PM, Lee Hsein Loong have embarked on a calibrated and delicate attempt to call on the US to balance China’s influence in Asia, while advocating against an outright American containment policy in view of the huge economic weight the Chinese has in the region. This maneuver has caused tensions in the relationships of Singapore with China and also between ASEAN member states. The recent deployment of an advanced US combat ship to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base was met with Chinese suspicion and skepticism, reflected in the tone of the news coverage by a Chinese state media agency.
To achieve a truly secured environment, Singapore has to continue to flex its diplomatic and financial muscle in ASEAN to maintain solidarity and unity. Singapore is not Germany, and it should not move in the direction of making ASEAN a ‘transfer union’ (an extremely loaded word in the EU). Yet, Singapore does have expertise and resources that could be used to bolster ASEAN’s functional capabilities. What is lacking is, arguably, political will and leadership. Limited by its small size, Singapore is not likely to become the leader in ASEAN, but it will be able to act as a strong wingman for likely candidates such as Indonesia.
ASEAN has come a long way in trying to maintain the peace in the region, but an underfunded and weak ASEAN Secretariat stands in the way of continuing that mission. The imperative goal is to strengthen the operational capabilities and effectiveness of the ASEAN Secretariat. The 2012 annual budget for the Secretariat was a mere US$15 million (in comparison, the EU’s was over 147 billion Euros). The lack of resources for the ASEAN Secretariat rendered it useless in a time when ASEAN unity is essential. An unwillingness to boost the capacity of the Secretariat also obstructs the creation of effective confidence-building and conflict resolution mechanisms between ASEAN members. It has also been quoted as one of the reasons for the failure to meet the goal of establishing the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. The incapability of ASEAN to provide development funds to the less developed members has also caused them to turn to China, trading their allegiance for much needed resources for economic development.
It is also vital for ASEAN members to strengthen and improve communication with each other. The organisation failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its history due to differences with regards to the South China Sea dispute. When the Philippine government unilaterally submitted a case against China to UNCLOS in January, it failed to receive explicit support from its fellow ASEAN members. A press statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore suggested that the Philippines did not consult ASEAN and its members prior to the submission by claiming that it “first knew about this action from media reports”. Without a united front, individual claimant countries in ASEAN face highly asymmetrical negotiating power vis-à-vis China.
For Singapore, investing more in ASEAN and getting its counterparts to do likewise is tantamount to embarking on a strategic plan with potentially huge benefits in the future. The day Singapore can claim that it is truly secured is the day it has achieved zero prospect for hostility with its neighbours. Laying one’s bet on a multilateral framework that could enhance cooperation and peace such as ASEAN is undoubtedly a better and more cost-effective option to achieve that goal compared to expanding military capabilities that run the risk of engaging in a security dilemma. Other benefits can also come in the form of closer economic ties and a better investment climate. This is not to say that the tiny nation should completely “put down its guns” but instead, it is a call to embrace a more holistic and forward-looking vision of security.
Hitherto, Singapore’s brilliant foreign, diplomatic and defence policy contributed to not only its survival but its triumph as a thriving market economy and an international player that often punches above its weight. Facing challenges from globalization, demographic changes, the need to continue to be economically relevant and a deteriorating security climate in its neighbourhood, the Singapore government today finds itself in a difficult situation to have all the right answers. These challenges would require its leaders to embrace a more holistic definition of security and defence so as to embark on new policy directions both at home and abroad. Being a global centre of finance and shining beacon of economic achievements, what Singapore does to circumvent these challenges will be closely watched by policy-makers, businesses and investors all over the world. Nevertheless, the track record of the ruling elites in Singapore brings a sense of optimism that they will be able to find pragmatic and comprehensive answers to the challenges. At stake is the continuous relevance and survival of their country.