Intelligence: Singapore Sheds Some Of Its Severe Secrecy


August 6, 2014: Singapore recently revealed the existence of an air force squadron that has since 1980 been in charge of coordinating air defense. Thus the many past members of Squadron 200 could finally speak more freely of their military service. Singapore has long been known for its secrecy when it comes to military matters. While Singapore has long been considered to have the most effective, man-for-man, armed forces in Asia, it tried to enhance their military effectiveness by keeping most details secret. This meant many of those who have served in the Singapore armed forces could never tell family and friends what unit they were in or what they did.

Singapore believed it needed all the military advantages it could muster because it is one of the smallest nations in the world, being a tiny (633 square kilometers) island city state. Defense spending is only about $12 billion a year for a population of 5.2 million. The armed forces consists of 71,000 active duty troops, of which 55 percent are conscripts. But on a per-capita basis, Singapore spends more on the military and has more people in uniform than the United States.

The Singapore military is one of the best equipped, trained and led 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 regional 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.

The city of Singapore 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 work the booming port city. 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 protested 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.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close