Singapore: Policy shifts aren’t just domestic for Singapore

The recent 90th birthday celebrations of Mr Lee Kuan Yew have sparked reflection on Singapore’s achievements. What is notable in these discussions is the observation that small states can indeed survive and thrive.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in outlining major policy shifts in housing, healthcare and education in his National Day Rally speech in August, acknowledged that Singapore is now “stable and strong”, and charting its bold, new way forward from a position of excellence and strength.

We know that the international environment impacts directly on Singapore’s domestic realm. But conversely also, Singapore’s internal transformations will determine its ability to succeed in the global arena.

Given how the domestic and the external are inextricably linked — and not forgetting how socio-economic factors and security are integrated within the Total Defence framework — how might Singapore’s recent domestic shifts impact its foreign and security policies?

Foreign policy advocating human development?

Contrary to prevailing assumptions, small states are not necessarily powerless. They can deploy multiple dimensions of foreign policy power to effect changes in global politics, through addressing international humanitarian and ethical issues, or by pushing for regional cooperation. Singapore has been exemplary in successfully harnessing these possibilities to enlarge its diplomatic space and reinforce its security.

An increasingly complex global environment means Singapore will have to continue honing its pro-active stance. Singapore’s foreign policy — one based on military self-reliance and great-power balance, economic multilateralism and international law, and constructing common regional norms — is reputed for its ability to “punch above its weight”.

No longer merely about “coping” with vulnerability, foreign policy today is also shaped around drawing on Singapore’s strength and success, such as in the more active role the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has taken in peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan.

Domestic shifts towards a more “compassionate” paradigm of social policies can open up new avenues in foreign policy: For instance, a more pro-active international advocacy of social equity, human development and rights.

Speaking this past weekend at a United Nations General Assembly session, Foreign Minister K Shanmugam highlighted that poverty eradication and sustainability are integral to national development and global stability.

With the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter (AHRC) in November last year, as well as the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection that will soon be adopted, Singapore will have increasing difficulty keeping silent on matters of welfare and rights.

Inevitably, however, any official stance that Singapore takes in these matters will reflect on its own reputation and record. How far it can articulate a foreign policy of social equity, human development and rights from a position of moral strength — more pressing now with the AHRC — will depend on how much progress it makes domestically.

Consolidation in defence

Given the Government’s socio-economic priorities, the SAF is likely in the near term to be cognisant of societal pressures for prudence, and to consolidate its material capabilities. The announcement of the planned decommissioning of Paya Lebar Air Base to make room for urban development is a notable example of this.

Apart from the projected future purchase of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, the recent order for eight new multi-function littoral patrol vessels and the Aster-30 air defence system, the SAF acquisition patterns appear to be incremental. Older systems ineligible for refurbishment will be replaced, but existing ones will be upgraded where feasible, as seen in the recently-concluded mid-life upgrade of the navy’s missile Corvettes.

This incremental approach is possible because the capacity-building efforts over the past two decades have provided the SAF with a balanced set of capabilities. Its force projection capabilities — for instance the KC-135RS aerial refuelling tankers and the Endurance class landing ship tanks — have proven their worth in international operations.

This period of consolidation could see the SAF just maintaining, or possibly even scaling back, its commitment to international operations in distant regions such as the Gulf of Aden. The Ministry of Defence announced earlier this year the SAF’s deployment to Afghanistan, arguably its longest and most complex, would come to an end by the middle of the year.

However, given the SAF’s primary focus on Singapore’s immediate security milieu, it will continue to participate actively in regional security initiatives.

National Service: the new sense of insecurity

Perhaps the biggest impact domestic shifts have had on defence policy is in National Service (NS), which in form and function has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1967.

While the majority of Singaporeans view NS as being instrumental to defence, many are questioning the exclusion of females and some permanent residents from NS, as well as the need for intensive and regular long-term training. The perceived inequities in bearing the defence burden are an especially sensitive issue.

Such concerns have highlighted how a policy with an ostensibly external focus — the critical national need for security and survival —is being challenged by domestic concerns.

Singapore’s sense of acute insecurity has been central to the existence of NS. Yet, as the national narrative shifts away from highlighting such insecurity, NS will now have to adapt to a new sense of insecurity stemming from local physical and societal pressures, as Singaporeans strive to improve on their standard of living in the face of competition. For instance, there is the perceived personal cost in time and opportunity incurred by serving NS.

Acknowledging the sacrifices made by NSmen, a key objective of the Committee to Strengthen NS will be to address these concerns — such as via the National Service Recognition Award to help defray the cost of purchasing a HDB flat.

Recent statements by leaders have signalled that Singapore is now better placed to address its vulnerabilities — both internal and external — and that its guiding philosophy is evolving into one of consolidating and sustaining its success.

Yet, as it navigates the international arena with confidence and considerable autonomy, the policies which guide how Singapore positions itself in the world will ultimately be informed by domestic concerns, even if they are not spoken of in the same breath. — Today

* Ho Shu Huang, Tan Kwoh Jack and Koh Swee Lean Collin are Associate Research Fellows in the Military Studies Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.