While Asian giants China and India rapidly build up their already huge military arsenals, the tiny, prosperous Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore has been quietly ramping up defense expenditures at a rate disproportionate to its size and population.
With only about 5.1 million people (about one-fourth that of the city of Beijing) and an annual GDP of US$260 billion (about the same as Finland or Chile), astonishingly, Singapore was the fifth-largest arms importer in the world from 2007 to 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Only India, China, Pakistan and South Korea spent more on weapons than tiny Singapore over that period.
On a per-capita basis, Singapore's arms-buying spree is topped only by the U.S., Israel and Kuwait.
Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told parliament recently that the government may spend up to 6 percent of GDP on defense -- overall, military expenditures have climbed 4 percent annually from S$10.7 billion (US$8.6 billion) in 2008 to reach the S$12.3 billion ($US9.7 billion) level in 2012.
“Our overall approach is to maintain a stable defense budget that grows gradually in absolute terms, and to manage that prudently,” Ng told lawmakers.
“Such steady spending is a critical enabler, because it allows [The Ministry of Defense] to take a long-term view and obtain the best value for our defense investments.”
Put another way, almost one-fourth of Singapore's national budget will be spent on defense this year, making the Defense Ministry the No. 1 recipient of the budget allocation.
(By contrast, Israel, which is surrounded by enemies and lives under the constant threat of military attack, spends about 15 percent of its GDP on defense, andit pays much more in social and health care costs than does Singapore.)
Ng defended Singapore’s military spending, insisting the Ministry of Defense only buys what is required to satisfy its security needs.
[We are] mindful of our responsibility to spend carefully and wisely, he said.
We buy only what we need, scrutinize available options for the most cost-effective solution.
In fact, Southeast Asia, as a whole, has embarked on a bewildering armament spree in recent years. Singapore's nearest neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, have also been buying guns, tanks and missiles and other expensive toys at a hectic pace.
In 2011, the region's defense expenditures jumped by 13.5 percent to $24.5 billion, according to IHS Jane. By 2016, that number is expected to reach $40 billion.
Strangely, there have been almost no conflicts between Southeast Asian nations in several decades. Thus, the mania for acquiring weapons appears to be based on some existential worries and has, of course, been financed by rapid economic expansion.
However, Singapore appears to be unique in its paranoia. Not only does Singapore buy arms, but the Borgia-like city-state also sells an array of weapons to other nations (both developed and emerging).
Part of Singapore's obsession with security lies with the Strait of Malacca, the narrow stretch of water that serves as a crucial link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and which Singapore heavily depends upon for trade and transport. About 40 percent of global trade passes through this narrow conduit of water.
Duncan Innes-Ker, Asia analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said Singapore has long been a relatively high spender on defense.
“In the very early years this was probably at least partly driven by its poor relations with much larger neighbors, which left it feeling insecure,” he said.
“China may now be playing the role of the intimidating neighboring power, but these days strong defense spending is more a reflection of the city-state's need to police the region's shipping lanes. Singapore depends on seaborne trade for its prosperity, so ensuring the smooth passage of vessels through the Strait of Malacca is vital.”
In the past, Innes-Ker noted, Indonesia and Malaysia tended to underspend on defense, leaving wealthier Singapore to bear much of the burden.
In keeping with its security priorities, Singapore has established very close relations with the U.S.
In fact, Singapore just signed a $435 million deal to sell laser-guided bombs, vehicles and aerial refueling services, among other things, to the U.S.
Indeed, American defense contractors account for 43 percent of Singapore’s arms purchases.
In recent years, Singapore has also signed contracts to purchase 12 F-15 fighter jets from Boeing; 110 Leopard-2 battle tanks from Germany; and six missile frigates from France – all, highly sophisticated, state-of-the-art devices.
Singapore’s military ties with Washington go deeper than just arms transactions. The city-state recently agreed to permit American warships to deploy in its waters for a 10-month engagement, raising fears in China, as Washington shifts its military focus from the Middle East and South Asia to the Far East.
As part of that strategy the U.S. will base four of its Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore.
Singaporean Defense Minister Ng told The Straits Times newspaper: “The U.S., I would say, is our closest security partner, and I don't see any country displacing the U.S. as that.”
However, Singapore’s single-minded devotion to its military and defense goes all the way back to its chaotic founding in 1965, when it separated from Malaysia in a messy “divorce” partially exacerbated by racial tensions between Malays and ethnic Chinese.
For example, since that time, all males in Singapore have been mandated to military service. According to Globalfirepower.com, Singapore’s military currently has about 72,000 active personnel and about 300,000 active reserves. This means that almost 8 percent of the country’s population is either on active or reserve duty.
In a thesis paper on Singapore’s defense policy, Maj. Lee Yi-Jin of the Singapore Armed Forces wrote: “The magnitude of the country’s defense expenditure has... led to the occasional raised eyebrow. For example, Singapore’s reported defense budget for 2009 was more than that of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s put together, which some may find surprising given the relative sizes and populations of these three neighboring countries.”
[Indeed, Malaysia and Indonesia boast a combined population of about 270 million, 54 times the manpower of Singapore.]
Lee further declared that military spending in Singapore is not directly proportional to any perceived security threat, but rather is designed to expand the small nation’s role in international affairs.
The role of Singapore’s defense policy has since evolved alongside changes in the security environment,” he wrote.
“As the threat of inter-state conflict has receded, the significance of Singapore’s defense policy has become increasingly associated with its contributions to Singapore’s non-military instruments of power, and in particular its economic and diplomatic instruments… The primary motivation underlying Singapore’s defense policy has shifted away from a provision of security and toward an increase in the country’s international influence.
Lee also said he expects to see no change in Singapore’s heavy emphasis on defense and military upgrades.
Singapore’s leaders would appear to have skillfully removed any debate on Singapore’s defense policy from the realm of economic cost-benefit analysis,” he wrote.
“Instead, the current policy is couched as necessary to maintain the unquantifiable concept of ‘deterrence’, and to provide the stable environment necessary for foreign investment and productive economic activity.”
Moreover, given Singapore's healthy financial status, the government is highly motivated to maintain exorbitant defense spending.
Innes-Ker of EIU noted that the country has a large trade surplus and its fiscal position is extremely healthy, so there is little pressure for it to reduce military spending on either of these accounts.
“While defense spending may divert some resources away from social priorities, this does not appear to be a major concern for most [Singaporean] citizens,” he said.
Dr. Tim Huxley, executive director at The International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, commented that Singapore's defense policy and strategy provides the city-state with an enviable degree of external security which has, in turn, reassured local and foreign business investors, thereby providing one of the bedrocks of Singapore's economic success over the last 45 years.
“While Singapore spends a lot on defense, some of this spending has fed back into the wider economy, partly through the development of a local defense-industrial sector, which provides a significant part of the SAF's material requirements and has also exported defense equipment on a small scale.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.