Singapore's military has a problem that has been with it since the city-state's birth as an independent nation. The problem is Singapore itself — it is tiny.
The city sits on an island that runs 31 miles from east to west and 16 miles from north to south. In terms of room to maneuver, the available area is microscopic. Singapore's air force has so little airspace that it conducts flight training in the United States and elsewhere. The Japanese capture of Singapore from the British during World War II showed that all it took to lose so-called "Fortress Singapore" was one bad week.
But who would threaten Singapore today? Relations between Singapore and the nation that borders it, Malaysia, are good, perhaps as good as they've ever been. But that hasn't always been the case.
In the 1980s and 1990s, relations between the two countries were dominated by the personal dislike between Singapore's prime minister and founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. That animosity lasted until Mahathir left office in 2003. Since then, relations between Malaysia and Singapore have steadily improved. The future, however, remains uncertain — and Singapore has about as much strategic depth as a window ledge.
Singapore's larger neighbors could swallow it, but its armed forces would make the cost of that act painful and possibly fatal.
Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister for 31 years and remained in the cabinet until 2011, died of complications from pneumonia on March 23 at the age of 91. He led Singapore through the withdrawal of the British, its merger with Malaysia, its expulsion from Malaysia only two years later, and its subsequent establishment as a sovereign city-state. To preserve his tiny nation's independence, Lee built up Singapore's military into a formidable regional power.
Over his decades as prime minster, Lee energetically brought First World technology and economics to Singapore. A by-product of the Western-style prosperity his policies helped to foster is a Singaporean military that is dominated by American, Israeli, and Western European equipment.
According to IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, last year Singapore added 16 new F-15s to its existing fleet of 24, giving it a total of 40. Its air force trains in the US, France, and Australia, while its navy participates in the annual CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training)exercises with the US and the navies of other Southeast Asian nations. In short, Singapore has built and continues to develop an American-style military. It is packing some serious heat for a country of its size.
Only two years after the nation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, its parliament voted to expel Singapore from the nation over economic and ideological disagreements at a time of heightened racial tension, illustrated by a series of bloody race riots on the island between native Malays and its majority Chinese population. Lee had worked for years to get the British out of Singapore and have it merge with Malaysia. He famously wept during a press conference soon after the separation was announced, describing it as a "moment of anguish."
The sadness dissipated, and Lee guided his nation to great economic success over the following decades. Singapore's GDP is today about 95 percent that of Malaysia's, even though Malaysia has more than five times the population and 460 times the land area. With such a small territory holding such vast wealth, the primary purpose of the Singapore Armed Forces becomes clear: to discourage any neighbors from trying to gobble up the nation.
To that end, the Singaporean military's core strategy was initially referred to as a "poisoned shrimp" system of deterrence. In essence, the strategy acknowledged that Singapore's larger neighbors could swallow it, but its armed forces would make the cost of that act painful and possibly fatal. This doctrine was publicly supplanted in the early 1980s by a "porcupine" posture — the building up of a more sophisticated and active military defense geared toward keeping enemies from getting close to the island city-state in the first place.
In 1982, Brig. Gen. Lee Hsien Loong — Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son — declared the need to shed the poisonous shrimp image in favor of the more pro-active porcupine model. But the distinction between shrimp and porcupine in matters of defense has always been blurry. An active porcupine defense is more viable against the comparatively weak Malaysian Armed Forces, for example, than it is against the significantly stronger Indonesian National Armed Forces.
Lee Hsien Loong, who has since risen to become Singapore's prime minister, is well positioned to appreciate this reality and oversee his nation's military growth into a third era, the so-called "dolphin" phase.
The dolphin plan suggests a Singapore Armed Forces with a strong emphasis on swift and agile attacks upon its foes, much as dolphins are said to strike at sharks. It seeks to project power over a greater distance, which requires a well-developed navy and high-quality aircraft, such as those recently acquired F-15s.
Singapore has therefore outfitted itself with the best weapons it can afford, complemented by training from the US and international cooperation agreements. Fielding American planes, British tanks, and Israeli drones, one would think that Singapore's military situation is solid, but not everything is rosy for the city-state. Singapore is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor, which are only about three-quarters of a mile wide at their narrowest point, meaning that Singapore could easily be shelled the moment that hostilities begin.
Tim Huxley of the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggests in his book Defending the Lion City that in the event of war with Malaysia, the superior Singapore Armed Forces could invade the Malay Peninsula to create a stable defensive front, called the "Mersing line," which would run from the city of Mersing in the northeast to Batu Pahat in the southwest — a porcupine-y strategy indeed.
In the long term, however, Singapore's numerical disadvantage might prove too difficult to remedy. Though the number of active service members in its military has achieved near parity with the number in Malaysia, there are more than five times as many Malaysians to be drawn on in the event of a prolonged war. In 1967, shortly after the Republic of Singapore was founded, the new country instituted mandatory two-year conscription for all males aged 18 to 20. These recruits would automatically remain in the military reserves until the age of 40.
This policy remains in effect today, but it may not be enough going forward. Unless Singapore's military decides to extend mandatory conscription to women as well as men, it is hard to see where it could find many more recruits. Singapore has the lowest birth rate in the world. Despite some creative attempts by its government to induce Singaporeans to have more babies, it appears assured that they will find themselves increasingly outnumbered in the years to come.
Singapore faces other challenges. Piracy has always been a problem in the Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait, but the number of ships taken has skyrocketed in recent years. Last September, the United States officially joined the Singapore-based anti-piracy organization ReCAAP — the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia. Whether American involvement will be enough to slow the rate of piracy is unknown, but Singapore certainly needs the help.
As a maritime island with little food production of its own, Singapore imports most of its food while serving as a major oil trade hub. Only 43 percent of Singapore's food comes from neighboring Malaysia. The rest is imported by sea, mainly from China. Cut off the food and the island starves; cut off the oil and 5 percent of the nation's GDP disappears. The 40-odd ships of the Singapore Navy are well equipped but too few to be everywhere at once, so piracy continues to take its toll.
Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoir, "If you don't fear me, I am nothing." He meant it as a reference to his bare-knuckled political and leadership style, reflecting how he was able to maintain power for so long. But the statement works just as well for the military of the nation he has left behind. Singapore's independence is protected by the might its military projects to its neighbors. If it did not inspire fear, the country might well cease to exist.
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