Singapore Defense: The Shrimp Swims like a Dolphin

Last year, according to the authoritative military analysis publication IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, Singapore added 16 new F-15s to its existing fleet of 24, giving it a total of 40 top-ranked US-built fighter jets among a list that also includes F-16s, A4 Skyhawks and other craft. One report has the island republic eventually buying as many as 100 F-35B Lightnings, a controversial short-takeoff fifth-generation supersonic stealth fighter being developed by the US, although the country ’s military leaders say they are more interested for the moment in upgrading its F16s.

The spotlight is shining on Singaporean defense expenditures now, as it does each year, because of the release of global military spending by the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI), which shows the island republic far outspending its neighbors although in the great scheme of things it pales against the United States, whose military budget fell to 3.8 percent of GDP, but was still US$610 billion in 2014, more than the next nine nations – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, Germany and Japan combined.

Even with considerable expansion of the island with sand from Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, Singapore is still only 31 miles long and 16 miles wide, north to south. Its fighter jets can’t get their wheels up before they are out of the country’s air space. Its pilots train in the United States, France and Australia. Its navy includes six frigates, seven corvettes, 12 patrol boats and a variety of other vessels.

According to the SIPRI report on military spending worldwide, Singapore, with just 5.3 million people, accounted for 25 percent of the defense spending in the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, home to 633 million people. Singapore in 2014 spent as much on defense as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar combined. Per capita, Singapore spends US$1,789 on defense. Cambodia, at the other end of the scale, spends $18.10. The average for the region is $392, but is only $60 without small and wealthy Singapore and Brunei, according to an analysis of the SIPRI data by Zachary Abuza for CogitAsia, a report put out by the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Source: SIPRI dataset, graphic prepared by Zachary Abuza

Does the government have a paranoid fear of its neighbors? It is a country that has often been described as a Chinese island in a Malay sea, with 230 million Muslims in Indonesia and 30 million in Malaysia. But relations with both are good, with Singapore’s banks bulging with money, much of it stolen, deposited by officials from both countries. The last threat was in the 1960s, when Sukarno, the newly nationalistic president of Indonesia, vowed to take over what was then the Federation of Malay States. The threat died with Sukarno.

Nonetheless, spend some time in Singapore and some eye-popping facts emerge. The highway into central Singapore from Changi Airport, lined with lovely, scenic boxes of bougainvillea, is said actually to be hardened down to six feet to accommodate the pounding of fast-landing fighter jets. The planter boxes can be bulldozed out of the way in minutes to provide another runway if its military air facilities are bombed or destroyed. The island is honeycombed with tunnels that lead to pill boxes where occasionally a head can be seen, on guard. Every Singaporean male and second-generation permanent resident over the age of 18 must register for two years of national service, either in the Singapore Armed Forces or the Singapore Police. Its naval forces participate in exercises with the US and other Southeast Asian nations.

Much of this deep defensiveness, of course, stems from World War II, when a supposedly impregnable British colonial bastion, its massive guns pointing out to sea, was overrun in three weeks by Japanese infantry that swept down the Malaysian peninsula and swallowed it up from the north, dealing devastating cruelty to its citizens.

As soon as it was on its feet, the country implemented what was called a "poisoned shrimp" system of deterrence, acknowledging that while its larger neighbors could swallow it, doing so would be painful if not fatal. That policy was changed to a "porcupine" defemse – a sophisticated defense geared at keeping its enemies from ever getting close to the close to the country in the first place. According to an analysis by Jonathan Gad published in March, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has led a metamorphosis to a so-called “dolphin" strategy “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 the F16s.

The region overall saw steady growth in military expenditure between 2010 and 2014. There were net increases for all countries, averaging 37.6 percent. Southeast Asian countries spent $38.2 billion on defense in 2014, according to Abuja’s analysis. Brunei, always a big spender on weapons at the behest of its militaristic Sultan Hassanol Bolkiah, increased its spending by 28 percent, followed by Cambodia at 14.4 percent and Vietnam at 14.1 percent.

All countries saw strong increases in military spending between 2010 and 2014. Vietnam led with a 59.1 percent increase, followed by Cambodia, 56.2 percent, and Indonesia, 50.6 percent. The average increase between 2010 and 2014 was 37.6 percent in U.S. dollars and 44 percent in local currencies. It was the less developed states that were above the regional average, as they tried to play catch up, according to the CogitAsia analysis.

Average military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 2.2 percent in ASEAN in 2014, though it ranged from 0.8 percent (Indonesia) to 4.3 percent (Myanmar). Military expenditure as a percentage of GDP remains fairly stable; only Brunei and Myanmar have seen dramatic shifts between 2010 and 2014.

In 2014, Indonesia accounted for 18 percent of all of ASEAN defense spending. Military spending accounted for 4.1 percent of total government spending in 2014, less than half of the regional average of 8.8 percent, according to the CogitAsia analysis. Indonesian defense spending as a percentage of GDP was the lowest in the region at 0.8 percent, well below the average of 2.2. percent. Per capita defense spending in Indonesia is $27.80, the second lowest in the region after Cambodia. In April 2015, the Indonesian parliament announced a plan to increase military expenditure to $15 billion by 2020, twice the 2015 level; expenditure would increase from 0.8 percent to 1.5 percent of GDP.