Singapore: Inside the Lion City, Part 3
Another in our multipart series on Singapore in conjunction with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Singapore. The series examines Singapore's social and political structure, its relationship with the press, its concerns about regional security and other issues.
Delegates to the IMF/World Bank gathering in Singapore are probably fully aware from the moment they arrive in the country that security appears to be their hosts’ overwhelming priority. The local media reports that 10,000 police and military personnel have been deployed to secure the venues and downtown areas where delegates will stay, socialize and no doubt scheme.
Employing the equivalent of an army division to protect 16,000 visitors would suggest the Singapore authorities expect both massive protests against the world’s banking community and that they possess intelligence that a major terrorist attack is being planned.
Singapore’s adamant and totally predictable refusal to permit any form of protest during the event, other than allowing a ‘demonstration’ in the lobby of a conference centre, rules out the first threat.
Terrorism by its nature is, of course, less predictable. However, Singapore’s size, geography and efficient internal security apparatus has always made it a particularly hard target and therefore not one that terrorists striving for a successful attack would consider a priority given other numerous and softer options around the world.
What the huge security presence seems to be saying, deliberately or otherwise, to the bankers, the media and the world, is that Singapore is a Safe Place. This message only has a purpose, however, if there is doubt over the claim. In the post-September 11 2001 narrative, where fear and caution have too often replaced rational analysis and the ability to sensibly assess risks, Singapore does indeed seem to sit in the centre of a maelstrom of instability and menace.
This perception has served the People’s Action Party (PAP) well since it assumed control of Singapore from the British colonial power in the late 1950s. While the national story has been moderated to accommodate the great changes that have occurred throughout the region over the past half century, the central perception that Singapore is literally an island of stability mediated by Confucian probity and gravitas set amid a sea of unpredictable, corrupt and despotic Muslims remains unaltered.
The creation of a garrison mentality, easily and natural achieved during the 1960s regional wars, insurgencies and anti-Chinese pogroms, did not diminish as much of Southeast Asia returned to relative stability. One key reason was that the PAP, an opaque and secretive cadre-based political movement that more closely resembles a clandestine revolutionary communist cell than a democratic party, saw the utility in using the military to forge a national identity.
Britain’s sudden announcement in the late 1960s that it would hand over its sprawling military infrastructure of naval, air force and army bases to the Singapore government and depart within a couple of years came as profound shock to the newly-installed post-independence PAP government. The loss of at least a quarter of the economy was hard enough to bear, but the prospect of being ‘abandoned’ between two countries – Indonesia and Malaysia – with whom Singapore had deeply problematical relations, produced real fear.
The government sought inspiration from two sources it identified as sharing similar predicaments: Israel and Switzerland. Israeli military advisers arrived within months, under the guise of ‘Mexican agronomists’ in order to spare the sensitivities of the local and regional Muslim population. The Swiss model of blending universal male military service with business and administration was also readily copied.
The result was that within a decade Singapore had created a military establishment based on a small professional army backed by a large and growing reserve force, supported by a technically advanced air force and navy. The Singapore armed forces are now technically the most advanced in region, possessing the capability to swiftly create ‘defensible space’ for Singapore. Absent the jargon, this means Singapore can seize sufficient territory in southern Malaysia and the nearby Indonesian islands to prevent any serious attack on the country. Further, the air force is able to attack targets as far away as Tokyo while the navy’s submarine and missile-armed surface fleet could close the Malacca Strait and thereby instantly internationalize any armed conflict.
Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, famously summed up this defensive philosophy many years ago as the ‘poisoned shrimp’ strategy: Singapore may be small but it is also toxic to any regional power that seeks to consume it.
By 2006 Singapore could field more than 300,000 troops, including 50,000 from the standing army. In addition the 13,400-strong police force is augmented by a further 22,300 part-time reservists. This does not include the 1,500-strong Gurkha contingent, a paramilitary force recruited from Nepal, whose loyalty – as with the Vatican’s Swiss Guard – is less to the nation than to the paymaster.
Deeper into the shadows, the Internal Security Department (ISD) hunts terrorists and generally monitors the population for signs of serious dissent. Those deemed a threat are invariably dealt with under the colonial era Internal Security Act (ISA), which effectively allows for indefinite detention without trial. The use of the ISA against terror suspects means that cases against them are never tested in open court, raising concerns over the quality of the evidence against them and earning the country an annual mention in the US State Department’s Human Rights Report.
The air force has more than 80 combat aircraft, mainly US-built F16s but with 12 F15 fighter bombers on order and a probable purchase of the advanced Joint Strike Fighter in the next decade. It also fields Apache attack and Chinook transport helicopters, the only country in Asia outside Japan to do so, and KC135 tankers that greatly extend the combat range of its air force. The navy has three submarines, with two more on order, as well as 12 missile-armed corvettes. A further six heavily armed ‘stealth’ frigates are now entering service.
Singapore’s most obvious opponents in any conflict, Malaysia and Indonesia, have a fraction of this capability. However, Singapore’s military inventory indicates that its planners have decided to use the highly improbable scenario of a two-front war involving Malaysia and Indonesia acting in concert to shape its force structure and defense doctrine.
While such an analysis ignores the deep and unresolved political divisions between its potential foes, it does fit a Singaporean Weltanschauung that sees it as a reasonable country caught in a dangerous place. More pertinently it also points to a form of what may termed ‘frontier psychosis,’ with Singapore’s predominant ethnic Chinese ‘settler’ community exhibiting a fear not of Malaysians or Indonesians per se, but a more atavistic dread of ‘Malay Muslims.’
This community has been both patronized and feared for centuries by colonial powers due to its perceived volatility and fealty to belief systems that seem in opposition to the blandishments that temper and reward more material cultures. While such a statement may look absurd in the malls of Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, it appears less so in the paddy fields of East Java or the quiet coastal kampongs of Terengganu.
Until the ‘war on terrorism’ formally began in September 2001, Singapore had actively sought to reinforce its immediate defenses against such ‘threats’ while seeking to enlist allies through a skein of treaties, alliances and more informal means. These include the willingness to accommodate de facto US military bases and the implicit role of the large expatriate population as an aide memoire to friendly western powers keeping a close eye on the region, and Singapore’s position within it.
Other strategies for ensuring Singapore’s protection have also proved successful. The country is a secure and discreet financial and investment center, consciously modeled on the Swiss example, and it has attracted huge amounts of money from less stable states. Apart from generating a great deal of money for local banks, Singapore’s role as a regional safe deposit box adds a further level of security. A senior police officer from a neighboring country, for example, may be encouraged to take a keener interest in those whose actions may damage his investments in Singapore. Similarly, few generals are likely to order an attack on their property portfolios.
Further protection is offered by expatriates drawn to Singapore by employment opportunities and the family-friendly environment assiduously created and tended by the government. Apart from their contribution to the economy, this substantial community guarantees the world’s most powerful states maintain an interest in ensuring Singapore remains secure for their nationals.
Singapore’s often understandable emphasis on security, either as a nation-building tool, in response to a genuine threat perception or to support its increasingly sophisticated defense industries, runs an obvious risk of becoming self-defeating. Apart from encouraging neighboring countries to upgrade their own military capabilities, which would have probably happened in any event, the perception of Singapore as a bastion of western interests – serving as bank, courtroom, hotel, transport hub and fort – is rarely viewed sympathetically in other ASEAN capitals.
The ease with which Singapore deals with such regimes as the Burmese junta, its failure to assess the risks in becoming involved in internal Thai politics, its refusal to readily support Indonesian reformist anti-corruption efforts by declining to enter into an extradition treaty, must all be seen as strikes against its long-term interests.
Reliance on US patronage and protection is also unwise, as Washington has amply demonstrated in the past. This may account for Singapore’s willingness to risk the criticism, and often resentment, of its fellow ASEAN members by signing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US in 2003. The move locked in present good relations with the US while giving Singapore a major and early advantage over the competition. Such economic gamesmanship, however, was at the expense of ASEAN’s efforts to promote more gradual regional economic cooperation. It has added pressure on other member states to sign similar agreements or risk losing US investment and market access as well as amplifying regional grievances over Singapore’s pursuit of its self-interest.
Close ties with the US may also complicate Singapore's relationship with China, formally established in 1990 after all the other ASEAN members had opened diplomatic ties with Beijing. Singapore’s overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese population has been viewed in other regional capitals with mistrust and the delay was intended to diminish accusations that the country was Beijing’s regional stalking horse. Since the early 1990s Singapore has sought influence in China through investment and other commercial links, most recently in acquiring a significant share of the country’s banking system. While many of the investments have not proved commercially successful, they have ensured Singapore at least fleeting access to the Chinese leadership.
Singapore also maintains close links with Taiwan, despite following the ‘one-China’ policy. In recent years Singapore’s attachment to Taiwan has eased, though it is unlikely to be severed short of Taipei declaring full independence. Singapore’s influence, however, is insignificant in the perpetual struggle between the ‘two Chinas.’ An ill-judged attempt in 2004 to intercede in a routine China-Taiwan dispute saw Singapore crudely and swiftly rebuffed by Taipei. The experience shook Singapore, and there appear to have been no further attempts to get involved in the bitter rivalry.
Singapore’s preferred route of maintaining close ties with the two most powerful players in Asia may be unsustainable as economic and strategic tensions between China and what Beijing views as the US-Japan-Taiwan alliance, accumulate. In the event of serious and sustained hostility between these two camps, Singapore’s lack of a political hinterland will force difficult decisions on the government as it assesses what few options it holds.
Mulling such prospects, and no doubt many other real or potential dangers and pitfalls, without any evident self-belief or trust in either its citizens or its neighbors, tests the political health of a nation and can produce precisely the outcome the defenses are intended to deflect.
Such calculations, however, are unlikely to convince Singapore to ease up on its own population, or cease prowling its territorial space to prevent any disturbance. The result may very well be that Singapore becomes the world’s largest gated community, viewed from the outside as a paranoid peering out from a well-made bunker - one hand hovering over a calculator and the other grasping a gun. The view from the inside, by contrast, will probably not have changed one iota.
G.M. Greenwood has worked in or covered Southeast Asia for more than 30 years as a soldier, journalist and political risk consultant