While I was on board a flight on a recent overseas trip, I chanced upon a recent Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) press report which highlighted that Singapore is one of the top five arms importers of major conventional weapons in the world, (4 percent of global purchase).
India leads the list at 12 percent followed by China (6 percent), Pakistan (5 percent) and South Korea (5 percent).
In the case of India, the country has had a long-standing border dispute with Pakistan and China, having fought wars with them more than half a century ago. Till this day, India still watches warily over its neighbours, hence, its heavy spending on arms. Pakistan offers similar reasons
vis-a-vis for its large spending on defence. China is aiming to rival the US as a military superpower. South Korea is technically at war with its northern neighbour which has been actively hostile in the recent past.
What about Singapore? What is the reason for our huge spending on arms? Which geopolitical enemy are we defending ourselves from in this day and age? The last war fought on our soil was the Second World War between our British colonial masters and the Japanese invaders. The US, has practically stripped Japan of its military capabilities since her surrender, leaving the country incapable and uninterested in waging another war.
It is, therefore, not out of line to question if it is absolutely necessary to increase our military expenditure by 50 percent in the past decade (from S$8.2 billion in FY2002 to S$12.3 billion in FY2012).
It is unfortunate that the Government does not see the need to channel our financial resources to tackle escalating healthcare, transportation and housing costs. Instead, it raises defence spending to S$12.3 billion in FY2013, which is a marked increase of 4.2 percent from the S$11.8 billion budgeted for FY2012.
The astonishing fact is that our military expenditure forms 3.6 percent of our GDP (see table below) and is the 3rd highest in the Asian & Oceania region. Only war-torn Afghanistan and Myanmar spent more than us.
Military expenditure by country as percentage of gross domestic product (2012)
Asia & Oceania
China, P. R.
Papua New Guinea
Source: SIPRI, http://milexdata.sipri.org/files/?file=SIPRI+military+expenditure+database+1988-2012.xlsx
Is it, therefore, not reasonable to ask if our defence budget should be curtailed with some of the monies better used on investing in education, healthcare, technology to improve productivity and entrepreneurship, etc?
There is no value in antagonizing our neighbours with our escalation of arms acquisition. It is ironic that, on the one hand, we hold multilateral and bilateral military exercises with other nations while, on the other, we continue to increase our military spending which will only unnerve our neighbours and make them also spend more to counter the threat we pose thus pushing the arms race.
Besides, what or who are we defending when nearly half of our population are not Singaporeans? In addition, is there not a question of national security within our borders if we have an armed conflict with another country when its citizens are present on our soil in such large numbers?
It is the investment in the warm bodies of our people, not the outsized spending on cold hard arms that will bring about genuine prosperity and progress for our nation.
Bryan Lim is a member of the SDP’s Central Executive Committee and Head of the Ground Operations Unit.