Find a Security Clearance Job!


Total Defence

Singapore's leaders define Total Defence as the capability of the nation to deter or overcome aggression by maintaining small, well-equipped regular armed forces backed up by a large, well-trained military reserve and a civil sector that could be quickly mobilized to provide support to the armed forces. By the late 1980s Singapore had each of these components in place. The air force was recognized as one of the best in the region, and the army continued to make steady progress in improving its capability to react, albeit on a limited scale, to repel an invasion. The addition of six corvettes had strengthened the navy's ability to defend territorial waters and conduct limited operations farther out to sea. More than 50 percent of Singapore males had received formal military training, and more than 10 percent of them belonged to a reserve unit. The Ministry of Defence monitored the combat capabilities of reserve units through frequent training and mobilization exercises. The country was believed to have adequate stockpiles of fuel and ammunition. Its military logistics and maintenance capabilities were excellent. Finally, a national Civil Defence Force, established in 1982, had gradually been expanded to coordinate military, police, and civilian organizations involved in efforts to maintain internal security and to restore vital services quickly during wartime and other emergencies.

By the late 1980s the most apparent weakness in Singapore's Total Defence system was the friction between the government and business community over the financial and social costs of sustaining the defense sector. As the birth rate declined after 1967, the percentage of males drafted for service increased each year. Concurrently, the number of persons available to Singapore's expanding export industries also decreased. Thus, some business leaders were critical of government policies that perpetuated the national service system and argued that the armed forces had grown too large and that new weapons, increased army pay, and other military programs were unnecessary. The same business leaders were reluctant to grant workers leave for reserve training.

Government-sponsored public opinion polls confirmed that a large segment of the general population questioned the need for national service. A poll taken in 1983 indicated that 40 percent of Singaporeans thought that national service was a waste of time and money. Government officials defended the system by arguing that even small countries must maintain credible defenses or risk disaster. They also noted that a large percentage of personnel trained by the armed forces in various technical and professional fields were well prepared to compete for skilled jobs in the private sector when they completed the active-duty portion of their national service. In the mid-1980s, the government began a variety of public relations programs to overcome opposition to its defense policies and, as of 1989, had no intention of reducing manpower levels or proposing cuts in military spending.

Regional Context

From 1959 to 1989, Singapore developed a defensive security outlook that emphasized the maintenance of strong military and civil defense organizations, cooperative military relations with other members of the ASEAN, the Five-Powers Defence Agreement; and other noncommunist states. In 1989 less than 10 percent of Singapore's population was over the age of 50 and could recall the Japanese invasion and occupation. Although Singapore had not had to combat an insurgency or defend itself against a hostile neighbor since the Indonesian Confrontation ended in 1966, the government frequently addressed such issues as Vietnam's 1978 occupation of Cambodia in order to highlight the vulnerability of small countries. Public opinion polls taken in the 1980s indicated that, although most citizens supported having some form of national service, many questioned the need for their leaders' "siege mentality."

By 1989 as Lee Kuan Yew prepared for what he hoped would be a smooth transfer of power to a younger generation, Singapore's strategic perspective appeared to place increasing emphasis on regional developments that augured well for improved regional security rather than on any threat to the country posed by communist expansion in Southeast Asia.

After Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, the government actively sought to establish a broad-based international network of military contacts as part of its overall strategic plan to strengthen recognition of its existence as a sovereign state. In the 1960s, Britain, Israel, New Zealand, and France were among the nations that were approached for assistance as Singapore's military planners began to formulate doctrine and evaluate which aircraft, artillery, naval vessels, and tanks would be affordable and appropriate for the country's armed forces.

In the 1970s, hundreds of officers, pilots, and technical specialists were sent to the Australia, Britain, Japan, the United States, West Germany and other countries for advanced training that could not be provided in Singapore. Programs in the United States included flight training and live-firing exercises for air force personnel selected to pilot F-5E and F-5F fighter aircraft, special forces training for infantrymen from the army's commando battalions, and command training for officers who earned government scholarships offered through the Overseas Training Awards fund.

In the 1980s, as the ASEAN countries became increasingly concerned about Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and the possibility of war between Vietnam and Thailand, Singapore began to participate in annual military exercises with Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In 1979 the Singapore and Brunei navies conducted the first in a series of annual naval exercises (code-named Pelican), and in 1983 the two countries initiated annual infantry maneuvers (code-named Termite) involving selected battalions from both armies. Singapore infantry units were frequently deployed to Brunei for commando and helicopter-borne training. In 1980 the Singapore and Indonesian air forces began annual exercises (code-named Indopura) that were gradually expanded to include joint air maneuvers.

Between 1987 and 1989, the two nations shared the costs of constructing the Siabu Air Weapons Range in northern Sumatra. Singapore's use of this range reduced the need for costly deployment of interceptor and ground-attack squadrons to Taiwan or the United State for live-firing exercises. In 1989 Indonesia also agreed to allow the Singapore army to use its Baturaja training base in southern Sumatra. In 1984 the Singapore and Malaysian navies began annual joint exercises (code-named Malapura). These exercises usually were held in the Strait of Malacca to improve the cooperation between the two nations in patrolling that important sea-lane. In 1989 Singapore and Malaysia also initiated joint training for army units: the first exercise was held in Singapore in May; the second exercise was held in Malaysia in October. Although there were no indications that Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia were interested in negotiating a multilateral defense agreement, each country viewed increased bilateral cooperation as beneficial to its national security and to regional stability.

Singapore maintained good military relations with the United States and has supported the stationing of United States forces in Asia as necessary to counter both Vietnamese military expansion in the region and the establishment of the Soviet military presence in Indochina. The 1975 communist victory in Vietnam and the subsequent reevaluation of the United States' role in Asia and the Pacific worried Singapore's military leaders. In 1979 Prime Minister Lee expressed concern that Vietnam would become a Soviet proxy for the proliferation of a new wave of communist guerrilla movements in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Lee admitted that American reluctance to become involved in another Southeast Asian war was understandable, but he observed that the ASEAN states lacked the military capability to reverse the trend alone.

By 1988, however, the scenario of a domino-like progression of communism south through Thailand and Malaysia and into Singapore had lost credibility. Singapore viewed the Soviet Union's decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and Vietnam's promise to follow Moscow's lead and withdraw its troops from Cambodia as actions that would enhance the security of ASEAN states, particularly Thailand. Although further Vietnamese and Soviet-sponsored military incursions in the region were considered unlikely for the foreseeable future, Singapore viewed the stationing of United States forces in Asia and the Pacific as advantageous to ASEAN.

By 1988 improved relations between Singapore and Malaysia had facilitated a revitalization of the Five-Powers Defence Agreement. Britain also began to demonstrate renewed interest in the pact. In 1970 approximately 12,000 British troops were sent to Malaysia for a joint military exercise that included contingents from the members of the Five-Powers Defence Agreement. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, however, the British limited their participation in military exercises conducted to promote the agreement. In 1971 Australia assumed primary responsibility for managing the Integrated Air Defence System, which was the only functional organization maintained under the pact for the protection of Singapore and Malaysia. Air defense exercises were conducted annually after 1971. During the 1970s and 1980s, New Zealand and Australia also deployed some army and air force units to Malaysia and Singapore.

In 1981 the five states party to the agreement began to hold annual ground and naval exercises, which gradually grew in size and importance. The 1988 joint naval maneuvers (code-named Lima Bersatu) were the largest and most complex military exercise organized by the five nations since 1970. They involved 20 naval vessels, including a British aircraft carrier and a British submarine, and more than 100 fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. Fighter aircraft from the five countries were assigned to multinational flight teams, and Singapore's E-2C reconnaissance aircraft were used along with P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft belonging to the Australian and New Zealand air forces. Singapore air and naval units gained valuable combat experience from their participation in exercises with other members of the agreement. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand displayed their readiness to respond to any military contingency affecting Malaysia and Singapore. Thus, in 1989 the Five Powers Defence Agreement continued to contribute to Singapore's security and the overall stability of Southeast Asia.

Join the mailing list