Singapore’s independence began less with a declaration of such than with the building of a formidable military. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million. “Like the Israelis, the Singaporeans believe in air superiority. They pay their pilots well. They have AWACS,” a defense official from a neighboring country told me. In addition to its one hundred or so fighter jets, Singapore has twenty missile-carrying ships, six frigates, and, notably, six submarines—an extraordinary number given that far more populous countries in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam each have fewer. “Nobody can squeeze us through a blockade.”
It is not enough that Singapore has these air and sea platforms. For it is deadly serious about using them effectively. Because Singapore lacks empty space for military training, it regularly has four air squadrons training in the United States, ground troops training in Taiwan, and helicopter crews training in Australia. It allots sixty-five days a year for army maneuvers with leopard tanks. “We will not be hemmed in by our neighbors.” Too, Singapore has a conscript military. Said the same defense official: “There are only three developed countries in the world that are very serious about national service—South Korea, Israel, and us.” But the vast latent power of China still unsettles the Singaporeans, so much so that they feel they have no choice but to rely directly on the United States. As another diplomat told me: “We see American hard power as benign. The U.S. Navy defends globalization by protecting the sea lanes, which we, more than any other people, benefit from. To us, there is nothing dark or conspiratorial about the United States and its vast security apparatus.”
In 1998, the Singaporeans built Changi Naval Base solely to host American nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. “We designed the piers to meet the dimensions of American warships,” a high-ranking military man here told me, in order to lure American naval platforms to Singaporean waters. “It’s kind of like, if you serve good coffee and tea, people will come.” Indeed, in 2011 there were 150 American warship visits to Singapore. Then there were the three American littoral combat ships that, it was announced in 2011, would be stationed in Singapore.
Finally, beyond military might, there is the power of diplomacy. Singapore externalizes its security not only through the American navy and air force, but through an alliance like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is about “socializing other states to a set of core values.” Those core values revolve around the independence of small and medium-sized states banding together in the face of a rising great power like China, even though no diplomat in the region will ever say that on the record.
08 February 2015
Singapore's Formidable Military
From Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1619-1641: