UPDATE: Yesterday many MPs spoke up in parliament to question the size of the defense budget. There is no question that Singapore needs strong defense, however, the size of our defense spending appear to be disproportionate to our needs and threats. I applaud the MPs for having the courage to take on this subject. Its no longer enough for the defense minister to just the amount by simply standing up in parliament to say the spending is needed because we are small and vulnerable because such arguments lack logic and are not quantifiable. In light of the rising poverty and income gap, the defense budget can no longer be a blank cheque. It has to be scruitinised the same way our health care spending is scrutinised. Otherwise, it will weaken our social compact and endanger our long term stability as a nation.
Big defence budget questioned by MPs
Tuesday, Mar 06, 2012
SINGAPORE - Many MPs yesterday called for a review of the defence budget as they felt it is too big.
They suggested the money could go towards the country's social spending instead.
Opposition MP for Aljunied GRC Pritam Singh said that the region's security architecture and good military relations give reason to be "relatively positive about the low probability of outright military conflict breaking out in the region".
END OF UPDATE
In the US while most politicians agree that balancing the budget is essential , ideological differences between major parties result in a long drawn debate. The Republicans resist all efforts to raise taxes and cut defense spending and the Democrats will resist cuts in social spending and want to raise taxes. Obama tries to stand in the middle and sometimes takes the heat from both sides. The American public wants some of the tax cuts reversed, some social spending cuts, and defense budget to be cut. Here in Singapore, things have been one-sided for 4 decades. We get policy extremes seen here that is not seen anywhere else in the world.
A few days ago, I looked a friend lecturing at our local university. He was not around. One of his colleagues told me that he was overseas to recruit students for his research programme. If you look at the roster of researchers and PhD students in our universities and research institutes, it is filled with foreigners. The reason for this is very simple. In the past few years, the govt has been spending billions on R&D more than what the we can take up and capacity has to be expanded by funding foreign students to take up graduate studies here. The end result we hope to see is transition of this research to industry and ultimately get results that show up in our economy. Very little transition has taken place for the amount of money spent, yet the PAP continues to spend on it because they believe in it - so every year we spend millions to educate the children of foreigners waiting for outcomes to materialize. Okay fine. But contrast that with what is going on at the other end of education spectrum. Every year thousands of Singaporean children from poor or broken families enter primary 1 without proper preschool education because it is not compulsory. This is left to self-help groups that try to do something for these children so they can have a better start in life - last year 300 lucky under-privileged students received a $10 four week Bridging Programme at Bottle Tree Park[Link] with this 4-weeks of pre-school costing $10, they leap into primary one to compete with children with 2 years of kindergarten + enrichment + Montessori + Kumon etc. We have the budget to educate children of foreigners but not Singaporean children for pre-school. The money is there and it is the PAP govt that chooses how to spend it ...and how they do this is a result of their ideology.
Today Singapore has the lowest govt spending on healthcare compared with all OECD countries. We are not just low we are an outlier if you look at the numbers. Singapore govt spends 1.5% compared with 6.2% average among OECD countries. As healthcare cost increases, the PAP govt has been keeping the healthcare expenditure low by shifting the rising cost by increase the healthcare burden of the sick and their families. There cases of Singaporeans selling their homes[Link] and going to Malaysia for treatment[Link] as a result of this policy. Many more are at risk because they are under-insured or have no health insurance as the cost of healthcare goes up. While extreme parsimony is applied to healthcare spending which cause enormous financial burden and pain to ordinary Singaporeans, it takes a different attitude when it comes to spending on defense. Australia spends 9.8% on healthcare and 1.8% [Link]of its GDP on defense. Japan's expenditure on defense is 1% and in Mauritus it is zero after the govt did a study and ascertained that the globalization, world trade and new geo-political structures has eliminated the need for defense spending and all such spending would go to waste[Link].
Singapore\s defense spending is very high at 4.9% of GDP. This year it has been raised further by 4.3%[Link] and is set to reach 25% of govt spending. In Australia it is 7.3% of govt spending and even the the US, a super-power, spends 20% on defense[Link]. Even Israel, a nation constantly under threat, spends 15% of its govt budget[Link] on defense lower than the 25% that the PAP govt spends on defense. While the Israelis spend more when defense spending is measured as a % of the GDP (6.3%), they balance this with high social spending so that as a whole defense spending takes a smaller proportion of the national budget compared with Singapore. The Israelis know the importance of social cohesion and you cannot maintain the security of a country by not properly balancing your defense spending with social spending - behind your weapons are ordinary citizens and your success depends on whether he feels whether the system has been just and equal. The imbalance in healthcare+social spending vs defense spending reflects the ideological positioning of the PAP govt. The defense spending has been kept at a fixed allocation of the GDP and not adjusted based on changes in external environment. This has resulted in defense spending growing far faster than that of our neighbors and today, Singapore spends almost as much on defense as the combined spending of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Defense is very important for a small nation like Singapore, however, if this spending is not adjusted based on changes in geopolitics and threats but simply increased year after year as a fix allocation of GDP, it will hurt us in the longer term. The threats have shifted from all out war to low intensity conflicts as surrounding nations plug into the the grid of global trade and democratize their political systems to shift power from the rule of strongmen dictators to the people. This means we have more time to build longer term defense capabilities and lengthen our acquisition cycles for hardware to delay obsolesce. Most bloggers avoid commenting on defense spending as there is a lack of information in this area which has been kept secret and our knowledge military hardware is limited to the Jane's Defense Weekly and the Changi Airshow held several weekends ago - when you have a big budget, its like the IT Show, there is no limit to the amount you can spend to build capabilities and you don't necessarily limit this to what you need because the money is there for you to spend. Today defense spending is planned by people with a vested interest to see it increased every year - by those who have build careers on our defense spending and what is more alarming is the increased number of ex-SAF generals and admirals in the ranks of our political leadership which makes it hard to correct the imbalance we are seeing in our budget allocation.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was asked about defense spending and this is a piece of hard truth that came from him:
"We are not vulnerable? They can besiege you. You’ll be dead,......‘If we are not vulnerable, why do we spend 5 to 6 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) year after year on defence/. ‘Are we mad? This is a frugal government." - Lee Kuan Yew
Notice the circular logic here. Because we spend more we have to be vulnerable otherwise we are mad. With this logic billions in defense spending is justified? ...True reform means we have to think deeper and harder about this hard truth.
The PAP lean towards an ideological extreme that will not gain acceptance in the long term - they have won elections by limiting political freedom of its citizens, repressing opponents using lawsuits and detention without trial, using estate upgrading to gain votes and controlling the media. We see no real determination to change anything at this point in time and the gap between what the PAP wants to do and what the people want them to do grows much faster than the change they are willing to make in the system. The debate on the budget reflects the growing divide - the WP was merely asking what almost every Singaporean wants yet their request engendered only harsh responses and wild baseless accusations from a govt that does not want fundamental change. The ratio of our healthcare spending to our defense spending show the gap between the needs of the people and ideological leanings of a govt that has lost its way after 40 years of semi-authoritarian leadership.