Singapore spends more than any other nation in South-East Asia on defense. Singapore has the 4th highest defense spending per capita in the world. As a percentage of govt expediture, Singapore's defense spending is even higher than Israel. In absolute terms, Israel spends more but balances its spending with social spending.
"The Defense Ministry budget for 2009 and 2010 was NIS 50 billion in each of those two years. That works out to about 15% of the national budget, which is very high. Of course, we have become accustomed to that. Since its earliest days, Israel has always devoted a large part of its budget to security, mainly to the Israel Defense Forces (the military )....." - The Shekel Stops Here[Link]
Singapore's budget allocation for defense is 24.4% [Link] vs 15% for Israel shows the severity of the imbalance in govt spending shaped by 4 decades of an ideological extreme under a semi-authoritarian rule. Ordinary citizens face extreme parsimony in social and healthcare spending as cost of living and income gap rises while defense spending increases even as the defense spending of our neighbors trend downwards in recent years[Malaysia Slashing Budget for Defense]. This is neither acceptable or sustainable.
I have seen SDP's shadow budget and they suggest that we cut defense budget by 20% and increase NSmen pay to $1200. But why 20%? Given the lack of information in this area, I think it is unwise that opposition parties jump in and start proposing the amount we should cut from the defense budget. In my previous posting on this topic, I discussed Ng Eng Hen's reply to MPs who questioned the defense budget including MPs from the PAP. Minister Ng's reply was rather generic and superficial - did not get down to the underlying reasons for our high defense expenditure.
I researched this topic and found an interesting masters thesis written by an SAF Officer that provides a good summary of how our defense policy has evolved over the years and how the purpose of defense expenditure has changed since we gained our independence.
"However, the magnitude of the country’s defense expenditure has also led to the occasional raised eyebrow. For example, Singapore’s reported defense budget for 2009 was more than that of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s put together, which some may find surprising given the relative sizes and populations of these three neighboring countries" - Maj Lee Yi-Jin, "Singapore's Defense Policy : Essential or Excessive"[Link]
Maj Lee explained that our current expenditure level is no longer linked to maintaining security alone but is maintained and increased to expand our international influence
He further explained that the high expenditure represents a commitment to defense and any reduction will perceived as a change in philosophy which can be interpreted as weakness or "waning commitment" to defense.
Here's the interesting bit from the thesis:
"Singapore’s leaders would appear to have skillfully removed any debate on Singapore’s defense policy from the realm of economic cost-benefit analysis. Instead, the current policy is couched as necessary to maintain the unquantifiable concept of “deterrence”, and to provide the stable environment necessary for foreign investment and productive economic activity. Such arguments are obviously extremely difficult to disprove, leaving the odds heavily stacked--at least for now--in favor of the status quo. Whether this trajectory can be sustained in the longer term will depend on at least three factors:
(1) the public continuing to buy in to the vulnerability narrative;
(2) sustained public confidence in the military as an efficient and effective use
of public resource towards reducing that vulnerability; and
(3) the continued credibility of the political establishment insofar as making decisions that are consistent with the broader public interest"
The govt can keep increasing our defense spending relative to that our our neighbors as long as we buy the "vulnerability narrative" but in actual fact the current level of spending is far more than needed to maintain security. The purpose of our defense spending, according to the thesis, has evolved to become diplomatic instruments of national power, which in turn facilitate an expansion of Singapore’s international influence.
The question on Singaporeans' mind is what is has been traded off to maintain such a high level of defense spending. As income inequality and poverty rise, Singaporeans are told that they have to continue to work until an advanced age, and the sick and their families are told to shoulder the rising cost of healthcare, it is time to re-evaluate our spending priorities to maximize the benefits of govt spending for Singaporeans and ensure the long term sustainability of our society. Defense is not just about external threats and international influence. Cohesiveness of our society and the willingness of citizens to die for their country are equally important. If there is discontent, if ordinary Singaporeans think the Singapore Dream is dead, ...and "don't know what they are defending anymore"[Link], no amount of expenditure can bring security to our nation. Govt expenditure has to be properly balanced to achieve long term sustainability. We cannot maintain this level of defense expenditure relative to social spending as the social issues increase in severity and the deleterious effects of social inequality drives a wedge through our society.