Ukraine crisis 'wake-up call for all'

Russia's annexation of Crimea and the recent unrest in Ukraine are a cautionary tale to Singaporeans that they should never take peace for granted, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday.

Recalling the "air of festivity" at the Munich Security Conference in January last year, Dr Ng told Parliament that most countries were celebrating 70 years of peace.

Many European countries had reduced their defence spending to "reap the peace dividends", he noted. But two months later, the "unimaginable occurred" with Crimea being annexed.

Anxious and fearful of Russia's intentions, small Baltic states, like Lithuania, reinstated military conscription last month.

Singapore will do well to learn from these incidents. It has to continue to invest steadily to build a strong defence during peacetime, said Dr Ng.

It will be "too little, too late" to build up a defence force only when danger is upon you, said the defence minister, who was responding to several MPs, including Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), on how the Government decides on defence spending.

Speaking to the House yesterday during his ministry's budget debate, Dr Ng announced that the Singapore Armed Forces will upgrade its war-fighting capabilities on land, sea and air "at a steady pace".

From next year, the Republic of Singapore Navy will start replacing its patrol vessels with new littoral mission vessels.

The army will replace its ageing V-200 armoured cars with new protected response vehicles for in-country defence.

In the air, the Super Puma helicopters, which have been in service for nearly 30 years, will be replaced in the next decade.

Dr Ng pointed out that the defence spending by Singapore's South-east Asian neighbours over the last decade has been going up 11 per cent annually.

Over that period, China's defence spending more than quadrupled.

In response to this rising trend, the Republic has to plan long-term and maintain its defence expenditure steadily, avoiding sharp increases and dips.

Dr Ng said Singapore's defence spending has grown by 4 per cent nominally on average, and more or less kept pace with inflation.

Responding to Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) on how Singapore stretches its defence dollars, Dr Ng said long-term planning allows Singapore to make "smart opportunity buys".

At the same time, the Defence Ministry and SAF will always choose to upgrade its existing war platforms rather than buy new ones, like how it modernised its mine counter-measure vessels.

But even as it arms itself or adds more firepower to its arsenal, Singapore also ensures that it continues to build better ties with other countries.

Responding to several MPs, including Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) and Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC), on Singapore's defence diplomacy, Dr Ng said Singapore has maintained excellent relations with the United States and China.

The Republic also maintains strong ties with its closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, and recently announced stepping up joint naval patrols in the region's waterways.

If called upon, Singapore will also pitch in in any disasters or search missions.

But military dialogues, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meetings, are the best platforms to build trust and understanding.

Dr Ng said: "Defence diplomacy is slow, sometimes it's laborious... Patience, slow cultivation provide us more space and actually win friends."

This article was first published on Mar 6, 2015.
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