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Speech By Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Asia-Pacific Programme For Senior Military Officers Alumni Distinguished Speakers Series 2019

Speech By Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Asia-Pacific Programme For Senior Military Officers Alumni Distinguished Speakers Series 2019

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong,
Executive Deputy Chairman of RSIS

Professor Ralf Emmers, 
Dean of RSIS

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning. Thank you for the invitation and it is indeed my privilege to kick off the inaugural APPSMO Distinguished Speakers’ Series. 

2 Today is 15 February and it is especially significant that this series is held today. Today marks 77 years to the day of the fall of Singapore during the Second World War. Every year, we mark this day Total Defence Day -  a stark reminder of what could happen to us again if we are unable to defend ourselves. 

3 For our overseas friends who may not be as familiar with our concept of Total Defence – it was established in the 1980s as a framework for an all-round response to threats and challenges, involving all Singaporeans in the five main Defence pillars of Military, Civil, Economic, Social and Psychological.

4 For Singapore as a small country, I would add two other points. If we ever need to go to war or operations, there would be no such thing as a partial war. It will be total war as everybody in Singapore would be involved. And because of that, our defence must be total. There is no such thing as some of us are involved in the operations, whilst others can live life normally. The second aspect of Total Defence that we always remind ourselves of is this – for the last 700 years if not more, this place that we call home has never been independent, able to be independent or allowed to be independent. 

A place of contests

5 To better appreciate the Total Defence concept, we can go back into history to understand this region and how we came about. With our history and background, Singapore is always easily a place for the contest of bigger powers. 

6 Singapore was founded by the British in 1819 because they needed another port of call in this region to refit and protect their merchant fleet, as well as to forestall any advance by the Dutch in the East Indies. In a way, the founding of modern Singapore was a result of wider Anglo-Dutch competition. We were a piece on the global chessboard.

7 Even before that, the Portuguese and the Dutch had in earlier centuries recognised the strategic importance of this little island but for various reasons, they did not or could not fortify their positions here.

8 If we go further back in history, Singapore has through the centuries been caught in the struggles between the competing empires of Southeast Asia, such as those of Sri Vijaya, Majapahit, Palembang, Malacca and so forth. 

9 During the Second World War, Singapore was targeted by the Japanese as they needed to eliminate opposition from the British base here and to maintain their fleet activities in the Pacific. The Japanese needed to protect their trade and communication lines and Singapore was a collateral in this war.

New and emerging threats

10 Today, here in Singapore, it continues to be a place for contests. But we are now facing an even wider range of challenges and threats than ever before. Besides military action, enemies can attack Singapore through other means:
a. Destroying our economy or economic systems
b. Tearing our social fabric
c. Targeting our fundamental beliefs and commitments

11 The terrain is changing. In the past, we have to deal with the three-dimensional terrains of air, land and sea. But today, the contest for power has extended beyond the three physical dimensions. And this is the reason why we have added a 6th pillar today to our Total Defence concept.

12 Threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated, complex and multi-faceted. External players can try to secure their interests with any one of or all dimensions of power, doing so through economic, cultural, informational or diplomatic means as well.  

13 Our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural ancestries mean that we will always be subjected to attempts to influence and control our domestic agenda. They can come in the form of threats to make us afraid or to make us waver. They can also come in the form of incentives, especially with the promise of short term returns. Yet at other times, they can take the form of dividing and trying to divide Singaporeans and our society to the benefit of the foreign players. For a small country with relatively short history, this is always a vulnerability.

14 This is compounded by the pervasive use of the internet and social media. Such attacks coming through cyberspace are becoming the norm even during what we call peacetime. Cyberspace provides an easy and affordable channel, spreading new content to masses at far higher speed. The speed and impact of messages or content sharing through the ubiquitous smart phones must never be underestimated. And there is an asymmetry in human psychology. Good news travel slower than bad news. Straightforward stories are far less popular.

Our evolving approach to national security

15 Hence the question - is Total Defence as a concept still relevant to us today? Is it still useful to us in an increasingly dynamic security environment shaped by disruptive technologies and multiple interested parties, state and non-state alike?

16 The answer is quite obvious. Total Defence as a concept is more relevant than ever before. But just as we need to keep up with the times, we must understand the changing terrain and the concept of Total Defence must similarly evolve to remain relevant. And we as a small country must do it fast and well.

17 We may have various existing measures to protect ourselves and our systems, but we will need to evolve them in tandem with the changes in technology, media platforms and communications channels.  

18 Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen had announced Digital Defence as the 6th pillar of our Total Defence yesterday to address the very real impact of cyberattacks. We need to be better prepared as a society against such digital threats. Minister S. Iswaran will speak more about this at another event this morning. But let me say this – the terrain is neutral. Whoever masters the terrain better, wins. The new cyber terrain, just like the physical terrain, is neutral. 

Greater emphasis on social and psychological defence

19 With the greater digital threat, managing our resultant challenges to societal cohesion and stability will become even more critical. We know that Singapore’s small size, openness, and relatively short history have always made it challenging for us to defend or mitigate the external influences on our systems.  

20 It is not practical for us to shut our doors. Our connectivity is our lifeline as a country. For a small country with no hinterland, it is most unnatural for it to survive very long in the history of mankind. For a small city-state with no hinterland, it must connect to the world and leverage the world as its hinterland. We must connect to the world to access resources and markets.

21 But this is where it becomes interesting. In the past, connecting to the world to transcend physical and geographical limitations is only through the three physical dimensions of air, land and sea. But today, in the non-physical dimension of cyberspace, small city-states like us also have the opportunity to transcend our traditional physical limitations. 

22 So this reinforces one point – the new cyber terrain is both an opportunity and challenge for us. We have no intention to shut ourselves from the rest of the world – that is not the way we defend ourselves from the new cyber threat. We will learn to operate in and navigate this new terrain, and leverage it for our own defence.

23 However, we need to be vigilant - always watchful, but never fearful. Thus, our social and psychological defence have become even more critical at this juncture of our history.

24 In countering the challenges of external influences, Singaporeans must always start from the premise that whatever decision we take must be collective and for the good of Singapore’s long term interest. We have to remember, each time and every time, that only Singaporeans will decide our future and not allow anyone else to coerce us or decide for us.

25 In doing so, we can better look after each other in society, build up our resilience and not allow forces to pull us apart. Whenever we are challenged, we must be prepared for the long haul and be ready to stand firm and united.

26 When things happen or when we are targeted, understanding the “why” is more critical than just understanding the “what”. Knowing why others are feeling a certain way and why they are taking a certain course of action towards us is of utmost importance. This is why platforms like APPSMO are so important to help us understand the “whys” and to check our own blindspots. We cannot just apply our own logic to understand the intent of others. Through the greater interactions amongst the military and security officers, we learn to see things not just from our own perspective but also that of others. And if we can get an accurate read of other people’s “why”, then we are less likely to misread the situation and apply the wrong responses. This is the way we can remain relevant and respond effectively. 

27 Hence, it is a challenge for our government to help our people understand the reality of geopolitics and the challenges that we face as a nation and people not just at this point in time, but also across history.

28 We are where we are because of our historical circumstances, and we should never forget that where we will go will also depend very much on what is happening around us beyond the shores of Singapore. The danger for Singapore is as we become more successful, we may unwittingly turn insular and start thinking that what happens here matters more to our success. What matters in Singapore is certainly important, but what happens in Singapore cannot be divorced from what is happening elsewhere. And unless we keep a keen eye on what is happening elsewhere, we may be blindsided by our circumstances no matter how well we do internally.

A whole-of-nation approach 

29 Total Defence involves the whole nation. It is critical that we continue to strengthen ourselves and stay alert to the forces beyond Singapore so that it becomes a part of our DNA. 

30 We have seen generations of Singaporean families supporting their sons through National Service. We know our people are striving hard to keep our multi-religious and multi-cultural social fabric intact. Our businesses are sharpening themselves to ensure that our economy remains relevant, vibrant and competitive and that we are never held ransom by any single market or source.

31 Total Defence has seen us through several crises. We are never done with building Total Defence. I hope that generations after generations of Singaporeans will continue to hold on to this resolve to defend Singapore holistically across all dimensions of power. History has shown us that anything else can be dire. 

32 But for Total Defence to remain relevant, the six pillars of Total Defence must not become dogma. We must continuously update the concept, find new opportunities to strengthen it, and find new synergies across the different dimensions to bring about a strong, coherent, united Singapore that can withstand the test of time and challenges beyond the shores of Singapore. Thank you.


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