When anyone asks which countries have the strongest militaries in the world, powers like the United States, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom naturally comes to mind. However, in Southeast Asia where the militaries of Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are commonly cited, the country that boasts the top air force and the best navy within a much-lauded military in the region is Singapore – a small dot on the world map with a population of just 5 million.
It is because of Singapore’s well-recognised military as a deterrent force together with strong social cohesion that creates a stable society and international diplomacy to facilitate robust relations with both immediate neighbours and allies far abroad, citizens, permanent residents and foreigners can find this little island a safe haven.
Deterrence and Diplomacy
Having a strong deterrent force alongside sound diplomacy is a concept deeply inculcated into Singaporeans ever since the island-state gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. The concept would then be tested over the years by geopolitical realities and developments, necessitating the Singapore Government to negotiate diplomatically while flexing its military muscles.
Singapore experiences ups and downs with international threats and spats with regional neighbours like any other country. During Singapore’s infancy, the threats to its survival and safety were a real concern. Hence, Singapore, with a strong political will, have poured and have continued to pour in much of its resources to build up a defence force capable of deterring any kind of threat. There is a strong belief that small-sized Singapore, if not for a military that can punch above its weight, will be very vulnerable to geopolitical pressures and coercion.
With a relatively small population and landmass to train on, let alone to fight on, the armed forces decided that only way we can achieve security is by out-matching potential aggressors on the field of technology.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is stocked with 60 US-made F-16C/D and 40 F-15SG which have been designed for Singapore and 20 of the formidable AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters, one of the best in modern warfare.
The Republic of Singapore Navy has 6 Formidable-class stealth frigates, soon-to-be 4 Invincible-class submarines, and five Endurance-class landing platform docks that can ferry as many as 18 tanks and hundreds of personnel.
Compared with regional countries, the Singapore Army is relatively small with only 72,000 active soldiers. However, the army uses some of the best and high-tech equipment to maximise its warfighting capabilities — the Leopard 2SG, Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicle and the Bionix Infantry Fighting Vehicle. While they are not cheap, wealthy Singapore is able to support such purchases and transform itself into an economic and military powerhouse on a global scale.
In 2018, Singapore was ranked 4th on the list of the world’s richest country by GDP in the Global Finance magazine. As such, it has been able to sustain a high defence budget at about 4% of its more than $300 billion GDP.
Singapore also practices conscription which requires men above 18 years old and above to serve in the military, or civil services, and has the ability to mobilise both active and reserve troops for war quickly.
What truly makes Singapore stand out from its regional neighbours in the technological and equipment arena is that the entire military is integrated into one single cohesive force. Not only does Singapore possess high-end equipment, but we also know how to operate it efficiently and effectively, as compared to the more fragmented militaries in Southeast Asia.
To quote the late-Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s highly-effective military makes us “a poisonous shrimp.”
Singapore’s military does face a complication, and that is Singapore is a small island with little space to practise military drills. Hemmed in by Malaysia in the north and Indonesia in the south, with both just a few kilometres from Singapore, not only do we not have enough land space but also air and maritime space to conduct sophisticated military drills. For instance, a fighter jet taking off at a couple of hundred miles an hour can very quickly exit Singapore airspace.
As such, Singapore has secured training grounds and operational facilities overseas, maintaining troops, air squadrons and naval assets such as in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, and Taiwan, to name a few.
In addition to using these overseas deployments for training, Singapore can also maintain the ability to conduct effective counterattacks in the event mainland Singapore is overrun or under siege. Distributing troops, equipment and assets outside of Singapore provide offshore reinforcements that are not easily preempted by enemy forces, since the host countries offer protection, and can be mobilised and even reinforced by allies.
While Singapore and its immediate neighbours currently enjoy improved friendly relations, Singapore remains shrewd and careful, especially when world powers clash on issues that can cause ramifications even if Singapore is not directly involved. Therefore, Singapore remains to be a realist, recognise that things can change quickly and be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice.