Singapore and the Value of Strategic Ambiguity

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

The Singapore Armed Forces anti terrorist team.

The Singapore Armed Forces anti terrorist team.

Security strategies and defence white papers are very useful for several reasons. First and foremost, these documents identify core objectives for the state security apparatus — sometimes the military alone, but occasionally also intelligence agencies — and the framework in which those objectives are to be met. Second, strategic guidance can reveal a state’s overall intent and its desired role in international affairs. To this end, countries like the United States frequently revise or redraft these documents; since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US has released versions of its National Security Strategy in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2015. This has been accompanied by strategic guidance documents for different branches of the US Armed Forces.

Interestingly, Singapore has not released a new National Security Strategy (NSS) since 2004. Meanwhile, other small states in the region have released strategic guidance documents on a more frequent basis, such as Brunei Darussalam, which released Defence White Papers in 2004, 2007, and 2011 as part of a modernization and reform effort for the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. In any case, in 2004, under the direction of Singapore’s then Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam, the National Security Coordination Centre of Singapore released “The Fight Against Terror“. As one can expect from the title, it predominantly focuses on counter-terrorism and Singapore’s response to other transnational threats, such as epidemics. This makes sense in the context under which that NSS was written. From November 2002 to July 2003, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread from southern China to multiple countries, resulting in a reported 774 deaths. In December 2001, Singapore’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies uncovered a plot by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Islamic fundamentalist group in Southeast Asia allied with al-Qaeda, to bomb diplomatic missions and attack US-American, Australian, British, and Israeli personnel based in Singapore. A few months before the official release of the NSS, al-Qaeda bombed commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and prompting concerns about the security of Singapore’s own Mass Rapid Transit network.

A Singapore Army Leopard 2A4 during National Day Parade 2010 rehearsals (Photo by Ichwan Palongengi, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

A Singapore Army Leopard 2A4 during National Day Parade 2010 rehearsals (Photo by CABAL, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

In light of all this, it is not surprising that the NSS is so pre-occupied with countering regional terrorist threats. As of this writing, nearly 12 years after the publication of that document, terrorism certainly is one of the most paramount threats to the security of Southeast Asia. Terror suspects have since been apprehended in Indonesia who were apparently planning attacks on various targets in Singapore, while Filipino militants attempted to seize control of neighbouring Malaysia’s Sabah region in 2013. In January 2016, Singaporean authorities even uncovered an alleged terrorist cell operating within the city-state comprised of 27 Bangladeshi workers who reportedly intended to return to their home country to carry out attacks. Yet the prospects for inter-state conflict are on the rise in the region, such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and it could be beneficial for neighbouring states were there to be a new NSS addressing these issues and setting out Singapore’s position.

Such a move is doubtful, however, as Singapore benefits more so from its strategic ambiguity on inter-state disputes. Through remarks delivered in May 2015 and elsewhere, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has cultivated soft power for Singapore by calling for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region, refusing to take the side of either China or the US on controversial freedom of navigation exercises, for example. Singapore also plays host to many efforts to enhance mutual understanding in the Asia-Pacific region, whether that is the annual Shangri-La Dialogue or the historic November 2015 meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou. Adopting an entrenched position on inter-state conflicts elsewhere in the region would diminish the appeal of Singaporean soft power and inhibit Singapore’s capacity to adapt to developments in the US-China strategic rivalry.

National Day Parade In Singapore.

National Day Parade In Singapore.

Perhaps even more importantly, the expression of any clear position on territorial disputes elsewhere could have an impact on Singapore’s own ongoing negotiations over maritime boundaries. For example, only a portion of the maritime boundary between Singapore and Indonesia has been determined. Despite some progress made through the 2010 ratification of the “Treaty between the Republic of Indonesia and the Republic of Singapore Relating to the Delimitation of the Territorial Seas of the Two Countries in the Western Part of the Singapore Strait”, a significant portion of the boundary can only be defined through complex trilateral talks also involving Malaysia. An ongoing dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over ownership of Pedra Branca, several islets at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait, was resolved in 2008 when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Singapore.

There is considerable merit to the approach taken by Singaporean authorities, however. Beyond interfering with any ongoing negotiations, including territorial disputes in the NSS would effectively “securitize” relations within Southeast Asia. First introduced as a theory of International Relations in the 1990’s by the scholars Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, securitization is when an issue is presented as a security threat that requires the intervention of state authorities and the employment of any means necessary, rather than following the course of political dialogue (see also Patrick Truffer, “Securitization of everything or how to lose the sense of security at all“,, 13.04.2015). Put differently, Singapore’s assertion of ownership over a specific islet or body of water in the NSS would escalate tensions, prompting neighbours to make equally bold claims and arm themselves to enforce those claims. Such escalation can be seen in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region due to such assertive behaviour; Singapore’s quiet caution has helped to avoid the spread of such conflict and reinforced international legalist norms of behaviour.

Singapore’s 2004 NSS — and the fact that no follow-up has been released since — can be a model for other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Clarity of intent can avoid misunderstandings, but the pedantic listing of perceived security threats can do even more to undermine confidence in regional security. Neighbours should also note that Singapore’s identification of terrorism and epidemics as paramount security threats create space for ample cooperation — no state is antagonized and every ASEAN member can play an active role in combating these two elements.

A strong deterrence is Singapore’s best defence … When danger is upon you, as it is precipitously for the Baltic states, it will be too little, too late to build up a defence. — Ng Eng Hen, Singaporean Minister for Defence quoted in Xue Jianyue, “SAF must raise game to battle new threats: Ng“, Today, 06.03.2015.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Paul Pryce, Security Policy, Singapore.

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