How Do Singaporeans View National Security?

“Protecting the Singaporean Way of Life” is the objective of Total Defence, a day that was commemorated last Sunday. Implicit is the understanding that total defence or national security is about protecting national sovereignty.

But can it be assumed that this is what all Singaporeans invariably understand national security to be about? Could it also depend on what security might mean to the individual at a given point in time?

A concern often voiced is whether younger Singaporeans, who did not live through political turbulence in the nation’s early years, would continue to believe the “vulnerability” narrative — that there are intractable security concerns endemic to Singapore’s small size and the geopolitics of the region, which require a long-term commitment to a strong defence.

The peace and prosperity they were born into could lull them into believing that this vulnerability is a myth. In fact, some even wonder if the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) capabilities are viewed as a threat to the region, rather than a deterrent.

Seeing that Singapore has become an important global trading hub and a respected member of the international community, younger Singaporeans could be led to believe that the country’s defence is inherent in its importance to the world, especially the West, which would not allow it to fall. Hence, some might argue that Singapore need not allocate as much as it does to defence.

Such a view, however, rests on complacent assumptions that afford Singapore little agency and leave too much to chance and the goodwill of allies. It is also short-sighted, premised on current favourable circumstances. Rather, a long-term view measured in generations has to be adopted.

This entails a policy of sustained investment in a strong SAF that gives the island-state a range of autonomous options for any national security crisis, including even so-called non-traditional ones such as a pandemic.


The cost of protecting the Singaporean way of life is indeed steep. The Defence Ministry’s allocation of the annual budget has consistently been the largest. The value of the Singaporean way of life and what it represents to the individual — a high standard of living, law and order, peace, stability and so on — ought to sufficiently justify this.

Surveys suggest that Singaporeans still generally appreciate the need for a strong defence in the long term. But this may carry less weight in the short term, especially during periods of economic uncertainty. Credit Suisse’s Youth Barometer 2014, which covered a wide range of topics from politics to economics, showed that financial worries dominate Singaporean youth concerns.

In the absence of any obvious vulnerabilities or threat, the long-term need to actively maintain a strong defence posture can be displaced by immediate concerns of self-actualisation and individual economic achievement. Here, security may no longer be understood within the context of protecting national sovereignty.

While the Singaporean way of life has always been a fundamental reason for defending Singapore, the daily difficulties experienced by Singaporeans in achieving this way of life during economic downturns could cause individual insecurity, at least in the short term.

It then becomes not so much a concern about merely having a life in Singapore that is safe from threat to its sovereignty, but personally achieving the Singaporean way of life and all that it materially entails.

The effect of such a shift, subtle but still noticeable, in how security is understood could be twofold. Apart from pressure on the Government to channel resources away from national defence to social welfare measures that enhance an individual’s economic security, the traditional pillars of defence might ironically seem to worsen it. For example, some who had to do National Service feel less economically competitive than those who did not have to do it. The enemy then is not an indeterminate national threat, but the more immediate threat to employment prospects.

Some Singaporeans may thus be more worried about threats to their own economic well-being and personal aspirations instead of threats to Singapore’s sovereignty or a terror attack here in the global struggle against Islamic extremism.

Arguably, a nascent national security challenge is convincing these Singaporeans that the nation is inherently vulnerable and needs to be ever vigilant precisely to safeguard Singapore’s achievements and position in the world.

If protecting the Singaporean way of life is the key national security concern, what security means to the state and to individual citizens could be complicated; if the sovereignty of the state is unsecured, individual economic security would be moot. Yet, if the average Singaporean has difficulty in personally achieving the expected Singaporean way of life, a sense of individual insecurity will trump national security. In fact, if Singapore as a nation begins to collectively feel this, it becomes a de facto national security issue.

However, it is not a choice between two mutually exclusive positions. Those who hold the latter view need to be convinced that economic security grows out of national sovereignty, which is most visibly guaranteed by a strong SAF.

A strong defence posture cannot be assumed to be unnecessary in times of peace, even if its contributions are indirect and unquantifiable, for defence cannot be disentangled from Singapore’s economic prosperity.

On the other hand, those who give priority to national defence need persuading that long-term security concerns cannot unconditionally eclipse immediate and real bread-and-butter concerns, especially when they are a source of insecurity. As the economist John Maynard Keynes once said: “In the long run we are all dead.”

In commemorating 31 years of Total Defence, it may be timely to revisit what “total” security means to the nation and how each of the five pillars of Total Defence is best applied to that conception of national security.


Ho Shu Huang is a PhD candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.



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