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Speech by Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman Minister of State for Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2018

Budget 2018: Committee of Supply Debate 

2 March 2018

Mr Chairman, as Minister for Defence Dr Ng has explained, Singapore is faced with changing geopolitical and threat environments. With it, the role of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is also expanding to respond to these threats. But what do these developments mean for the average Singaporean, for them to appreciate their role in Singapore's defence? In today's open world of porous boundaries and the internet of things, aggressors can put pressure on a target nation in many ways, and they have increasingly sought to direct this pressure at ordinary citizens - misleading them into resenting their fellow citizen of a different background, or unsettling their confidence in the government. Essentially, a crisis of trust ensues and a society works towards its own unravelling. As such tactics become more commonplace, our people must be willing and ready to resist and respond, and build up personal and social resilience to overcome these threats.

 

Total Defence - Our Best Response

 

Singapore's Total Defence strategy encapsulates what everyone playing their part to safeguard Singapore, looks like. It was introduced in 1984 against the backdrop of the prevailing threat of armed military conflict that can affect many different aspects of our society. Beyond Military Defence, our leaders recognised that our ability to face and overcome any eventual conflict also depends on our people and their resolve. Indeed, with emerging concerns that target our people's hearts and minds, individuals play an increasingly critical role as our first defenders.

 

Recognising this, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has both expanded and enriched our outreach over the years. In the past, our efforts were centred on the annual commemoration of Total Defence Day. Today, we have in addition to that a wide array of activities year-round, aimed at helping Singaporeans appreciate our threats and challenges and what they can do in response. This would not have been possible without our growing pool of partners from the public, private and people sectors that have come on board to work with us. To cite a recent example, MINDEF and the Ministry of Home Affairs worked with Mediacorp to develop a national security documentary-drama entitled "It Will Never Happen Here", which aired on Channel 5 in January. One of the viewers, 58-year-old housewife Mrs Vemala Gurunathan was struck by the episode on cyberattacks. She shared, "I was quite surprised that attacks on cyber space can actually cause chaos in our society and everyday life… I like how the programme even showed us how we can overcome this by being more careful online and not blindly believing everything that we read". 

 

I am heartened that, today, Total Defence resonates with Singaporeans, and many are stepping up to contribute. A public survey conducted by MINDEF in 2017 showed that a majority of respondents appreciated the value of Total Defence in dealing with threats, both conventional and unconventional. We have seen how some participants of MINDEF's various engagement programmes have gone on to encourage others to play their part in Total Defence. One of them is 26-year-old Chong Yu Lun. Yu Lun has participated in every run of MINDEF's short film competition ciNE65, creating multiple winning, but more importantly inspiring entries. These range from those that encourage national servicemen to defend our home, to those that portray the resilience of Singaporeans. Yu Lun went on to set up his own video production company and YouTube channel "Butterworks" - the people behind films like "The First Book-Out from Tekong" and "With Pride, We Lead", that have a combined reach of over 700,000 views. When asked recently about what drives him to make these videos, he said, "I'm very motivated to create films that hopefully Singaporeans would be proud to call their own, and we challenge ourselves to create inspiring stories that blend in a subtle element of that little patriotism in us."

 

Total Defence for the New Threat Landscape

 

Ms Low Yen Ling asked for an update on the 2018 Total Defence Campaign, and how it will address new threats. As we move forward, just as we are building up the Next Gen SAF, we will gear Total Defence towards the new security environment, according greater attention to Social and Psychological Defence. Mr Ong Teng Koon highlighted the need to do so in the face of terrorism. Other threats like fake news and cyberattacks compound this need. While the military and civil domains are most intuitively associated with defence, it is increasingly important today that we broaden our definition of what it means to safeguard Singapore. 

 

For one, our social cohesion could be compromised if Singaporeans allow themselves to be swayed by divisive falsehoods, or stigmatise particular social groups in the wake of a violent attack. Religion today has been misused by terror groups like ISIS and misrepresented by preachers who espouse extreme views. Religion has also begun to enter the realm of politics as seen in the region, resulting in built-up tensions in community relations. As a society, we can and will continue to be tested.

 

With your permission, Mr Chairman, may I display a visual on the screen? Just last year, two propaganda videos featuring a Singaporean ISIS fighter in Syria surfaced - the first video was of him rallying others to join him, while the other video was more graphic, showing him shooting three men at close range. Upon hearing the news and watching such clips, how would or should Singaporeans react? The immediate reaction could include worry, disbelief, fear, anger and possibly distrust. However these reactions could be mitigated, depending on how strong we are psychologically as individuals and socially as a community. With strong social cohesion and psychological resilience, the Muslims amongst us would reject attempts to sway them to adopt extremist ideas, denouncing those images and assuring their non-Muslim friends and neighbours that the images they saw neither reflect Islam nor Muslims in Singapore. Again, with strong social cohesion and psychological resilience, we would also see our non-Muslims who have confidence in their Muslim friends expressing support and giving assurances that what they saw is neither representative of Islam nor Muslims in Singapore. At the same time, those who might be affected by the images would feel comfortable enough to clarify their doubts and reservations with their Muslim friends. With deepened trust, all Singaporeans would stand united to safeguard the harmony we hold dear. This is the essence of our Social and Psychological Defence.

 

Mr Chairman, may I say a few words in Malay please?

 

[Translated] As we prepare to build up the Next Gen SAF, we will gear Total Defence towards the new security environment, while according greater attention to Social and Psychological Defence. While the military and civil domains are most intuitively associated with defence, our definition of what it means to safeguard Singapore must now be broadened. Our social cohesion could be compromised or affected if Singaporeans allow themselves to be swayed by falsehoods that divide our harmonious society, or show prejudice to or stigmatise particular social groups in the wake of a violent attack. We have seen how religion today has been misused by terror groups like ISIS and misrepresented by preachers who espouse extreme views. Religion has also begun to enter the realm of politics as seen in the region, resulting in the built up of tensions in community relations. We need only turn to our own history to remind ourselves that trust and goodwill between communities are not a given, and must be worked at unceasingly to sustain. As a society, we can and will continue to be tested. Just last year, two propaganda videos featuring an ISIS fighter from Singapore in Syria surfaced - the first video showed  him rallying others to join him, while the second video was more graphic, showing him shooting three men at close range. Upon hearing such news and watching such clips, how would or should Singaporeans react? The immediate reaction could include worry, disbelief, fear, anger and possibly suspicion and distrust. This is quite worrying. However these reactions can be mitigated. This will depend on how strong we are psychologically as individuals and socially as a community. With strong social cohesion and psychological resilience, Singaporean Muslims are able to reject extremist ideas, denouncing images of extremists while assuring their non-Muslim friends and neighbours that these images that they saw neither reflect Islam nor Muslims in Singapore. If we possess strong social cohesion and psychological resilience, we would also see non-Muslims who have confidence in their Muslim friends expressing support and giving assurances that they know what they saw is not representative of Islam or Singaporean Muslims. At the same time, those who might be affected by the images would feel comfortable enough to seek clarifications from their Muslim friends in order to clear any doubts. With deepened trust in one another, all Singaporeans would stand united to safeguard the harmony that we hold dear. As the Malay saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall". This is the essence of our Social and Psychological Defence.

 

As Mr Amrin Amin noted, there are also new potential fault-lines in our social fabric beyond race and religion which could be used against us if we are not careful. With globalisation and significant mobility amongst Singaporeans, we cannot assume that all Singaporean children will continue to experience the culture of our local schools and neighbourhoods as they grow up. There are also others who come from transnational families. These are not concerns in and of themselves, but they do signal that the experiences and perspectives of our people are more varied than before. If we do not continue to forge common understanding, our differences could be played up to divide us, making it difficult for us to band together in a crisis.

 

We need a strong Social Defence. This means growing our common spaces by interacting with people of different backgrounds, speaking up against attempts to sow discord and helping those in need. One important element of this is to fortify trust and understanding between people of different religious backgrounds to guard against radical ideas that may divide us. Just last month, the five Community Development Councils launched the "Common Senses for Common Spaces" interfaith dialogue programme nationwide. This provides members of the community with a safe space to ask questions and learn more about different faiths in Singapore thus deepening their understanding and appreciation. It is also heartening to see that our youths understand the importance of Social Defence, and are initiating ground-up projects to expand our common space too. The Interfaith Youth Circle, for example, was started by a group of youths who wanted to bridge gaps in understanding about the different religions in Singapore, especially given the negative sentiment and online chatter following terror attacks around the world. They organise activities such as scriptural reasoning sessions, where people come together to read and reflect on scriptures from different faiths. Such efforts foster deeper trust and a stronger will to stand firm against attempts to turn us against each other.

 

Mr Vikram Nair asked about the impact of fake news on security, and how MINDEF is combatting this threat. In an interconnected world, Singaporeans are more easily exposed to pressures that could unsettle their willingness to uphold our national interests, including racial and religious harmony. These influences could come in the form of falsehoods deliberately spread online. In 2007 for example, an insensitive prank photo of pork sold at NTUC FairPrice with a halal sticker on the packaging was circulated via e-mail. NTUC FairPrice had called it out as false back then. Still, it resurfaced again in 2014. Social media had become a lot more prevalent in the span of just seven years, and the photo made its rounds on Facebook, where posts are easily shared with a wider audience. While the incident was resolved, similar cases could tear at our interfaith unity.

 

Likewise, falsehoods could spread to weaken our trust in public institutions and confidence in a shared future, or incite fear. Some of you may recall a video that was shared on social media early last year, purportedly showing an explosion in Tuas. While a fire did break out, this said footage of the incident was fake. The video had in fact been uploaded on YouTube multiple times from 2015 onwards, and on separate occasions been labelled as blasts in China, India and France - that same footage. If it had not been debunked, the video could have sparked panic and anxiety amongst Singaporeans. Fake news has the potential to undermine us from within, and is a key challenge that has led MINDEF to focus more on Psychological Defence.

 

Moreover, the growing number of Singaporeans who pursue work and education opportunities abroad may have to wrestle with dissenting views more squarely. Foreign business partners, schoolmates or friends may at times express fundamental disagreements with Singapore's decisions, policies and actions. They could even persuade you to adopt their viewpoint at the expense of supporting our national interests. Psychological resilience on the part of each individual is being decisive in withstanding such pressures.

 

I read an opinion piece on Total Defence earlier this year, where Channel News Asia editor Jaime Ho rightly pointed out how defence today entails Singaporeans "thinking for ourselves" and "standing up for ourselves". This is Psychological Defence - appreciating our vulnerabilities and challenges, advancing our values and interests, being able to spot mistruths, and standing up for Singapore. Just as our threats extend beyond the military realm, so must our deterrence. In addition to a credible military force, we need a psychologically resilient people, able to withstand crisis or viral attacks, and not be rattled. If someone comments negatively about Singapore and our immediate response is not to verify the facts, but to instead condemn Singapore and worse, spread the untruths, we are creating for ourselves a hole in our defence that our adversaries would not hesitate to jump at and widen the divide. I am glad to see that Singaporeans, such as those behind the online site "Confirm?" which runs quizzes on issues relating to Singapore, have taken the initiative to try and help those around them understand our principles, positions and policies better, preventing them from falling prey to fake news and untruths. 

 

I have elaborated on Social and Psychological Defence because threats in these domains are very real, but often unapparent. They have a creeping yet significant impact on our ability to defend Singapore. In the other pillars of our Total Defence, Singaporeans are our first defenders too. Take Military Defence for example. Enlisting in the SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) is one way many women, new citizens and first-generation Permanent Residents have stepped up to serve. To address Dr Teo Ho Pin's query, since the SAFVC was launched in 2014, we have trained over 600 volunteers and deployed them to various roles. In 2018, volunteers will be able to serve in 15 additional roles across the SAF.

 

Many are also contributing to Civil Defence. To prevent a terror attack for example, Mr Charnjit Singh, chairman of the Community Emergency and Engagement Committee  in Telok Blangah, worked with other volunteers to conduct regular patrols on our trains. In MINDEF and the SAF, we are equipping our personnel to respond to crises in their personal capacities too. Most of our servicemen who undergo Basic Military Training (BMT) learn some first aid and CPR-AED skills, as do our SAFVC Volunteers. Mr Rajendran Mathan Prasath is a commendable example of someone who has not only stepped up to do more for Military Defence by joining the SAFVC, but used the skills acquired during his training to contribute to Civil Defence while off-duty. In April last year, he performed CPR on an elderly lady suffering a cardiac arrest. In the face of terrorism, we have developed a Community Response Module to supplement the skills that our personnel like Mr Rajendran possess. It has been rolled out in the BMT curriculum, and in the next two years, all MINDEF and SAF personnel will be required to go through this module. It complements the SGSecure effort, and better prepares our servicemen to be active community responders.

 

Many are also contributing to Civil Defence. To prevent a terror attack for example, Mr Charnjit Singh, chairman of the Community Emergency and Engagement Committee  in Telok Blangah, worked with other volunteers to conduct regular patrols on our trains. In MINDEF and the SAF, we are equipping our personnel to respond to crises in their personal capacities too. Most of our servicemen who undergo Basic Military Training (BMT) learn some first aid and CPR-AED skills, as do our SAFVC Volunteers. Mr Rajendran Mathan Prasath is a commendable example of someone who has not only stepped up to do more for Military Defence by joining the SAFVC, but used the skills acquired during his training to contribute to Civil Defence while off-duty. In April last year, he performed CPR on an elderly lady suffering a cardiac arrest. In the face of terrorism, we have developed a Community Response Module to supplement the skills that our personnel like Mr Rajendran possess. It has been rolled out in the BMT curriculum, and in the next two years, all MINDEF and SAF personnel will be required to go through this module. It complements the SGSecure effort, and better prepares our servicemen to be active community responders.

 

Engaging Youth and Families

 

MINDEF, alongside our partners, will continue to encourage different groups of Singaporeans to contribute in concrete ways to Total Defence.

 

We are constantly exploring new and innovative ways to engage our youth. Mr Baey Yam Keng asked how we are doing so. The "Guardians of the City" (GOTC) card game launched in 2017 is one way through which we are helping our youth understand the terror threat facing Singapore, and how they can respond. This year, we have given out over 38,000 decks of the game to all Secondary Two students, and schools have also organised GOTC cohort experiences. Mr Mohamed Shahmir Anwar, a secondary school teacher who facilitated the game and conducted reflection sessions for his students, shared that the students both enjoyed it and learnt valuable lessons on Total Defence. To quote him, "this game is something different, something exciting... the students want to try it because it is interactive… Because games are so relatable to them, it is a good platform to teach them about Total Defence." Other interactive tools to bring Total Defence to life for our youth include a Total Defence puzzle that was developed in collaboration with agencies across government and creatives at SPH THINK. It has been distributed to schools, SAF camps and community centres. Various organisations, especially schools, have found the puzzle to be a useful learning resource.

 

MINDEF also has more specific programmes for our young recruits. I fully agree with Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef that besides physical training, it is important to prepare our recruits psychologically in a changing security environment. Beyond engaging future recruits as part of our outreach to students, there is a comprehensive plan to strengthen their physical and psychological resilience when they enlist. This is infused in various aspects of the full-time National Service (NS) experience. One part of this is National Education activities and milestone events that help them understand what our security challenges are, what we are defending and why, and what we must do to continue keeping Singapore safe and secure. These include experiential visits to defence-related heritage sites, the weapon presentation ceremony and the 24km route march from Changi to Marina Bay. As they march past iconic landmarks in Singapore, they are reminded of what they are training to protect. The route march also symbolically reverses the Prisoners-of-War route of defeat from the city to Changi after Singapore fell to our invaders during World War II. The soldiers march to their graduation parade at Marina Bay today. It represents their resolve to never again let Singapore fall. Besides these events and activities, it is the overall full-time NS experience - building strong bonds with their mates and commanders and experiencing values in action demonstrated by their commanders - that strengthens our recruits psychologically. With understanding and conviction comes the resilience to protect our home even in the face of new threats and challenges.

 

Families are key pillars of support for our national servicemen. Ms Joan Pereira had asked what MINDEF is doing to engage families. The SAF has been engaging families of national servicemen through events such as milestone parades, unit family days and open houses, and also provides them with information on NS. Through the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD), we also partner organisations such as Families for Life and the Centre for Fathering to engage families on NS and Total Defence. Activities we have had include the "Celebrating NS50" picnic and Dads for Life Camp last year. ACCORD has also conducted focus group discussions with women to gather feedback on how we can better support our servicemen and their families. In this way, families can not only support national servicemen in their NS journey, but appreciate the role they themselves play in Total Defence too.

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, Mr Chairman Sir, if each one of us understands what Singapore stands for, and is committed to protecting our way of life, we will be able to deter and overcome sinister attempts to shake our unity and confidence. Besides the individuals that I have highlighted today, there are many others who are putting Total Defence into action in their everyday lives - by giving their best during NS training, securing their personal devices, learning first aid, donating blood, and taking up new skills. MINDEF will continually work towards strengthening this whole-of-society effort. With a strong Total Defence, we have every reason to be hopeful and confident in Singapore's future.