The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
SINGAPORE – MILITARY
On this page:
- Military Capability
- Defence White Paper
- Defence Relations
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is the military component of the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) of the Republic of Singapore. It is one of the most capable and well-equipped militaries in South-East Asia. The SAF has three services: the Singapore Army (45,000 troops), the Republic of Singapore Air Force (8,000 troops, RSAF), and the Republic of Singapore Navy (7,000 troops, RSN). The SAF protects the interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Singapore from external threats.
The Singapore Army is by far the largest of the services and consists primarily of infantry battalions with supporting artillery, armour, engineer and logistics units. The main duties of the RSAF are air defence, support of ground forces, and long-range surveillance and tracking. The RSN patrols the country’s coastal waters and protects shipping lanes. There are also two paramilitary forces: the Peoples’ Defence Force, composed mainly of reservists, and the National Cadet Corps, consisting of high-school and college students. The police force is responsible for internal security, traffic management, and crime prevention. It is assisted by a Civil Defence Force which consists of reservists and volunteers.
The mission of the Ministry of Defence and the Singapore Armed Forces is to enhance the city-state's peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor. The Minister for Defence, Dr Eng Hen Ng, explains further: "Security is a constant need, so that we can ensure our sovereignty and way of life."
The position of Chief of Defence Force (previously Chief of the General Staff) is held by Melvyn Ong. Supporting the combat role of the SAF are other governmental organisations of MINDEF such as the Defence Policy Group, the Defence Management Group, the Defence Technology Group, and the Defence Science & Technology Agency. Within these groups are the Central Manpower Base (CMPB), Defence Cyber Organisation, and the Military Security Department (MSD). Domestic technology companies also play a role in building up Singapore's military capabilities, particularly the government-linked ST Engineering (formerly known as Chartered Industries of Singapore), which designed and built some of the SAF's more advanced weaponry and equipment based on specific local requirements which may be expensive for foreign companies to adapt and produce.
The SAF is being developed to respond to a wide range of issues in both conventional and unconventional warfare. The Defence Science and Technology Agency is responsible for procuring resources for the military. The geographic restrictions of Singapore mean that the SAF must plan to fully repulse an attack, as they cannot fall back and re-group. The small size of the population has also affected the way the SAF has been designed, with a small active force and a large number of reserves. To find out how powerful Singapore is, watch the next video.
After more than 100 years of British colonial rule and two tumultuous years under the Malaysian Federation, Singapore was declared a sovereign and independent nation in 1965. An urgent priority after independence was to build up Singapore's own defence capability. Singapore then had only two infantry battalions of 50 officers and some 1,000 men and two ships. There was no air force. Singapore's armed forces had to be created virtually from scratch in order to provide effective security for the new country. Thus, the SAF was officially established in 1965 and evolved into its current version of a National Service-based (conscription) armed force in 1967.
National Service (NS) is a term that describes the national policy in Singapore that requires all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents to serve a period of compulsory service in the uniformed services when they reach the age of majority, although women may also volunteer. Conscripts make up the majority of the power in the SAF. Though not required to perform military service, the number of women in the SAF has been increasing; since 1989 they have been allowed to fill military vocations formerly reserved for men.
The Singapore Naval White Ensign was hoisted with pride on 5 May 1967, signalling that Singapore finally had a navy to call its own. The first iteration of the air force was formed: it started with eight Cessna 172-H aircraft to train its pilots. By October 1971, Britain pulled its military out of Singapore, leaving behind only a small British, Australian and New Zealand force as a token military presence. With the British forces withdrawn, Tengah, Seletar, Sembawang and Changi airbases were entrusted to the Singaporeans.
The 2nd Generation SAF, from the early 80s to late 90s, saw the upgrading and modernising of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Post-9/11, there was a shift in the security landscape, which widened to include non-conventional threats such as terrorism and piracy. Resource constraints and the emergence of advanced warfighting technologies also drove the SAF to rethink its development trajectory. To meet new security challenges effectively, the SAF embarked on a 3rd Generation (3G SAF) transformation journey in 2004 and continues today to upgrade its capabilities into an advanced networked force. Watch the video below to learn about the introduction of compulsory National Service in the city-state.
Today, the SAF is respected as strong and professional armed forces. The SAF has developed leading-edge capabilities, networked together as an integrated fighting system. The SAF’s well-trained and professional soldiers make use of networks to sense faster, manoeuvre forces effectively, and apply combat power precisely across the battlefield. For example, the SAF demonstrated the ability to carry out integrated strike in Exercise FORGING SABRE, where air and ground troops relayed information over networks to an integrated command post, which then directed shooters to neutralise targets. The whole fighting system was linked in real-time, allowing the SAF to strike targets with a swifter and deadlier punch than previously possible.
The SAF acknowledges that technology is crucial for overcoming the limitations of the city-state's small population. Military expenditure is stable between 3.1% and 3.3% of gross domestic product for the past five years, which is high by regional standards. Singapore has channelled this money into sophisticated and superior weaponry. Research and experimentation to develop a technological edge began as early as 1971, even though the SAF then had only rudimentary capabilities. The effort began with a three-person team. At present, MINDEF is one of the largest employers of engineers and scientists in Singapore and the SAF continues to devote considerable resources to defence research and development, and experimentation.
The SAF has a diverse and largely modern mix of domestically-produced and imported weapons. Singapore has the most developed arms industry in Southeast Asia and is the largest importer of weapons. Since 2010, the U.S. is the chief supplier of arms to Singapore, followed by a diverse array of countries, including France, Germany and Spain. See the next video for a peak into the Singapore Army.
Explore the following resources to learn more about the capability of the city-state's armed forces.
- MothershipSG | Singapore's 1st Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo spills tea on SAF scholars
- The Aspen Institute | A Conversation with the Minister of Defense of Singapore on the Asia-Pacific
- TRT World | Singapore Defence Strategy: The country spends more than $11 billion a year
- CNA | Singapore Armed Forces must restructure to meet challenges: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen
- Al Jazeera English | How Singapore became a global military industry hub
- CNA | Singapore developing improved system to detect maritime threats 'as early and as far away' as possible
- Defense News | Singapore tries to normalize military training schedule after pandemic disruption
- Shephard Media | Singapore issues P30 pistol as new sidearm
- CNA | Singapore developing improved system to detect maritime threats 'as early and as far away' as possible
- CNA | ‘Significant and steady investments’ in defence required to keep Singapore’s future secure: Ng Eng Hen
- The Diplomat | What Does Singapore’s New Defense Budget Say About the Country’s Security Thinking?
The SAF are widely viewed as the best equipped in Southeast Asia. The Army was largely based on conscripts and reservists with a small cadre of professional soldiers, while the Air Force and Navy were primarily comprised of well-trained professionals. The city-state's defence policy is fundamentally based on the twin pillars of deterrence and diplomacy. The first pillar of deterrence is provided by developing a strong and capable SAF and a resilient Singapore, through the institutions of National Service and Total Defence, as well as by taking a prudent and stable approach to defence spending.
The second pillar of defence is diplomacy, built by establishing strong and friendly ties through extensive interactions and cooperation with defence establishments and armed forces in the region and around the world. The SAF is also a responsible member of the international community in helping to uphold and shape a regional and international system in which all countries abide by international rules and norms. Singapore keenly understands that small states can survive and thrive only in a world where sovereignty is respected and where interactions between states are governed by the rule of law.
Total Defence involves every Singaporean playing a part, individually and collectively, to build a strong, secure and cohesive nation. There are six aspects to defence: military, civil, economic, social, digital and psychological. Total Defence has seen the city-state through SARS, the fall-out from the 9/11 attacks and the economic crises of 1997 and 2008, the haze, and the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years. It has become a fundamental aspect of national unity. In the following video, hear from Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen as he highlights the Singaporean power of Total Defence in overcoming grave challenges and emerging stronger as one people.
The SAF conducts military exercises regularly on mainland Singapore in areas such as Marsiling, Lim Chu Kang, Mandai, as well as on offshore islands such as Pulau Sudong, Pulau Senang and Pulau Pawai. Besides conducting military exercises locally, the SAF also conducts unilateral, bilateral and multilateral exercises with other militaries all over the world.
MINDEF has sought to build a strong network of bilateral relationships within our region and around the world. The SAF enjoys significant interactions with other militaries, which range from exchanges of visits and joint exercises to attendance of each other's courses. This diverse network of defence relationships contributes to regional and international security by fostering understanding, building confidence, and facilitating practical cooperation between militaries to tackle common security challenges. It also allows the SAF to learn and acquire best practices from counterparts all over the world, as well as to benefit from access to overseas training areas and defence technology cooperation.
The recent joint exercise with the Australian Defence Force (called Exercise Wallaby 2021) was held at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA), Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory. It was scaled down due to the COVID-10 pandemic, with restrictions on contact between the 1,000 SAF personnel and 500 ADF personnel participating. Yet the exercise still featured large-scale coordinated missions to strengthen air-land-sea integration. These included live-firing by AH-64D Apache helicopters, air-drops from C-130 transport aircraft, ship-to-shore exercises, deck-landing by CH-47F Chinook helicopters and replenishment serials from RSS Endeavour, an Endurance-class Landing Ship Tank. With a land area approximately four times the size of Singapore, SWBTA allows the SAF to conduct large-scale integrated training across all three Services to exercise its range of capabilities and maintain training currency for its units.
The resumption of Exercise Wallaby this year, after the suspension in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is testament to the trust and cooperation between our armed forces, as well as the close and long-standing bilateral defence relations between Singapore and Australia. Inaugurated in 1990, Exercise Wallaby provides realistic and challenging training opportunities for the SAF to hone its operational competencies. The SAF and the ADF have a long history of military cooperation, with extensive interactions through bilateral and multilateral exercises, professional exchanges, cross attendance of courses, and joint operational deployments. In particular, steady progress has been made in the joint development of training areas and advanced training facilities in Central and Northern Queensland under the Singapore-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The Singaporean Government has invested A$2.2 billion into the military base where there is space to conduct military drills. For an overview of Exercise Wallaby, check out the following video.
The SAF is taking critical steps to protect Singapore against new threats in an uncertain world. As part of the Next Generation SAF, the SAF is (1) building up a new cyber command to deal with cyber-attacks and hybrid wars, (2) developing itself as a global tech player and (3) building a new SAFTI City. The cyber command will oversee policies, train cyber units to monitor and defend networks 24/7 from threats, and will assess vulnerabilities, and detect attempted intrusions and breaches in the system. The SAF is also committed to become a global defence tech player by investing in robotics, analytics and artificial intelligence. This will allow the SAF to gain better leverage on technology to combat new threats. Also, the creation of the new SAFTI City reflects the SAF’s commitment to train against conventional threats and terrorism. It will comprise of both conventional and urban terrain and seeks to allow any battalion to fight across different terrains as they would do in real life missions.
To learn more about Singapore’s defence policy, explore the resources below.
- MINDEF | Government Agencies Tackle Maritime Security Threats at Exercise Highcrest 2021
- MINDEF | Australian Chief of Army Receives Prestigious Military Award
- The Straits Times | SAF resumes Exercise Wallaby in Australia; scaled down with 580 troops
- MINDEF: News Release | Factsheet - About Total Defence
- ASPI: The Strategist | Australia should invite more defence partners to use its northern training areas
- The Diplomat | Australia-Singapore Defense Relations in the Spotlight With New Military Training Agreement
- Indo-Pacific Strategic Digest | The future of the security relationship between Singapore and Australia
Foreign Defence Relations
Singapore is part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), whose other members include the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Designed to replace the former defence role of the British in Singapore and Malaysia and connect the Commonwealth members, the arrangement obliges members to consult in the event of external threat against Malaysia and Singapore. To this end, an Integrated Air Defence System is set up in Butterworth, Malaysia involving the stationing of officers from the five countries at its headquarters.
Since its formation, the FPDA has conducted multilateral military exercises involving all five member states with operational command alternating between Singapore and Malaysia. They are now yearly fixtures that have grown in complexity: combining air, sea, and land components to address both conventional and non-conventional threats. Whilst most exercises take place off the coast of Malaysia and Singapore, they have also extended into the South China Sea. Non-FPDA representatives are often invited to observe the drills.
On 18 October 2021, FPDA celebrated its 50th anniversary with joint air and naval displays involving the ships and aircraft of the member countries. These were observed by Singaporean Defence Minister Ng and the High Commissioners of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Prior to this, a two-week joint exercise had taken place, known as Exercise Bersama Gold, in honour of the FPDA's golden jubilee. It was the first FPDA exercise held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and involved 2,600 military personnel, air and maritime sea training exercises, and a virtual jungle warfare workshop. Participating ships included the Australian amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra and New Zealand's HMNZS Aotearoa replenishment tanker. The British destroyer HMS Diamond also took part in the exercise but missed the final days due to technical issues.
For more than 55 years, the United States and Singapore have forged an expansive and enduring relationship based on mutual economic interests, robust security and defence cooperation, and enduring people-to-people ties. Singapore and the U.S. have strong defence relations. The defence establishments of Singapore and the US interact regularly through military-to-military exchanges, training, cross-attendance of courses, and defence technology cooperation.
In 2019, both countries renewed the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Regarding United States Use of Facilities in Singapore and signed an MOU concerning the establishment of an RSAF Fighter Training Detachment at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Earlier this year, both sides announced the U.S. Department of Defense's selection – in consultation with the Singapore Ministry of Defence – of Ebbing Air National Guard Base, Arkansas, as the preferred location to host the RSAF's future F-35B fighter aircraft, as well as its F-16 fighter training detachment which will be relocated from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. In August 2021, an MOU concerning cooperation in cyberspace was also concluded to institutionalise cyber defence cooperation between the two establishments. While maintaining military links with the U.S., close cooperation also continues with China, which can be seen in the following video.
Singapore and Taiwan have deep historical ties on defence and security. Lacking space for large-scale exercises and manoeuvres, Singapore long relied on Taiwan’s support for their annual joint training exercises, the cornerstone of bilateral military-to-military cooperation, called Operation Starlight (also known as Hsing Kuang). In 1975, President Chiang Ching-kuo and Premier Lee Kuan Yew signed the agreement, wherein Singaporean troops could conduct training exercises in Taiwan. These exercises, engaging as many as 10,000 troops at any one time, provided officers a chance to simulate wartime conditions more closely and gain experience in the command and control of operations involving several battalions.
Singapore’s policy toward Taiwan is an example of the tightrope that Southeast Asian countries must walk in the recent era of an increasingly tense regional climate. Although the Taiwan-Singapore defence ties are still strong, there are signs Singapore might back out of the decades old bilateral military exchanges. Explore the following articles to for more information on the city-state's defence relations.
- Taipei Times | Presidential Office mum on ‘Starlight’
- Reflections on the Royal Navy’s Indo-Pacific engagement (iiss.org)
- Singapore-US defence relations: Enhancing security, benefiting region, Opinion News & Top Stories - The Straits Times
- The Straits Times | Singapore hosts Indonesian soldiers in first physical bilateral drills here since Covid-19 pandemic began
- The Straits Times | Five-power defence pact's challenges 50 years on
- ASPI: The Strategist | How long can Singapore walk the tightrope between the US and China?
- The ADF and SAF enhanced their relationship through combined service in Uruzgan. What present and future opportunities are there for the two services to work together, from both an operational and training perspective?
- Singapore is a member of the FPDA, which stems back to British influence in the region. With the changing geo-political situation, is it time that Singapore look to build other military relationships with regional partners? What does this mean for the ADF and how can we contribute at our level?
- What is the ADF’s opportunity for partnering with the SAF noting their technological capabilities, geo-political location and alignment, as well as their Defence agreements, for our mutual benefit?
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The Cove Team