It was surely a question his aides had prepared him for. The Defence Minister, Teo Chee Hean, was on Thursday yet again justifying to Parliament why there was a need to increase defence spending to $11.45 billion despite the economic downturn. This makes up a quarter of government spending.
Irene Ng (PAP-Tampines) asked: “Should the Defence Ministry be having a feast, while the other ministries, and indeed the entire economy suffer from famine?”
The current policy is to spend up to 6% of GDP on defence, come what may.
In answering the MPs, the Minister gave a negative example of Canada, which cut back on defence drastically after the Cold War only to find themselves lacking tanks when their troops were deployed to the Afghan war.
However the crux of his argument was this: “A steady budget through both good and difficult economic times sends a strong signal of our resolve to defend ourselves.”
This is not the first time the government has made this argument. So I take it that this is the main reason why defence spending keeps increasing even when the country is suffering economically. It is not because the threat level has gone up, or they are revamping their “3G” army. It is purely to send a signal.
A very expensive signal indeed.
Just for the record, I am a strong supporter of a robust self-defence capability. I accept that the Defence Ministry will always take up the lion’s share of the government budget because military hardware is expensive.
But I think we should drop this policy of using our defence budget to send signals to potential adversaries. It is imprudent, untargeted and unlikely to achieve its desired results. (No, I’m not talking about the Jobs Credit Scheme.)
In fact, if we can demonstrate to our potential adversaries that even if the defence budget is cut, the SAF can still maintain the same or higher level of operational readiness, that would send an even stronger signal to them. They would know that even if they impose trade sanctions or a naval blockade on us, we are still a poison shrimp that they would not attempt to swallow.