It is not coincidental that both Singapore and the Singapore Armed Forces are celebrating their golden jubilees this year. The symbiosis of national and military survival binds them together inextricably. Without Independence, the SAF would have been unnecessary; without the SAF, that independence would have been ephemeral perhaps. For 50 years now, the SAF has underpinned a city-state's quest to prove that size is not destiny. Indeed, their common mission resonates with a stubborn refusal to heed the ancient dictum that the strong will do what they will, and the weak must accept what they must.
The SAF, which started life in 1965 with two wooden ships and no tanks or warplanes, is emblematic of a Singapore whose only natural resource was a harbour. Half a century later, the geography of military and economic power has changed in Singapore's favour. The key reason is that the SAF is a people's army, its ranks replenished every year by national servicemen who see conscription as an uncoerced period of personal service to the nation. This is how Singapore has overcome the demographic odds stacked against its survival without incurring injurious expenditure on a standing army which also would have depleted the manpower necessary for its economic growth. National service, socialised into a marker of identity, attests to a nation's capacity to mobilise one and all to will itself into being.
The future holds unfolding challenges. A military exists ultimately to prevent foes from breaching national borders pertaining to land, sea, air and cyberspace. The security of land borders is sacrosanct, but no less important is Singapore's dependence on unfettered access to seaborne trade. Here, the navy's littoral mission vessels will play a critical role in securing the country's economic lifeline and protecting its sea lines of communication. Likewise, the upgrading of Singapore's ageing fleet of F-16s is necessary to keep the skies safe for a city-state whose vulnerability to attack from the air is a fact of its geography. Cyberspace, a new frontier, needs cyber warriors who can man the borders of online defence with the same vigilance demanded on older fronts.
However, its enemies today are not only traditional militaries with a hostile intent but include the new international militia of extremism, which spreads irredentist ideologies in the guise of religion. These ideas are designed to weaken societies from within so that they could collapse even without open acts of violence, which are pursued nonetheless in many cases. Here, the philosophy of Total Defence complements the SAF's mission to safeguard Singapore's way of life without external influence, intervention or attack. Each Singaporean owes it to herself or himself to help preserve that overall mission.