Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply 2016 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered in Parliament on 7 April 2016)

Cyber Defence – Low Thia Khiang

Madam, I note that the SAF established a Centralised Cyber Defence Operations Hub in 2013. Such capabilities are important today given the network centric nature of contemporary society and indeed military operations today. I have three sets of questions for MINDEF on these matters.

First, I would like to ask if MINDEF can assure the public on the readiness of the SAF to handle cyber defence by explaining the types of threats it seeks to address.

Cyber attacks need not simply be about conventional military operations. They can involve everything from gathering and corrupting sensitive information to disabling vulnerable civilian infrastructure such as public utilities, communications, financial systems, emergency and medical response, business infrastructure, and even transportation management systems.

These actions can disrupt society and make it susceptible to pressure. How does MINDEF’s cyber defence address these issues?

Second, what further capabilities do MINDEF intend to develop? How does MINDEF intend to ensure that Singapore is well protected? Further, like other military systems, cyber defence capabilities may raise suspicions and tensions with neighbours that can ultimately make the nation less secure. How does MINDEF plan to mitigate this risk as it develops its cyber defence capabilities?

Lastly, cyber defence tools are powerful and hard to detect. How does MINDEF ensure that there is sufficient oversight of its systems to prevent inappropriate use by either individuals or government agencies? Can MINDEF assure the public on this matter, such as by issuing an annual report or audit on cyber risks, breaches, and mitigation efforts?

Defence White Paper – Pritam Singh

Madam Chairperson, over a number of years, the publication of defence white papers have become an increasingly common phenomenon in the Asia-Pacific region. China issued its first one in 1998 and Japan in 2005. By informing members of the public about the immediate security environment, the strategic direction of the military, and  its core mission such white papers are very effective in enunciating why there is a need to have a strong and determined force that is able to defend the sovereignty of the country.

However, what is sometimes not so well understood is the impact such white papers can have on improving and building confidence and trust between countries. In fact, before the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper was launched, Australia briefed China and Indonesia, two strategic partners about its intentions. In an RSIS commentary this year, a local researcher noted that Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper sent a positive signal to Southeast Asia and potentially contributes to the region’s stability and peace. More than a decade ago, the ASEAN Regional Forum suggested that Defence White Papers be published and exchanged. It was quite telling that the former Minister of Defence, Mr Lee Boon Yang in 1995 quoted verbatim a section of the Australian Defence White Paper in this House, as a measure of good relations between the two countries. It is my view that the wider publication of such initiatives through a white paper would serve MINDEF’s interests, both nationally and internationally.

MINDEF as the largest consumer of the national budget will always be queried about the nature and scale of its defence expenditure. These demands will grow and are not likely to abate in the years to come. In fact, it is noteworthy that the section on MINDEF comprises only 8 pages of the Government’s Expenditure Control document for FY2016. In contrast the section on the Ministry of Law, a far smaller Ministry budget-wise, is more than 40 pages long.

There is no requirement for MINDEF to release any secret information in prospective white paper, but the current state of affairs is more than opaque, especially in an economic environment post-SG50 which ought to be marked by greater fiscal prudence in light of multiple national priorities, all worthy of equal consideration. A white paper will put into perspective MINDEF’s mission and requirements on the one hand, and its budgetary needs on the other, in the context of a small-state.

Finally Madam Chairperson, some years ago the Taiwanese government even released a comic book version of their white paper to cultivate an interest in military service among young readers. While I am not suggesting a need to do this, the point is that a white paper offers great flexibility for MINDEF to determine how best to employ them to get its message out. The Japanese experience with white papers is quite telling as it moved from a limited paper in 2005 to a much more comprehensive one last year. A MINDEF white paper can even be used to showcase the seriousness MINDEF takes its training safety regime, something I will talk about in my next cut.

NS Training System – Pritam Singh

Madam Chairperson, the National Service (NS) training system has come a long way, helped in no small part by MINDEF’s readiness to take onboard the inputs of NSmen and their families. It bears repeating that NSmen are frontline soldiers and training must be taken seriously. However, for some soldiers, there are areas in the NS training cycle that can be improved, subject to operational exigencies.

One suggestion is to consider how NSmen can be deployed to their NS units more quickly than before, ideally, not more than two years after their operationally-ready date. This would have the advantage of ensuring that fitness levels of NSmen remain relatively high with a less steep physical training curve when preparing for IPPT or ICTs. Secondly, I would like to seek an update from MINDEF on the mismatch between high and low-key ICTs for some NSmen. Some clock many low-key ICTs and fewer high-key ones, leading to a long wait before they are emplaced on the MINDEF reserve list. To what extent have SAF NS units been able to implement make-up high-key ICTs as recommended by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS)?

Finally, MINDEF has been generous towards NSmen over the years, topping up our CPF accounts through our NS journey. However, in view of the renewed impetus towards lifelong learning and particularly Skillsfuture, can I ask MINDEF to consider, when it next reviews its NS policies, to consider topping up the accounts of NSmen with additional Skillsfuture credits through the course of their NS training cycle, in recognition of their lifelong commitment towards National Service.

Training Safety – Pritam Singh

Madam Chairperson, one of the things that goes under the radar for many Singaporeans is the intensity at which the SAF plans and trains for war, and for operations other than war. This is not surprising as a lot of our training is done overseas in view of the shortage of training grounds, with the SAF going to places such as Germany, France, Australia, Thailand, India, Taiwan, Thailand, Brunei, New Zealand, and the US amongst others, in addition to ad-hoc exercises with countries like China.

It is inevitable that with such a high training tempo, accidents and mishaps can happen, in spite of the SAF’s best efforts. I would like to suggest that MINDEF consider ramping up publicity of its training safety efforts for the general public’s information. A section or a part of all open houses and public outreach campaigns can be dedicated for this purpose. While the information may not attract as many viewers as Leopard tank on display, it would be an important reflection of MINDEF’s commitment to safe and tough training in a realistic environment.

Compensation for SAF Personnel – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap

I have two suggestions and three clarifications on SAF compensation.

First, will MINDEF consider including psychological issues such as PTSD or depression arising from training or operations, in its definition of disability? These conditions can be debilitating over the long-term, and affect the ability to perform duties or work after leaving the service.

Second, Singapore spends large amounts on defence annually – how do we allocate funds to ensure that our NSFs and NSmen are adequately covered? How does MINDEF advise its members on SAF Group Insurance and ascertain that they are adequately insured? Will MINDEF consider covering the full cost of insurance or co-paying private insurance when citizens serve their National Service obligations?

Third, how does MINDEF assess the adequacy of the WICA-based compensation model? An injured or disabled person may need long-term care, equipment, or facilities that go beyond medical services or prosthetics. These may drain the family financially and emotionally, and may even require a family member to leave work to provide long-term care. How does MINDEF assess if the permanent loss of income and the cost of care for the lifetime of the disabled person are adequately covered?

Fourth, does the compensation framework take into consideration cases where injured service personnel are ineligible for insurance coverage after they leave the service, or are forced to pay much higher premiums?

Lastly, what is the total amount MINDEF set aside for compensation and support for long-term disability or death in this year’s budget?

Navy Vessels – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap

I am a strong believer of an inclusive and open SAF that is fair and just to all Singaporeans regardless of race, language and religion. As such, in the COS debate last year, I urge the Minister to seriously consider the possibility of ensuring that all Navy vessels are equipped with Halal-certified kitchen so that the Malay-Muslim will able to serve freely in the Navy vessels without any constraints.

I would like to seek an update from the Minister on whether Mindef has made any further progress on this matter, in making navy vessels more friendly to Malay-Muslim. If efforts have been made, how many vessels out of the total number currently in active service have Halal-certified kitchen?

I understand that SAF’s deployment of our NS soldiers is based on aptitude, abilities and commitment to Singapore. I would like to see the practical issues such as the installation of halal kitchen onboard a navy vessel can be addressed and resolved promptly so as not to further deprive and shatter the dreams of eligible Malay-Muslim Singaporeans from serving our nation in the navy onboard a navy vessel.