BY ISAAC NEO
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has remained “one of the least politically-oriented national military forces in Southeast Asia,” a phenomenon often attributed to “civil-military fusion”, with the military deeply integrated into the state administrative structure, in full alignment with the “values, interests, and national goals” of the civilian government. 
However, these are institutional explanations. What has been under-explored is how structural factors, such as international and domestic threats, affect relations between state, society, and the military and hence the level of civilian control over the military. A key proponent of this approach, Michael Desch, predicts that countries like Singapore, with historical experiences of high and persistent levels of internal and external threats, should suffer from degraded civilian control of the military (Table 1).
Yet, Singapore’s defence policies in response to its challenging threat environment have not led to this result. I argue this is due to three factors. Firstly, there is an effective demarcation of responses to threats, with civilian mechanisms and institutions utilized to tackle internal threats, while external threats are handled by the military. Secondly, the state positions the SAF as only one component of a comprehensive security strategy, maintaining primacy of civilian control over the SAF even when responding to issues that pose both an internal and external threat. Thirdly, the SAF is firmly integrated with the wider civilian society and administrative structure, civilianising the military sphere.
Responses to Internal and External Threats
After independence in 1965, the state identified two main internal threats which could endanger national sovereignty and public order by undermining domestic stability: communist insurgents, and volatile racial and religious tensions. Two main civilian mechanisms were used to manage them: 1) preventive detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and 2) the use of the Gurkha Contingent in internal policing. The use of the ISA under the Internal Security Department, which is itself under the Ministry of Home Affairs, shows how civilian mechanisms were employed exclusively for internal threats. The Gurkhas guarantee an internal security force comprised of foreign soldiers firmly under civilian control, while providing an additional layer of political protection against potential encroachment by the military, who might be tempted to step in should the police fail.
For external threats, implicitly acknowledged as possible aggression by Malaysia and Indonesia, the state sought to build up the SAF as a deterrent. It has done this through high and consistent military spending to acquire technologically advanced weapon systems, and through conscription to build a large civilian army. This, in turn, allows it to maintain a regional defence alliance (i.e. Five Power Defence Arrangements) to deter potential attacks.
Strategic Doctrine of Total Defence
The doctrine of Total Defence, introduced in 1984 to “unite all sectors of society…in defence of Singapore,” is comprised of six pillars: military, civil, economic, digital, social, and psychological defence. Crucially, military defence is subordinated to a broader notion of defence with responsibility shared amongst other civilian institutions like the Ministry of Education and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, which also have key roles to play through educational programs stressing social cohesion and through emergency exercises that build national resilience. Total Defence can be interpreted as a comprehensive notion of security, where responding to threats instead necessitates all six pillars working in tandem. The SAF does not bear the sole burden in this regard, and is therefore less likely to develop its own internally oriented security doctrine that could degrade civilian control of the military.
This is seen in the post 9/11 portrayal of “transnational terrorism” as both an internal and external threat to Singapore, necessitating whole-of-society responses and closer linkages between the military and civilian spheres. Civilian mechanisms are used to detain and rehabilitate individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities, while the military works with civilian agencies to gather intelligence, practice operational responses, and protect critical infrastructure. This all comes under the purview of the National Security Coordination Secretariat, which is firmly under civilian control. Hence, despite a convergence in responses to terrorism, there is little prospect of the military independently formulating internal security doctrines that could threaten civilian primacy, since they are incorporated under a broader counterterrorism strategy that demarcates specific responsibilities for civilian institutions and the military alike.
NS and the Development of Soldier-Scholars
The cultivation of a citizen army through National Service responds to both external and internal threats in two ways: 1) building a large defence force for deterrence, and 2) creating a national identity that cuts across ethnic, class, religious, and ideological lines, bolstering societal resilience against instability.
In addition, SAF scholarship schemes attract academically bright Singaporeans to become soldier-scholars, while a “dual-career scheme” allows soldier-scholars to be seconded to the Administrative Service, connecting the civilian and military elite domains. Many soldier-scholars have entered politics or senior public sector positions, where they influence strategic decisions and policymaking.
Together, NS and the development of soldier-scholars ensure the military is not just for external defence, but also has a vital role in nation-building and developing human resources for the civilian sector, contributing to a civilianisation of the military sphere. As a result, there is no natural political base for military leaders to appeal to should they even think of launching a coup, ensuring civilian control of the military.
The first implication relates to the increasing prevalence of cyber threats. Given they are arguably more transnational in nature than terrorism, will this break down the demarcation in threat responses and further integrate both civilian and military spheres? Secondly, many senior military members have joined the PAP, the ruling party since 1959. Will future political changes affect civil-military dynamics? For example, might former military leaders who lose in elections turn to the military as an alternative power base? These questions will require further research into the exact relationship between military and political leaders.
Isaac Neo is a MSc (Asian Studies) candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Nanyang Technological University. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences from National University of Singapore in 2019. This piece has been adapted from a research paper originally submitted for a class at RSIS, Comparative Civil-Military Relations: In Theory and Practice. His full paper can be accessed here.
 Huxley, T. (1993). The political role of the Singapore Armed Forces: Towards a military-administrative state? (Working Paper No. 279). Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.
 Tan, T. Y. (2001). Singapore: Civil-Military Fusion. In M. Alagappa (Ed.), Coercion and Governance: The Declining Political Role of the Military in Asia (pp. 278). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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