Singapore, surrounded by countries that have experienced a souring of relations with the USA since the 2001 terrorist attacks, faces new challenges in the defence arena which have prompted the city-state to bolster ties with other Asian countries. Singapore minister for defence Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean spoke to Brendan Sobie prior to his keynote address Sunday at the Asia Pacific Security Conference.

Q: How has Singapore's defence strategy changed since September 2001?

A: As a small state, security has always been a top priority for Singapore. Without security there is no foundation for economic development and social progress. So defence continues to be of the highest priority.

We recognise that the spectrum of threats has expanded significantly after September 11, especially with the emergence of a trans-national terrorist threat which is global in scope and strategic in its objectives. Our strategy for homeland defence has had to adapt to the new situation. One key change has been to move away from the organisational stovepipes to adopting an inter-agency approach, so that the resources of all our security agencies can be fully optimised in dealing with this multi-faceted threat.

Q. How has Singapore revised its military aircraft acquisition roadmap to take into account the new environment?

A: Our military aircraft acquisition plans remain relevant and on track. Our upgraded F-5s and F-16s continue to meet our needs while we have commenced evaluating new generation fighters as replacements for the A-4s.

Q: Why does Singapore need a new-generation fighter?

A: The new generation fighter will replace the A-4 Skyhawks, which are nearing the end of their operational usefulness after more than 20 years of RSAF [Republic of Singapore Air Force] service. We had already commenced this process of renewal with the replacement of one squadron of A-4s by the F-16Ds which will be delivered later this year.

Q. Why does Singapore need to participate in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme?

A: We are considering the JSF as a potential candidate to meet the RSAF's long-term operational requirements for a multi-role fighter. Our participation in the JSF programme as a Security Cooperation Participant will give Singapore early access to operational and technical information related to the JSF, so that later we can make a better-informed decision on whether to acquire this platform. Technology is critical to the SAF and our collaboration with technologically advanced countries such as the United States, on programmes such as the JSF, allow us to make optimal use of technology as a force multiplier.

Q. What kind of importance do you place on pan Asian cooperation?

A: In the post-September 11 era, pan-Asian cooperation has become even more important as we realise that we are all facing the same threat, and that the threat recognises no boundaries. As a small and open state, Singapore is more keenly aware that the fight against trans-national problems such as terrorism, piracy, drugs and people smuggling, can be effective only if there is multi-national cooperation. We are glad that many of the regional organisations have gone beyond their original raison d'être to also undertake efforts to combat terrorism. It is good that the regional organisations such as ASEAN, the ARF and APEC have adapted to make themselves more relevant to the changing political and security environment.

Q. What are the plans for increasing cooperation with other South-East Asian countries?

A: Southeast Asian countries have been cooperating to deal with various challenges since the inception of ASEAN in 1967. Since then ASEAN has doubled to ten countries. The challenges too have increased. The need as well as the opportunities for cooperation have grown very significantly in recent years. We have seen some payoffs in the responses to the threat of terrorism and SARS.

ASEAN leaders made a key statement when they signed the Bali Concord II at the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali last October. This set out a framework for closer ASEAN integration and cooperation in the economic, security and cultural sectors. It was a reflection of the political will of the ASEAN leaders to strengthen ASEAN cooperation. ASEAN also adopted the 2 + X approach where any two ASEAN countries which are ready can proceed with an initiative, with the other countries joining in when they choose to do so. Beyond what we do in ASEAN, regional countries will also have to build on their bilateral cooperation so that there is a strong and extensive web of cooperation binding the whole region together.

Q. How do you see Singapore's relationship with the USA and major European countries evolving over the next few years?

A: Singapore and the US have very good relations, based on a history of cooperation and similar interests. Our defence relations in particular are based on a shared strategic perspective and belief that the presence of US forces in the region contributes to regional peace and stability. To this end, we had signed an MOU in 1990 to allow transiting US forces to use our facilities. Last October, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and President George Bush agreed to enhance our relationship by working towards a Framework Agreement for the Promotion of a Strategic Cooperation Partnership in Defence and Security. The Framework Agreement, which is now being negotiated, will allow us to place in a wider context the ongoing cooperation that we have in the defence and security areas with the US and to work on new areas of cooperation such as counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation.

The threats of terrorism and WMD proliferation are also pressing concerns for many European countries. This common outlook similarly opens up areas where we can cooperate more closely with countries in Europe, such as in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). For example, our officials recently took part in a PSI exercise in Germany. At the bilateral level, Singapore has good defence ties with a number of European countries, notably the UK, France and Sweden. There are extensive military interactions which include joint training and exercises, and there are technology collaborations and policy dialogues. These relationships are likely to grow, as there are quite substantive benefits for all concerned.

Q What does hosting Asian Aerospace and the Asia Pacific Security Conference mean for Singapore?

A: Singapore is very pleased to be the host of these important events. The biennial Asian Aerospace exhibition is one of the largest airshows in the world, and the largest in Asia.

AA2004 will provide a good platform for leading aerospace and defence companies to showcase their latest developments in defence technology. The Asia Pacific Security Conference (APSEC) offers a forum to promote dialogue and understanding, and to discuss security issues of common interest and concern. Both events will bring in large numbers of senior defence officials and military leaders from all over the world, and it promises to be a most interesting time for all the participants.

Source: Flight Daily News