Distinguished guests, including my good friend Lieutenant General (Ret) Rhys Jones, who have kindly joined us this morning, it is always a pleasure to come back to APPSMO to speak to you and to share with you some of the insights that we have today. First, let me thank Ambassador Barry Desker for inviting me back here, and let me wish a warm welcome to our foreign guests from all over the region and different parts of the world. Thank you also for joining us to celebrate Singapore’s 49th birthday.
APPSMO was started some 16 years back with a very simple set of aims. First and foremost, it was a chance for upcoming military leaders to take a break from your work and to reflect on your profession. Second, it was started to allow you to have the opportunity to acquire new perspectives by meeting people from other countries in an informal environment, so that you can frankly explore the challenges of the profession and also discuss some of the geostrategic issues that are of concern to all of us. Last but not least, APPSMO was conceived to allow a new generation of military leaders to build ties amongst themselves. One should not underestimate how important this is going forward. For many generations of APPSMO participants, I think the most valuable thing they took away was not just the chance to relax and the new perspectives that they acquired, but most importantly, the friendships that they have built. On many occasions, we have seen how such friendships have translated into tangible results in operational realms, and allowed people to work together in a crisis situation. I hope this year’s APPSMO will similarly provide an opportunity for its participants to achieve the same three goals.
Today, we live in a very interesting environment, if not challenging environment. Globalization and rapid economic development, particularly in Asia, have led to an increasing mix of people across borders, bringing people together and yet causing new challenges along the way. There is intense economic competition for many countries. Domestically, they face a lot of challenges managing the tensions within the country with regard to jobs and income inequality, providing fertile ground for domestic security issues to arise. On the international front, the competition for resources to sustain economic development continues. In this era of rapid development, within the society, you often see the restructuring of the existing societal links and societal models. On yet another level, you can see a restructuring of the established regional and global order. All these present new challenges for the military profession.
Let me recap the conversation that I had with last year’s APPSMO participants. We talked about the four ‘R’s being issues of concern – race, religion, resources and rights. These four sets of issues remain as relevant today. Let me elaborate how they will continue to present challenges to our region at a time of rapid economic development. Regardless of whether you are doing well or not doing well, these four sets of Rs remain. For countries that are not doing well, the first thing that they realize is that they face increasing domestic political pressure to protect their markets. When income inequality widens within a society, there will always be racial and perhaps religious undertones. For many countries, the main goal has always been not to overlay racial and religious fault lines over socio-economic fault lines. Unfortunately, for many countries in the region, the socio-economic fault lines overlay the racial and religious ones. This is a dangerous combination. For those who are not doing well, there will always be the fear of falling behind and there will be calls for the government to do something more for them. It is not easy to resist political pressure. For those who are not doing well, there will also be constraints on their leaders’ abilities to deal with external issues confidently. Often, when a country is not doing well, it exacerbates the pressure on leaders, who can be tempted to divert attention elsewhere, externally. This is a dangerous combination.
In today’s interconnected world, we also see the importance of external influences into the domestic politics of a country. If we just look at the recent news on what is happening in Gaza, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, the issue in Syria and the issue with ISIS, these are by any normal definitions far away from our shores. Yet at the same time, we see the emergence of such forces playing a part in the domestic situation. Some countries have seen their own people joining the fight in Syria. Other countries have seen their own domestic population all riled up by the situation in Gaza, and people taking sides. This presents added challenges to the domestic security situation. But none of us can be insulated from such forces in an interconnected world. The cause may not be directly relevant to a country but it will directly or indirectly impact the course and future of the country. So these are some of the challenges for those who are doing not so well, whether absolutely or relatively.
But even for those countries who are doing well, there are challenges. For rapidly developing economies, the first concern is always the issue of resources – how do I continue to secure resources to sustain the growth momentum, and how do I secure the lifelines for my own domestic growth? When it comes to such issues, they cannot be handled by individual countries alone. The lifelines of most countries, if not all the countries in South East Asia, transcend the ocean and airways of the world. We are all interconnected in some ways. This is an opportunity for cooperation, yet at the same time, it presents challenges when people compete for resources – or supposedly unclaimed resources – in the region. Yet there is another set of dangers for those who are doing extremely well. For those countries doing extremely well, there is always a temptation to right the perceived wrongs of history.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that regardless of whether you are doing well or not doing well, there seem to present evergreen challenges to security along the lines of race, religion, the fight for resources and the fight to assert one’s rights, historically or otherwise. These are the challenges facing our geopolitical situation at this point in time. Then, the question is what the militaries can do? What can you all, as military professionals, contribute positively and constructively to this conversation? Many years ago, I was educated in Fort Leavenworth in the US. One of the first messages drummed into all of us then, as young officers, was that the military is only one of the four instruments of power. They have a catchy acronym called DIME, to make sure that we all remember the four dimensions of national power. They call them diplomatic, informational, military and economic power.
Today, I will attempt to be a good student of Fort Leavenworth and use the DIME framework to share what the military can do in the current environment. The most important lesson that Fort Leavenworth taught us was that the military is but one of the instruments of power and that the application of military force should be the last resort and not for all recourse. Let me repeat – the application of military force should be the last resort and not for all recourse.
Let me start with ‘Diplomatic’. In my view, the military community has a unique and distinct advantage over political leaders. The military community has the unique advantage of growing up together and knowing each other for many years, often for more than the number of years that political leaders get to know each other. The military should take advantage of these established links to provide added channels of communication for the political masters, because you understand each other, and you have the opportunity to understand each other from young. You can help to reduce misunderstanding. You can help to interpret correctly the intention of the other party without second guessing. This is very important. Often, diplomats may not get it absolutely right because they do not have the same depth of the relationship with their counterparts. What we hope, through such forums and dialogues, is that military leaders can grow up together, forge those bonds, help to reduce misunderstanding and help to reduce the uncertainties faced in the diplomatic world.
Second, ‘Informational’, but I am going to tweak that a little bit and also change it to ‘Institutional’. On the informational side, people hear what politicians say, but more importantly, people watch what the militaries do. The militaries can provide a great sense of assurance, or the militaries can provide added complications to the already angsty situation. It requires leadership to provide that positive momentum to help calm nerves when things are going wrong. More importantly, the militaries can help to build institutions to help stabilize situations and prevent conflicts. For many countries, especially the mighty and strong, there will always be a temptation to use might to get their way. But collectively, it is better to adhere to institutional norms and international laws than to selectively use and apply international laws when it suits us. So the question is, will this current generation of military leaders transcend what was achieved in the past? Will might be the norm? Or will solid institutions allow us to build a new future together? Building institutions is never easy. When institutions are not mature, we should develop a web of bilateral and multilateral ties to make up for what we may lack institutionally.
There are advantages to having complementary multilateral institutions to overcome bilateral inadequacies. The Shangri-La Dialogue, APPSMO and many such dialogues are useful platforms for countries and officers to meet, even if their respective countries are not on the best terms. There are mutual platforms that we should leverage on to build those ties, to keep the channels of communications open so that we can build a better future together. When possible, we should continue to strengthen the formal and informal channels of communications and maintain contacts with each other in order to prevent issues from arising in the first place.
Many observers always ask, why do you military guys keep meeting and keep talking when there is no problem? Actually, the trick is to keep talking and keep meeting to make sure that there is no problem. By the time there is a problem, you can start meeting and talking, but it will be too late. The job of the military is to preempt crises and not just manage crises.
But what about the military dimension of our national power? And this is an area where the military officers can do much. No doubt we have our differences now and then. But if you take a step back and take a wider perspective, there are many things that we need to work together and can work together on. Most importantly, we can build capacity together. For example, in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), there is much that we can do to solve and manage common challenges. This is the reason why Singapore is committed to play our part, to stand up the Regional HADR Coordination Centre to manage and help coordinate the frequent HADR challenges that emerge in this region. What about counter-terrorism? This is also another area where we can work together on information sharing, and most importantly, avoiding a situation where the terrorists use the gaps in bilateral cooperation and exploit them for their own benefits. Terrorism is not a domestic issue. Terrorism is, more often than not, an international issue that requires international cooperation.
Increasingly, we are also seeing challenges in the areas of maritime, aviation and land border security. Again, these are not domestic issues. These are issues which militaries can play an important and active part to help resolve. This is also the reason why Singapore is committed to our Information Fusion Centre in Changi. We want to provide the platform for countries to come together, to work together, to manage our common challenges. Going forward, there will be other challenges, from cyber security, to securing our lines of communications, to the physical security of our trade routes and our lines of supply and so forth. If you look at the geography of South East Asia, there is no better place to start talking about regional cooperation to collectively secure our lines of communication. But in order for us to do this, we must transcend our own parochial interests to be truly able to work as a team.
Last but not least is the economic dimension. You may find this quite strange. What does economics have to do with the military? Actually, the military has the responsibility to apply the economic resources at its disposal judiciously. If the military does not apply these resources judiciously, it will impose a burden on our respective nations. If the military does not apply the resources at our disposal judiciously, it will not inspire confidence from our public to support the military. On the other hand, if the military mixes its interests with economic interests, it is a recipe for trouble. The military must always remember that we are but an instrument of national power, and not the other way round. When we muster our resources well and harness them well, we will do justice to the faith that our societies have placed in us.
So ladies and gentlemen, we live in interesting times. Rapid development has led to new challenges for all of us, challenges that we may not be able to overcome individually but challenges that require us to put our hearts and minds together to overcome collectively. Previous generations of leaders have shown the wisdom to eschew conflict for development, to better the lives of our people. It is thus incumbent upon the new generation of leaders to rise to new challenges with the same goal in mind – to create a conducive environment for better lives. So, I hope during this series of discussion, you have a chance to explore new perspectives and to forge new bonds.
If I may, I will just leave you with a final concluding thought – what is our measure of success for the region and for the military? For many military leaders, they jokingly say that they are type-A personalities, and that fighting and winning is a measure of success. However, to draw a line from Sun Tzu, the true measure of success is not to fight and win, but to win without fighting. Our measure of success is not how we subdue others using our might. That is a small measure of success. The greater measure of success is how we win over others, secure our interests without the use of might, how we eschew conflicts but benefit all, how we use diplomatic instruments to get channels working to prevent conflicts in the first place, how we build institutions that last beyond our lifetime for a more stable environment, how we identify areas of operations within the military realm to build ties and generate positive capacities to manage the common challenges, and how we muster our resources so that we bear faith with the people who have supported us.
On that note, I wish you a fruitful discussion and all the very best for the 16th APPSMO.