While few expect missiles to start flying anytime soon, no one dismisses that possibility especially if tensions continue to escalate. China's rulers, in order to distract the people from domestic troubles arising from a deteriorating economy, could find it expedient to rally the country against an external foe. In the US, a more hawkish president may be elected later this year which could tip the already tense situation into outright war.
And neither side is backing down. Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama called for China to halt the militarisation of the South China Sea and reiterated the US' right to operate freely in international waters surrounding the islands there. China responded by deploying batteries of surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated radar systems, and fighter jets in the area. Admiral Harry Harris, chief of U.S. Pacific Command accused China of seeking hegemony in East Asia and told the House Armed Services Committee: “I need weapon systems of increase lethality that go faster, go further and are more survivable.” In reply, China conducted its first-ever naval training exercise with Cambodia with three warships and more than 700 sailors docked at Sihanoukville port, warning that the US will pay “a very heavy price” if it meddles in the region's developments.
The islands, believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves, are claimed by several countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and, of course, China. South China Sea is also an important shipping route which sees $5 trillion of goods passing through it every year.
While Singapore is not a claimant to the islands, we are, nevertheless, very much involved in the dispute. There is no doubt where our political sentiments lay in the controversy. Tommy Koh, Singapore's ambassador-at-large, called on China to act with “wisdom and self-restraint”, adding that ASEAN would not yield to China's belligerent demand on the South China Sea.
In military terms, Singapore remains firmly under the aegis of the Americans. When he visited Singapore in 2012, then defence secretary Leon Panetta announced that the US would shift 60 percent of its naval capabilities and assets to the Pacific by 2020. This includes the US Navy deploying four littoral combat ships – warships engineered to fight in coastal areas – to Singapore in 2017. The US is also sending its class of Logistics Support Vessels to be based in Singapore later this year. Colonel Eric Shirley of US Army's 8th Theater Sustainment Command announced: “Right now we are targeting Singapore as a potential future home that could best support the interest of the Pacific Command, and all the partner nations in the region.”
Such an arrangement sets up a potentially complicated dynamic, to put it delicately, if armed conflict were to break out between the US and China. When guns start to blaze, can we be certain that the Chinese nationals within our borders – with various estimates of the number ranging from 500,000 to 1 million – will stand by and watch passively?
Even if a tiny fraction of them were to assert their unhappiness at the military situation, it would be disastrous for our internal security. Historian and China expert Professor Wang Gungwu has raised the alarm over such a situation (although he focuses on the sentiments of local Singaporeans of Chinese descent).
In such a scenario, what will the government do? Has the PAP thought through such a scenario? What are its plans to prevent Chinese nationalist tensions from threatening our internal security? And if matters boil over, how do we contain the massive disruption? Already, we were woefully unprepared in containing just a few hundred South Asia nationals when they rioted in Little India in 2013.
On a broader note, have our security been already compromised with a lax immigration policy? In fact, are our foreign and immigration policies setting Singapore up for a no-win situation? The mass importation of guest workers has meant that many foreign nationals here work in sensitive sectors such as hospitals, IT, mass transportation, and even law and order.
Worse, there is not in place a system that effectively vets in-coming foreign workers. We have already had two mass arrests of suspected terrorists from Bangladesh – 27 in late 2015 and 8 more in April this year.
When I challenged the Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to tighten the immigration policy, he lashed out: “So what does Dr Chee suggest? That we say no to all foreign workers?” Such is the typical straw man argument for which the PAP has great fondness.
No one is advocating that we close our doors to foreigners. We must, however, do a better job at screening those who wish to come into Singapore to work. (And while we're at it, let us also re-examine why our economy has become so reliant on foreign workers.) The SDP's alternative proposal to remedy these problems is a good place to start. (Read our paper here.)
The government recently rolled out the SG Secure programme to “help people understand the evolving security landscape and new threats”. Yes, but does the PAP understand that its “two-faced” foreign and immigration policies, is making Singapore's internal security even more vulnerable?
At the minimum, it is disingenuous of the government to warn Singaporeans of terror threats – Minister Grace Fu even predicts that an attack is a question of when not if – when it leaves our back door wide open to such danger.
In the words of the Chinese academic: Will Singapore remain safe?
This piece was sent to the Straits Times but was rejected. It is published here with amendments.