The “poison shrimp” defence has long established the small, wealthy island nation of Singapore as one of south-east Asia’s premier strategic and economic linchpins, with some Australian commentators calling for Australia to embrace a similar posture in response to the rapidly changing geostrategic environment.
Learning the lessons of the Second World War, particularly the rapid progress of the Imperial Japanese Army sweeping down the Malay peninsula and the rapid capitulation of British and Commonwealth forces, Singapore has sought to establish itself and maintain its national sovereignty and integrity with radical fervor.
For former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the reality of Singapore’s size, location and proximity relative to the established and emerging powers of Asia meant that the small city-state needed to embrace a pragmatic yet fierce deterrent to potential hostilities.
“In a world where the big fish eat small fish and the small fish eat shrimps, Singapore must become a poisonous shrimp,” Lee Kuan Yew said famously.
This doctrine of assuming a poison shrimp stance in south-east Asia is particularly relevant given the city-state’s position at the confluence of the Straits of Malacca and the entrance to the increasingly contested South China Sea – two of the most tactically and strategically vital waterways of the 21st century.
This approach to national security is only going to become further enhanced as the regional balance of power continues to evolve rapidly, driven largely by the unwavering regional ambitions of Xi Jinping’s China.
Singapore has witnessed China’s continuing territorial reclamations in the contested South China Sea and rapidly developing a potent military capability to rival that of the US and its larger regional allies – Japan, South Korea and Australia – with great concern further influencing the city-state’s 21st century defence posture.
In response, Singapore has sought to balance the concepts of interdependence, self-reliance and distributed lethality across the Singaporean Armed Forces, which has resulted in a number of collaborative training and acquisition programs, with a pragmatic focus on developing robust regional partnerships with nations, including Australia.
Key components of this strategy include collaborative basing, training and capability aggregation arrangements, with partnerships like the Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative (ASMTI) playing a pivotal role in supporting the poison shrimp doctrine.
Singapore has also placed increased emphasis on a combination of national service and establishing and maintaining a capability edge over potential adversaries through heavy investment in key tactical and strategic platforms across the traditional air, land and sea domains, with multidomain and intelligence and cyber domains gaining increasing importance.
Establishing the qualitative edge
While regional partnerships serve as a central pillar of the poison shrimp doctrine, establishing and maintaining a qualitative edge over potential adversaries is a critical component. In a similar manner to Australia’s own strategic doctrine and posture, Singapore has invested heavily in a range of advanced capabilities and platforms.
Most recently, Singapore has signalled its intention to replace the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s ageing fleet of F-16s with the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) B variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to serve as the backbone of the RSAF’s future air combat capability.
This planned acquisition will serve to bring the nation in line with the United States and other key regional allies and partners, including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
While Singapore considered all variants of the F-35 platform, specific focus was placed on the specialised STOVL B variant given the geographic realities of Singapore and the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) A variant of the aircraft to meet the nation’s unique operational requirements.
The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) best articulated the strategic reasoning behind Singapore’s decision, stating:
“This proposed sale of F-35s will augment Singapore’s operational aircraft inventory and enhance its air-to-air and air-to-ground self-defense capability, adding to an effective deterrence to defend its borders and contribute to coalition operations with other allied and partner forces.”
A further example of this is Singapore’s recent acceptance of the first of four Invincible Class submarines built by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems in Germany, which is designed to provide the Republic of Singapore Navy with a leading-edge, regionally superior, conventionally powered submarine capable of patrolling and controlling the key tactical and strategic maritime environments.
Supporting this, the Singaporean Navy also operates six advanced, multimission frigates based on the French Navy’s La Feyette Class frigates as the core of the surface combat force, with plans to replace the Victory Class corvettes and the recent introduction of the Independence Class littoral mission vessels, serving a similar role to Australia’s future Arafura class vessels.
The Singaporean Army, despite its size, also enjoys a range of qualitative advantages over potential adversaries, deploying the latest in US and European weapons systems, ranging from Leopard 2SG main battle tanks, Hunter Infantry Fighting Vehicles, Lockheed Martin M142 HIMARS rocket and traditional gun-based advanced self-propelled artillery pieces.
Maximising manpower and collaborative training frameworks
With a comparatively small population when compared with its regional counterparts, Singapore also seeks to maximise the efficacy of its manpower, with national service playing a critical role in supporting the overall capability of the Singaporean Armed Forces.
The available manpower to the Singaporean Armed Forces includes 72,000 active personnel, with an estimated 1.4 million reserves currently living in Singapore all serving as a capability enhancing force multiplier.
A key component of Singapore’s strategy has long been focused on developing strong partnerships and interoperability with regional allies, of which Australia is at the top of the list as part of the ASMTI, which Defence states provides an “opportunity for Australia to build Defence capability and enhance its bilateral relationship with Singapore, while providing enduring economic benefits to central and north Queensland”.
Further supporting this is Singapore’s participation in the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FDPA) between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, which promotes closer military collaboration, integrated command and control and collective defence in the region.
This was best articulated by former Australian defence minister John Moore, who stated, “As an established multilateral security framework, the FPDA has a unique role in Asia. It is of strategic benefit to all member nations and, in Australia’s view, to the wider Asia-Pacific region.”
Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute summarised the predicament perfectly when he told Defence Connect: “We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
“In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders.”
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.