Brexit Vote Shows Rising Far-Right Nationalism, Singapore Says

  • Defence Minister says Brexit hearkens to flawed good-old-days
  • Expects South China Sea ruling to escalate regional actions

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union reflected a resurgence of far-right nationalism that was adding pressure on countries to shore up their borders, said Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

The challenge for Singapore in the face of the Brexit vote, Ng said, will be to stay neutral and not judge those countries facing an increased desire for national identity, and the growing anti-globalization sentiment that was driving them to be more assertive about protecting their markets.

"There is a resurgence of what pundits and political analysts call far-right, a rising nationalism, which is a reaction hearkened to so-called ‘good old days’, not remembering that the good old days also have many, many bad points," Ng told reporters at a media conference ahead of Singapore Armed Forces day. "We want to be neutral, in terms of not being judgmental because this is as history goes. But nonetheless, it is a challenge," he said.

For a QuickTake explainer on Britain and the EU, click here.

As terrorism continues to represent a clear and present threat, Ng, 57, said no country was immune to the defects of home-grown terrorism, and emphasized the need for international cooperation to combat the heightened threat of global terrorism.

"You can monitor closely your borders, you can even close off your borders but homegrown terrorism is something else. It is very hard to protect against lone wolves or wolf-pack attacks -- somebody who is radicalized, who has really not been contacted physically by somebody outside their own country," he said.

Military Cooperation

To aid counter-terrorism efforts, Ng said the Singapore Armed Forces would set up an Army Deployment Force, a special high-readiness unit to sharpen Singapore’s ability to respond to counter-terrorism threats, and also subdue terrorists in the event of an attack.

"The basic task for the ADF is the rapid response element, because speed is important in counter-terrorism," Ng said. "It is really not quite like conventional missions where you have time and you can have H plus whatever hour. This you have to respond in minutes, therefore it needs to be in a high readiness state to respond swiftly and decisively."

Ng also flagged more joint military exercises with other nations such as the ones recently carried out with Australia, New Zealand and Brunei to build greater confidence and trust among Singapore’s regional partners.

With the need for greater counter-terrorism cooperation as well as more direct exchanges between the Chinese military and the military forces of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Ng said Singapore would be willing to act as a facilitator between China and Asean. "The more we engage with China, I think the better for all of us" he said.

South China Sea

With the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague set to release its ruling on the validity of China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea on July 12, Ng urged China to speed up bilateral negotiations with other countries with claims over the waters to ease regional tensions.

“No responsible government can approach this on the basis that ‘Let’s hope that nothing happens even though the tensions are up’,” Ng said. "I expect the tribunal ruling will escalate actions and reactions," he said adding that "the quicker and the more resolute China deals with these issues bilaterally, I think it will calm tensions in the South China Sea."

Under President Xi Jinping, China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of land as it more strenuously asserted its South China Sea claims, straining ties with other nations including Vietnam and the Philippines, and exacerbating a rivalry with the U.S. for military influence in the western Pacific.

To read more about China’s maritime disputes, click here

Future Planning

Regarding future planning for the Singapore Armed Forces, Ng said that an evaluation for replacement of the city-state’s Super Puma helicopters was being finalized and would be announced soon, while Singapore’s Chinook helicopters were also scheduled for an upgrade. Ng said another challenge facing Singapore’s armed forces is the one-third reduction in manpower by 2030.

Beyond the planned expansion of the Changi and Tengah air bases, Ng said Singapore had a very good opportunity to build a modern ‘smart air base’ from scratch.

"Smart air bases means that you see more automation, for simple aspects like security of the air base; more unmanned systems. But beyond that, you can even launch and recover the planes using automated systems," he said.