Embracing an Evolving Security Environment


Heng Chee How/Singapore Ministry of Defence

The Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers (APPSMO) was established in 1999 by then-President S.R. Nathan of Singapore. He envisioned a “summer camp” to bring together military officers from across the Asia-Pacific and beyond to discuss defense and security issues in a frank and open manner and to forge relationships. The idea then, as now, is that an informal setting such as APPSMO would be the most valuable opportunity for officers to get to know their counterparts and benefit from the candid discussions that might not be possible during official meetings.

Over the past two decades, APPSMO has developed into an established feature in the regional calendar. The program has brought together experts, practitioners and participants from over 30 countries around the world, including Europe and the Middle East. Such inclusive platforms for military officers to exchange views have become more essential as we confront the numerous security challenges in this period of geopolitical flux.


Three trends in the evolving security environment are particularly pertinent.

The first is great power competition. In recent years, the United States-China rivalry has intensified. Antagonism between the two countries now covers several areas beyond defense, including trade, technology and finance. One particular domain in which the U.S. and China are competing for leadership is technology. In our region, we are also witnessing the emergence, or reemergence, of regional partnerships, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, and more recently, a trilateral security pact involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. As these initiatives develop, we hope that they will contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional security architecture.

The second trend is new, nontraditional security challenges that have emerged. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example and climate change is another. Many countries were unprepared to deal with the COVID-19 challenge, and the cost of getting caught unprepared again will indeed be great for any nontraditional challenges yet to emerge.

The third is the disruption and increasing security risks brought by technology and changes in technology. While technological advances have given rise to new opportunities, these have also come with attendant risks. These same technologies have enabled threat actors to exploit vulnerabilities with greater ease and at a lower cost.

The three trends have one thing in common, and that is a strong nexus between technology and security. Technology is a battlefield in great power competition. But it also offers the means to address the challenges of a pandemic and climate change. It brings both enormous opportunities and risks.

Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How views a flight training simulator at the Republic of Singapore Air Force Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Command. SINGAPORE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE


With the onslaught of the pandemic, the pace of digitalization has accelerated, making societies and countries more vulnerable to threats in this domain. We have become even more dependent on technology, and as our dependency grows, new challenges will surface. All militaries will need to adapt to respond effectively. So, what can militaries do? I propose three lines of effort.

First, armed forces should rethink traditional concepts of defense. In conventional warfare, there are constants that we often take for granted: a clearly identified adversary, an accountable chain of command and defined objectives, just to name a few. Against novel threats in domains such as cyber and information, these constants are not the same. For example, when faced with attacks from the cyber or information domains, how can we be sure of the perpetrator? How do we differentiate between a criminal attack and an attack from a hostile political actor? Then, how do we respond, and who should respond? I believe militaries will need to review their doctrines, structures and capabilities to be able to respond effectively to these threats in this changed environment.

In other emerging areas such as autonomous systems, biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI), militaries will need to confront questions on ethics and legality. For instance, while AI can act as a force multiplier, there can also be serious consequences if AI behaves in an unanticipated manner. In light of this, Singapore established preliminary guiding principles of responsible, safe, reliable and robust in the defense sector to promote and advance the development and use of AI.

Second, there needs to be greater cooperation between the public and private sectors to enable effective national responses. Upending our traditional conceptions of warfare, today’s conflicts often circumvent geographical borders and take place outside the bounds of clear battlefields. Aggressors exploit soft targets, which are less readily defended. Threat actors have used social media to spread false information, embark on influence campaigns and polarize and tear apart societies. Multiethnic and multireligious societies such as Singapore are particularly vulnerable. 

It is for this reason that Singapore takes a national approach to cybersecurity strategy. The Cyber Security Agency of Singapore, supported by homefront and defense agencies, works closely with the private sector to protect networks and critical information infrastructures. 

Public-private partnerships can also help defense and military establishments leverage opportunities afforded by technology to become more capable and effective. Doing so would enable defense establishments to grow their talent pools, cross-share ideas and innovate, as well as optimize resources to tackle collective challenges to the economy and society.

Singaporean, Thai and
U.S. Soldiers spread
concrete at a Thai school during a Cobra Gold exercise. PETTY OFFICER 1ST CLASS JULIO RIVERA/U.S. NAVY


Third, given the transnational nature of these emerging threats, greater multilateral cooperation will be key to dealing with them effectively. In support of civilian agencies, defense establishments could work together to foster common rules, norms and principles in cyber, information, AI and other emerging domains. In the defense sector, militaries are well-positioned to leverage existing relationships and networks with international partners to tackle transnational security challenges. We therefore encourage our partners in the region and beyond to fully leverage platforms such as the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus and the Experts’ Working Groups.

Singapore has always been a strong advocate for multilateral cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity, in line with our interest to promote an open and rules-based order. We continue to build on existing networks to enhance practical military cooperation in key domains. In this vein, and as a timely response to the threats in the cyber and information domains, we announced in 2021 that Singapore would establish the ADMM Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence. The center will promote information sharing and research to help the region develop a deeper shared understanding of cyber malware, misinformation and disinformation threats that have implications for defense. Moving forward, it is important for all defense establishments to build on this strong foundation of practical cooperation within the region and explore opportunities to collaborate in new and emerging domains.


Today, there are more reasons than ever for countries to work together to tackle common threats. I also hope that armed forces will consider ways to adapt and respond to the widening range of security challenges.

Countries, like friends, may share common interests and perspectives. At the same time, they may not always agree with each other on issues, particularly when conflicting national interests are at stake. The peaceful resolution of disputes requires leaders who are open and willing to talk through differences. This is where strong relationships that you build with your counterparts — a familiar voice at the other end of the phone or, in our current context, a familiar face on the other side of the screen — can make a huge difference.

This is the long-term value of APPSMO: to bolster our regional security architecture by fostering friendships and cooperation among military officers.  

Singapore Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How delivered this speech in October 2021 during the 22nd Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers, held virtually by Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format. 

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