LKY’s 1966 poisonous shrimp analogy & how it laid the foundation of today’s SAF

In a world of “big fish eat small fish; small fish eat shrimps”, Singapore must be a poisonous shrimp in order to survive, said founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew back in 1966.

“There are various types of shrimps. Some shrimps stay alive… Species in nature develop defence mechanisms. Some shrimps are poisonous: they sting. If you eat them, you will get digestive upsets,” he said to an audience at the University of Singapore on Singapore’s place in the world.

Given the difference in size, Singapore was merely a shrimp in the global sea, swimming with the fishes and in order to survive and to co-exist with them, Singapore must be a poisonous shrimp.

The foundation of Singapore Armed Forces

A Ministry of Defence article chronicled the rise of a credible military force in Singapore to deal with hostile regional environment in the immediate years after independence and chronicled how it turned from a poisonous shrimp and into a dolphin.

It wrote that the first generation of the SAF provided a basic defence – or the poisonous shrimp stage, small yet deadly.

By the early 1980s, the SAF, in its second generation, morphed into a “porcupine” and the third generation saw SAF upgraded its capabilities into an advanced networked force, becoming a dolphin that is “agile, intelligent, quick and capable of killing more ferocious sharks with its razor sharp teeth when provoked”.

The significance of the analogy amidst current events

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains a stark reminder that we should never take sovereignty for granted.

And that’s why for a “shrimp” like Singapore, everyone has a part to play and expect no one else to defend our land.

A small country which cannot protect itself puts its sovereignty and its people at risk, said Minister K Shanmugam in 2014.

For if the second largest country in Europe, with an armed force of 90,000 active personnel and another 1 million in reserve, complete with a functioning state with an elected President and Parliament can be invaded, what are Singapore’s chances?

It’s a timely reminder for Singaporeans: What we cannot defend, we cannot call our own.

Cover photo credit: Remembering Lee Kuan Yew and MINDEF Facebook page