Petir Explains: Why Total Defence is so important now more than ever

As Total Defence posters go, this year’s is exceptionally strong:

It’s bright, optimistic, and doesn’t focus on uniformed, big-armed men holding big arms.

Rather, the poster shows how everyday Singaporeans can unite to defend that which is precious to us. It shows how everyone can build the six pillars of Total Defence — Military, Civil, Economic, Social, Psychological and Digital — through their everyday actions.

It isn’t just things that we typically associate with defending one’s country. 

We at particularly like how the poster shows care for Singaporeans with disabilities and that it encourages people to start lifelong learning, volunteer in the community and buy local produce.  

So many little things that we can do individually, but together as one Singapore — very much in line with this year’s Total Defence campaign theme, “Together We Keep Singapore Strong”.

This year’s tagline —”Let’s play our part and be ready for crisis and disruptions”— is a timely clarion call too, considering the recent supply chain disruptions, ongoing pandemic and uncertain geopolitical and economic times ahead.

We’ve been thinking about the 2023 poster and Minister Ng’s tweet this week, wondering just how the PAP Government adapted Total Defense over the years to keep Singapore secure.

We need Total Defence

There have always been threats to Singapore. 

Outright armed conflict, for example, during World War Two and the Japanese Occupation as well as communist terrorism and revolution attempts during the decades-long Cold War. 

Today, Singapore has by far Southeast Asia’s best air force and navy, and our military is one of the most powerful in the world. This makes it very hard for foreign powers to force us into bad bargains and difficult decisions — and easier for us to maintain our sovereignty and peaceful coexistence when world superpowers fight.

““We have no desire to take sides or to be caught in the crossfire, we stand for our national interests, and so far, we have maintained independence and space for ourselves,” Minister Ng stated in 2020, echoing our nation’s commitment to peace and rules-based multilateralism.

But all this military hardware might as well be soft pillows should Singaporeans not want to fight for Singapore. That is why Total Defence emphasises the participation of every Singaporean in building a strong Singapore that is able to deal with any crisis. 

A part for everyone and the first five pillars

Successive generations of PAP leaders have realised these truths. Total Defence was implemented in 1984 to not only rally us behind our growing army, but also to highlight how when defending Singapore, there’s a part for everyone: 

Note how the poster to the left, which is one of the very first Total Defence posters from 1984, has no Total Defence logo. 

The option on the top right of the poster to the right is now familiar to us today, though. This poster was for a voting campaign to let all Singaporeans help choose the logo for Total Defence — the easy, everyday effort of these mid-80s voters left behind a lasting legacy for us.    

And note how there’s a consistent use of five (arrows, circles and sides) in that 1985 poster to the right. That is because there were initially five pillars of Total Defence. The deterrence of our Military Defence was (and remains) just one pillar.

Civil Defence involves Singaporeans being alert and responding to threats and crises around us. It can be through learning life-saving skills like CPR and AED-use as well as alerting the authorities when we spot suspicious activities. 

It overlaps with Social Defence, which involves building bonds so that all Singaporeans stand united. We do need to trust each other despite our differences, be it through respecting Singapore’s other races and religions, befriending new citizens or helping the less fortunate. Diversity means strength.

For example, learning from our shared experiences and heritage fosters unity. 

“It shapes our identity, reminds us constantly of who we are and where we came from, and what are the ties that bind us together. It helps us in our mindset, and our actions in our daily lives,” said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong this Total Defence Day, noting that the Founders’ Memorial will open in 2027 for such a purpose.

Psychological Defence builds up the will of our people to stand up for Singapore and defend the Singaporean way of life. One way to do so? Cultivating mental resilience to pick up the pieces after a crisis.

Economic Defence is about keeping Singapore’s economy competitive and attractive — this helps the nation recover quickly after all manner of crisis. Embracing lifelong learning and upgrading our skills are how we can personally contribute.

Together, these five pillars helped every Singaporean, together with the PAP Government, face off decades of threats — and kept Singapore a world-class city.

Digital Defence

Total Defence, that said, is a “living concept”. War, as the saying goes, always changes. So with the world becoming increasingly digitalised, the PAP Government added a sixth pillar, Digital Defence, in 2019.

Digital Defence involves being Secure, Alert and Responsible online.

“It requires Singaporeans to a) practise good cybersecurity habits, b) guard against fake news and disinformation, and c) consider the impact of our actions on the community,” explained the Ministry of Defence at that time (Feb 15, 2019). 

 “Digital Defence was necessary against false information on vaccinations and the spread of unfounded malicious rumours.Singaporeans themselves spoke out against misleading articles and fake news,” said Minister Ng in his 2022 Total Defence Day message. 

For instance, NTU undergraduates created groups on WhatsApp and Facebook to teach other Singaporeans, especially older ones, how to fact-check online articles and debunk false information. 

On a wider scale, nations can also fall prey to hostile information campaigns that serve to disrupt confidence and instil fear. 

A deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky surrendering went viral before Facebook and YouTube took it down in March 2022.

On WhatsApp, foreign influence operations are declaring that Singapore needs to kowtow to world superpowers — or else.  

This is why the SAF recently inaugurated the Digital and Intelligence Service which will play a pivotal role in bolstering Singapore’s capabilities and defences for the digital pillar.

The Total Defence logo was also refreshed in 2019 to reflect this new pillar:

Together we keep Singapore strong

Today, threats come in many forms aside from military ones. 

The Asian financial crisis and a difficult global economy, SARS and Covid-19, supply chain shortages, terrorist radicalisation, fake news and disinformation — all these are past, present and future disruptions to our way of life. 

What of the future of Total Defence, though?

The PAP Government is committed to it for the long term. It will, frankly, be particularly important for these coming years.

The pandemic is receding, yes, but we are entering a new and shaky era of geopolitics. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war will likely be a long one. As will its accompanying supply disruptions for logistics as well as raw materials like (to name a few) oil, wheat and gas. The climate crisis will also worsen this.  

Economic and Civil Defence are needed against these: funds enough to keep these imports affordable for us, as well as the know-how to sustainably generate enough of our own food and energy.

Digital, Psychological, and Social Defence are also needed as tensions between world superpowers escalate and the battle to win hearts and minds plays out online. 

Total Defence will let us remain staunchly neutral on the international stage. 

Plus, it will let Singaporeans stay as one united, diverse people on the local front during this potential crisis and other ones which will inevitably come  — with this Total Defence commitment, Singaporeans will not break our bonds of fellowship. Rather, all we will break is bread together.

Images via: MINDEF/Facebook, SG101, Ng Eng Hen/Facebook,, MCI, MINDEF