National Service in Singapore: Army Daze Separating the Boys From the Men

BY JUDE CHAN

It’s a common gripe among women in Singapore: put a bunch of Singaporean men together and the conversation would inevitably gravitate towards National Service (NS) – no matter how many years past 20 they are, or if they were meeting for the first time. And inextricably, the wives and girlfriends would find their eyes rolling to nestle momentarily at the back of their heads.

Singapore’s conscript army legally mandates that all able-bodied males are to enrol for a 2-year-long military stint once they reach 18 years old, serving either in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Police Force (SPF), or Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) as full-time national servicemen (NSF).

Following this full-time service, they are required to fulfil a reservist obligation as operationally-ready National Servicemen (NSmen), up to 40 years old for enlisted men and 50 years old for officers. Reservist training for active NSmen typically consists of an annual Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) and an In-Camp Training (ICT) for up to three weeks each year.

Effectively, that means all Singaporean men are bound to the military for a big part – often the best parts – of their lives. No wonder they love to talk about it, whether it is to reminisce or to complain.

So, the next time a Singaporean man goes on and on again about “the best/worst time of his life,” resist the temptation to walk away from the table (or to “one punch one kill” him), and listen – not to what he says, but how he says it.

Indeed, a man’s attitude towards National Service in Singapore can tell you a lot about him.

The Grass Is Greener… Than The Uniform
“Singaporean males were discriminated against by the government because of the compulsory national service and many years of reservist obligations afterwards,” Mr Alex Liang told the BBC in its column, Twenty readers who switched nationalities.

Mr Liang left Singapore at the age of 21, moving to the UK where he is now a citizen, because he “gave two years and four months of [his] life to serve in the army and [his] reward is to be treated like a second-class citizen” as a result of Singapore’s robust migrant worker policies.

I winced when I read his comments, which have spread like wildfire via social media. And I recoiled in horror when I realised a not-too-small section of Singaporeans found that his opinions “struck a chord” with their own sentiments regarding NS.

Commenting on his personal website Alvinology, Alvin objected to the regimentation and being “subjected to silly school boy hair check at least once a year.” NSmen are expected to turn up with proper haircuts at their annual in-camp training.

In addition to the inconvenience of being required by law to inform the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) each time an operationally-ready National Serviceman travels out of the country for more than 24 hours, the popular local blogger felt it was unfair to expect everyone to pass their annual fitness test. Failing which, NSmen are required to attend up to 20 sessions of physical training to improve their fitness so they might eventually pass their IPPT.

“My health and my fitness are my own choices in life which I prefer to take my own responsibility for,” Alvin added. “I could have better spent the time bonding with my son.”

Army Daze
There’s a reason playwright Michael Chiang’s 1996 comedy, Army Daze, portraying a group of army recruits from different social classes and cultural backgrounds, was a hit. More recently, director Jack Neo’s 2012 comedy, Ah Boys To Men, also revolving around the lives of a group of army recruits, rose to become the country’s highest-grossing Singaporean film of all time, ringing in some S$6.3 million (US$5.09 million) at the box office.

According to box office revenue tracker Box Office Mojo, its 2013 sequel, Ah Boys To Men 2, is currently the second highest-grossing film to be screened in Singapore this year. Behind only Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man 3, Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 2 has so far raked in more than Despicable Me 2, Man of Steel, and Fast & Furious 6.

It’s proven: army stories are popular among Singaporeans. And I reckon it is not because we find National Service to be a form of institutionalised discrimination against Singaporean men, as Mr Alex Liang claims.

The Army Daze and Ah Boys To Men movies hit the bullseye because they resonate with every Singaporean son. We recognise the stereotypical caricatures presented, and even relate to some of the protagonists’ predicaments.

Yes, Overseas Notifications are a hassle (whoever could remember to send an SMS to MINDEF in the midst of all that excitement at the airport?), as are schoolboy haircuts and IPPT. But these inconveniences are a small price to pay for Singapore’s sovereignty, and it seems almost juvenile and foolish for us to gripe about them.

Because We Love Our Land…
Singapore’s S$12.3 billion (US$9.88 billion) projected defence budget for FY2013 is the biggest in Southeast Asia. Per capita, the Little Red Dot has one of the highest defence spending in the world. Never mind that the country has only seen one “armed conflict” since its independence in 1965.

That incident lasted only minutes, when an elite team from the Singapore Armed Forces Commandos stormed a commercial plane, SQ117, and took down four men who had hijacked the Singapore Airlines jet on 26 March, 1991. All four men were shot dead, and none of the hostages on board were harmed.

Yes, compared to career soldiers in the US, or conscript soldiers in Israel, for example, the actual wartime experience of Singapore’s soldiers are nothing to speak of, even laughable. Why waste billions of dollars and countless man-hours each year when our only “armed conflict” was a counter-terrorist manoeuvre?

Should not the money be spent on healthcare or education instead? Should not Singaporean men be freed from the slavery of National Service, so that we may spend more time bonding with our parents and grandparents, wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, dogs and cats?

But a country’s sovereignty is no laughing matter. And it should not be taken for granted. The rising tension in the South China Sea involving several claimants, some belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and other Asian countries, may not directly involve Singapore. It is still a close-to-home reminder that having an effective military to back up that most basic of claims of any state, sovereignty over territory, counts as does economic power to back it up.

Sure, Singapore has always chosen diplomatic means and international or regional forums for pursuing claims or resolving disputes wherever possible and wherever other parties agree to, following international rule of law, but as they say, speak softly and carry a big stick.

Yes, we have had only one armed conflict. And National Service plays a critical role in ensuring we keep it that way.

To be sure, Singapore’s National Service system is far from perfect. And there have been many complaints: it disrupts our education, our work, and our lives; it could be more efficient; it forces our young men to labour for a negligible allowance; it enslaves Singaporean men to regimentation until they are at least 40 years old.

But it could be worse. And more importantly, it is necessary.

Life as a National Serviceman can be tough. (“The best welfare is good training,” as some of our warrant officers like to say.) And it demands more than a bit of personal sacrifice. Depending on who you ask, it could be the best or the worst time in the life of a Singaporean male.

One of my favourite activities is to listen (read: eavesdrop) when other Singaporean men talk about National Service. Like it or not, the fact is every male Singaporean has to go through it, barring the few who do their best to get the lowest possible Physical Employment Status (PES) so they can concentrate on the own commitments, then boast about it on social media.

How each individual responds to the various challenges that NS serves up is what separates the boys from the men. It also gives you an idea of how he is likely to respond to other challenges that inevitably come up in life, be it at home as a husband and father, or at the workplace as a colleague.

It is, after all, called National Service. But from some of the conversations, one cannot help but wonder if we’re turning into a nation of self-serving individuals.

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