National Service ( NS): Time to Review this national sacred cow?


National Service (NS) came into being after the National Service (Amendment) act was passed in Parliament on 14 March 1967. NS has often been touted as a “rites of passage” when boys become real men.

However, many feel that amongst national “sacred cows”, this is one that deserves a serious look.

NS a bug-bear for many

For many Singaporean men, NS is a major bugbear as they feel that in the scheme of things, this “patriotic” duty has become too onerous and has even become a disadvantage. The Singaporean man’s life is put on hold for 2 years in the prime of his life ( not to mention the decade of reservist obligations after that). All this time while they are serving their nation, their fairer sex counterparts ( women) and non-Singaporeans are overtaking them in terms of seniority in the universities and at their work-place. Second generation male Permanent Residents (PRs) are in a different predicament but for the sake of simplicity will be treated here together with Singaporean men.

Whether we like to recognise it or not, there are employers who, all things being equal, would prefer an employee who does not have annual reservist obligations.

There is also a special breed of Singaporeans whose chosen careers value youth most eg sportsmen/ arts and culture, and for them, spending 2 years away and not being in touch regularly with their sports or artistic environment is as good as ( or as bad) sounding a death knell for them. Imagine Ian Thorpe or Nadal in uniform for 2 years and you know what I mean. It is more than just allowing one Joseph Schooling postponement of NS as there are many Schooling “wannabees” out there in our schools and perhaps out of 100 talented sportsmen, only a handful will eventually emerge to have the potential to be a champion.

It is (in a way) a numbers game.

Pertinent questions that need answers

Before I discuss my proposals, a few questions need to be answered:

1. What is the optimum size and composition of the SAF, taking into consideration Singapore’s geo-political situation and its demographics? Can either or both of SAF’s active and reservist components be smaller than its present configuration?

2.Is each National Service personnel (active and reservist) utilised optimally? Can we say (hand to heart) that the training schedule (barring unforeseen contingencies eg weather ) has been refined to such an extent that any reasonable person who was to go through the same program would find that the time and effort spent on it as worth the sacrifice

My proposals:

I postulate that with increased productivity and better planning, a smaller but just as effective SAF can exist without compromising national security:

1. NS be shortened to 1 year with BMT of 3 months. For the majority of NS conscripts, the remainder of the year will be to equip him with the skills to be an integral part of a effective unit. Better pre-enlistment planning by Mindef will reduce time wastage before and after NS so that he can go to university with the maximum hiatus of one year.

2. NS allowance should be pegged to market rate, perhaps this should commensurate with what a polytechnic graduate can expect to get ie $1500-1800. This puts his economic status at near-parity with his cohort.
The increase of the allowance to market rate may encourage PR’s who are sitting on the fence to volunteer (first gen PR) or at least deter others from renouncing their PR prior to NS.

3. Those who have been selected ( or volunteered) for Officer Cadet School /senior Non-Commissioned Officer school will need a longer NS liability of 1.5-2 years ( as responsibility is greater) but will be compensated with market rate allowances of $2300-2800 to better reflect society’s meritocratic values.

4. Courses conducted in the NS should be validated by international accreditation bodies (eg ISO) so that any certification is portable for the servicemen’s future be it in the university or the workfloor. This may even shorten university courses or help in career advancements.

5. Reservist training should be short but efficiently administered (Short and Sharp) so that each year’s training is like a continuation of the previous year’s so that a “Band of brothers” camaraderie can be forged over time. This is possible with good commanders and planning.

Implications for smaller SAF ( ie lesser bodies in each unit)

Are there implications of lesser bodies in the SAF units? Of course there are but these are not necessarily negative.

1. Lesser bodies will make SAF commanders cognizant of the real world and remind them that every soldier is a valued asset that has a definite cost and that these men should never be viewed as just a digit or just a photo in an ORBAT (Order of Battle ) chart. Each serviceman should thus be trained to be a productive member of a closely knit unit or else the unit will be dysfunctional.

2. Lesser bodies will mean that servicemen should only concentrate on being a part of an effective SAF to fulfil its primary mission of defending our nation. They should no longer be used as cheap labour for sports events or other national celebrations. If there is only 12 months to train a soldier- he is unlikely to spend 6 months preparing for the next NDP- even if his commander is the officer in charge.

I am a Singaporean and proud of it. But SAF can be better.

I have done a 2.5 year NS followed by 13 HK and 4 LK reservist in-camps!

But it need not be a case of equal misery.

Dr Huang Shoou Chyuan

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