THE LONG OVERDUE DISCUSSION ON S’PORE’S DEFENCE POLICY

A glum looking enlistee awaiting enlistment has become a sensation in
cyberspace. But, the circulation of the picture and the memes involving it
should also re-open the debate on the conscription and defense policy adopted
by Singapore.

There have been people who view their time serving in the SAF, Police or
civil defense as meaningful and areas where they have gained experience. Some
see it as their personal responsibility to serve the country and repay her
for all the benefits enjoyed? But do all share the sentiment?

The problem with conscription is it is first and foremost a violation of
human rights. Conscription forces someone, against his or her will, to
partake in something which he/she does not necessarily agree to or in
something which most people would find unpleasant or unpopular. It is not a
hidden secret that military life and a heavily regimented lifestyle is tough.
That males in the prime of their lives are forced into this is simply and
clearly a violation of their will and their rights and dignity as human
beings.

I may sound like a wimp by saying this, but the fact stands. Not everyone is
able to handle the tough lifestyle in the military system. I think it is
cruel and unusual to force these people through this system. It is just as
cruel to call these people “soft” who need to be “man-ned up” by the system.
Other counter arguments would be that there are counselling and psychiatric
services available for these personnel and their PES status can be
downgraded, or they can even be released from service if their case warrants
so.

But the reality is, for first year or even first month enlistees, would any
of them dare to come up and report that they are facing psychological
difficulties? The case of the “fake PES F” and the “Ah Boys to Men chao keng
incident” would make many an impressionable new enlistee think twice about
reporting such cases, especially with the possibility of a malingering charge
hanging over their heads. Even if their case is finally referred to MINDEF’s
psychiatric or counselling services, it would take about 3 weeks or more for
an appointment through which damage has already been done. There have been
cases where the case has been handles incompetently, like the case of one
enlistee, Ganesh.

A popularly asked question is, if Singapore’s sons don’t defend Singapore,
who would?

The question in response would be, to what extent do you think that the
conscripted armed forces Singapore will be able to defend Singapore? Those at
MINDEF would know that the whole bureaucracy in the SAF is one of the worst
in the entire civil service. Administrative personnel, especially if they are
enlistees, often face poor morale and lack motivation, in part due to the
fact that they were forced into what they are doing and paid poorly, often
sit on their work. It is not uncommon that a simple assignment such as
getting a medical appointment fixed or the transfer of certain paperwork
would take up to 6 months to complete, or never completed at all. There are
no uniform standards on administrative protocol. It is not an uncommon
scenario where one SAF personnel would give a completely different story on
how a certain procedure is to proceed from another. Take the case of PTE
Ganesh, where his medical records were not even handed over to his superior.
My brother had a medical condition which needed review and the administrative
personnel at CMPB simply sat on it for months until they were chased to fix a
date. Safety protocol mean that personnel, who have understood how the system
works, are able to easily miss training or operations due to claims of
illnesses, some of which are highly questionable. In spite of the glossy
propaganda of military personnel who take pride in serving their country and
taking time off their work to do so, many reservists are finding ways to
lower their PES status. A popular talk among enlistees is about plans of
running away from Singapore when war breaks out.

With such poor levels of motivation and morale among NSFs, their performance
in wartime would certainly be questionable. It is an open secret that most of
the chiefs in the SAF are products of the scholarship system. Products of it
are often fast tracked up the hierarchy, even to critical positions, that it
is often questioned whether they indeed possess the ability to conduct a war.
Rightfully so, given that the generals in critical positions, such as the
defence chiefs are and have been, by and large, scholars and are chosen over
a wider pool of generals, colonels and lieutenant colonels who were not
products of the scholarship system but have more years of experience in
service.

The argument of a small, vulnerable Singapore is questionable. If Malaysia or
Indonesia wanted to pick a country to attack, the first on the list would
have been oil rich Brunei. Why would Indonesia and Malaysia decide to wage a
war on Singapore for the sake of swallowing her up when both countries’
economic ties are close, with their citizens working on Singapore soil? Even
if there is a present day threat of Radical Islam, would that warrant a
large, conscripted force? If anything, hasn’t the Iraq war taught the lesson
that in asymmetrical warfare, it is not regular armed forces that win the day
but sound intelligence and swift, decisive operations by special forces
instead of conventional tactics. If the PAP government does see the threat of
terrorism, why is it making the customs policy on Chinese nationals more
liberal? Is it not aware that Chinese nationals include Uighurs, some of whom
have been involved in terrorist activities such as the Bangkok bomb blast? Is
it not aware that Indonesia arrested a group of them attempting to join ISIS
in 2014?

The key to defence policy is, how strong is the attachment and the sense of
patriotism the people have to Singapore? Platitudes such as “Third world to
first”, “clean efficient government” or “look at how much better Singapore is
compared to such and such country” will not work. People voted for the PAP en
masse in the last election not because they love or adore the PAP but rather
because of questions about the ability of opposition parties to run the
government, and a sense of gratitude to the largely inflated legacy of Lee
Kuan Yew, whose death coincided with SG 50, allowing the PAP to use the media
machinery to play on it. But such patriotism is superficial and not shared by
many. Once the SG 50 and Lee Kuan Yew sentiment wear off, the ruthless rat
race will take its toll once again. It will be the same struggle to survive
because there is simply no room for failure, knowing the social and financial
repercussions of beoming a “failure”. The reality of expensive HDB flats,
possibility of higher GSTs and high transport fares will set in. People will
become frustrated, once again when they do not have the opportunity to have
their voices heard. The stifling environment would lead to intellectuals and
creative minds to seek other places where they can express themselves with
greater freedom than in Singapore. Patriotism will never be inculcated in the
long run when Singaporeans see Singapore as a place where they struggle in
this zero sum game until the day they die and where the government frequently
milks from them. It is difficult for people to call Singapore home when her
values are to stifle and discourage expression. It will be difficult for
military personnel to serve with pride when they are treated as objects to be
STOMPed, disrespected by Members of Parliament, coerced into service and paid
poorly. Instead of defending this sacred cow, a hard look and serious
discussion about defense policy is warranted.

Ronald Tan
A.S.S. Contributor

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