“These arguments typically rest on two assumptions. The first concerns time. Some argue the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) uses it too inefficiently. “Hurry up to wait”, or “wait to rush, rush to wait” is often used to describe one’s experience in NS. They reason that NS could be shorter if time were more efficiently used” (Why Full-Time NS Can’t Be Shortened (second page), Mr. Ho Shu Huang).
Mr. Ho Shu Huang’s first point, that full-time National Service (NS) in Singapore cannot be simply shortened because of shorter periods of conscription in other countries (“Why Full-Time NS Can’t Be Shortened, June 18, 2013), is a valid proposition. Dissimilar geographical and geopolitical features should be accounted for, and Mr. Ho also asserts that training standards are much more rigorous in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
Furthermore any such discourse, vis-à-vis our foreign counterparts, should include analyses of the impacts too, following the reduction or elimination of conscription. Take Sweden for instance: compulsory military service ended in 2010, but the recent statements made by the Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces – cited in the Centre of Eastern Studies – have given rise to concerns over the country’s armed forces and overall defence capabilities. The worries articulated by General Sverker Göranson, “that in case of limited armed attack Sweden would be able to defend itself for one week”, unsettled many.
Fine. So we concur that Singapore should not benchmark its conscription policy against other nations. We require more complex military operations to fulfil both defence and deterrence. Sound points. Yet, should this then preclude debates on the length of NS? I do not think so, and Mr. Ho’s following arguments are much less convincing.
Technology, he reckons, is “a force multiplier” and “a double-edged sword”: efficiency can be – and has been – increased, but only if soldiers develop effective proficiency. However, the suggestion that soldiers nowadays require more time to get used to new technologies seems a little out of place. Growing up in an Internet- and gadget-powered environment, it would be a safer bet to postulate that this new generation of conscripts are more adept with these new roles and responsibilities. In fact, when the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) announced in 2004 that the duration of full-time NS would be reduced, it explained that “the key driver for this change is the transformation to the 3rd Generation SAF”.
So if technological advancements can be enhanced – to augment training, preparations, and operations – why should we persist in the status quo?
Mr. Ho’s claim that “a certain amount of inefficiency in NS might actually be desirable” is even more puzzling. He feels that these moments of boredom and mundaneness can “provide opportunities for camaraderie to be built”. First, this line of reasoning blatantly ignores the structural reasons for these inefficiencies (many who have gone through NS will attest to the ludicrousness of some of these). Communication breakdown? Cumbersome bureaucracy? Poor planning? A waste of time is a waste of time. If these organisational problems can be sorted, and then translated into less time required of each serviceman, why not?
Second, he has conflated “periods of idle time” with rest-and-recovery time between field exercises or sessions. The latter is crucial, and should be – especially during high-intensity periods – factored into the training plan from the get-go. The “wasted time” many allude to often arise out of the aforementioned shortcomings, is ridiculous, and should be minimised.
Simply put, the present conscription length is not a forgone conclusion. I reaffirm the significance of NS in Singapore, but anecdotal interactions have told me that there is room for improvement. These first-hand insights can only be enriched by a greater comprehension of Singapore’s broader defence and operational policies, which can only be facilitated through more intimate sharing and conversation sessions. A disconnect between the command and the men on-the-ground should be bridged. Regardless, it is – to some extent – pedantically presumptuous to assume that these “practical considerations” will remain unchanged. We should expect more viewpoints to emerge in the days ahead.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.