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Conscription Length Not A Forgone Conclusion

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).

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.

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.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


13 thoughts on “Conscription Length Not A Forgone Conclusion

  1. I agree with your dissent of Mr. Ho’s claim that “a certain amount of inefficiency in NS might actually be desirable”. The current NS administrative bureaucracy is still ineffective because it is governed by the administrative-illiterate; the officers are not adequately trained or experience in handling or delegating administrative work. I don’t see a huge issue with training programs because most of the commanders are more experienced in handling such activities, and the disappointment stems from a generally negative experience in administrative work by the non-combat cohort. This compounds to general inefficiency due to a loss of work motivation, and it trickles down ultimately to other soldiers in the unit.

    Posted by Shen Nan Wong | June 19, 2013, 12:27 pm
    • Think combat units are affected by such inefficiencies too. And when you’re on the ground these periods of aimless nothingness can be pretty darn frustrating.

      In a broader sense, it seems like what has been articulated by the command (or by military scholars or enthusiasts) differs from what has been experienced by ordinary NSFs and NSmen. Which is why I’m glad we finally have a conversation of sorts coming up. About time we actually talked about these concerns.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | June 19, 2013, 12:41 pm
  2. No modern armies can handle fighting a war that the army are dropping $100k bomb and your enemies are firing $100 rockets.

    Posted by francis | June 19, 2013, 3:04 pm
  3. Here’s an interesting follow up. What would unemployment rates be like if we shorten NS?

    Posted by sbksim | June 22, 2013, 2:03 am
  4. Dear Jin Yao,

    Thanks for your response to my commentary. My original piece wa edited for brevity and the title changed. The original one did not state NS should not be reduced in length, but merely highlighted the factors that need to be considered in arguing for a reduction. The length of NS is never a foregone conclusion but the devil is always in th detail.

    On the point about the utility of wasted time, if training is excessively inefficient, then this has to be addressed. I stated that up front. But it would be undesirable for it to be efficient to the point where everyone hurries up to go home. What might be in order are productivity audits and standards which are balanced. Certainly something worth doing.

    As for the point on technology, individual proficiency is one thing but working as a team is another. There are many working parts, and the whole system has to be put through its paces before overall proficiency can be declared. That takes time.

    The point about discussing defence policy is important too. In fact I argue that guides everything. NS is just a tool of it. That’s what’s should be talked about. Until then, NS operates within rather fixed parameters.

    I am glad my commentary has provoked a discussion. In a way, it’s all that I probably can expect of it, because it’s short an tends to be one dimensional.

    I am on holiday now but I would love to continue this discussion. I will write again soon!

    Posted by Shu Huang | June 22, 2013, 2:28 am
    • Thanks Shu Huang.

      Working backwards: I agree with the point on discussions. It would appear that we don’t do enough of it (for conscription at least), which explains why some of us are happy with the upcoming CSNS sessions (in a few hours, in fact). I look forward to other commentaries too.

      Thanks for the note about the headline. Perhaps you should let the editors know (because it does set the tone for the piece, even if the arguments prove otherwise)?

      Had a further conversation with a friend (https://www.facebook.com/guanyinmiao/posts/10151495409953193). Any discussion on the parameters we have identified – technology, inefficiency for instance – are very generalised and hypothetical, because we (at least I) do not have a sound comprehension of how other vocations and units work. That would be the case for most servicemen, who would only be informed through their personal experiences, or anecdotes from their friends. Moving ahead, I’m of the opinion that this gap / asymmetry has to be bridged, for more focused discourse on conscription (and its length).

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | June 22, 2013, 10:30 am
      • By right, the editors should run any amended piece by the author but newspaper editors rarely do so because of the tight deadlines involved. I’m not happy with the title (for the reason you’ve highlighted) but there wouldn’t have been anything I could have done about it, sadly. This also happens with media interviews.

        Anyway, commentaries should be a spring board to a larger discussion. Am glad it’s happened to a degree here. I think we both agree that the source of any commitment to NS is agreement and understanding of Singapore’s defence policy. Of course, any discussion on the inner workings of the SAF would also be welcomed, but I’m unsure if all parties are prepared or equipped to do so.

        Posted by Shu Huang | June 27, 2013, 4:00 am
      • Thanks. Just read this (http://rsismilitarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/a-personal-addendum-to-conscription-in-singapore-and-why-it-cannot-be-shortened/) as well, so will take the weekend to digest the perspectives.

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | June 27, 2013, 11:29 am


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