“The reality is that there will always be an opportunity cost … that is unfortunate. But it then begs the more fundamental question of whether or not we need to defend Singapore in the first place, and I don’t think anybody disputes that we need to defend Singapore”.
That was a perspective articulated by Dr Bernard Loo, coordinator of the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, during Channel NewsAsia’s Sg+, a weekly current affairs programme that examines “complex long-term issues facing Singapore as we redefine our future” (here). This talk-show was on “Making National Service More Relevant”. Besides Dr Loo, Mr Suresh Divyanathan, a member of the Committee to Strengthen National Service (NS), was also on the panel.
From the get-go, a reference was made to a commentary penned by Dr Loo’s colleague, Mr Ho Shu Huang, on why the present length of mandatory military service cannot be shortened (here and here). I had disagreed with his arguments (here and here), but Dr Loo posited that “two years is about as low as it can go”. Mr Suresh concurred, speaking on the importance of rigorous training, and the building of camaraderie between the soldiers.
Yet, there were bigger questions beyond the duration of service (albeit, discussed in a touch-and-go manner). With technological advancements and complexity, will conscription become increasingly obsolete? How should reservist disruptions be handled? Should women be drafted (for equality, and to address manpower shortages)? Unfortunately, the same propositions – from past discourse – were rehashed, without the surfacing of options or recommendations for genuine consideration.
Dr Loo and Mr Suresh did clash, when they were asked whether second-generation PRs and new citizens should be conscripted. There is a reason why this is a “National Service”, Dr Loo stressed, and these individuals are not national citizens. Anecdotally, many of them have given up their PR-status to escape these obligations, only to return as foreign employees. Nonetheless, “these people have benefited from Singapore … benefiting from our security, our healthcare, and our good schooling system”, Mr Suresh quipped. They were raised as Singaporeans, and they knew the deal when they took up their permanent residencies.
Even at the alternative National Day celebrations at Hong Lim Park (here), Professor Paul Tambyah spoke of the significance of conscription in Singapore, while referencing the Sg+ programme. Sharing in his personal capacity, Dr Tambyah claimed at the celebratory event that without the rite of passage that is National Service, new citizens and PRs will “never know what it is like to book in, to go through a muddy field in full-battle orders”.
So what now? A robust debate (certainly towards the end), but perhaps future NS discussions should begin to centre more specifically on issues, while avoiding clichéd proclamations; at least, that is my hope for the second phase of the upcoming focus group sessions (here – which also features a short exchange with Mr Ho, mentioned in the beginning).