The lack of meaningful discourse on the proposed Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) – especially over its underlying purpose (here) – was disappointing, but no headway was also made with the expansion of opportunities for national servicemen (NSmen). If the Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS) had delved needlessly into the details of the SAFVC without first ascertaining its objectives, it failed to understand the varied expectations of soldiers, so as to specifically explore how opportunities could be expanded.
Predictably, the 100-odd participants at the first and only town hall session – part of the third phase of public consultation, organised by the CSNS – waxed lyrical about suggestions such as “more information about ranks and vocations before enlistment”, “certifications which could be used for college and company applications”, and “deploying full-time NSmen (NSF) based on their interests and abilities”. The idea of having NSFs pen testimonials to indicate their interests, justified by their past achievements, was mooted too.
Central to these conversations was the theme of choice. “We recognise how talented our servicemen are”, Second Minister for Defence Chan Chun Sing explained, “and people who make their own choices are usually more committed”. Still, the minister reckoned that there was a broader debate over the value of specialisation. While some would be more committed if they do work suited to their competencies capabilities, throwing individuals into unfamiliar, different situations can facilitate the “cross fertilisation of ideas”.
Everyone was content to conclude that NSFs – while constrained by the broader, operational demands of the SAF and the Home Team – should be granted some liberty to make informed and matured decisions. Yet, to what extent would this be plausible? Which groups have purportedly limited access to leadership opportunities? The mono-intakes, the slightly combat-fit (PES B2), and the non-combat-fit personnel? Should there be distinctions premised upon academic qualifications, and how can that be justified? More importantly, should we discuss instances of perceived discrimination, along the lines of race or religion?
None of these happened. The engagement was worryingly superficial.
Another thing: all these “national dialogues” seem to exist in isolation. When discussing the SAFVC – within which women are projected to play significant roles – no references were made to the independent survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies. When talking about the expansion of NS leadership opportunities and vocational options, there was no mention of the Suara Musyawarah report, which was researched and penned by leaders of the Malay-Muslim community. Controversially, there were sentiments that the army presented unequal opportunities, for Malay men could not serve in certain sections or units of the army.
Some might dismiss them as mere anecdotes. Some might contend that geopolitical realities dictate the formulation of policies (though this proposition is laden with assumptions that can be problematised), and that open exchanges are near-impossible. However, if we are not ready to confront these tensions frankly, then what good is the CSNS truly for?