“Dr. Ng yesterday noted that an Institute of Policy Studies survey last year found that the approval rate of NS among Singaporeans was 95 per cent, a sign that they understood the importance of defending the nation” (Why Singapore Needs A Deterrent Military Force, Miss Kok Xing Hui).
The issue of perceived discrimination in National Service (NS) and the armed forces is a perennial one, and it has surfaced again after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was quizzed about alleged unjust or prejudicial treatment of Malays in the military (TODAY, Jan. 18). At the U@alive university forum Dr. Ng contended that “I’d say that we’ve progressed very much (in that regard)”, with Malays in every vocation. “We have Malay pilots, we have Malay commandos … (as well as) a Malay General”, he argued.
While it is not clear from the news report whether Dr. Ng did answer the question directly – in particular it would be interesting if the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have ever sought to ascertain whether their servicemen have experienced, or felt they experienced, unfair treatment on the grounds of their race – his reply is nonetheless a familiar one. There are two parts: first, we have come a long way over the decades; and second, these examples prove that opportunities are indeed open to everyone.
One would naturally expect things to be better off now. Moreover claims of discrimination may not revolve around access per se, and instead encompass day-to-day interactions and communication with their colleagues or counterparts, rank and vocation allocations, as well as promotion opportunities and the perception of superiors. Using Dr. Ng’s anecdotes, has it been more difficult for a Malay to be a pilot, a commando, or a general? Do Malays in the organisation feel this way? Are there undertakings to address these perspectives?
Frankly and constructively engage these questions, we should.
The apparent disgruntlement might not be acute, but MINDEF and SAF should engage its units in deeper discourse. It was a shame that the highly-publicised Committee to Strengthen NS did not manage to deal with such a longstanding concern more keenly, but more conversations can – and should – go on. The Suara Musyawarah report, researched and penned by leaders of the Malay-Muslim community, reflected that some members of the community felt they were “left out of certain parts of the armed forces”. They concur with Dr. Ng that “more Malay / Muslim recruits are deployed across a wider section of [the] uniformed services today”, but that policies should be continually renewed.
We can celebrate the positives, the advances we have made, the things that have been done, but it is perhaps more meaningful to now ponder: can we – and how can we – do more?