It is a good report – all 85 pages of it. Why? Because in its final report the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) focused on the perspectives of the 40,000 participants across the focus group discussions and the dialogue sessions in units, and the 30 recommendations are results of a yearlong consultative process, of people talking to people.
What next though?
Some segments, where actual implementation will be administratively challenging, are short on details. Increasing deployment flexibility for full-time national servicemen (NSFs) “by taking into account skills and preferences” is great, yet it is hard to be well-informed about the various roles one might be suited for. Even more difficult if one is a pre-enlistee. Pre-existing skills in nursing or engineering will help in skills-to-vocation matching, but how should preferences be ranked? Can units calibrate manpower requirements?
“Better engagement by commanders” is another nebulous recommendation which needs elaboration. Feedback and discourse are hard to come by in the military, so the CSNS endeavour could in fact set a precedent for commanders to do the same within their units. Some might argue that open dialogue is counterproductive (perhaps even laughable, since men are expected to always take orders), and that unit-level concerns are very minor (seemingly insignificant for superiors). However dissatisfaction often stems from bureaucratic oversights out of the training field – off-and-leave arrangements, living conditions, welfare issues – which can only be addressed openly by ground commanders.
It would be a shame if the CSNS’s influence ended with the report per se.
There will be quibbles about proposals the CSNS had left out – of gender and perceived race discrimination or the induction of first-generation permanent residents and new citizens – but there is little disagreement over the proposed changes. Recognition and benefits are well-intentioned, even though most do not hanker for them. The practical implications are clear for my friends and juniors, who have welcomed increased leadership opportunities, the reduction of wait-time and transition time, as well as convenient notifications for overseas trips.
Moreover individuals hoping for drastic changes, for service length to be reduced or for NS to be abolished, will nonetheless be disappointed. This was clear from the start. “Implicit in the name of the committee – to ‘strengthen’ NS – is the notion that conscription is here to stay”, I wrote when I covered a CSNS session for the Breakfast Network. “I might be convinced by the principles of defence and deterrence, but how can we be so sure that the servicemen are in agreement too? Should we conveniently take this as a given?”
Therefore whether the CSNS encourages more detailed unit-level conversations will determine its ultimate success. It is not about what we can do once-in-a-while. Two years is an awfully long time, so in the midst of discussions about specifically improving camp life, give servicemen chances to challenge preconceptions of NS, to constantly ask why (when the time is right). Servicemen have the best insights, and only when they are empowered to speak their mind will the aforementioned concerns of discrimination, induction, and NS itself be adequately addressed. And that will be the true mark of a strong NS.