Preface. The prospect of National Service (NS) unsettles. Some of us brim with excitement, some of us cannot fathom the military regimentation and the physical exertion, and some of us question the very need for the purportedly anachronistic institution. “Why waste two years, with Singapore’s diplomacy, technology, and the disadvantages of servicemen in school and at the workplace”, the sceptics argue. And sometimes it is convenient for us who have gone through the two years to be dismissive of this perceived immaturity.
Yet there is value in responsible discourse. The Committee to Strengthen NS made good recommendations, even though participants were hardly encouraged to challenge the premises of NS. I think that needs to change. I may believe that NS is needed for defence and deterrence, but we should engage Singaporeans who argue otherwise – especially the pre-enlistees – in conversation. And hopefully this practice continues in the units. Go beyond the platitudes of “duty”, “honour”, “serving the nation”, listen, and answer the questions.
I have my disagreements with the commentary, but here is the piece by kronosception, who is due to enlist in less than a year.
In the Prime Minister’s 2012 National Day Message, he stated the need to “relook existing policies”, and that none of the policies were too sacred to be touched.
I wonder though, if National Service (NS) is even considered a policy, or if it has become part of Singapore as a whole? If a nation wants to relook its future, to reinvent itself, and to carve out a future for itself, surely it must relook a policy where young men (at the peak of their life) are sent for two years to a place with no opportunity to further themselves?
Sure, National Service brings many benefits: discipline (regimental, nonetheless), a sense of camaraderie among young Singaporean men, and perhaps a strengthening of the “Singapore spirit” or “identity” (does one even exist?) But like it is with all policies, do the costs outweigh the benefits?
Costs and Benefits
This then, really begs the question: are these intangible “benefits” worth two years of a young man’s prime? In a time of relative global peace, where nation after nation is forging deeper ties with each other diplomatically and militarily – and with their fates increasingly intertwined, making them more interdependent – many would say that there is less need for such a strong army. More importantly, with Singapore’s deep coffers and large economic power, we certainly have enough money and capability to hire a large group of regulars to protect our country in place of a regular army. And surely, no definitely, Singapore has less of a need for NS than countries like South Korea and Taiwan, which face real and imminent threats of invasions. In South Korea, National Service is four months shorter. And in Taiwan, two. These are countries which face threats from their neighbours: real, declared threats which make NS geopolitically sensible.
However, the fact is that Singapore faces either imaginary threats, or real threats which an army of our current size would stand no chance against. Malaysia and Indonesia, our closest neighbours, have no interest in attacking us because they have nothing to gain (imaginary threat). But even if they did, Malaysia’s population is easily five times of Singapore’s, and Indonesia’s is a whopping forty seven times of Singapore’s. Our active military strength – which includes reservists (350,000) and active personnel (around 72,000) – is only 420,000-strong. On the other hand, Indonesia has 476,000 active personnel (more than six times of Singapore’s) and 52 million men ready for military service. Malaysia also has more active personnel than Singapore (124,000), and has around 640,000 reservists. They too have 12 million men fit for military service.
Let’s look at that in perspective. The number of men in Malaysia fit for military service is more than twice the population of Singapore, and the number of men in Indonesia fit for military service is more than 10 times the population of Singapore. Are you telling me that Singapore actually stands a chance if these countries are to invade? (No, for the record.)
Singapore’s defence, therefore, is predicated on our economic ties and diplomatic efforts. Given our relative technological superiority, even if military deterrence played a part, its significance will be by no means diminished by a transition to a professional army which perhaps may cost us a few thousand, maybe a hundred thousand soldiers. Yet this number pales in comparison to the relative hordes that our neighbours have – hordes that could probably decimate Singapore using their fists if they wanted to.
What I’m saying, therefore, is simple. National Service is becoming more and more redundant or too lengthy due to the following reasons:
– A relatively long period of service compared to countries with real threats: South Korea and Taiwan.
– Wasting away the time of men at the prime of their youth.
– An increasing ability of Singapore to support an army completely staffed by regulars.
– Perceived threat of Indonesia and Malaysia is more or less imagined.
– In the event of aggression, military deterrence plays less importance than diplomatic defence (the United States, the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA), the United Nations).
Are these reasons really not enough?
The Case Against NS
The solution and course of action is really quite clear. Abolish conscription and put in place an army staffed by regulars instead. How to go about doing this? We probably have enough money to raise the salary of our regulars to attract more Singaporeans to serve of their own volition. And this is supplemented by the extra cash we’re going to get if we reduce or end conscription (paying less people the same amount of money previously allocated to a larger group of people = more money per person). Not only does this solve the problem of conscription, it also helps – to an extent – to solve Singapore’s labour woes. Why? Because the unemployed or underemployed have even greater incentives to enlist full-time in the army, with better pay and career prospects.
This is not the only solution. It’s one possibility, a possibility I would like, but even the tiniest concession from conscription would be a logical move forward for Singapore.
Additionally, I would like to note that Malaysia is part of the FPDA, which includes the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore. These countries have agreed to come to the defence of a country when it’s attacked. Technically, this lowers the possibility or chance for Malaysia to be an aggressor towards Singapore, given that they would either be violating the agreement (incurring the wrath of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand), or they would have to attack themselves. Which would be pretty funny.
Ending conscription, or even moving to partial conscription gives young Singaporean men back two years of their lives, bringing a myriad of benefits.
For one, it puts them on the same level as women in pursuing their studies. And do I have to mention how many relationships NS breaks up? Or how many opportunities to study NS destroys? Or even the many deaths NS has caused, and the lives it has ruined? Or how about the simple fact that not everybody is cut out for regimentation, and that it’s simply unfair to force conscription upon your country where there is no longer a need for it?
The Way Forward
The truth is, the benefits of NS are intangible, and the benefits of scrapping it are far more real and definitely outweigh the benefits of keeping it in place. So what to do?
Perhaps in the true Singaporean spirit of doing things, have a panel of ministers led by some minister (defence, perhaps) look into the policy of NS as part of an impartial policy review (I cannot stress this enough), to perhaps publish a paper to Singaporeans regarding their findings for the need of NS (obvious really, but since Singaporeans like everything in black and white), and finally to hold a referendum (or not, they could dictate, but holding a referendum really makes you more democratic) on whether or not NS should be scrapped, to remain, or for its duration to be cut short, or whatever their brilliant minds can come up with.
I’m not being sarcastic here. Our ministers are probably pretty brilliant if they have managed to get themselves that position right? The question is, why are they not doing anything about it, or even discussing this issue in the manner it should be? That is, instead of treating it as an untouchable policy, why not objectively review it instead of pretending everybody loves NS to bits and trying to figure out how to “strengthen” it instead?
Lastly, probably many will remark that the fact I’m about to enlist makes my opinion one-sided and not one to believe. I’m going to say that it’s exactly to the contrary. You are not going to find people willing to dedicate time and effort to reform NS more than the people about to enlist. And I think that speaks volumes about NS as a policy on the first level. But more importantly, I would think that even I myself would grow apathetic to this cause once it’s all over, because why the trouble?
So thankfully, as of this moment, I still feel intensely strongly for this issue, so I still have the energy and willpower to type this ridiculously verbose article (is it, though?). Let my snarkiness not cloud my arguments, because I do and I have considered both sides of the argument. Two years ago, I thought it was high time that NS be reviewed and reformed. Two years on, I could not feel more strongly about this. It’s high time that we do something about this, and that the government actually looks into this matter through an objective lens.
With that, I rest my case.