“Volunteers will get to choose from 17 vocations during their stints. They include roles such as defence psychologists, medical trainers and airbase civil engineers, who can share their area of expertise with their military counterparts” (Flexi-Terms for SAF Volunteer Corps, Mr. Jermyn Chow).
I think the new Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) is reasonable.
Before 30 recommendations were submitted by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) to the government earlier this year, it had engaged 40,000 participants in focus group discussions and dialogue sessions. When I attended a town hall session in 2013, there was disagreement over the length and toughness of the training and operations for the members of the SAFVC. Two key amendments – reducing the annual service from 14 to seven days and giving these members the option to drop out with three months’ notice (ST, Oct. 13) – will ensure commitment without reducing general levels of interest.
I was also sceptical in the beginning, concerned that there was a lack of clear focus on the underlying purpose of the SAFVC, and how the endeavour would relate to existing volunteer schemes. We know little about these volunteers and their capacities. In this vein the SAFVC is now presented as a symbolic endeavour, specifically for women, first-generation permanent residents (PRs) and new citizens. After all, training phases are short vis-à-vis an actual NS stint, and even if they do acquire or bring in specialist skills, their involvement will be limited by time. Seven days across three years amount to just 21 days of actual service.
With this emphasis of symbolism over utility, the immediate phase of publicity matters. Projecting the SAFVC too far into the future will be unrealistic, because the SAF would look to assess the efficacy of its first volunteers. The initial success of the SAFVC will therefore be measured by the number of applicants across those in Singapore who are not liable for NS, and then by the number who stay in the programme. An uphill task, when one considers the independent survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies last year, which found that 13.6 per cent of the women polled were willing to serve two years of NS voluntarily.
Perhaps the SAF could have shared its target number of applicants and expected retention rate, which will also shed light on its marketing plans. Is the SAF also planning to ensure a representation of the 100 to 150 volunteers across demographics? More interestingly, how will the SAF determine if the SAFVC has been successful?
Other criticisms – such as the perceived superficiality of the SAFVC compared to actual NS obligations – will persist, though the initiative is off to a fair and cautious start. More questions will inevitably emerge when the programme is actually implemented.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.