“A concern often voiced is whether younger Singaporeans, who did not live through political turbulence in the nation’s early years, would continue to believe the ‘vulnerability’ narrative” (How Do People View National Service? (Part Two), Ho Shu Huang).
That Singapore needs a strong military – in which conscription continues to feature – is hard to dispute, and while Mr. Ho Shu Huang makes a strong case for a long-term defence posture (TODAY, Feb. 17), it is less clear whether the government can persuade that these “long-term security concerns cannot unconditionally eclipse immediate and real bread-and-butter concerns”. In this vein, to shape perceptions of National Service (NS), younger Singaporeans should be involved in related discussions and incentives could be further strengthened.
The perceived absence of threats necessitates stronger engagement on the ‘vulnerability’ narrative emphasised by Mr. Ho. Such discourse, however, should not be didactic. Instead of overwhelming participants with talking points or rehashed arguments, they should be encouraged to articulate personal perspectives. It has been insisted that there were missed opportunities during the Committee to Strengthen NS endeavour in 2013, when little attention was given to the pillars of defence and deterrence that conscription is premised upon.
In other words beyond the present suite of surveys, ask young Singaporeans for opinions and feedback. Convince through conversations, not antiquated refrains such as the maintenance of a “defence posture” which, as Mr. Ho pointed out, might be eclipsed by more immediate worries. Through futures thinking for instance, probe: how do they value the military and its conscription policies? Do perceptions change after NS? Are they convinced by the prevailing narrative, and how should the government respond to bright-eyed suggestions that Singapore – sans a sizeable force – can rely on diplomatic overtures or its allies when crisis strikes.
These answers might seem straightforward for the government, yet it is the process of engagement which matters. As tedious as it may be, individuals should not be told why conscription is necessary, but be encouraged to challenge its relevance.
While pragmatism – most evident in economic concerns – could characterise the mind-set of a Singaporean, Mr. Ho is right that these aspirations are not necessarily in conflict with the perennial protection of national sovereignty. The Ministry of Defence, cognisant that one’s economic competitiveness is compromised after two mandatory years in the military or Home Team, offers e-PREP credits for enrichment or productivity. Raising NS remuneration has nonetheless been dismissed, because it is a duty which cannot be quantified fairly or monetarily, and present salaries have risen relatively quickly.
Changing that position might be necessary, if financial worries continue to dominate the concerns of Singaporean youth. Claims of devaluing the NS institution are misplaced. Perhaps if views are properly aggregated, higher remuneration might even signal full-time national servicemen to be more committed to their roles and responsibilities.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.