Six years ago in 2012, after completing my National Service (NS) stint, I started an online survey – albeit with a non-scientific and hence biased methodology – which gathered the perspectives of 259 respondents about their NS experience. Issues which surfaced included the lack of robust feedback channels, the length of service, welfare and benefits, leadership opportunities, as well as other management problems, and at their core the research questions motivating the survey were straightforward ones: How much do we know about the needs and challenges of the average NSF, from his perspective? And to what extent can we then work to improve the two years of conscription?
Similar questions have since been posed throughout the past six years. In 2013 the Committee to Strengthen NS or CSNS was set up, and in addition to the CSNS a 2013 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies found strong public support for NS. Notwithstanding the observations that discussions about whether NS is needed in the first place are often foreclosed (even if I am personally convinced by the importance of defence and deterrence) and that these one-off endeavours have not been sustained, three problems emerge: First, that the day-to-day or first-hand routines of the NSF are overlooked; second, that the participants or the survey sample may not be representative of NSFs in general; as well as third – and more specifically – that the views of non-commanding NSFs may not be adequately and directly represented.
Put otherwise: How much do we know about our NSFs and their time in service?
The recent passing of NSF Dave Lee Han Xuan has been followed by commentaries and letters expressing concerns over how NSFs may be treated, and the mother of the late Corporal First Class (CFC) Lee also called for an end to “tekan” or punishment sessions in the military. “If I have to sacrifice my only son to bring this message across”, she added, “make sure it is one that brings forth solid changes to the seemingly perfect training systems”. Investigations of CFC Lee’s death are underway, though at its core the concerns or questions perhaps reveal how little we – the general Singapore public and even the Ministry of Defence – understand what NSFs experience on the ground. And in the absence of such information, we instead grab at personal anecdotes which do little to advance discourse about improving NS.
Part of the difficulty is that the NS experience varies with one’s health or fitness levels, the military unit one is posted to, and one’s assigned vocation and responsibilities, yet even amidst such diversity imagine a simple questionnaire which goes out regularly to randomly chosen NSFs – who are assured of confidentiality – asking them about how satisfied they are. For a start, the questions can include:
– How would you rate your NS experience thus far (across the training schools and your assigned unit)?
– Towards the end of your NS stint, to what extent have you benefited from the two years? And specifically, what are these benefits?
– Do you agree that your commanders are doing a good job / care for your welfare / do not abuse their power?
Non-commanding NSFs, as the most disempowered group in the military, stand to gain most from such attempts at feedback collection (although NSFs in general would gain from having their voices heard). The widest experiential gulf is arguably between that of the non-commanders and the commanders (who are posted to the cadet schools, and who subsequently pass out as specialists or officers), because while few dispute the physical rigours of the training that commanders are put through, the effects of the perpetual disciplining and regimentation that non-commanders are subject to – minus the pomp and ceremony accorded to the commanders, who are also more likely to be treated with respect – often go unnoticed. Treated as the “lowest lifeforms”, the time in service can be humiliating and depressing.
And when something does go wrong, who can non-commanders turn to? A strict military hierarchy means that an aggrieved NSF has to turn to his direct commander, but what happens if that commander turns a blind eye? Or if the fear of unintended consequences – such as commanders making his life difficult in different ways – prevents the non-commanding NSF from seeking redress in the first place?
There are counter-arguments to these discursive proposals, yet each points persistently to the need to better understand our NSFs. It is true that not all commanders are unreasonable or irresponsible, and that not all non-commanders are equally enthusiastic (maybe an understatement, given the compulsory nature of conscription), but what is it like at the aggregate and at the average? And if it is acknowledged that bad commanders do exist, what can be done to first weed them out, and second to empower NSFs to speak out within the system? Along this tangent – and in the context of a hypothetical battlefield, where commands are issued for compliance – neither is it feasible to have non-commanders question their superiors at every turn. But outside of these trainings or operational exercises, especially with administrative activities or periods of downtime, is it not plausible for well-trained commanders to cut their men some slack?
When considering the broader significance of NS to Singapore, it is easy to forget that the military is a highly unnatural environment, within which not everyone adapts to or thrives. Add to that the opportunity costs of the two years, and the apathy or lethargy of some NSFs makes a lot more sense. With the aforementioned questionnaire as a start – and with more structured interviews and more established feedback channels to follow – the process of improving NS starts with knowledge about how our NSFs are doing, from their perspective. Otherwise, we remain trapped within this cycle of anecdotes and hypotheticals, from which no meaningful progress will be made.