The seemingly templatised response of the government to the deaths of national servicemen – the fourth training fatality of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in the past 18 months, including actor Aloysius Pang as the latest casualty – through its communications strategy, the work of the Committees of Inquiry (COI), as well as the promised changes or punishments which follow, is similarly matched by a templatised chorus of outrage, even before the facts have been established: Calling for “accountability” through punitive measures against perpetrators and the immediate resignation of generals and ministers, for organisational improvements and guarantees of no more peacetime deaths, and even for a reassessment of Singapore’s need for National Service (NS).
And even though this chorus is oftentimes wrapped up in the emotional appeals of Singaporeans concerned about the safety or well-being of their family members and friends as well as ostensibly compelling first-hand anecdotes from servicemen about the structural issues of the civil defence and defence agencies they have witnessed – notwithstanding the deplorable attempts at post-tragedy politicisation – it inevitably runs up against appeals to the fundamental importance of NS (“NS is needed for defence and deterrence…”), to cognisance of its weaknesses (“NS is not perfect, but…”), and to personal responsibility (“I am a commander, and I make sure…”). In a nutshell: We mourn, we improve processes and protocols, and we still affirm the need for NS.
A better understanding of the NS experience
Missing in this back-and-forth, however, is a more holistic and rigorous understanding of the NS and reservist experience for the average serviceman. Put otherwise: What does the average soldier go through upon conscription, and does he think are the areas for improvement? In the absence of such a systematic understanding, both sides instead construct their own “truths” by drawing from what they personally know, hear, or experience, rejecting arguments from the other side – depending the side one aligns with – as “missing the big picture” or “perpetuating talking points or ‘propaganda'”. This is moreover complicated by the fact that the NS experience varies across physical employment standards, or PES status, vocations, and appointments, and the presence of an experiential divide between soldiers who serve as regulars, commanders, and men, especially since most regulars and commanders have never served as men, and therefore do not necessarily know what it is like to be stuck at the end of the chain of command.
(Part of the discourse problem too, as this commentary is guilty of, is the eagerness or speed at which such perspectives are proffered – given the number of eyeballs – even before the funeral has concluded or the COI has completed its investigations.)
The regular-commander-man experiential divide is perhaps best represented by the Facebook post by defence minister Ng Eng Hen – in the context of Mr. Pang’s passing and the SAF’s review of safety processes – that “If any SAF soldier detects an unsafe practice, he should inform his commander or stop training to protect himself or his buddies”. He added: “No one needs to fear any disciplinary action for doing right to protect lives during training”. Yet as the “lowest life-form” in a military organisation which appears to eschew non-adherence to the chain of command and which also appears to frown upon servicemen who speak out against perceived transgressions or who jump the chain of command because they cannot trust their commanders, Dr. Ng’s proposal is not quite as feasible. That experience of disempowerment and helplessness, in a broader sense, is likely to breed disillusionment too.
The regular-commander-man experiential divide
Regulars and commanders point to the physical and psychological demands of their training phases and argue that they know what their men have been through – and more – but seem to overlook three things. First, that the end of their training and subsequent promotion signals the end of or at least reduced regimentation, whereas men are subject to persistent regimentation in and out of training throughout the two years. Second and relatedly, that given their trajectories commanders are arguably treated with greater respect than men, and this differential treatment is reflected through ceremonial and commissioning rites. It goes without saying that regulars who have signed on have different expectations. And third, that commanders are promoted to assume new roles and responsibilities, while men are usually stuck with the same roles and responsibilities, which over time can be monotonous.
The answer to the discourse problem and the experiential divide, in this vein – with the progress of the COIs and with the necessary review of safety processes and protocols within the agencies – is a concerted endeavour to aggregate and to understand the diverse experiences and perspectives of national servicemen. That means going to the level of the individual soldier, and in particular without interference from their commanders or not having commanders administer the surveys or interviews, to ask them about their trainings, their daily routines, their struggles and concerns, their service highlights, and their criticisms. Aggregating and understanding these views, in turn, should surface issues and problems that the defence agencies can address.
Beyond the glossy and positive portrayals of the NS stint, if the Ministry of Defence and the SAF is of the opinion that such an endeavour is already underway, then the next step should be the sharing of the data and information, so as to raise the discourse beyond the level of anecdotes. And the insights would also be useful for pre-enlistees and their parents while preparing for NS.
A less satisfactory answer to the aforementioned problems is the templatised, recursive cycle of outrage and rebuttal, which more often than not fizzles out over time. Or a disproportionate focus on safety alone, while overlooking what may be more structural or systematic deficiencies which plague other parts of the system, which may allow longstanding dissatisfaction to fester. The seemingly intuitive move to consistently solicit direct and unfiltered feedback from national servicemen – especially the non-career, non-commanding men – is also long overdue, and if implemented over time may provide a useful barometer for NS in Singapore.