“But it would be missing the point when things get blown up to the extent of opposing national service, policies and systems, and the government” (Through the Pain, Do Not Send Wrong Signals About NS, Ting Kheng Siong).
The perspective that it is necessarily deleterious if Singaporeans raise questions about or challenges to National Service (NS) policy – for instance, “if people start to question now whether NS is necessary, if operationally ready NSmen should shoulder certain responsibilities, and whether the tempo and intensity of military training should be reduced” (ST, Feb. 5) – not only seems short-sighted and further disregards the absence of substantive engagement with servicemen and the general public, but also underestimates the value of rigorous discourse over the need for NS and the principles of defence and deterrence which justify the need for conscription in Singapore. It appears somewhat paradoxical, yet instead of being anchored by unquestioned or unchallenged assumptions of its importance, the institution of NS is perhaps best strengthened when it is constantly questioned and challenged by Singaporeans.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Committee to Strengthen NS was organised almost five years ago, there was little to no discussion on whether NS is needed in the first place, and issues of representation – especially in terms of the servicemen who attended – are likely to persist. And even if a survey showed that 98.4 per cent of Singaporeans agreed that NS was necessary or that there is strong perceived support for it, that does not mean that every servicemen would have had a positive experience across his two years of service, or that there are no areas for improvement. The notion of having a regular space for NSFs or NSmen to safely air their grievances and to provide feedback can be productive, if the views gathered translate into operational or even policy changes. In other words, a false dichotomy exists in terms of how we approach the conversations around NS, and we should not to be too eager to police these conversations too.
And if is hypothesised that “it will be difficult to find the right balance during implementation” of – among other things which may impact military preparedness or the well-being of servicemen – safety and military training standards, then maybe the strategy should be to aggregate the first-hand, day-to-day experiences of men and commanders? Does the fault always lie with the men on the ground, or are there blind spots that commanders, who may not have gone through the same training demands or regimentation as their men, are not cognisant of? How do men and commanders perceive these aforementioned training standards, and from their point of view what has been ineffective, onerous, or even counterproductive? And how safe do they feel, for the more dangerous exercises or missions? Without a deeper examination of the issues from the perspectives of those who serve, any developments which follow will not result in meaningful progress.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.