It is tough to be a full-time national serviceman; it is difficult to articulate the frustration one feels having to serve the country while his counterparts progress speedily to further their studies, the strict regimentation imposed over the smallest of details, having to sacrifice personal time for duties over weekends or holidays et cetera.
Naturally, calls for the abolishment of National Service (NS) in Singapore have been forthcoming ever since the latter’s establishment in 1967. Unfortunately, Singaporean men who have gone through – or are going through – the system is caught in a dilemma: on the one hand, he is cognisant of his responsibilities as a citizen and the commitment to deterrence; on the other, he laments the inconveniences and disruptions to his life.
The bottom-line is this: NS is necessary, and important for the continued prosperity and security of Singapore; however, I believe that it is imperative for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to adopt more consultative measures with its conscripted soldiers, so as to understand their sentiments, and constructively solicit their assorted feedback.
Will Deterrence Remain Effective? Nobody Knows
Armies and military units around the world continue to play pivotal, symbolic roles in the maintenance of territorial sovereignty and overall security. In Singapore, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) forms a quintessential part of the national defence core, empowered by the belief that deterrence is an important concept to keep potential aggressors at bay.
Primarily, the sustained faith in deterrence is premised upon our historical experiences, and the convenient proposition that Singapore has not been breached despites its geographical vulnerabilities. Whether the status quo has been entirely dependent on the presence of the military, it is tricky to conclude; at the same time, one would find it far-fetched to believe that diplomacy per se is be sufficient for the maintenance of peace.
Perhaps it is the fear of unknown that fuels our reliance upon the SAF; after all, why fix something – the military and the deterrence theory – that is not broken? Unless administrators can devise feasible alternatives, or to ensure a steady influx of military personnel voluntarily; conscription will continue to be a permanent fixture in the Singapore fabric because of the demographic challenges faced.
Increasing Mechanisation, Reducing Conscription Years
Amidst the negative perspectives, one must admit that beyond the advantages to the bigger picture, NS does bring about positive benefits to the individual. Personally, the past year or so in my unit after my Basic Military Training (BMT) has made me more cognisant of physical fitness and well-being (besides, I was part of the first eight-week Physical Training Phase). Interactions with people from different walks of life – of different education backgrounds, family experiences, race and religion – has made me more sensitive towards diversity, and humbled in my interactions with others. Assertions of heightened maturity, increased social consciousness and the breaking down of class divisions are certainly not exaggerations.
Nonetheless, with the increased mechanisation of the military – facilitated through improvements in training efficacy and various technological advancements – it makes sense for MINDEF to steadily work towards a reduction of enlistment years for its soldiers (keeping in mind a basic threshold level, and possibly varying it for enlisted men and commanders). As services are made more effective and efficient in a third-generation army, services and departments can be streamlined to reduce bureaucracy, and to heighten operational capabilities even with reduced individual commitment. Less is more.
Towards More Consultative Measures
Most importantly, the most common complaint is that conscripted soldiers often feel like their frustrations are not heard, and there are no tangible channels for them to express their points of view. There are also individuals who feel that things can change for the better within the system. Higher-ranking officers do walk the ground in attempts to have first-hand interactions with their soldiers; however, these visits are pre-planned, giving persons-in-charge time and liberty to prepare questions, sessions and tours beforehand, thereby compromising the purposes of these meetings.
Consultative measures can be implemented in a number of ways: the conducting of a quantitative survey in representative units – coupled with focus group discussions – to identify areas for improvement, unannounced visits by officials from MINDEF to interact vis-à-vis with soldiers, internal dialogues or forums to collectively identify sentiments et cetera. Greater transparency, accountability and engagement – safe for classified information – are the orders of the day.
This is a new world we live in; while regimentation and reinforced discipline are necessary components in a training environments (meant to simulate real-life war situations), what harm would it do to hear from enlisted soldiers about their plethora of views and comments. After all, they are the ones with the first-hand insights to the developments and ongoing in their units. If little is done to address their concerns, dissatisfaction on-the-ground would continue to bubble, as they construe intentions and proposals adopted by their superiors.