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The Biggest Problem That Frustrates Singapore’s NSFs

Here’s the thing. I don’t think that any Singaporean male would comprehensively hate his army experience (except, of course, those select individuals who might have been affected by specific aggravating episodes); after all, there must have been some positive takeaways from the two years. For instance, I completed my National Service with a phenomenal bunch of friends, and became more cognisant of the importance of fitness.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the proposition that an ordinary soldier cannot ask “why” without fear of reprisal or disciplinary repercussions.

While I was compiling the responses from my National Service Survey (here), NSF respondents raised a plethora of concerns, from contemplations on the length of service (here) to the perceptions of double standards in service. However, these are considerably peripheral considerations, and I believe that they stem from something more poignant.

The Biggest Problem: Asking “Why”

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the proposition that an ordinary soldier cannot ask “why” – why are we doing this; why is it done this way; why can’t we propose an alternative methodology – without fear of reprisal or disciplinary repercussions.

When one asks why, he runs the risk of being construed as being problematic, or perceived to be deeply disrespectful of the military structure or framework. These rigidities stifle and frustrate. I’ve always found it to be pretty ironic to have the top brass constantly demand its troops to be thinking soldiers, but appear to be fundamentally opposed to the idea of having interested, inquisitive soldiers who wish to comprehend scenarios and challenge the pedantic present circumstances.

Furthermore, there are simply no incentives for soldiers to do something productive or constructive for his unit, or for the organisation. Why would a NSF risk sticking his head above water, or articulate dissatisfaction if he knows that tolerance for alternative perspectives is hard to come by in the army. At the end of the day, there is little understanding for differentiation and improvements, as superiors continue to harp on the importance of “discipline” and “regimentation”.

The Sanctity Of The Singapore Army

Why do we find it so difficult to criticise the army? Why has it been accorded such a special status, to the extent that one cannot point out flaws without being accused of undermining the sanctity of the institution? Why do we choose to be so hostile to opposing viewpoints, and not harness on-the-ground sentiments from soldiers?

For men, it is simply two years of repeatedly doing the same drills and operational exercises; and for some, to be always treated as the “lowest life-form”.

It’s like a Pavlov experiment in practice: a NSF asks something rational, his commander has no logical response / does not know / talks about “sucking-your-thumb-and-rolling-with-it”, NSF follows-up, commander becomes unhappy because it undermines his authority / NSF is being disruptive, punishments follow for the need to maintain discipline and reinforce regimentation. The real issues become obscured.

Addressing The Gulf Between Men And Commanders

And when superiors say that they understand how it feels like to be men, they don’t. Most commanders have only been exposed to experiences in the command schools, and even though there is tremendous rigour and intensity in the training, there is a persisting element of respect for the trainees (given that they would eventually graduate as commanders). For men, it is simply two years of repeatedly doing the same drills and operational exercises; and for some, to be always treated as the “lowest life-form”.

Men are like trapped in this unfortunate limbo; tough training and demands during training, I accept, but when it comes down to the nitpicking of the nitty-gritty and minute administrative expectations, it is often aggravating and on the verge of being farcical.

My wish is for commanders – regulars or not – to understand the basic premise that not all men were made to be soldiers. The military is an artificial construct that forces individuals to conform to a certain physical and psychological model, and it should come as little surprise that some simply cannot cope with the demands and pressures. Instead of drawing unfair conclusions or generating labels from the get-go, show your men some respect, empathy, and listen to their grouses or recommendations

I don’t know how things will pan out, having completed my term just last year; all I reckon is that with NSFs becoming more vociferous and engaged (here), the convenient faith in the status quo would no longer be adequate. I hope to do my part by aggregating suggestions, but at the end of the day it does have to work both ways, with the emergence of some form of response from the authorities.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


28 thoughts on “The Biggest Problem That Frustrates Singapore’s NSFs

  1. I believe part of the reason why “it (has) been accorded such a special status, to the extent that one cannot point out flaws without being accused of undermining the sanctity of the institution” may be due to the incompetence of biasness of the publications managed by the MINDEF. It utterly fails to accurately reflect “ground-zero” sentiments from NSFs themselves.

    Posted by Joel | February 22, 2012, 9:32 am
  2. I have children, now even grand children.
    I have been to Indonesia and Malaysia and
    have been repeatedly exposed to their jingoism.
    I was here during the Indonesian confrontation.
    You know you need a strong military deterrent
    when you have experienced the above.

    Posted by jackky | February 22, 2012, 12:51 pm
    • Understood, understood, understood. We hear that all the time.

      But one question: Where in the post was it mentioned that we ‘don’t need a strong military deterrent’? I don’t see it anywhere.

      Rather, what he is in fact trying to do is help suggest improvements to our military organisation. Does improving the way our military operate and the maximisation of (human) resources in the military sound like making our ‘military deterrent’ weaker to you?

      In fact, the opposite is true. If we can make our military organisation efficient, if we can employ our people while maximising their potential, if we can have soldiers who are not reluctant but rather motivated and confident in their superiors and the system in place–we will achieve more than just a strong military deterrent.

      Posted by Quanxiang | February 23, 2012, 11:29 pm
  3. Don’t you realized that the SAF is a mirror reflection of Singapore society? You cannot change the SAF without first changing Singapore.

    Just like our educational system and Singapore.

    Posted by Kelvin Tan | February 22, 2012, 6:44 pm
    • If society is a certain way, and you don’t choose to help improve the systems put in place, particularly the educational system that you mention, then how would you suggest making our society better? By shaking your leg? By discouraging effort and not doing your part?

      Some people believe in change for the better and do their part to be involved in it. Do we tell them, ‘No, it won’t work, please don’t bother with making our society better’?

      Posted by Quanxiang | February 23, 2012, 11:21 pm
  4. [Jackky] No you don’t. Modern warfare, like many other industries driven by technological innovation, has evolved to the point where a single soldier can now assume the roles of multiple soldiers in the past (or at least be equivalent to several soldiers’ worth in terms of utility & firepower, due to technological “force multipliers”). So we definitely can cut down on the size of our army, if not the LENGTH OF SERVICE, & still possess ample “deterrent effect”.

    Anyway, it was not mentioned (nor even implied) that we do not need a strong military deterrent. Please be sensible & read the full article before you decide to write a “rebuttal” to revel in your self-grandeur next time.

    Posted by Joel | February 23, 2012, 12:33 am
  5. [Kelvin Tan] No I don’t realize that. Please elaborate. And don’t just make empty claims like “you cannot change the SAF without first changing Singapore”. Back them up. So now I ask you WHY CAN’T WE CHANGE THE SAF WITHOUT FIRST CHANGING SINGAPORE? And define clearly what you mean by “changing Singapore”.

    Anyway the SAF is nothing like our education system. Singapore’s education system has nurtured me to become a critical, objective & as far as possible, quantitative, thinker. The SAF can only dampen these invaluable skills that I’ve picked up in my journey as a student. I still remember clearly that I once questioned my Platoon Commander about his rationale & handling of leave/off issues. I was even able to show him, mathematically, how his system was intrinsically flawed & made no sense when it came to the “relative weights of AM & PM leave/off”. I went on to average the 2 & showed him the fair value of 1 x 1/2 DAY LEAVE/OFF.

    But he was a noobcake.

    Posted by Joel | February 23, 2012, 12:43 am
  6. According to my personal experience having served nsf 10years ago as men and as commander in Bn HQ in reservist, i conclude that there is only a culture of “asking why” among the top of the top commanders as they need to strategise and do up battle tactics…

    where else men are “tools” of war and are essentially executors of battle strategies and tactics and with lives at stake and time constraints in the field, you cannot afford to have a culture (not even open that door.. dont even go there…) of diverse views and debate while charging at the enemy…. which then may invaribly inherently accidentally breed the culture of elitism…

    basically, the world’s a stage.. we are merely actors with diff roles in the play called life… oh well.

    Posted by sinkie | February 23, 2012, 1:07 pm
    • Hi there!

      Quick reply before I zip off for lunch; apologies for any incoherence!

      I like your second paragraph, because you have raised a poignant point that probably affects the mentality of the top brass. You are absolutely right to point out that “you cannot afford to have a culture … of diverse views and debate while charging at the enemy”; and that I suppose is the primary reason for regimentation and discipline.

      But of course, the above scenario is probably applicable in time of genuine conflict and war. Extrapolating this justification to every-day activities appears pretty contrived to be, because it assumes that men do not have the ability to distinguish between their peace-time responsibilities (which we seem to be contained in) and frontline duties. It conveniently obscures the observations that there are many day-to-day, on-the-ground discrepancies that should be comprehensively addressed.

      Sometimes, during training, you also have officers “debating” about different “philosophies” of attack and defence. So, things aren’t as rosy as they appear to be. In any case, as one of my friends mentioned in the FaceBook thread, the problem I raised is really dependent on the quality of the commanders in individual units. And anecodtally, the weaker ones seem to outnumber the “good” ones.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | February 23, 2012, 1:16 pm
      • haha jy i think it depends on the quality of the men also la. not everyone asks appropriate questions. but judging from what is going on from whr u ord-ed, i think all the stupid people became our immediate superiors. and since we need to uphold the chain of command, theres nothing much we can do to improve the sys unless higher-ups approach us personally.

        actually i would like to point out that in many occasions, it is not that commanders are clueless about our concerns. despite knowing our concerns, commanders have little or no incentive to consider our suggestions simply because they have different job scopes and they enjoy more privileges. so even if we suggest a better leave/off system like what joel shared, it is unlikely that things will change- commanders have the ‘authority’ to grant themselves offs whereas men cant.

        regimentation and discipline are jjust lame excuses for not doing anything

        Posted by man | March 3, 2012, 1:32 am
      • Hi there, thanks for dropping by! Do I happen to know you personally, haha?

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | March 3, 2012, 11:03 pm
  7. JY, I think you hit the mark with your reply to Sinkie. It is a matter of the people and according to your article – the leadership. Thus, is it fair to level your criticism at the whole system? I come with the view that the system is only as good as the people, be it the leaders or followers. It is the same in the SAF and any other company or ministry you end up in later in life. Giving feedback is easy, trying changing the system.


    Posted by DD | February 23, 2012, 5:12 pm
    • Hi DD!

      I think the problems are twofold: one, that military structures are naturally rigid; and two, the situation is exacerbated by individuals – primarily commanders – who find it difficult to exercise flexibility. You are right to point out that a generalised argument may not be entirely valid (I accept that), but I do feel that the perspectives I’d raised do resonate with quite a substantial percentage of the NSF population.

      I don’t want to go into greater detail (for fear of revealing any information that might be considered “classified” or “confidential”), but I’d like to think that I was quite proactive with: one, how I carried out my duties; two, providing suggestions and doing projects to provide alternative perspectives. I did say no to command school, but I have done my utmost in training and in operations. During my time in my unit, I did help organise and chair a dialogue for issues within the complex (baby steps, but progress is progress I suppose), and wrote about my sentiments on this weblog. I did get into a little bit of a trouble, but I was also in the midst of compiling responses from my own National Service survey, here (https://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/national-service/).

      It was difficult to “change the system” per se given my relatively junior rank (we call it the lowest life-form as men, haha), so I gave my input as and when it was possible. In retrospect I’d wished to do more, but I’m proud of what I’ve done nonetheless. Feedback should not be the be-all and end-all, but I am confident that it is a good precursor to change. I try my best (still)!

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | February 23, 2012, 7:35 pm
      • I gave plentiful feedback on the leave/off system, too bad the idiot who was my PC was… a noobcake.

        Posted by Joel | February 23, 2012, 10:15 pm
      • 259 is not a substantial percentage of the NSF population. You have asked 150 men and 81 specialists and 28 officers. Get 150 men, 150 specialists and 150 officers and I will believe your views are less biased but still definitely not a substantial percentage of the NSF population.

        SAF is a military organisation. It is not a normal working environment. If one adjusts his perspective to fit the military organisation, he will see plenty of positives in the organisation. I noticed many of the above responses have mentioned regimentation and discipline. Is it wrong for a military to be disciplined? If people want the military to be less disciplined, why are they still posting up photos of SAF personnel falling asleep or playing psp? Discipline is enforced for the image of the military and tactical purposes. It is a deterrent. A normal organisation does not require such high levels of discipline. It is called National Service for a reason. Start looking at the 2 years as a service instead of a normal job.

        Blogging about any work experience, in the SAF or outside the SAF, is never a good idea. You should have already realised the dangers of discussing your work experiences online and in plain sight for anyone to view.

        Many times people form opinions without understanding another person’s perspective. It is not easy being an officer. I started out believing that my superior was a slacker and could not do anything. I believed all he did was push things to me. I hated the first month he was around. Second month onwards, he was on course and I had to take over most of the responsibilities of a CPT. That was the period I realised how much work he has been doing and how much I have to depend on him. It is always easier said than done. Men are not the lowest life-form. Officers are considered the lowest life-form. We have to constantly juggle the responsibilities of being an officer, expectations from superiors and the worst task of all, handle capable and intelligent or problematic men. Officers are accorded privileges due to the seniority of the rank and the extra workload. Outside the SAF, senior positions in management are also accord privileges due to the seniority of their position. People complain, but when they reach that position, they stop.

        Work hard if you want to be given respect and privileges. Do not expect it to be given as a basic right. (Respect as in seniority not as basic human respect.)

        Posted by Glen | March 26, 2012, 7:08 am
      • Hi Glen,

        I agree that the quantitative figures are not exactly representative, and this limitation has been duly acknowledged in the main page (here). Usually, the sample size should be representative of the NSF population (based on the actual distribution of roles), but that is not the case here, clearly.

        I disagree with the part on writing though. If individuals can develop their propositions and perspectives in a fair and responsible manner, without revealing any form of confidential or classified information, discourse can go a long way in terms of generating recommendations and suggestions.

        I think you made the same mistake with your primary argument (as I did), in the case of fallaciously drawing from limited examples. You are only looking at the NS experience from your personal point of view, which means that it is certainly not the same across the system. Simply put: what if an NSF really does “work hard”; at the end of the day, not only is he not “given respect and privileges”, his efforts are also far from appreciated. Have you considered that possibility? What I feel I’m doing is just to hear about these multiple points of view (including yours), and probably try to make sense of it all as well.

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | March 26, 2012, 8:46 am
  8. A soldier cannot ask why. He must only obey orders and carry out his mission mindlessly. If he questions why, the commander must shoot him. I am not trying to be funny. This is true why officers carry a side-arm (pistol).
    If a soldier questions why, then the element of speed is lost and morale is affected. It is simply that.
    If you want to question why, then join the politicians.
    A soldier is just a mindless killing machine. Don’t even ask why.

    Posted by kayangmo | February 24, 2012, 12:00 am
    • That’s the real reason the President’s son (and a few privileged others we are told) had his NS disrupted and served as defence scientist and not soldier (all legit by the way)!

      Posted by What can I say.. | February 27, 2012, 3:12 pm
      • President? Singapore’s President no power one, you are thinking of the Prime Minister and even so, the PM’s kids are also serving. Remember that nasty letter LSL’s son wrote about his unit?

        Posted by Owl | March 7, 2016, 4:08 pm
  9. Listen to what Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) has to say on S’pore


    Posted by Creativity and Innovation | February 24, 2012, 5:35 pm


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