I like the idea of a National Conversation; nonetheless, instead of allowing policymakers and their bureaucrats per se to shape the agenda, I am of the opinion that Singaporeans should craft the discussions and issues (here). More significantly, as ordinary citizens begin to take centre-stage, individuals from an assortment of segments should be engaged in such discourse. My concern is that even though the military – especially the component of National Service (NS) – is such an integral domain, we might not be granting National Servicemen ample opportunities to correspondingly articulate their perspectives.
A Curious Catch-22
Present circumstances are a curious Catch-22, particularly for full-time National Servicemen (NSF): they are the ones who are most cognisant of on-the-ground developments or challenges, but are not granted the channels to reflect these insights, to provide constructive feedback. Beyond their units, worries over potential breaches of confidentiality and other repercussions prevent NSFs from voicing suggestions for improvement. Within units, there are two primary barriers: first, not all regulars and commanders – given their traditional predilection for the chain of command – may be receptive to such comments; second, even if they are, they could be solely concerned about operational or training procedures. Yet, unit efficiency and the consideration of military-wide matters are not mutually exclusive notions.
Most crucially, a cohesive platform for the explanation or comprehension of propositions – on policy details – does not seem to be readily available. I envision the organisation of general sessions between men, commanders and regulars (one of my friends suggested that these could be done anonymously, with no pressure from rank or appointment), which could cover the basic sharing of training experiences (for the purposes of understanding and interaction, here), or the engagement of decision-makers in a more informal, relaxed setting.
Involving Our National Servicemen Progressively
There is a host of themes that could be explored (here): allowance levels and welfare benefits, the length of service, the dynamics between NSFs and regulars et cetera. Participants should not necessarily demand changes to be instituted; instead, the frank exchange of ideas, explanations and justifications could strengthen commitment to the institution, and sharpen policy proposals or recommendations. We ought to start talking to one another within units and the organisation, involving parties who are genuinely interested.
As these initiatives take root with NSFs and their superiors, it would be imperative to consider how Operationally Ready NSmen can be represented. The RECORD project, as I had previously highlighted (here), has a few shortcomings: that the contributing members did not include rank-and-file soldiers, to consult them; that they did not look beyond high-ranking bureaucrats or commanders in the consolidation of various points of view. As well-connected as they may be, nothing beats first-hand thoughts on how things can improve.
If the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are willing to open up avenues within the organisations, they could be pleasant surprised by the positives.