“The nature of the contributions, all-round support for this duty, and the manner of acknowledging such service are to be the concerns of the Committee to Strengthen National Service, announced by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen this week in Parliament” (When Doing NS Is Its Own Reward, The Straits Times Editorial).
The Ministry of Defence’s (MINDEF) establishment of the Committee to Strengthen National Service (NS) – as reflected in The Straits Times editorial, “When Doing NS Is Its Own Reward” (March 15, 2013) – should be applauded. Cognisant of the renewed concerns over immigration and the perpetual sacrifices made by servicemen, while many do recognise and appreciate the need for the NS institution, improvements are certainly in order. Because this new review Committee is in a prime position to posit recommendations, I believe a few strategies will enhance the value of the feedback gathered.
1. Full-time (NSF) and operationally-ready (NSmen) servicemen should be invited to share their experiences, as well as to articulate unit-specific suggestions. More importantly, beyond the engagement of regular soldiers or NS commanders, the enlistment of views from the ground would yield equally – if not more – constructive perspectives on how operations are actually executed. One of the reasons for the general apprehension in participating in such conversations, which should not be construed as apathy or lethargy, is because servicemen are worried that they might contravene directives when acting within the public sphere. Representative focus group discussions, like the ones organised by the Our Singapore Conversation movement, would prove to be a good starting point.
Seemingly “trivial” frustrations over matters like excessive or needless regimentation and user-unfriendly online services might appear inconsequential in “the grand scheme of things”. Nonetheless, a lack of attention can amplify negative perceptions or attitudes towards NS.
2. The format of these discourses should be open and spontaneous, with no intimidation. In the first phase, the participants would be free to raise any points they feel are pertinent. Simultaneously, cross-vocation interactions can be encouraged, so that soldiers can get a better idea of the roles and responsibilities of their counterparts. Subsequently, in the second phase, the servicemen would explore individual themes: welfare and benefits, management of servicemen, leadership opportunities, and the length and value of service.
3. Most crucially, the MINDEF bureaucrats and bigwigs should not go into these sessions demanding answers (this strange predilection for results and performance indicators), because the collaborative process – as clichéd as it might sound – should be the emphasis. As the recent commentaries have reflected, questions such as “what recognition do soldiers deserve” and “should we place a price tag on NS” do not have straightforward answers. On monetary incentives: some might feel insulted by hand-outs, others reckon that compensation is way overdue, and a young Singaporean looking to save up for college would appreciate such financial assistance.
The process might be messy, but it will be meaningful when participants gain an appreciation for a plethora of diverse viewpoints. It is a way of telling our servicemen – of past and present – that their viewpoints matter; and that they matter, too.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.