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Guest Contribution

A Case Against National Service

Preface. The prospect of National Service (NS) unsettles. Some of us brim with excitement, some of us cannot fathom the military regimentation and the physical exertion, and some of us question the very need for the purportedly anachronistic institution. “Why waste two years, with Singapore’s diplomacy, technology, and the disadvantages of servicemen in school and at the workplace”, the sceptics argue. And sometimes it is convenient for us who have gone through the two years to be dismissive of this perceived immaturity.

Yet there is value in responsible discourse. The Committee to Strengthen NS made good recommendations, even though participants were hardly encouraged to challenge the premises of NS. I think that needs to change. I may believe that NS is needed for defence and deterrence, but we should engage Singaporeans who argue otherwise – especially the pre-enlistees – in conversation. And hopefully this practice continues in the units. Go beyond the platitudes of “duty”, “honour”, “serving the nation”, listen, and answer the questions.

I have my disagreements with the commentary, but here is the piece by kronosception, who is due to enlist in less than a year.

In the Prime Minister’s 2012 National Day Message, he stated the need to “relook existing policies”, and that none of the policies were too sacred to be touched.

I wonder though, if National Service (NS) is even considered a policy, or if it has become part of Singapore as a whole? If a nation wants to relook its future, to reinvent itself, and to carve out a future for itself, surely it must relook a policy where young men (at the peak of their life) are sent for two years to a place with no opportunity to further themselves?

Sure, National Service brings many benefits: discipline (regimental, nonetheless), a sense of camaraderie among young Singaporean men, and perhaps a strengthening of the “Singapore spirit” or “identity” (does one even exist?) But like it is with all policies, do the costs outweigh the benefits?

Costs and Benefits

This then, really begs the question: are these intangible “benefits” worth two years of a young man’s prime? In a time of relative global peace, where nation after nation is forging deeper ties with each other diplomatically and militarily – and with their fates increasingly intertwined, making them more interdependent – many would say that there is less need for such a strong army. More importantly, with Singapore’s deep coffers and large economic power, we certainly have enough money and capability to hire a large group of regulars to protect our country in place of a regular army. And surely, no definitely, Singapore has less of a need for NS than countries like South Korea and Taiwan, which face real and imminent threats of invasions. In South Korea, National Service is four months shorter. And in Taiwan, two. These are countries which face threats from their neighbours: real, declared threats which make NS geopolitically sensible.

However, the fact is that Singapore faces either imaginary threats, or real threats which an army of our current size would stand no chance against. Malaysia and Indonesia, our closest neighbours, have no interest in attacking us because they have nothing to gain (imaginary threat). But even if they did, Malaysia’s population is easily five times of Singapore’s, and Indonesia’s is a whopping forty seven times of Singapore’s. Our active military strength – which includes reservists (350,000) and active personnel (around 72,000) – is only 420,000-strong. On the other hand, Indonesia has 476,000 active personnel (more than six times of Singapore’s) and 52 million men ready for military service. Malaysia also has more active personnel than Singapore (124,000), and has around 640,000 reservists. They too have 12 million men fit for military service.

Let’s look at that in perspective. The number of men in Malaysia fit for military service is more than twice the population of Singapore, and the number of men in Indonesia fit for military service is more than 10 times the population of Singapore. Are you telling me that Singapore actually stands a chance if these countries are to invade? (No, for the record.)

Singapore’s defence, therefore, is predicated on our economic ties and diplomatic efforts. Given our relative technological superiority, even if military deterrence played a part, its significance will be by no means diminished by a transition to a professional army which perhaps may cost us a few thousand, maybe a hundred thousand soldiers. Yet this number pales in comparison to the relative hordes that our neighbours have – hordes that could probably decimate Singapore using their fists if they wanted to.

What I’m saying, therefore, is simple. National Service is becoming more and more redundant or too lengthy due to the following reasons:

– A relatively long period of service compared to countries with real threats: South Korea and Taiwan.
– Wasting away the time of men at the prime of their youth.
– An increasing ability of Singapore to support an army completely staffed by regulars.
– Perceived threat of Indonesia and Malaysia is more or less imagined.
– In the event of aggression, military deterrence plays less importance than diplomatic defence (the United States, the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA), the United Nations).

Are these reasons really not enough?

The Case Against NS

Abolish conscription and put in place an army staffed by regulars instead. How to go about doing this? We probably have enough money to raise the salary of our regulars to attract more Singaporeans to serve of their own volition.

Abolish conscription and put in place an army staffed by regulars instead. How to go about doing this? We probably have enough money to raise the salary of our regulars to attract more Singaporeans to serve of their own volition.

The solution and course of action is really quite clear. Abolish conscription and put in place an army staffed by regulars instead. How to go about doing this? We probably have enough money to raise the salary of our regulars to attract more Singaporeans to serve of their own volition. And this is supplemented by the extra cash we’re going to get if we reduce or end conscription (paying less people the same amount of money previously allocated to a larger group of people = more money per person). Not only does this solve the problem of conscription, it also helps – to an extent – to solve Singapore’s labour woes. Why? Because the unemployed or underemployed have even greater incentives to enlist full-time in the army, with better pay and career prospects.

This is not the only solution. It’s one possibility, a possibility I would like, but even the tiniest concession from conscription would be a logical move forward for Singapore.

Additionally, I would like to note that Malaysia is part of the FPDA, which includes the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore. These countries have agreed to come to the defence of a country when it’s attacked. Technically, this lowers the possibility or chance for Malaysia to be an aggressor towards Singapore, given that they would either be violating the agreement (incurring the wrath of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand), or they would have to attack themselves. Which would be pretty funny.

Ending conscription, or even moving to partial conscription gives young Singaporean men back two years of their lives, bringing a myriad of benefits.

For one, it puts them on the same level as women in pursuing their studies. And do I have to mention how many relationships NS breaks up? Or how many opportunities to study NS destroys? Or even the many deaths NS has caused, and the lives it has ruined? Or how about the simple fact that not everybody is cut out for regimentation, and that it’s simply unfair to force conscription upon your country where there is no longer a need for it?

The Way Forward

The truth is, the benefits of NS are intangible, and the benefits of scrapping it are far more real and definitely outweigh the benefits of keeping it in place. So what to do?

Perhaps in the true Singaporean spirit of doing things, have a panel of ministers led by some minister (defence, perhaps) look into the policy of NS as part of an impartial policy review (I cannot stress this enough), to perhaps publish a paper to Singaporeans regarding their findings for the need of NS (obvious really, but since Singaporeans like everything in black and white), and finally to hold a referendum (or not, they could dictate, but holding a referendum really makes you more democratic) on whether or not NS should be scrapped, to remain, or for its duration to be cut short, or whatever their brilliant minds can come up with.

I’m not being sarcastic here. Our ministers are probably pretty brilliant if they have managed to get themselves that position right? The question is, why are they not doing anything about it, or even discussing this issue in the manner it should be? That is, instead of treating it as an untouchable policy, why not objectively review it instead of pretending everybody loves NS to bits and trying to figure out how to “strengthen” it instead?

Lastly, probably many will remark that the fact I’m about to enlist makes my opinion one-sided and not one to believe. I’m going to say that it’s exactly to the contrary. You are not going to find people willing to dedicate time and effort to reform NS more than the people about to enlist. And I think that speaks volumes about NS as a policy on the first level. But more importantly, I would think that even I myself would grow apathetic to this cause once it’s all over, because why the trouble?

So thankfully, as of this moment, I still feel intensely strongly for this issue, so I still have the energy and willpower to type this ridiculously verbose article (is it, though?). Let my snarkiness not cloud my arguments, because I do and I have considered both sides of the argument. Two years ago, I thought it was high time that NS be reviewed and reformed. Two years on, I could not feel more strongly about this. It’s high time that we do something about this, and that the government actually looks into this matter through an objective lens.

With that, I rest my case.

About guanyinmiao

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


24 thoughts on “A Case Against National Service

  1. Reduce NS to a year. Its not complicated.

    We need to a political party to make this as part of their platform for the next election. Even the G doesnt think it is important, thats why 1st generation PRs are allowed not to do NS and their kids leave the Spore and renounce their PR before their NS call up. They dont pay any price for returning their PR and avoiding NS.

    Posted by Johnson | June 20, 2014, 12:23 pm
  2. Actually, nations have won wars against worse odds than SG/Indo. And with worse technology and equipment.

    Posted by Daniel Yap | June 20, 2014, 3:22 pm
    • The author should read Defending the Lion City by Tim Huxley first. http://www.amazon.com/Defending-Lion-City-Forces-Singapore/dp/1865081183

      Posted by Chunx | June 20, 2014, 4:13 pm
    • Hi Daniel,

      True, but offhand the examples I can think of are Vietnam against US in Vietnam War and maybe Japan against Russia in Russo/Japan of 1904? To be fair though, this is not likely to be a situation that can be replicated in Singapore because
      1) Terrain
      2) Different levels of motivation (i.e. I think we can agree that Singaporeans are not likely to display the same level of commitment to war as the Vietnamese and Japanese, the latter which practices Sepukku.)

      – Kronosception.

      Posted by kronosception | June 20, 2014, 10:52 pm
      • Finland vs Russia in the Winter War as well. There are too many factors at play in war to say, as you have, that we stand no chance against superior or overwhelming numbers. Or rather, let the war be lost before we have fired a single shot. That’s the difference between paper generals and real ones. 🙂

        Posted by Daniel Yap | June 21, 2014, 12:30 am
      • And of course, there is the much-touted deterrence factor. Calling up able-bodied (but untrained) men to war is very costly for an aggressor, especially if they expect to be bloodied. The temptation to attack a standing army of 70,000 is different from that of attacking a force with another 350,000 trained reserves. The fact that we serve NS does make a difference in terms of deterrence.

        In the light of this argument, though, I will admit that we do not need to do a 2-year stint to achieve this. A year may be more than enough to drill in basic soldiering, and those with aspirations to rank volunteer to serve longer because of the necessary training.

        Posted by Daniel Yap | June 21, 2014, 12:45 am
  3. An interesting intellectual discourse at best. I think the whole argument misses a very fundamental point – whose responsibility is it to defend one’s home. If a man were to set up a home (and a family), whose responsibility is it to protect his family and his home? The author’s argument is that this responsibility can be outsourced. I don’t share this view. I believe (and accept) that it is every citizen’s responsibility to defence his country. On this note, I am proud to say that I did my NS in the late 70s (and it was two and a half years), and my son did his NS from 2009-2011.

    Posted by Bernard | June 20, 2014, 5:05 pm
    • Hi Bernard,

      Thanks for the comment. I never actually suggested outsourcing our defence though – I’m not sure if any country ever does that. What I am proposing is replacing our army with a regular army, staffed by Singaporeans, as it is in status quo. So yes, it remains the responsibility of our citizens to protect our country.

      Just pre-empting the argument that it’s EVERY citizen’s duty, I would say yes but only if there is a need to – clear precedent in many other countries.

      While indeed serving NS is a source of pride for many like yourself, we all end up serving the nation in different ways – especially ways that the nation needs most. Not everyone is suited to serving our country in the military or as part of NS: that much is clear.

      – Kronosception

      Posted by kronosception | June 20, 2014, 10:57 pm
      • Decades ago, before the hell break loose to allow foreigners onto our shore, I feel it is our duty and pride to defend our country. I don’t feel or see it this way anymore. What’s the point when we (the children) stand guarded on our front door against any enemies to have our “father” open or leave the back door opened wide with welcoming arms? Defending our country is about TOTAL defence on all fronts by EVERYONE, starting with policy makers!

        Posted by Cruise | June 21, 2014, 10:35 am
  4. BTW, when was the last time you ran 2.4km, Mr Guan?

    Posted by Bryan Ti | June 20, 2014, 6:05 pm
  5. Most of these are fair reasons against NS. Here’s one for: about 8 years back, Lee Kuan Yew claimed that “Without the elected president and if there is a freak [election] result, within two or three years, the army would have to come in and stop it.” Today that statement might begin with “with an unsympathetic elected president…”. The one thing that reassures me that Singapore is unlikely to experience a military coup in the event the opposition wins power is that most citizens will not point guns at fellow citizens–the very citizens we are told we’re defending, all the time. A professional army would have less interaction with civilians / NSFs; its rank and file would share fewer of the same concerns; and its leadership might see the allocation of the government budget between military and civilian uses as a zero-sum game.

    I’m all for cutting back the time in NS and for looking into more ways to involve women (gender-neutral + the option to serve in civilian functions for reduced pay commensurate with the risk). But everyone should be liable for NS and the bulk of human resources in the SAF should remain citizen-conscripts.

    All that said, kronosception’s contribution is valuable, and the policy needs to be relooked rather than touched up with more goodies to keep NSmen happy.

    Posted by mcpeanuts | June 20, 2014, 8:47 pm
    • Hi McPeanuts,

      Thanks for the comment. I have to agree that if a compromise is what we can get, then we’ll probably settle for that – but relooking the policy and its principles is something in particular that I hope can be achieved.

      As for the possibility of a coup – I doubt it would be a violent coup anyway because a coup only gets the support of a people if

      1) Reputation for protecting the country and actually does (i.e. Thailand)
      2) Made up of own citizens as well who naturally empathise with the crowd’s sentiments. Often, this is why coups happen in the first place, no?

      I agree that everyone should serve their country, but it’s hard to argue that everybody has to be liable to serve NS (only one specific way to serve) especially when some people (many, actually) are clearly not suited to serve NS and much more able to serve in other ways.

      – Kronosception.

      Posted by kronosception | June 20, 2014, 11:01 pm
  6. I agree that NS has to be re-looked. Do you know there are actually countries without a military?

    Who says defence of a home cannot be outsourced? If a gang of robbers with knives break into your house, would you fight them? The police defends our homes.

    However, outsourcing our defence comes with risks. Remember our colonial days when the British pledged to protect us? Also, it is not always that countries with numerical advantage will win. Look at Israel vs all its neighbours. Singapore can win with tactics and technology. This also serves as deterrence.

    By the way, Mr Guan, why are you serving NS only now? Aren’t you from the first IP batch of HC?

    Posted by Neo Jing Ci | June 20, 2014, 11:10 pm
  7. Hello Kronosception,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful post. It’s an important discussion to have, and I’m glad you’ve raised many salient points. Salient not because of their own logic, but also because they are debatable. Which will deepen this discussion.

    For example, recruiting for an all regular force will be difficult. Taiwan’s trying to do that, but they’ve had to postpone the abolishing of 2 years conscript several times now because the military has been unable to meet recruitment targets. Forcing the shift would have left serious gaps in their capabilities. In Singapore, the career aspirations and rising educational attainment may limit the recruitment pool for the lower ranks. Given the nature of the job, the recruitment pool is already comparatively small.

    Reduce NS? I’ve written about this here (http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/why-full-time-ns-cant-be-shortened ) It is possible, but there will be trade-offs, like a reduction in the SAF’s capabilities (in scope and standards reached).

    Why these capabilities are needed then leads to the difficult question of what my colleague calls the SAF’s Theory of War. He’s written about that here: http://rsismilitarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/a-rational-military-instrument-lessons-for-the-saf/ and http://rsismilitarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/a-personal-addendum-to-conscription-in-singapore-and-why-it-cannot-be-shortened/

    How does the SAF envision itself dealing with threats, and what are those threats? The bigger question here is should this question be “democratically” answered by allowing citizens to have a say? Or should this be left to the experts ie. policy-makers. It sounds somewhat naive to do so (since civil servants should serve the public), but how many of us are qualified to comment on defence matters? We have more claim to discussing domestic policy because we experience those domains daily, but not so for defence, foreign policy or government investments. Yet Singapore’s defence policy is contingent on NS so surely citizen-soldiers, if not the general public, should have a say too? In fact, they do – through their vote! NS can become a political issue like any other, and changes can be enacted through the ballot box.

    Any discussion about changes to NS is ultimately about Singapore’s defence policy. The nub of this issue is how Singaporeans perceive the contemporary world, and what their risk appetite is. What happens to NS is dependent on how conservative, or not, Singaporeans are when it comes to security. In some regards this is not dissimilar to how financial planning is approached. The current system is conservative with a high premium paid (through the large defence budget and NS) in exchange for comprehensive protection. While it is impossible to quantify exactly how much security the current system offers (since you cannot quantify threat), it does at the very least give the country a wide range of options. It can operate on a full-spectrum as small groups of operators behind enemy lines to battalions holding territory. More importantly, Singapore maintains absolute agency in its response to security threats. It will not have to rely on others for help. It’s just like having a whole range of riders to an insurance policy.

    Someone who believes resources could be spent elsewhere may have greater risk appetite and be willing to have fewer options. This isn’t fundamentally wrong, and merely reflect’s the person’s politics. Someone who is conservative tends to be a realist (I count myself closer to this side of the spectrum), whereas my sense Kronosception has a more liberal bent in understanding international relations.

    Where do Singaporeans generally stand on that spectrum? And have we thought enough about this (seems like most of our policy discussions are on domestic, not foreign, policies)? Which is why these conversations are important to have. Again, thanks for your contribution, Kronosception.

    Posted by HSH | June 21, 2014, 12:21 pm
  8. Hey kronosception,

    I’ll suggest a few other things for you to consider.

    The recent case of Ukraine makes for a timely reminder for the need for a committed and well-trained force. The Ukrainian Army (admittedly some of which are ethnically Russian) simply gave up their arms or defected when separatists took over Eastern Ukraine.

    More immediately Iraq comes to mind. Iraqi troops fled before the face of ISIS insurgents, leaving entire cities and provinces in the hands of terrorists.

    On another note, Israel provides a good example of a conscripted military defeating Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq) with numbers many times of theirs.

    Of course we do not share the same geopolitical, religious and historical contexts as these places, but nevetheless we cannot ignore the examples these conflicts serve for the need for defense.

    Lastly, the peace, diplomacy and prosperity that we know of has really only come about very recently. It is very tempting to consider immediate history (i’m guilty of that as well), but when we look back retrospectively we see how periods of peace and stability can quickly be thrown into chaos and war. It’s easier to build up a culture of defense and self-determination over a long period of time than to cobble up an incoherent force in a short period of time.

    If anything, I feel that the training in the SAF should be more realistic and tougher. Right now there are so many safety considerations and procedures put in place that it makes me doubt if we can be operationally effective in times of war. Most people will not enjoy military life, but we can make it worthwhile if it truly serves it’s primary purpose of self-defence. If it’s going to be half-hearted or serve other purposes like nation building then I’ll agree that conscription should be scrapped.

    Posted by Yi Yi | June 27, 2014, 3:55 pm
  9. We should also explore how PAP uses NS as a tool to restrict the outflow of male citizens, and to a lesser extent, PRs. Males who study abroad or emigrate, and do not serve NS subsequently due to some schedule conflicts are labelled defaulters and are forbidden from coming back to Singapore, if even for a visit. Instead, the law must be made flexible enough for these young men to decide when it’s a good time to return to the homeland. Rather than welcoming these men home, instead PAP welcomes with open arms boat loads of immigrants from China and India, who do not fit in with the Singaporean societal fabric.

    Mature men in their 20s and 30s would make for more suitable candidates for NS instead of being forced into it at 18 years old. There’s nothing worse than unwilling and ill-trained soldiers in times of war.

    Posted by PAPSucks | December 27, 2014, 9:55 am


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