Preface. Last week a commentary about National Service by a friend of mine, who is due to enlist in less than a year, attracted a number of interesting responses and comments.
Ho Shu Huang on the importance of conversations on Singapore’s defence (and conscription) policy, and the extent to which Singaporeans believe in defence and deterrence:
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.
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.
Daniel Yap on the length of National Service, and its contribution to deterrence:
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.
Joshua Ip on the comparative strength of the Singapore Army, and the difficulty of forming a professional army (with lessons from Taiwan):
Singapore’s conscript army is an effective and successful deterrent. You can’t just total up a nations population and claim that as their fighting power – if so, India would have rolled over Pakistan long ago, China would have never been raped by Japan in WW2, and Indonesia should have long conquered the whole of ASEAN under Suharto.
You can have millions of population, but if they’re all scattered across 10,000 islands, how are you going to command and control them? Transport them? Let alone equip and train? East Timor deterred the TNI with a bunch of armed farmers before the UN came in – you think they can deal with Singapore? Ask any soldier who has gone for a combined [military exercise] with Malaysian troops, whether here or there. After going through the [military exercise], few have any doubts about the ability of our conscripts to hold them off in a fight. Our conscript tankies [who] trained in Germany regularly get the best tank crew award. The world’s best snipers as assessed by the US? Singaporean conscripts, twice running. All [these are] widely available on open source defence news sources, including our region-high defence spending per capita.
The SAF has a regular battalion that it had difficulty staffing even while paying private soldiers five digit bounties just to sign a three year contract. They can barely recruit enough sergeants, and you think Singaporeans are going to settle for being privates? … Some jobs are income inelastic beyond a certain point[,] and in the military there is inevitably a density of such onerous, low-paying jobs with limited advancement prospects. One simple case study is Taiwan. They are scrapping their national service and moving towards a professional army. After two years of announcing it, they haven’t even met a third of their recruitment targets despite increasing pay by 30%. You can’t just throw money at the problem and expect everything to be solved.
Alvin Aloysius Goh on the pragmatic difficulties of soldiering:
Soldiering being a physical job, not any Tom, Dick or Harry can simply take it up. What with our meritocratic society chasing grades, and education is valued over physical fitness, I feel that the younger generations seem to get weaker and weaker.
Cultural change is not something that can be effected overnight; it needs years and years of constant work. Are we going to give up our meritocracy? Or will it simply become a case of the ‘losers’ in society becoming soldiers to protect the ‘winners’?
Simply not suited for the army? Quite frankly my friend, nobody is.