“National Service can no longer continue to be defined narrowly and simply as forced conscription into military service” (A New Vision For National Service In Singapore, Seah Chin Siong).
In an ambitious commentary about a new vision for National Service (NS) in Singapore, chief executive of state-owned lottery Singapore Pools Seah Chin Siong argued that “[NS] can no longer continue to be defined narrowly and simply as forced conscription into military service”, further lamenting the fact that NS “remains largely limited to military capabilities” (TODAY, Aug. 7). Yet in the confused exposition, the vision he articulates for the future is neither insightful nor productive, and moreover ignores the very foundations of the institution.
Since its inception, NS has been premised upon the principles of defence and deterrence. It may be “the same historical narrative”, but without these anchors convincing pragmatic Singaporeans on the importance of military conscription would be an impossible task. Education in this regard is crucial. Mr. Seah cites the enthusiastic applicants he interviewed for the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) – where perspectives are likely to be manicured, the limitations of anecdotal evidence notwithstanding – though their eagerness to make sacrifices counts for little without an appreciation of Singapore’s vulnerability.
Not to mention, the commitment attached to the SAFVC – ultimately a voluntary endeavour – pales in comparison to the obligations demanded of full-time national servicemen. Mr. Seah also does not quite justify the new trend of immigrants stepping up to volunteer or contribute.
His predictions that the NS of the future will “focus on harnessing [the talents of individuals]” and the smaller sizes of units have both already been acknowledged as inevitable trends. Following the recommendations of the Committee to Strengthen NS, the SAF have plans to deploy conscripts based on their skills and abilities, with the possibility of offering further accreditation. Demographic challenges in the country have made it necessary for the SAF to coordinate leaner, no less effective units through technological advances. In this vein, these regurgitated views barely craft a new vision for NS in Singapore.
Perhaps the one thing that Mr. Seah is right about is the need for “the style of leadership in our military institutions [to] evolve into a more enlightened model”. It is easy to cite servant-leadership as an aspiration, yet more tangibly the ideal should be greater accountability, through which rank-and-file soldiers – beyond the training ground – are encouraged to challenge the status quo, flag concerns when their commanders are out of line, and communicate feedback on a more regular basis. Besides throwing around superficial terms like “empathy”, it would be more constructive to institute platforms or processes which facilitate these aforementioned interactions, thereby yielding more meaningful results.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.