“A campaign has been launched to urge Singaporeans to show their appreciation to all national servicemen for their contributions to the nation with a simple gesture” (Singaporeans Urged to Salute Servicemen as Part of NS50, Kenneth Cheng).
S$100 vouchers are nice (TODAY, May 18). A campaign for the public to salute national servicemen may seem respectful (TODAY, Jun. 18). And free bus and train rides for servicemen in their uniforms are well-appreciated – albeit somewhat contrived – gestures (TODAY, Jun. 19). But to meaningfully celebrate 50 years of National Service (NS), these one-off, short-term initiatives should be completed by broader policy discussions for the long-term, and in particular to improve the well-being and experiences of full-time national servicemen (NSF). In fact, these improvements should be based on direct feedback, not views filtered through the chain of command. Otherwise, these nice and respectful gestures will do little to advance conscription or NS for the next 50 years.
The last time such feedback was sought was between 2013 and 2014 – in tandem with the “Our Singapore Conversation” initiative – when the Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS) was convened. Since then, the government has accepted the 30 recommendations and has progressively updated the public on some of its progress, though some points of personal interest include the enhancement of the “value proposition” of NS, facilitating the transition of NSFs “to employment and further studies”, as well as the deepening of “engagement and communication between commanders and servicemen, to achieve better unit cohesion”. What is the progress on these recommendations, have policies achieved their intended impact, and overall how many recommendations have been rolled out? While it would appear, based on the oft-cited perception survey by the Institute of Policy Studies, that most Singaporeans still believe in the need for NS for defence and security, NSFs and their families shoulder the actual responsibilities of service.
And in this vein regular, representative check-ins – perhaps even making the consultative process of CSNS a recurring feature – provide assurance that views are heard and actually acted upon. After all, anchored by the principles of defence and deterrence, NS as an institution is also premised upon the belief that nothing, including our security, should be taken for granted. Likewise, attitudes of those who serve at the frontline cannot be taken for granted too.
Retorts to this proposal are likely to take two forms. First, that NSFs and servicemen are not appreciative of the well-intentioned, aforementioned gestures. It is true that these gestures are part of a broader campaign, and that a great deal of thought went into them, yet the proposal does not necessarily contradict what has been mooted. Second, some are likely to lament that soldiers of today are too mollycoddled, too demanding, and that conditions of today are already much improved. Be that as it may, it can also be argued that the opportunity costs of service are comparatively higher vis-à-vis the past, and – more critically – the desire for progress should be celebrated, not shunned. And that would also be the best way to celebrate 50 years of NS.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.