National Service under the microscope

World War II poster

That’s half the battle won

Back in the days when I did my 2 years 4 months of National Service, it never crossed my mind whether the system was fair or unfair to us guys with regard to the opposite sex or to foreigners.

That is not to say that I enjoyed NS. In fact, like many others, I think of it as the biggest waste of time in my life. I hated it, from all the regimental restrictions to the stupid wayangs to an unmeritocratic system where a veteran warrant officer has to address a commissioned officer fresh out of OCS as “Sir”. The last bit is one I could never come to terms with. To me, there must be something inherently wrong with a system where one is forever consigned to an inferior rank from the career path chosen at the outset that no amount of performance or further education could fix.

I can still remember the day I walked out of camp on my ORD. I’ve never felt so exhilarated and relieved. This must be how it feels to get out of jail, I thought to myself, while conscious of the fact that I would be back in a few years’ time for in-camp training. Since then, I have done a handful of ICTs and they only served to reinforce my opinion of NS being extremely unproductive. There were days when I spent entire afternoons hanging out in a specialist mess because the supervisors had nothing for us to do.

That is why it baffles me when people say our defence will be compromised if NS is cut even shorter from the current two years. Have they seen how unproductively time is spent and all the silly wayang shows we waste time on when a VIP visits?

Despite my misgivings, I just took it as something I had to do and didn’t think much of it. It’s like, okay, I wasted 2 plus years of my life but it’s the same with every guy. People in other countries could spend many more years rebuilding their lives after a war, after all. I’m not saying that Singapore is safe because we have NS — truth is nobody will know how effective it is until something bad happens — but that it’s really pointless to compare.

I have a former colleague of my age who is a Malaysian-turned-Singaporean holding a cushy job in our civil service and living in a HDB flat. When he told me he never did NS, my reaction was more of “you lucky bastard!” than to curse at him for taking advantage of our system, as some unhappy Singaporeans may accuse him of. I do not fault him partly because, as we know, the problem is with the system and partly because I don’t feel I’m entitled to anything different for having served NS. In fact, such a notion of entitlement or being more deserving of whatever it is had never occurred to me until recent years when this issue became a hot topic.

Indeed, the narrative on NS has changed considerably these few years and views on Singaporean men being disadvantaged against foreigners and even Singaporean women have become mainstream and are now freely aired. It is good that there is less taboo now to speak up against the system of NS, which was a sacred cow that for so many years couldn’t be questioned — it’s our sovereignty as a nation you’re talking about! At the same time, we should be careful of not letting the idea that one is entitled to certain priorities or benefits from having served NS gain so much traction that it becomes an issue of “Us who served vs Them who didn’t” that casts even our women to the other side of the divide.

An open discussion on the various concerns is welcome. Some helpful suggestions have been thrown up, such as allocating vocations better to match skill sets. This would make time served more fulfilling for people like me who haven’t felt so. On the other hand, certain kinds of arguments have not helped. For example, saying that women serve by bearing children, or by providing spiritual support as wife, sister or mother to our soldiers, does not address the complaint some have that the men are never given any option.

The same goes for issues such as IPPT and RT for NSmen. For those who end up spending a lot of time on remedial training, it’s natural they will feel unhappy about being forced to do so. It’s easy to suggest that it is every NSman’s duty to stay fit, but not every man is born the same. Some people can pass with minimal training, while some just can’t no matter how hard they train. So is it fair to “punish” those who can’t with very time-consuming RT? These are questions that need addressing. In fact, while I haven’t had a problem passing so far, I tend to think that the whole idea of an annual IPPT for NSmen is unsafe because it causes people to over-exert in last minute training or during the tests when their bodies are not properly conditioned for the level of intensity. You should be staying fit all year round, they say, but just saying that won’t make people go out and exercise when they have busy lives to contend with.

Should women serve NS then? A recent Institute of Policy Studies survey revealed that 1 out of 10 women is willing to serve full time NS. I can only wonder how many percent of that will think it’s time well spent after going through it. Personally I am indifferent, but some sort of vocational training over a shorter period may be useful. When Britain was at war, the women not in combat service helped in a variety of ways. This included caring for the injured and young, working in factories and farms, and working as drivers, firefighters and even in the secret service. There is no doubt that in times of war, women will have a very important part to play. If we recognise this fact, why then are we not preparing them for such a contingency?

But, in truth, this current debate over NS is not so much about who should serve and whether it’s a worthy sacrifice, but a spill-over from the general unhappiness with the number of foreigners in the country and the competition it is creating, which is unfair to some extent and even acknowledged by the government. Ultimately, that is the root problem that is in urgent need of being addressed.