Reduce the duration of national service and reservist
National Service, or army conscription in Singapore, was first introduced in 1967 due to pressing issues such as national security after Singapore’s “forced” independence in 1965. In 1971, the British completely pulled out of Singapore. It has been 41 years since the introduction of NS.
Since then the world and Asia has changed significantly in terms of security and economic arrangements. But has Singapore’s conscription policy kept up with these changes to reflect and cope with the new geopolitical landscape?
First let us review the service that all able-bodied 18-year-old male Singaporeans have to undergo. Basic Military Training, or BMT, is the “boot camp” for all new recruits. This lasts for three months whereupon the soldier then gets posted out to other units for further specialised training.
The conscripts then serve the remainder of their two-year stint polishing up their combat skills. Following the two years of full-time service, NSmen are required (for up to 40 days a year) to serve in a part-tme capacity until they are 50 years old for commissioned officers and 40 for others.
Reduce the two-year full-time service
In an age where warfare has turned to “smart” technology, is it still logical and necessary for Singapore to insist that its National Servicemen undergo 24 months months of active, full-time service? Such a policy is rare among countries that maintain a conscription policy. Below is a list of countries with periods of full-time conscript service:
1.Austria (6 months)
2.Bolivia (12 months)
3.Brazil (9-12 months)
4.Denmark (4-12 months)
5.Estonia (8-11 months)
6.Finland (6-12 months)
7.Germany (9 months)
8.Greece (12 months)
9.Guatemala (12-24 months)
10.Moldavia (12 months)
11.Mongolia (12 months)
12.Paraguay (12-24 months)
13.Poland (9-12 months)
14.Serbia (6 months)
15.Switzerland (18-21 weeks)
16.Taiwan (12 months)
17.Tunisia (12 months)
18.Turkey (12 months)
19.Ukraine (12 months_
20.Uzbekistan (12 months)
From the above data, it can be seen that for all intents and purposes a conscript army training programme need not be as long as the one we have in Singapore. The more advance countries like Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and Switzerland all have full-time services limited to one year and less.
Even Taiwan, which has an identifiable enemy in the form of China, limits its active service to 12 months. Only countries like South Korea and Israel have conscription periods that are longer than Singapore’s. These countries are, however, in a state of war.
Given the situation in Singapore there is no reason why we cannot employ more efficient training methods and reduce full-time NS from the present two-years to twelve months or less.
The current period of reserve training for NS men of up to 40 years old is also a burden on the servicemen and, by extension, the economy. Not only does the serviceman have to contend with the influx of foreigners, they are disadvantaged in terms of employment, remuneration and promotion when employers compare local men who have to be away for weeks in anyone year with foreign workers who have no such obligation.
The span of a serviceman’s reservist training should not go beyond 30 years of age. Men tend to settle down and start families around this age and job stability and carreer prospects are essential during this period. Unfair competition from foreign nationals would handicap local males and add to their already stressful lifestyles.
In addition, the human body goes into a physical decline after the age of 30. To keep our military personnel in top condition, it makes little sense in keeping men over the age of 30 in the frontline if military conflict does indeed breakout.
Increase volunteer, professional army
To compensate for the decrease in the number of active and reservist NSmen, the Singapore Armed Forces should expand volunteer army recruitment to complement the reduction in the number of conscripts.
In fact, the number of countries that have scrapped conscription are on the rise: Argentina (1994), Belgium (1994), Czech Republic (2004), France (1996), Hungary (2004), Italy (2004), Netherlands (1996), New Zealand (1972), Portugal (2004), and Spain (2001).
While Singapore may not be ready to follow suit, it would be prudent for us to reduce NSmen in favour of a professional military outfit
At the moment, NSmen are exploited for their services to glorify the PAP during National Day parades. The energy and time of these men can be put to more productive use than as entertainment for the PAP regime.
What about people who do not believe that it is right for them to do military service due to moral, religious or ethical grounds? At the moment such conscientious objectors are charged and imprisoned for the length of their service.
In some of the countries that have compulsory military service, there is also a provision for conscientious objectors to serve in non-combat roles. There is an argument that this would open the flood gates for men to opt for non-combat positions. Such a loophole can be plugged by increasing the length of active service by, say, six months. The experiences of other countries like Germany and Sweden have not been negative in this aspect where males try to avoid combat service by claiming to be conscientious objectors.
Tranparency and openness
Obligation in Singapore seems to be a one-way street. While the Government holds the people accountable for their NS liabilities, the Ministry of Defence remains non-transparent and non-accountable in their dealings with the public.
The recent deaths of National Servicemen have opened a can of worms on training safety. In addition, the number of training fatalities and injuries are not made known to the public as a matter-of-course. The Government which compels the people to give their lives for the country are obliged to be absolutely transparent with information pertaining to safety issues. Compensation for deaths and injuries must also be reviewed and revised upwards.
The Government must also not exploit NSmen as cheap labour during major events such as the WB-IMF meeting or, possibly, the upcoming Youth Olympics. In must be remembered that the Enlistment Act was enacted for a specific purpose and any detraction from that purpose must be shunned.
When citizens are forced to serve in the military with the possibility of being killed if called to war, it is imperative that the government is a democratic one where citizens can hold the government accountable for its decisions and actions. Otherwise we may end up in a situation where wars are waged for the ruling elite rather than for the security and sovereignty of the nation.