In the same period, some 8,800 SPRs served two years of compulsory National Service (NS) with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or Home Team agencies such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force or Singapore Police Force.
So is the glass one third empty or two thirds full? Both interpretations are valid and accurate.
The absence of more data, however, makes trend analysis and attempts to measure the commitment of SPRs to Singapore's defence impossible.
Data shared by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen last Tuesday (22 Nov'11) in response to a parliamentary question could have helped frame discussions on the matter more effectively if it stretched further back in time.
For a long time, heartland chit chat has suspected that SPRs pay lip service to NS and make a beeline for the exit when junior is due to be conscripted. The figures show this to be true: one in three SPRs liable for NS cops out after enjoying years of subsidised education and assorted benefits Singapore dishes out to foreign talent.
The explanation on NS was not just brief. The response was more like a g-string: skimpy, barely there yet still covering the vitals.
This sort of half-hearted reply shows that the system has some way to go before it hits the sweet spot when engaging the public. The system's speech writers ought to consider substance over form and not throw the bare minimum of statistics to queries from Members of Parliament.
This sort of appeasement does nothing for commitment to defence (C2D).
Indeed, it only stokes further debate in the heartlands, online and offline, on SPRs and National Service. There are Singaporeans who wonder if SPRs are taking us for a ride, using this island nation as a springboard before relocating to places such as Australia, New Zealand or the United States.
It's easy to criticise, so here are some ways in which the issue could have been better handled.
First, the data should have gone as far back as our national records allow. In our statistics-obsessed bureaucracy, these numbers would surely reside in the portals of some ministry somewhere.
Sharing year-on-year changes would help heartlanders understand and appreciate how SPRs have supported NS. It would build mindshare and far outweigh any risks to national security because SPRs who served in the 1980s and 1990s would have long completed their NS liabilities.
Let's be frank, the Malaysian Army or Indonesian Marines are not going to march into town just because they know how many SPRs failed to enlist for NS in years long past.
It may well be that in some years, the drop out rate is far smaller than the one in three seen over the past five years. If that is the case, we should try to understand why this was so.
Second, the discussion would be more meaningful if we were told which type of SPRs have a tendency to renounce their PR status. Presenting raw data without any elaboration only contributes to gossip and nagging suspicions that SPRs who hail from certain countries tend to have parasitic tendencies.
This is not xenophobia.
This country puts in a lot in terms of money, effort and attention to groom every SPR student. If we are being taken for a ride by calculative minds who migrate here, enjoy subsidised education and the security umbrella that Singaporean familities provide by supporting NS, we need to know. And the sooner the better.
The data sets are there. By not sharing it, the system is surrendering the initiative to discussion leaders who may - out of ignorance and not ill will - take the discussion to
Third, the manpower deficit from SPRs who dropped out over the past five years translates roughly to the loss of a Singapore Army division-minus. At a time when birth rates are declining, this is a real and substantial shortfall.
We were told to welcome foreigners because their offspring would stay, serve NS and sink their roots in Singaporean society. We were told our forefathers were immigrants too, so we should open our doors to new Singaporeans who want to start life here.
Alas, the SPR-NS figures show the price Singaporeans are paying for this policy.
We now need to know how to read the drop out rate. For example, is the shortfall within Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) estimates? How has the loss of a division-minus over five years impacted the operational readiness and order of battle of the SAF?
The lack of clarity is likely to make most of us interprete the data much like we would read school examination results. The 60% retention rate (8,800 out of 13,000 SPRs liable for NS) is still a pass, not quite a distinction (>75%) and overall probably a B-. Is this the way defence manpower figures should be read?
If not, educate and inform Singaporeans or you risk losing the initiative.
Fourth, Singaporeans need to understand why the SPRs are afraid of or do not want to serve NS. After all the flag-waving sing-alongs during National Day and sweeteners for new Singaporeans, if SPRs remain uncommitted, we need to know why.
Are exit interviews or any kind of engagement surveys done with SPR families before they scoot? What are they saying about NS?
Fifth, utmost efforts should be made to plug the leaks among SPRs. At the same time, MINDEF should reassure Singaporeans that their support for NS will never be taken for granted nor assumed.
Singaporeans and SPR families who send their sons for NS need assurance that they are not being taken for a ride.
What is to stop an SPR male from avoiding conscription, returning to his home country to change his name and get a new passport and coming back to the Republic to start life afresh? If you visit discussion sites frequented by SPRs and foreign talent, you may be amazed/disappointed/shocked by the candour with which they discuss how NS can be skirted or cheated. Their descriptions of full-time NSmen are also largely unflattering.
Is our system smart enough to detect such schemers? Is the effort worth it, really?
Sixth, if social ideas that underpin the huge intakes of SPRs in the past decade are not supported by NS enlistment numbers, should this policy be modified or dumped? Are Singaporeans supporting a weak attempt at social re-engineering?
In my opinion, the money, time and effort that was wasted on the 4,200 SPR men could have been better spent on book grants to deserving Singaporean students. But hindsight is always 20:20.
Lastly, data like this should be audited by an outside entity such as a defence-linked think tank to reassure skeptics. If even drug statistics can be misreported, we need assurance that the headcount for something as important as National Service is credible, accurate and presented in a timely manner.
Losing the support of one in three NS-liable SPRs is a loss that can be measured from annual enlistment numbers. But we should not fret over the loss of uncommitted SPRs because they are likely to make poor soldiers, policemen or civil defence rescuers.
More damaging is the loss of support from the wider Singapore population if MINDEF fails to explain the issue properly in future.
This damage can also be measured when ballots are counted....