Tuesday, August 24, 2010

National Service: View from a foreign mum

If you cut through the platitudes, Ms Aarti Giri's letter (The Straits Times 20  August 2010) emphasizes several issues that defence information managers should not lose sight of even after 43 years of National Service.

The first concerns the gulf in attitudes towards NS among Singaporeans. Another red flag is the perception that NS is a sacrifice capped at the duration of a full-time National Serviceman's service to Singapore.

As increasing numbers of foreign-born citizens approach conscription age, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) - which account for the bulk of defence manpower - have little time to lose in calibrating their messages properly.

Every family that sinks its roots in the Lion City brings essentially the same mindset, outlook, fears and prejudices towards NS that Singaporeans harboured when conscription began in 1967. This gulf in attitudes between New Citizens and long-time citizens (Old Singaporeans?) is not easy to bridge.

Dumb down defence information messages for New Citizens and the tone of the messaging could be seen as smug and patronising by older folk.

Calibrate it for Singaporeans who have embraced full-time NS and you risk losing the New Citizens who have yet to buy into the lofty ideals of nation-building and national security.

More worrying is the fallout MINDEF/SAF will be saddled with should a New Citizen NSF end up as a training fatality. Going by probability and the rules of chance, it is only a matter of time before a training accident/incident/glitch that involves a New Citizen NSF triggers the proverbial wake-up call.

When the clarion call is sounded, will New Citizens be rattled?

And how will New Citizens who hail from caste-based societies react when their sons are commanded by someone from outside their social circle? Will centuries-old prejudices undermine their commitment to defence?

Chinese parents in the 1960s knew of the old saying that good sons do not become soldiers, just as good iron is not used as nails. After years of public education more or less erased that point of view, in comes the influx of foreign talent. The wheel has turned full circle and defence information managers may find themselves back at the start line, educating and engaging New Citizens with zero exposure to the military.

This is why MINDEF needs a Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at the top of its game. In my opinion, the time for rebuilding will have to begin in earnest after the Director Public Affairs (Designate), Colonel Desmond Tan Kok Ming, formally assumes command of PAFF next month.

Ms Giri's letter is useful because it exposes how expatriates feel towards NS.

She wrote: "I have often come across expatriates discussing how they can help their children avoid NS. To me, it is only fair that if one wants to become a permanent resident or call Singapore home, one should willingly serve because that is what every Singapore male does."

For Singapore's sake, one hopes her point of view is not in the minority.

If Ms Giri keeps it up, her attitude and pro-NS letters may, someday, win her a Total Defence Award.

Be that as it may, even converts such as Ms Giri seem to cling on to fallacies about NS.

She noted that "sacrificing two years of a man's career is a small price to pay for Singapore's safety and security".

This statement ignores the sacrifices that Operationally-Ready NSmen make every time they are called up for NS. It is an obligation that stretches till 40 for other ranks and the age of 50 for officers and key appointment holders.

So New Citizens will need to know, appreciate and accept the stark reality that NS is really a life-long commitment.

NS in Singapore is not a limited tenure, 24-months stint in which citizen soldiers serve and forget.


FIVE-TWO said...

I would also challenge the view that the two years (and subsequent years in OR) spent with the SAF is a sacrifice. With the right mindset and given the opportunity, the time one spends in NS is an experience and learning no money can buy. I call it a privilege even.

Jinrong said...

I totally support 5 Two's comments.

Callsign 24S

Anonymous said...

I sometimes wonder what the typical Singapore citizen's view about NS is. While I read / hear a few people who sound like the previous two commenters, the more common thing I hear is that people resent the time they had to waste serving their NS.

The newspapers (the govt's de facto propaganda machine) could hardly be expected to sing any tune other than one endorsing NS and the sacrific citizens have to make, but I strongly suspect that the average sentiments among citizens is far less positive about NS, more so these days when we see foreigners being let in so liberally and enjoying almost all the benefits of citizenship without its associated price.

Anonymous said...

The concept of NS is very diluted now that we have so many foreigners in our midst. If we take a leaf from Israel where almost everyone has an equal part (men/women), then nobody "loses" out or is disadvantaged in life. However the harsh reality in S'pore is that NS is a huge liability to citizens, students and employers concerned. Speak to reservists and everyone should have a clearer picture. If the playing field is levelled and citizens rights are not compromised, then NS is a must for S'pore, like what I believed 30 yrs ago but sadly I do not feel the same way anymore. I seriously hope my son will not have to serve NS. Not that he can't take it like a man but why shd he be disadvantaged? I had a great time in NS and made some lifelong friends there, we suffered and work together. It does not work the same way anymore.

FinalFive said...

I think there are 3 issues from this post that Defence Info Managers have failed to deal with (not entirely their fault) for too long now:

1. There is no genuine perception of a threat anymore.

National Service was born based on a number of reasons, mainly that Singapore needed defence from hostile neighbours (realistically so given that organised armed forces were the primary external threat to a nation then)and that Singapore could not afford a standing armed forces.

No one believes in such a threat today. We have just seen how easily international condemnation for the Lebanon War quickly dissipated any expectation of a prolonged incursion by Israel. Rightly so - commencing a war is an international crime by any state, unless its survival is threatened.

Singapore and Malaysia are focused on economic development. We recently agreed to have back land at the Tanjong Pagar train station, and give them premium land for JOINT development at Marina Bay Sands area. Singapore and Indonesia clearly have no issues from a layman's perspective, considering the rate by which premium apartments and land are being sold to Indonesians here.

And don't even start with terrorism. Terrorism was a western wrought threat caused by America's excesses and belligerance. Google 'Iraq' and you will find article upon article condemning the lawlessness of the invasion and how new insurgents and terrorists are being born from the actions of the largest economy in the world, carried out by (presently) the strongest (and presently the most unethical) military in the world.

Besides, terrorism is not a problem for the military. Ask any serviceman involved in the hunt for Mas Selamat, and they will tell you their humiliation at chasing illegal foreign workers in deep jungle with bamboo sticks. The military only steps in when the homefront agencies can handle no more. Thus welcome the SOTF - And they are ALL regular.

Our 18 year olds are not dumb. They see all this going on and they realise that there is no purpose for NS from the defence perspective.

2. The Messaging is Confused, and FLAWED.

BUt WAIT! Our Defence INfo Managers throw in a new purpose! Nation Building! Binding of all the races and religions, regardless of differences! That's a flawed reason - If that is the dominant purpose today, then get the girls in as well. The DIMs are silent. Of course they are - Can you imagine the amount of multi ministry clearances the draft speech would have to go through to explain that point?

Then another point: Do you need 2 years, on top of mixed HDB housing limits, schools, PAP kindegartens, to drum in the nation-building effort? The simple answer is NO.You don't.

Then the DIM use the best argument yet - It is a transaction. The price for citizenship is NS. But then cries ring out straightaway - Why are some foreigners excluded? Why are we defending what looks more and more like THEIR investments? And where are my benefits as one who has served NS? Don't even start with the SAFRA club. That is at best a peripheral benefit. The present 25-35 year old generation is realising that ownership of land, a stake in your home, is a prize given to those who have the money. And given that one will increasingly face the possibility of high medical care costs for four aged folks (assuming marriage works out) and potential children, with no guarantee of a chance at a house even, it seems like a bad transaction. There are bigger worries out there. There is no nation to build when I can't even call the place home.

DIM can't say a thing. The above, seemingly-irrelevant paragraph refers to the task of another ministry. So not a priority for answering.

The message that NS is a transaction is a slippery slope argument.

FinalFive said...

3. Few respect the job of the SAF.

This is a difficult time for any military. Terrorism is a real threat - but only felt by personnel in the field of security. Conventional war is also a possibility, though slim. The problem is no one believes it. Consequently, people are critical of the SAF - In times of peace, the SAF is criticised for spending too much, asking too much of citizen soldiers, unethical behaviour, etc. In times of war... the floor is open.

Make no mistake - The training for war is costly, and it costs lives to get men up to speed. You cannot train an armed forces properly when in training, commanders are scared of an MP letter or the slightest injury happening to their NSFs.

But as long as issue 1 and 2 remain, the SAF must bear the brunt of the complaints. Our regular corps must build their strengths based on themselves and rely on each other, because I swear that when the button is pressed, it should not surprise anyone that only the regulars show up.

And thank God our regulars are good, regardless of what the public say.

Anonymous said...

NS will be worth it only the day Singapore is taken back from the bloody PAP.
Frankly, we need not look far to see who the enemies are, b'cos it is right in our backyard.

ex rsm

Piper said...

We cannot say that we have seen the last days of conflict. As long as nations have the capability to wage war against each other, the odds are there.

Castigating the SAF and believing that economic prosperity will alleviate all social woes come part and parcel with an affluent society and long periods of peace; but hopefully we do not harbour such illusions. Without the SAF, our political leaders must resort to political retrenchment should a new hegemon appear on our horizon.

Terrorism - it does not happen in isolation. It has certain political and ideological motivations. Terrorist organizations may be on the retreat now and appear weak, but the fight does not stop there. Should these radicals acquire some vestiges of state power (Hezbollah) and should they exercise such powers on us, we will need the good offices of the SAF to take the fight to them.

Anonymous said...

One thing that nobody mentions is that she says her husband and son are Singaporean, not PR, not new citizens, therefore it's no surprise that he is expected to do NS.
The ST spin is in the headline: giving everyone the impression that he is a new kid in town and that his loyal mum is OKing the NS. the letter is, sad to say, a distraction thanks to the Forum titles.

Anonymous said...

I hate NS simply because the Singapore we are defending are so pro-foreigner, and the governemnt belittle the local like us.

We are constantly threatened by FT on our job security and the concerns on high housing price.

So, we are defending a country that is worthy of?

Mike Yeo said...

Anon @ 8.45pm

The country is worth defending, it is my home, where I was born, where my friends and family are. It is this government that is not worthy of defending.

A certain geriatric once said that in the event of a "freak election result" the army will have to step in (obviously to ensure a result to his liking). Well sorry to disappoint him, but at least one NSman won't be answering his call.

H/T to FinalFive, brilliant post(s)!

Anonymous said...

Most Singaporean males, like me, have been conscripted. That does not mean I want others to undergo the same. Conscription denies freedom of choice. It has to end in honor of individuals' right to freedom of choice. The fewer the number of people to be denied the freedom of choice, the better. Of course, the true accolade would be the abolishment of conscription.

Anonymous said...

An amazing spectrum of views.

My thots are as follows. Do any of us leave our homes unlocked? Do we secure them? Of course we all do. Altho some may not bother to grille ground floor toilet windows but that is another story....

A credible defence force is similar to locking up your home. And the key to Singapore's defence is conscription.

And the key to conscripts (NSmen) is LEADERSHIP. That is how people with such diverse opinions can be garnered to work together for a single goal DETERENCE.

I served my Full Time National Service from 73-76. I was an operationally ready servicement from 80-96. I have seen enough to realise the fact without a strong SAF we would not be here today.

Similary my sons serve also to ensure that can leave safely. At the end of the day we served and serve for the sake of those beside us.

Without conscription none of us would have served but once in we each contributed to the security of our loved ones by our actions.

At the end of the day we each have to be prepared as Singaporeans to PICK UP OUR WEAPON AND STAND TO POST.