Sunday, August 29, 2010

Softening the defence burden: The National Service Recognition Award

Tonight's National Day Rally by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong provided ample fuel for debates on National Service (NS) and the part New Singaporeans serve in national defence, or more to the point, don't serve.

It also introduced a new acronym to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) stylebook with the announcement of the S$9,000 National Service Recognition Award (NSRA).

All Operationally Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists) stand to pocket a sum of $9,000 while serving out their NS obligation, which stretches to age 40 for Specialists (i.e. non-commissioned officers) and the age of 50 for officers and key appointment holders.

Details will be announced from tomorrow.

The NSRA's unveiling is a telling sign that the system has heard, sensed and has reacted to feedback from the ground about the defence burden. This basically centres around citizens' perception and unhappiness over the idea that they have been left to man the trenches while New Singaporeans get away scotch-free.

The post 9/11 era is one where Singaporeans have been made to realise that national defence is a pressing need. We live in an age where citizens have been bombarded with messages of vigilance through umpteen speeches and newspaper editorials. Many sons of Singapore have heeded that message.

It is thus painful for them to see the full weight of the defence burden borne by sons of Singapore while New Citizens chatter and play in the sunshine in their native tongues.

The argument that the offspring of New Singaporeans will serve NS carries with it the following assumptions:
1. That New Singaporeans will actually stay.

2. That New Singaporeans will marry.

3. That New Singaporeans who marry will procreate.

4. That the children of New Singaporeans are boys.

5. That the boys will not end up as NS defaulters.

The NSRA scheme is tacit recognition that there is an imbalance in the defence burden between New and Old Singaporeans. It is, however, a reactive scheme that is several years late.

One would have hoped that the NSRA scheme was introduced before the annual influx of 100,000 to 150,000 New Singaporeans hit our city-state. It was this influx - sudden and unannounced in timing and intensity - which chafed the feelings of Old Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion. Seldom has Singaporean society closed ranks as readily as it has against this influx.

But Singaporeans have been told it is for the betterment of society. Many grin and bear it, but there's no denying that if you peel back the academic arguments about national productivity, replacement ratios and the future of the city-state, feelings have been hurt. (I would have been alarmed if Singaporeans did not feel aggrieved, because it would only underscore the sad fact that they don't care enough for their homeland.)

Now that the system has heard ground sentiments, it appears to have swung into reactionary mode.

This step will flop unless the NSRA scheme is policed rigorously to take into account the feelings, sentiments and feedback from NSmen and their families.

Feelings and emotions are touchy feely. Hard to quantify.

But that $9,000 stamps a dollar value on how much the sacrifices of NSmen are worth. Assuming a full-time NSman Specialist completes his two-year stint at the age of 21, this means $9,000 spread over his 10-year cycle. If you do the math (or maths, as Singaporeans like to say), it works out to an extra $900 a year or something like $2.50 a day.

Cynics will probably have a field day jumping all over this figure, which can hardly buy you a meal plus drink at a hawker centre and counts as a one way ride on Singapore's distance-based-fares-will-save-you-more public transport system. It will, however, buy you five issues of PIONEER magazine, so I suppose that counts for something.

I would argue it's a positive development by MINDEF - and I'm not being sarcastic.

Now that the system has scrambled into damage control mode with a General Election looming, these are some issues the NSRA committee should take note of:
1. The scheme will have to be policed pro-actively to ensure the $9,000 is not whittled down to pittance by the inevitable inflation over time.

2. Some thought should be given to recognising the 700,000 Singaporean NSmen who have completed their NS obligation. They probably won't qualify for the NSRA. There will be cynics and incurable whiners who will poo-pooh the NSRA quantum. But I'd argue conversely that if you ask any of the NSmen who don't qualify for this sum, this amount of money is no small chunk of change.

3. A public education campaign is vital. No smoke and mirrors. No father knows best. NSmen deserve to know how that $9,000 figure was calculated. You know why? Because they paid for it in the form of tax dollars.

4. The system should consider being proactive for a change by telling Singaporeans what's next after the money is doled out. Is there a NSRA Mark 2, a Product Improved NSRA in the pipeline? How will the system be tweaked? Who will make the recommendations etc.

So we await the great MINDEF Public Affairs Directorate to creak into motion to inform and educate us all. Cue: Applause.

P.S. I intend to run a poll on this blog on the NSRA once details are out. Please look out for it.


Anonymous said...

Its obviously too little way too late.

I suspect the only feasible measure which would quell the extreme unhappiness of male citizens would be for the government to impose a NS levy on new citizens and PRs who have not served NS to fund a more generous payout to Singapore citizens who have been so seriously disadvantaged by their 2.5/2 yrs conscription and continuing NS liabilities.

To be very conservative about it, the average wage in Singapore is probably $3,000 a month, multiply that by 30 months (2.5 yrs), and the least the govt should compensate each male citizen who has done is NS is at least $90,000 (without even taking into account the lost opportunity cost, loss of working experience etc).

FinalFive said...

The main gripe with the NSRA is not whether it is adequate or inadequate but rather with the unsavoury way it is portrayed.

As I had previously mentioned, the biggest flawed argument that DIMs have pushed forward is that NS is a transaction - The price which every Singaporean male pays for citizenship. The S$9000 sum given is again a reinforcement of that argument.

It does not help when we realise that compared with exisiting housing prices, $9,000 is hardly enough for barely 3% of the downpayment for an average sized flat.

We need a threat perspective. It is time for Singaporeans to realise that there is no point quantifying their 2-2.5 year experience in terms of dollar figures. There was a time when I had heard the Chief of Defence Force (then) say that you can't put a price tag on commitment to Defence. If that is so, then why are we doing that now?

There are many more ways to recognise NS other than a S$9000 sum. I have a belief that if young adults were guaranteed assistance in easing into their working lives, such as health care, geriatric care for elderly parents(something our regulars DO NOT HAVE entirely free now - which the RAF and USAF would balk at), such benefits which families of NSmen can count on and not privy to New Citizens (i hate that phrase nowadays), it would be much more effective than the sum.

Thinking about it - Doesn't recognition come from a whole-of-community appreciation of one's efforts, rather than the head of government throwing you a bag of money?

Anonymous said...

I guess this is what scares me the most.

Once you begin to tag a dollar value, the debate centers around how much, by whom, to whom, and across what duration.

As a result, the more fundamental questions of intent, especially those relating to the principles and assumptions of what does it mean to be a citizen recede into the background.

It's such a profound loss of opportunity when the government orients this issue as a function of economic transactions.


Anonymous said...

Generalissimo, how is the new dude at the directorate? Have you met him? What are your impressions?

Anonymous said...

This $9000 should be paid by new citizens, PR and FT. It is no use taxing this from the people and giving it back to the people. Compared to the kind of shit I had to go through for 2.5 years to defend the FT (most of my colleagues), 9000 is nothings. The government still dare to charge me 360K for a flat in stupid punggol.

Piper said...

Serving NS was a good time, but its also associated with all the hellweeks, confinements, injuries, hospitalization, broken relationships, worried parents... list goes on.

However, my stand today is I do not want to ask for anything in return, and honestly feel sickened to see criticisms that this 9k is not enough.

On the FTs, my boss and colleagues are FTs who always gave me shit for reporting to ICT. They think only abt money and it irks me so much. I once told them that should war come to Singapore, their home governments will be here to get them out and they can take their money and girlfriends with them, and i don't appreciate their snide remarks about NS or 'One bomb wipes out singapore'. Go F themselves.

Piper said...

Anyway on a more positive note, i definitely welcome NSRA as a small token of appreciation for ORNS. National Service is our duty as men, and we should take it as men.

David Boey said...

Looking at the comments here and on other online platforms, I feel this NSRA "token" is not going down well with netizens.

As someone who supports a credible defence posture, I fear we'll hear more disquiet during the hustings.

We are spot on in calling our troops thinking soldiers.

Will see how the 90 cents newspaper paints a different perspective by drawing on quotes from GPC and ACCORD members, plus academics from the likes of RSIS and perhaps even my old uni mentor. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi David, you did mention in a previous article that us citizen soldiers are master cynics and can easily differentiate genuine gestures of appreciation from PR spin.

Guess what? This is clearly a case of PR spin, calculated just in time before the next GE. I suspect that this NSRA may be in the form of virtual money (i.e. CPF) which may never be accessed...

I agree with the earlier posters about the fallacy of putting a price tag on defence, as those New Citizens (or ex-FTs) can write a cheque and throw it at the powers that be should they choose to default or bail in a crisis.

Mike Yeo said...

I shook my head upon seeing the news of the NSRA.

They *STILL* don't get it do they, while no NSman will quibble with being $9000 richer, money is not the issue here. Before the FTs came into the equation, yes the gripes with NS were about the opportunity losses, the 2/2.5-years where everything in your life comes to a standstill. But that particular issue is, as the Gen-Ys would say, so last century.

A quick look on the internet would quickly show that its now mainly about us having to serve while (as mentioned in the blog and comments) "New Citizens chatter and play in the sunshine in their native tongues" and only taking time out to give us "shit for reporting to ICT". Throw into that mix FTs/PRs who get themselves into supervisory positions giving Singaporeans the above, garnish with a liberal dose of a government who in numerous statements show their contempt and lack of care about these concerns, and finally stir in news reports online of how our FTs are being feted, the results you get are the sentiments expressed by Singaporeans these days.

With all these in the mix, is it any wonder NSmen are feeling dissatisfaction bordering on anger?

And by opening this $9000 can of worms, the next questions would surely be, how about Singaporeans who don't qualify (such as the MR'ed) who toiled similarly, and as been mentioned here, is that now the market rate for NS?

Its good that at the very least, the government is realising the sentiment on the ground. I just have very serious misgivings about how much effect this measure will have, or if it’s the right solution at all (pretty much nailed-on certainty it isn't).

Disclosure: I'm a Singaporean overseas (who've served my 2.5 years and part of my NS commitments) so these events don't really affect me. And even when I do return to Singapore, I do not intend to be anyone's employee (if I can help it). But I am starting to get very concerned about the direction my country is heading in, in this and in other issues.

Anonymous said...

Give or not give the money? The truth is either way, people would be unhappy. One, it is not enough. Another is how can we equate our service with a quantum? And indeed, it is about a holistic approach and about the community support.

I believe that this is meant as a token and a signal, and not to be equated as what our service is worth.

The fundamental issue is whether we Singaporeans believe that it is our responsibility to serve or not? It is part of the price we pay for our security and freedom. As we grapple with the new Singaporeans and foreigners issues, the heart of that is really whether we believe that it is important for our own well being that we do have these people here to contribute. And if not, then of course all these debates would make sense.
But if we do believe that there is a logic there, then we have to deal with the issue of our service vs their non-service squarely. I for one think that we can't go round arguing along these lines. As Singaporeans, this is our responsibility and duty. And that is that. Not hard core really, but in many ways, that is part of being a citizen is it not?

This whole being caught up in criticism thingy is really one where our own political sentiments get mixed up with these issues. Politicizing defence and security is a dangerous path to tread....even Taiwan is doing away with NS. Political football being played there?

I think there are many more people who are generally neutral or positive about NS as a whole. We all have our gripes and complains, but we have seen how it has as a system improved tremendously over the years.

But if Singaporeans feel otherwise then I guess we'd just have the security and defence we want and deserve. Go play the political game. People will choose as they see fit. And when the proverbial shit hits the fan, good luck to us all.

Mike Yeo said...

Anon @ Sept 1 1:18am

The issue is not about Singaporeans not wanting to serve. If that was the case this issue would have come out and hit hard long ago. Instead we have served the nation for four decades, with little complaints but the occasional gripe, certainly not enough to warrant attention like this from the powers-that-be.

Your comment about politicizing the issue does not really make sense as well. Singaporeans are not griping about having to serve NS, but its about how FTs and new citizens gain an advantage by not serving NS AND then sticking the boot in about us having to serve.

The issue about foreigners is not a zero sum game. The sly propaganda machine would like to paint Singaporeans griping about FTs/new citizens as xenophobics rejecting immigation, and of forgetting our own immigrant roots. Yet if you really read the good blogs out there criticising the FT policy, you'll realise the gripes are not about immigration being good/bad, but 1) the speed and scale of the arrivals, 2) how (1) has upset and created insecurity about the livelihoods of many Singaporeans and 3) how some of these FTs have gotten too big for their boots, due (probably) in no small part to constant platitudes about how great these FTs are and how Singapore needs them, from the Party and aforementioned propaganda machine.

As I've mentioned, I live and work elsewhere. I don't go on Facebook and forums bragging about how working and living where I am now gives me an advantage over the locals, calling them names (like how one in Singapore called critics "barking dogs") and being unappreciative about my presence. Not that I have that many advantages over the locals to begin with, but you get my point.

The underlying issue is NOT about NS, its about Singaporeans who feel disenfranchised by the policies of the Party, and NS is a most obvious symbol of the disenfranchisement they feel.

FIVE-TWO said...

+1 Piper.

Piper said...

Speaking about politicizing NS, its happening already - the RP opposition leader made the recommendation to shorten NS to 1 year in his response to the National Day Rally which strikes me as a cheap way to score political points.

The paragraph on NS is the shortest in his speech and he did not offer any supporting arguments (quantitative or qualitative) for his suggestion except citing some commonly expressed gripes by the man in the street.

I find it extremely irresponsible for Kenneth Jeyeratnam to comment on NS matters without reference to at least his own views on regional threats and challenges which NS is supposed to address.

To be fair, he did well in his argumentation for the other aspects such as the economy and foreign talent, but his take at NS is below par.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with Mike. I acknowledge there are perspectives out there that are articulated in the ways you have mentioned....but what I meant abt politicizing is that just because an individual have issues with the ruling party, suddenly everything becomes a target and gets slimed, regardless of their own merits and demerits. The YOG is one example but let's not get started there abt it...

Dislike the politics if individuals wish, that is their right. But to run down our country and our institutions...well. That's sad. But just me 2 cents perspective.

But yes, it has begun...go score the political points with the masses by offering to cut I said, whatever the future, we get what we deserve and choose for.

Anonymous said...

For more than 45 years, the PAP has used various means to stay in power. Their claim to the right to power is competence.

However, it is objectively true that the management of defence information has been incompetent. They have all the resources and time to get the release of information correct but they did not. So the PAP and the PAFF got what they deserve.

The PAP has been using national day and the talking of the pledge to appropriate these symbols for their party political purpose. However, this is starting to back fire. This is because Singaporeans are united as one against discrimination by Foreign Talents (FT). If FTs are able to discriminate against Singaporeans for serving NS, then it is wrong. It is wrong because there is no law to protect Singaporeans from unfair discrimination within Singapore.

The Malaysian Chinese and Indians complain about discrimination in Malaysia. That they are 2nd class citizens.

Singaporeans of all races complain about discrimination in Singapore. That we are 2nd class citizens in Singapore. And it does not help that Lee Kuan Yew has said a bunch of insensitive stuff that is not worth repeating. In fact, it is the PAP has taken a bunch of mis-steps.

Anonymous said...

PAP's claim to competence has taken a beating in recent years. If they are competent, they will need to do a better job explaining:

(1) Mas Selemat's escape
(2) Nicole highway collapse
(3) Flooding in Singapore
(4) The fiasco that is called the YOGs
(5) PAFF - over the information releases on deaths of servicemen and deliberate omission that a NSman was shot in Thailand
(6) FT issues and that FTs are able to discriminate against NSmen for doing their duty

The list could go on... If the PAP does not want to fix it, maybe the time has come that they pay for their arrogance at the ballot box.

Anonymous said...

"Piper said...

Speaking about politicizing NS, its happening already - the RP opposition leader made the recommendation to shorten NS to 1 year in his response to the National Day Rally which strikes me as a cheap way to score political points."

Politicians say what they say to get elected but once in power need to act within certain limits.

This is not unusual. The noise and cheap shots are part and parcel of democracy. But wait... Is Singapore a democracy?

Piper is not used to it because he has no experience of how a vibrant democratic society operates.

Singapore may be sitting pretty now relative to our neighbours but the time will come when Indonesians will lecture Singaporeans about our lack of democracy, if that is not already happening.

Piper said...

Anon@ Sept2, 8:55am

"Piper is not used to it because he has no experience of how a vibrant democratic society operates."

Thanks, I guess u are right abt this point, although i'll still feel that my feathers won't be ruffled if he had forwarded a more substantial argument.

FinalFive said...

Eh wait wait - Don't bring the PAP into the picture lah. This is about the SAF and MINDEF, not politics!

Look - In recent years, hasn't it become painfully obvious how insignificant democracy, plutocracy, imperialism or communism is? There can be NO freedom when you give me the chance to vote and I wonder where my next meal comes from (Kishore Mahbubani - The New Asian Hemisphere).

The role of defence is fundamental, regardless of the society we live in.

Unknown said...

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