Friday, September 3, 2010

NSRA stokes evergreen concerns on National Service

Evergreen concerns about National Service (NS) haunted the Defence Ministry this week, with people of all political persuasions jumping into the fray.

It is regrettable to see a good idea like the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA) letdown by confusing and contradictory messages from a poorly-conceived defence information management plan (if you can call it that) and an incomplete notion of the NSRA's terms of reference.

And if you follow the issue from print to screen, the gulf in opinions voiced by the mainstream media (MSM) and the blogosphere makes one wonder if the commentators are even on the same planet. Unctuous praise on the one hand, fiery condemnations worthy of a Pyongyang communiqué on the other.

The system has itself to blame for the public relations shambles.

When Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the NSRA last Sunday at the National Day Rally, Singaporeans probably had the award’s $9,000 dollar value ringing in their ears at the end of his speech. Not surprisingly, journalists picked this up and the dollar value made headlines in the MSM the next day.

Here’s where the messaging went askew. It seemed to flip flop between publicising the award’s monetary value as something meaningful (a “substantial sum” gushed one editorial on the $9k sum), to the lofty and philosophical basis for the NSRA.

Then the name calling began. NSRA supporters took potshots at critics by asking if they would give up defending Singapore just because the $9,000 was insufficient. Singaporeans from opposing camps cast aspersions on one another with debates on loyalty, sense of nationhood (New Singaporeans versus the oldies) and money face politics fuelling the biggest debate on NS in recent memory.

Two days after the announcement, the NSRA was variously described as a “token” or “signal” or “gesture” to recognise the sacrifices and contributions of every Singaporean son.

In my opinion, one loses PR and political mileage when financial expediency takes precedence over a fair and even distribution of goodwill.

If the NSRA was conceived to thank NSmen, then the decision to give it to some and not to all speaks volumes of its misfired intent. The pain is keenly felt when Operationally Ready NSmen from the SLR and AR-15 generation learned that the NSRA is merely a token of appreciation – and they aren’t even worth that. It’s like being at a party when gifts are doled out only to some and not all. Ouch.

Indeed, in parceling out the NSRA selectively and hiding behind bureaucratese (government policies are not retroactive), MINDEF’s spin doctors have ignored two of the three key tenets of NS. These are the principles of universality and equity, which means the system is a fair one which treats all equally. The remaining principle is one of national need.

In my opinion, the system should have decided to bite the bullet by granting the NSRA to all NSmen in a one-time show of goodwill. Future generations of NSmen would then earn that $9,000, ermmm, windfall?

This exercise would have cost a heap of tax dollars. But calculations of how much the government pays to sustain the NSRA annually miss the point entirely when they don’t factor in how much the economy benefits from the protection and security rendered by a combat-ready Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team. Furthermore, dare anyone calculate the economic opportunities lost by the 15,000 or so Singaporeans who enlist for full-time NS every year and thus do not have the chance to enter the workforce or further their studies?

The NSRA publicity plan is like a war plan with no point of main effort. To me, it had a fuzzy schwerpunkt.

The award was first described as something that can help pay for one’s education and home. Then it became a signal/token/gesture. Appeals were made to look at the signal it sent to Singaporean citizens who served NS. But wait, this signal is meant for some and not all.

So it’s no surprise that misgivings have been expressed. One of these was published by the Today newspaper today. I can assure you that citizen Mr Chin Wei Chung isn’t alone in feeling this way.

If the NSRA’s $9,000 cash quantum will break the bank, then more thought ought to have been given to the shape, form, timing and intent of the NSRA.

There's already active speculation about how the system will claw back the money NSmen will pocket. Some have talked about a hike in university fees (probably during a term break when undergrads are away), or a spike in the Goods and Services Tax or (please fill in your favourite government charge). When that day comes my fellow Singaporeans, all the goodwill the NSRA generates will disappear faster than a foreign talent fleeing with a foreign passport.

Would a medal for NS have sufficed? What about a personally-signed letter? How about a tee shirt similar to the Finisher tee shirts so coveted by marathon wannabes? People are known to bid ridiculous amounts on certain websites so they can bluff other people that they took part in an certain endurance sport.

Whatever one’s political persuasion, we should remember that from the many opinions raised about the NSRA, the majority of Singaporeans did not turn their back on the need for a strong defence. People did call into question the part New Singaporeans (aka foreign talent) serve in the defence eco-system. Ample opinions have been raised in the new media. Please check Google.

In an ideal world, Singaporeans will understand the philosophical motives behind the NSRA and remain committed to the defence of their city-state even if they don't pocket a single cent. But such philosophical ideals fly over the heads of the average Singaporean because most are unaware of the drawer plans that other countries have for bullying the Lion City by military or non-military means.

In my opinion, these are some reasons why the NSRA has triggered more jeers than cheers.

When I served my full-time NS in MINDEF’s Public Affairs Directorate, we were keenly aware that we had to run faster and work harder and smarter to close the 10-year gap in lost PR guidance. All officers and NSFs from the early 1990s era, when MINDEF appointed its first and second Director Public Affairs/MINDEF Spokesman, knew that defence information management plans could fall flat because some misconceptions about defence are deep-seated. Mind you, that was years before the Internet came along.

In those days, media to PAFF meant local or foreign media, print or broadcast. The permutations were finite. One could rely on the MSM to voice official opinions as people relied on - and trusted - this medium as the main source of news.

Things are vastly different today.

Add three more years of weak leadership to the 10-year gap (which MINDEF is still chasing) and you can well understand how the NSRA publicity plan rapidly lost focus.

Coming from the gaming industry, I know full well there’s no such thing as a sure bet. But I’m willing to punt that we haven’t heard the last of the NSRA.

Anyone game enough to bet against me?


LC said...

The NSRA is a 100% vote buying exercise. Because if the govt actually meant to show appreciation to NS men, it should do so for ALL. That of course is not feasible by giving out money, at least not something of the order of 9k.

If it is not a vote buying exercise, I don't know why they bothered. Already we have income tax breaks and increased baby bonus. Singapore males get paid more in civil service, although that policy has its problems for us. Now the feeling of inequality just makes this backfire, as you have pointed out.

FinalFive said...

Let's imagine what the situation would have been if the NSRA was truly intended for recognition purposes:

1. All NSmen (700,000) would have been included - There is no reason yet explaining why the older generation is left out. If you recognise the present generation for their 'efforts and sacrifices' you have to recognise the older folk for putting in the foundations as well.

2. There would be no need to explain the purpose for the money - Look money is money. If I decided to go and use my recognition award to buy a car - That's my business! The point is that you gave me the means to do so, and I'm recognised by that act of yours.

3. There wouldn't be an ignorance of the FT issue. Look. There is no gripe about not being recognised enough. Any decent male citizen with a shred of integrity would say "keep the 9k, I'll fight when my home is threatened". The main gripe is that there are PRC fellers discussing on forums how to break bonds and avoid NS, FTs talking openly about the stupid NS waste-of-time system right smack in our faces. I don't understand how you can allow such a practice to continue and at the same time proclaim the NSRA as a feel-good measure.

Now let's take a good look at the NSRA from a different angle.

1. Economic theory dictates that if you cool demand in a sector, you have to maintain economic momentum by introducing spending in another sector. The spending power is with the 19-35 generation. You inject the money there. THey will spend and generate continued growth in the economy. This is all the more so when you are worried that your latest property cooling measures could end up becoming too cool (no pun intended).

2. Make sure the money is actually spent. You can't give it to the SLR and AR-15 generation - They're not going to spend it! The money won't go back into the economy because they already have bought their properties and reached the point where education no longer matters. So give it to the likely spenders.

3. Find a reason to hand the money out. You can't throw the money at people! You have to establish good reason for it - Always use NS. It's built up enough of a reputation for people to accept that benefits are being given out on the basis of recognition. In all practical honesty, this would be an ideal route for killing two birds (NS recognition and economic policy) in one move. And you avoid seeming frivolous.

So the point is - This is economic policy at work, with NS recognition as a cover. I'm not saying it is, I'm just saying that it's easy to think it is so. The problem is that no one can say it's not in our best interests. We on this great blog can only argue that...

No one cared about the SAF in the first place.

Ben Choong said...

Ah, outright vote buying if you ask me. Frankly given that the money is being tossed into CPF i.e. cannot use as readily as we want, and that the $9000 is spread out over almost 10 years (I shall spare you the math, just remember inflation is an excellent way to ruin savings), I doubt it will make a significant financial impact to me.

Hell, for me earning that reward money from IPPT is even more valuable - I can draw it out of my savings pretty soon and spend it on something I treasure.

To be fair, from a student's perspective $3000 being put into PSEA is a pretty significant amount, since it can finance quite a number of things i.e. exchange trips. Can't say about $3000 when I'm in my mid/late twenties/thirties.

So, clearly it will benefit the youth the most significantly. Not surprised if PAP learnt a thing or two about Obama trying to reach out to the youth during his run-up to be president.

xtemujin said...

There are no expiry date for the recognition of the many sacrifices that former NSman had contributed so that we can live in peace.

This is the S$9000 poison that belittle their contribution by the Singapore marketing team that came up with this idea.

Anonymous said...

Whoever came up with this idea and how it is to be implemented needs a kick in the head. This is causing more problems and hurt feelings than its supposed to fix! If they really have to give money, why not just a few hundred bucks and give to everyone? Better still, beef up the tax relief for NSmen and those who have gone thru it? Worse of all, there has been no decent explanation why its being implemented this way. I don't even understand why they mean by past NSmen having benefited... Do they mean that current NS people won't? It doesn't explain the gap in logic and serves no purpose except for people to draw their own conclusions, and even seemingly belittle contributions by generations of ex-NSmen.

In my opinion, they should have just kept the money. NSmen have never equated their duty with money outright, and never expected to. This is a very slippery slope and I don't like seeing us taking a step down it.

David Boey said...

It won't take long before a big gun minister chimes in with his take on the issue, maybe during a visit to an NS unit on ICT.

Better yet, community leaders, NSmen and the usual analysts will probably be roped in to provide quotable quotes in an attempt to swing public opinion.