Wednesday, November 3, 2010

C2D: Bridging the gulf in opinions

Last year, a nation-wide public relations blitz used the tagline “What will you defend?” to promote defence awareness in Singapore.

This PR exercise didn’t come cheap. It cost tax payers more than $100,000 and resulted in cutesy and heart-warming responses from kids, students and older Singaporeans who penned their responses on thought bubbles.

More than a year later, citizen soldiers are still asking themselves that question.

The exchange between a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Operationally Ready National Serviceman (NSman) and a political heavyweight - a former Prime Minister and Defence Minister no less – underscores the gulf in opinions towards commitment to defence.

The Straits Times newspaper reported the exchange that took place during a talkshop held at the Nanyang Technological University last Friday.

NSman Lim Zi Rui, 23, told Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong he did not know what he was defending.

“When I was younger, I was very proud of being Singaporean,’’ said Zi Rui, who claimed he is an NS officer.

“But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.”

Zi Rui said he was venting the feelings of his men, who had to compete for jobs with foreign talent.

“I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.”

To this, SM Goh replied: “This is one early sign of danger… If this is happening, it is very serious.”

I bet defence watchers from around the region are also taking note of Singaporeans’ commitment to defence – known in Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) jargon as C2D.

Our problem is a potential adversary’s strategic advantage.

Our society’s challenge in C2D is their opportunity.

This fissure is something they will attempt to crack.

If one assumes that a hot war scenario will be preceded by a period of tension (POT) of, say for example, six months, then MINDEF/SAF can well expect potential belligerents to use every trick in the book to unsettle NSmen. The weakness of Singapore's citizen's armed forces was addressed in an early post here.

One bright note from the exchange was hearing the NSman pledge his personal commitment to defending Singapore, come what may.

“This is your country,” said SM Goh. “What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?”

To this, the young officer replied: “For my part, don’t worry about me. I will definitely do something. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.”

Looking at how NSmen responded to the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA), announced during this year’s National Day Rally, it is heartening to see NSmen of all social classes and backgrounds sound a similar note.

True, there are disgruntled voices unhappy with the payout ratio and eligibility criteria. But amid all the sound and fury, the average NSman would still stand by his flag.

MINDEF/SAF must never take such goodwill for granted.

Officialdom has, time and again, drummed home the Total Defence message that complacency is an enemy Singaporeans must guard against.

This message cuts both ways.

NSmen are like the faithful friend who stands by with an umbrella on a rainy day, is there to provide emotional support when needed and unasked, is a walking ATM to a friend in need – only to be rebuffed and ignored when convenient. Still he stands by, because that is the right and proper thing to do.

The NSRA episode – which will likely be played out during the General Election hustings – speaks volumes of how much officialdom values the contributions of NSmen from yesteryear.

Comments voiced by Zi Rui are only the tip of the iceberg, if sentiments voiced by people I know are anything to go by.

We can dance around such questions and provide fluffy non answers, or take heed and do something proactive.

Politicians have a limited shelf-life. The same applies to goodwill from NSmen.


Anonymous said...

I think we should always be wary of the potential fifth column emerging amongst us with the influx of foreigners.

Anonymous said...

Such sentiments from Zi Rui has been prevalent for a number of years. Only ostriches cannot sense the unhappiness on the ground. Now we can only confirmed what had been our worst fears all along, that our leaders have been deceiving themselves. What I will defend is my children whom I have been encouraging to migrate when they are in their adult years. Sad to say, migration has never been in my mind all these years.

Anonymous said...

Actually... if one thinks about it, all these years what is the NS men in Potong Pasir and Hougang defending?

A system that deliberately punishes them for excercising their constitutional rights? I always wondered how to answer if a soldier asked me that question.

GCK's comment about "Who will build your HDB?" is sooooo off the mark its intellectually insulting.

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

Defending my country is one thing; Sending my son to die for other people's empires is another. In 2003 it was for the Americans. In 2023 we might well be told to send troops to "teach a lesson" to some random African country that didn't give face to China.

The SAF wasn't created overnight- It took decades to build, and a single bad political decision will not destroy it either. But over time, if people have to ask, "Is the job of the SAF to defend Singapore, or is it to be used as tribute offered up to foreign powers ?" it's legitimacy will slowly but surely corrode away.

Anonymous@Nov 3 9:31 - There is a difference between the nation and the party. We forget that in Singapore very often, but it is important to remember that the SAF serves the nation not the party in power.

mackinder said...


Coalition ops are part of our national interest. So in that sense, one may look at our PSO missions as a form of ensuring our lads get the operational experience in a conflict zone, which peacetime training cannot provide.

Our international profile as a nation is growing, the challenge is for the rest of the population to understand that as a a developed state, we have certain responsibilities that have been added to our plate, and greater contribution to coalition and UN PSOs are expected of us, I feel.

FinalFive said...

I think it is telling that Zi Rui didn't answer SM Goh's question - “This is your country,” said SM Goh. “What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?”

I thought the answer was obvious enough. Universal healthcare for citizens (or at least regulars in the uniformed services), enhanced CPF and pension schemes for elderly, and a flat for every budding young family - affordable enough so the loan doesn't last beyond 10 years.

But that would be wrong. For starters, outside of most of the contributors to this blog, Singaporeans, like most rational economic people, tend to try to profit as much as possible from every benefit given. The government appears to be keeping a reserved attitude with benefits because - when you show too much kindness to your people, they tend to bleed you dry and then blame you for overspending later. We keep wanting more, but I don't know how much we're doing to justify the 'want'.

Just an example that came to my mind:

Unlike Malaysia, we have no real culture to export and speak of. When their people host events, they do it in the spirit of goodwill, heritage, etc. We host the YOG as a... of all things, a financial investment, and deny that it was too excessive an investment even after the budget explodes 3 times.

Are we clinging on to something that isn't there? I mean, being a citizen means what?

Anonymous said...

In ancient Greek states like Athens and Republican Rome (before Imperial Rome), only citizens can serve and fight in the army.*

*There were exceptions later brought on by the emergencies in the Peloponnesian War and so forth.

Swedish and British welfare states had failed miserably in the eighties and nineties. The UK is now embarking on one of their greatest ever cuts. Let this be a lesson to those who advocate greater and greater welfarism and benefits.

Prosperity only lasts a certain period and not forever. The majority of the people here grew up in a state of growth. What if this is replaced by stagnation?

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

Mackinder - at the end of the day, Singapore is a small state. Small states benefit from the rule of law. You really think we are safer now that we've helped American neo-conservatives destroy the Westphalian system ? Or if you believe that national sovereignty is an outmoded concept, then WTF are we fighting for ?

mackinder said...


I mentioned coalition and UN-led PSOs. The UN does not work as egalitarian as one might hope to see it in theory, it is all about grand bargains led by major powers in the UNSC..

Small states follow international law, and international law's legitimacy is sourced back to the same council, and the powers that are "conferred" upon the P-5.

I believe Singapore's national interest is paramount, and if certain "alliances" have to be formed to protect our survival, then that's what counts..

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

In April 2003 when Singapore announced it would be sending troops to serve the US in Iraq, the UNSC had not yet even debated the formation of a multinational security force let alone passed a resolution authorizing member states to participtate in such a force. The US (and UK) were then still designated as "occupying powers". It is hard to ignore the echoes from our history. How much different was the SAF's mission in Iraq from those of the Taiwanese and Koreans who were were brought into Singapore to serve in the Japanese security services during that Occupation ?

The morality of war is never an easy subject. If we are going to ask our men to kill other human beings and take the risk of getting killed themselves, we better have absolute certainty in the rightness of our cause. All the more in a conscript army. Trying to curry favour (or in SAF-speak, sar ka) George Bush didn't pass the test and still doesn't.