Sunday, March 11, 2012

45 Years of National Service: The stories we share

With more than 700,000 Singaporeans having served National Service (NS) since 1967, the folks organising this year's celebrations to mark 45 years of NS will not be short of story tellers.

It remains to be seen, though, whether they will embrace diversity by sharing reflections from NSmen ranging from stories worthy of publication in official channels (i.e. PIONEER magazine, Air Force/Army/Navy news) and the mainstream media to horror stories at the other end of the spectrum.

NS45 activities
As we reflect on our past and swap stories from our collective memory, NS45 activities must be grounded in answering the very basic question enlistees from all generations will ask: Why do we serve?

It is all well and good to roll out the newest and deadliest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war machines to demonstrate the firepower that backs Singapore's deterrent edge.

It is comforting to showcase how living conditions, training and allowances for full-time NSmen have improved from days of yesteryear (I drew just $135/month as a recruit).

And the nostalgia rush that comes from displaying items that the first batches of NSFs will instantly recognise (be it a helmet, old uniforms or a complete recruit's bunk) seldom fails to rekindle deep-rooted memories.

But all these bits and pieces must, first and foremost, contribute to a better appreciation for and acceptance of  NS as being central to our island nation's defence.

If this could be achieved with a mere slogan, I bet some public relations guru would have done so already. Despite their high asking fee (TD campaigns cost more than $100,000 of tax money to publicise), no slogan is sufficiently persuasive.

No speech however cleverly written or passionately delivered (and let us be frank, our politicians are no Obama), no single NS45 exhibit and no event can single-handedly trigger that Eureka moment that will make Singaporeans realise how different our lives might be without NS.

Shaping perceptions and attitudes will take the combined strength of all NS45 activities to achieve. It is, to use Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF lingo, an integrated operation that should draw upon the combined resources of all NS45 activities.

Done this way, NSmen who are not wordsmiths need not feel left out by the call for NS stories.

And when stories do trickle in, please share with Singaporeans NS recollections that range from the good to the not-so-flattering. Credibility is lost when a compendium of NS tales (whether print or online) takes an editorial stance that looks suspiciously like the Pravda stylebook, with token stories of negative NS experiences thrown in for the sake of "balance".

Civilians who can't appreciate the difference between firepower from an SM1 light tank or Leopard 2SG main battle tank should at the very least walk away with a deeper appreciation that the SAF is a full spectrum force. Do this by showing the visitor more exhibits that he/she has time for. If the visitor's eye can soak in a field of combat arms as far as the eye can see, even civilians unfamiliar with the military art will realise the SAF has many moving parts for many missions. Theme parks do this all the time by giving visitors a slew of rides (roller coasters, flume rides etc), shows (special effects shows, 4D shows, street parades), retail stores and F&B outlets that tell the visitor the price of an admission ticket gets you something for everything (i.e. full spectrum).

The defence burden
The need for NS and a strong national defence are not one and the same thing. We can have the latter without the former. It is a question of whether our economy can take the strain of maintaining an all-volunteer force in the numbers needed for the SAF to achieve its wartime mission. And if NSFs swear by oath to protect Singapore with their lives, isn't it high time that mission is better explained?

In the light of changing attitudes towards NS in other countries that practice conscription, some Singaporeans have asked why sons of Singapore must still serve. The alternative to NS: Maintaining a powerful air force and an enlarged navy to protect our trade lanes at sea, plus a core of all-regular army warfighters for homeland defence and counter terrorism missions is a paper plan that has found some proponents. This idea will gain traction and some day, Singaporeans may ask if it's time to slaughter the sacred cow (i.e. NS).

Any NS45 event also carries the risk it will become a lightning rod for a wider range of social woes. This means NS45 organisers have to steel themselves to deal with any public relations backlash for decisions way above their pay grade. For example, resentment felt by heartlanders towards the rapid pace of immigration in recent years is very real. Combine such simmering unhappiness with sacrifices Singaporean families have to bear for supporting NS and the feel good sentiments any NS45 event is intended to generate may be overturned by the syndicate of discontent.

To be sure, NS has been a life changing experience for almost all enlistees. You cannot ask a teenager for two years of his life (2.5 years during my time) without leaving an impression on the youngster.

On SAF Day last year, I sat in a Temasek Polytechnic lecture theatre listening to a former NSF relate how his assignment to the 1st Military Intelligence (1MI) battalion proved a turning point for this self-confessed one-time overweight slacker. Such heart-warming stories abound, despite the stinging cynicism that we Singaporeans love to heap on NS and the exhortation for us to serve and forget.

Recognise contributions from SCDF and SPF NSFs
And even as the NS45 committee uses the NS anniversary year to feed us all sorts of National Education messages, the SAF should not overshadow contributions of NSFs assigned to the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force. As things stand, the slew of activities look heavily weighted towards the SAF. Just look at the NS45 website's landing page to see how SAF-centric it is. This signature may not be a good thing as you will alienate the large number of SCDF and police force NSFs.

The 45th year of NS is a timely milestone for Singaporeans to ponder what NS is all about and why we need to serve. One would hope such soul searching strengthens commitment to defence.

Winning the tussle for hearts and minds is never easy. But the NS45 folks could make their task smoother by getting the basics right: Why bother inviting NSmen to pen their thoughts or share their pictures online when a netizen who has dutifully filled in all the requisite fields in the submission form and painstakingly typed out his story finds there is no "submit" button? 3rd Gen info ops? Tsk, not yet. Maybe at NS90....


Norm said...

Fully that stories need to be raw, emotive, and authentic, letting Singaporeans understand the WHYs on the need for National Service.

I'm 31, and I still fondly remember looking through my dad's Army pictures in the 1960s, and proud that he was wearing temasek green, serving as a humble truck driver.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I hope that the stories aren't just puff pieces meant to make the Scholar-General-Bureaucrat complex feel good about themselves.

That said, many of the stuff I've seen and heard would probably get many people into deep crap if they were still around (assuming they survived the forced retirements early this century).

Also some recognition towards those who volunteered even before the NS Act, especially during the Indonesian Confrontation would be in order...