Saturday, November 16, 2013

National Service in Singapore: Things to bring on your first day and whether NSFs should be allowed to choose their vocation

One of the top questions Singaporean pre-enlistees have about National Service: What to bring on the first day of NS?*

If we cannot even address questions on what Maslow would define as basic needs of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), we as a society are some way from addressing higher level topics such as aspirational ones.

Decades after NS began in 1967, the general level of defence awareness among Singaporeans is - if you excuse the expression - piss poor.

More can and should be done to elevate the shortfall in defence awareness. But you would probably appreciate this would take time, resources and sustained effort to build and retain mindshare among future enlistees.

The idea of allowing pre-enlistees to pick their NS vocation is interesting and certainly worth debating. One assumes that the objective would be to keep NSFs better engaged - to use HR parlance - during their two years serving the Singapore Armed Forces or Home Team (or defence research lab... but let's not go there).

In a climate where there's equal awareness of NS opportunities, one can imagine a scenario where close to 20,000 Singaporean teens make reasoned, informed choices on how they would like to serve the SAF when they enlist as citizen soldiers.

Are we there yet? Far from it.

Take the Infantry Formation, the backbone of the Singapore Army, as an example. The green berets have different types of infantry battalions in their order of battle - regular infantry, protection of installation troops and other special-to-task infantry battalions that carry Singapore Infantry Regiment (SIR) designations but perform a different role during operations.

We also have heliborne infantry, who come under the Guards Formation, and armoured infantry who come under Headquarters Armour.

Is one to assume that pre-enlistees can navigate the checklist of options entirely on their own?

Our teenage boys can certainly be educated about the SAF order of battle. And this exercise would involve working with individuals who want to make the most of their NS tenure. The unconvinced, disengaged or apathetic can choose to ignore the education blitz and allow the SAF's invisible hand to deploy them accordingly - as it has done for decades past.

Like all communication narratives, the strategic comms plan for this outreach would involve charting touchpoints as well as a realistic timeline for working with the target audience - future enlistees, their teachers as well as their parents/guardians.

In this regard, a multi-year effort that tiers information from baby steps upwards should do the job. For example, the National Education show (i.e. National Day Parade rehearsal) that Primary 5 students attend can be one formal touchpoint to inform and educate youngsters that we have an Army for land battles, Navy for fighting at sea and Air Force to protect our skies - it's as basic as that.

In later years, SAF open houses hosted by the respective Services can allow students to know the Singaporean military more intimately from Secondary 1 to 3. Such events cannot simply be excursions. There must be a deliberate programme to infuse teenagers with a deeper understanding of the SAF and Home Team units and build anticipation - not fear - about NS.

One more touchpoint should take place in Year 1 of junior college, Years 1 and 2 of polytechnic life and the first year of a NITEC student's journey with the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). This would arm teenagers with a better understanding of SAF vocations by the time they have to choose their own fate.

Along the way, expectations can be managed by teaching students that while a best effort will be made with matching the NS posting with the pre-enlistee's top choice, not everyone will get their vocation of choice.

This in effect teaches a life skill of managing one's disappointment. As adults, we all have to endure situations where we may not get our house or apartment of choice, that perfect job, best boss, dearest colleagues or sweetest life  partner. It's a valuable skill learning to live with what we have and to roll with the blows.

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF may also have situations where a willing buyer meets a willing seller, but the buyer wants out after discovering that the vocation is too tough or not as glamorous as they thought it would be. What then?

It should be apparent that the menu of NS vocations should be extended to pre-enlistees before Basic Military Training (BMT). Our NSFs have enough coping to do during their first weeks of military life without the added pressure of vocation choices.

Choice is one thing. Fitness level, attitude and performance demonstrated during BMT is quite another.

At a practical level, there will be situations where certain units may not be available for certain NSF intakes during the year. This situation would arise when an evergreen unit has not discharged its previous mono intake batch of NSFs. As there is no room at the inn, it goes without saying that NSFs for certain intakes may not be able to pick that unit but following cohorts will be able to do so. The cognoscenti sbould have little difficulty identifying these units and predicting their enlistment intake timetables. But will such information be open source? How would MINDEF/SAF explain this to NSFs without compromising operational security?

Once upon a time, when managing an internship programme that took in several hundred students annually, the question of whether internship candidates should be allowed to pick their posting in a theme park arose. Students felt some positions were more "glam" because the rides or uniforms were cool or had more girls. The youngsters thus tended to gravitate towards these popular positions.

Close consultation with teachers from all five polytechnics revealed that students would benefit more, in terms of academic skills, working experience and life skills, if their posting was left to the internship host. That is the approach adopted till this day and the Gen Ys and Linksters just have to suck it up.

Of course, this was backstopped with an all-out effort to inform and educate internship candidates as best we could, so everyone knew that the learning value from every posting was immense and that students would be given the chance to expand their learning during their 3 to 6 months with the company.

Alas, however much MINDEF/SAF aspires to incorporate a more consultative approach to the NS framework, one must always remember that NS will involve personal sacrifices.

Between a situation where pre-enlistees cannot choose their vocation and one where choice is offered, the one where you or your loved ones have a choice should be the preferred option.

But choices must be informed ones. And this starts with pre-enlistees knowing and accepting that choosing their NS vocation is vastly different from choosing a CCA.

A better way of doing NS should never result in a softer NS.

* Things to bring on your first day of enlistment

Identity card
Pen and notebook, possibly in a pencil case.
Small ruler
Black marker (to mark personal items)
Tooth brush, tooth paste
Face wash
Spare spectacles, screwdriver for specs
Spectacle band
Nail clipper with file
Talcum powder in small container
Shaver plus spare blades
Extra underwear
T-shirt and shorts for sleeping.
Clothes hangers (the hard plastic type will break. I used aluminium clothes hangers. About four to six should suffice)
Bar of soap, spare soap and soap box for standby bed
Alarm clock (battery operated)
Orange cloth
Petty cash for canteen breaks
SAF-compliant handphone with spare battery
Washing powder and brush
Plastic bag (supermarket type) for soiled clothing before book out


Anonymous said...

I would add (to bring):
1. Bank account details (just in case there is a need).
2. Parents' details (NRIC No. date of birth etc just in case there a need).
3. Old toothbrush (for rifle cleaning).
4. A small but good pair of scissors.
5. Small cloth for drying feet. There is nothing worst than having to wear socks and shoes when your feet are are in a hurry (e.g. 'fall-in!') and not completely dry. Invites foot rot.
6. A tube of deep heat for those sore muscles (especially in the initial period of PTP).
7. Disposable lighter ('standard size' not 'jumbo size') in working condition.
8. Small (x10), medium (x10), and large (x5) zip lock bags. There will be a new meaning to the word 'water-proof'.
9. Three rolls of black electric tape.
10. A blister pack of panadol (10s). [Know your own allergies]

Not to bring:
1. Huge sums of cash especially in the form of 'last minute' gifts from over zealous relatives. This only invites theft, more so during festive seasons.
2. Food (perhaps with the exception of sweets such as tubes of mentos). The army is very well fed nowadays.
3. WD40. This is not acceptable for rifle cleaning.

Anonymous said...

How can SAF allow PRs to do National Service? Do we trust them? How many will participate?

Anonymous said...

NS should only be the privellage of Singaporeans. Now PAP also want foreigners to take NS!!! Why should we let foreigners take NS??

Anonymous said...

Some will say NS should be abolished. Some will say PRs should be conscripted because there are not enough men.

I say if they want to live on this island and enjoy the privileges of a resident, and the umbrella of security provided by the SAF, they should carry their fair share of the defence burden. There are plenty of unclassified SAF vocations where they can serve without compromising security. If they don't want to serve, they can leave the country. "If we made (first generation) PRs serve NS, we would not get the people we want." -quote PAP. Since apparently Singapore PR is in high demand from the major source countries, we should make all medically fit PRs serve NS and attract only these committed PR candidates.

The said...

Brain - most of them left it at home.

Anonymous said...

Eh if pre-enlistees don't know what to bring when they enlist, it's because they're too lazy to ask or look the information up. There are any number of websites, including the MINDEF one ( ), which offer lists. Some of the sites offer the "insider's perspective" too. I also believe there's even a handbook available on what to expect.

I think the bigger issue is sheer laziness I'm seeing in younger Singaporeans. They don't seek answers on their own. Instead, they claim ignorance, "act blur" and say "no one told me".

Anonymous said...

Why go through the trouble? As a National Slave, just do as you are told, don't ask questions. Show that you are smart, and you will be given more assignments to do- with punishments if you do not finish on time. Go to command school- and you might be coming back earlier as a reservist to prepare for the in-processing of your men. Plus deal with their discipline and health problems- why get yourself stuck in the middle and answering to both your men and your superiors. Worse if you aim for OCS and don't get in, might end up in SCS doing the same shit, or some tough vocation.

Jerry Neo said...

Thanks, I packed mine referring to your list. Enlisting on 6/08/14. Mind checking what i've packed for me?