Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Sons not doing NS should not take up PR: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

Leaner SAF 'can still do more'
Tech-savvy soldiers will make up for falling enlistment numbers, says Defence Minister
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2012

With declining birth rates, the number of young men enlisted for national service (NS) in 2025 will be 25 per cent lower than the number today - but the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will still be able to do more with less, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has said.

This can be achieved by relying on having increasingly educated and Web-savvy soldiers reporting for duty, adept at using the high-tech war machines and weapons being put in the field.

Speaking to the media in an hour-long interview ahead of SAF Day today, Dr Ng, said enlistment numbers will start to fall in four years' time.

The decline will continue until 2025, when the projected number of Singaporean males called up for NS will fall to 19,500.

Last year, about 26,000 enlisted.

Dr Ng said: 'Obviously, it does have an impact and that's why we have been preparing for it.'

One strategy has been to optimise the contribution of each national serviceman.

'It is not only in terms of skills and capabilities for which we have to enhance our systems to be able to train them, it is also about the way the SAF functions,' he said.

Gone is the hierarchical command structure. In its place is a flatter structure in which the rank-and-file soldier is empowered to make key decisions in the field.

And because those reporting for duty are tech-savvy, the SAF is also putting gadgets such as the iPad and Galaxy Tab in their hands, so they can learn in an environment in which they feel at home.

Despite the fighting force becoming leaner, Dr Ng said, defence planners are not looking to go back to longer NS stints.

In 2004, full-time national service stints were cut from 21/2 years to two; in-camp training for operationally ready national servicemen, popularly known as reservist stints, was later also shortened from 13 years to 10.

Then-Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is now the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister, had explained that the reduction was possible because the SAF was relying more on technology and less on a large number of soldiers.

Dr Ng, who took over the defence portfolio last year, reiterated that the SAF's drive to modernise itself into a third-generation fighting force can deal with the shrinking manpower.

The moves include outsourcing non-core functions to civilian contractors, thus freeing up soldiers for more combat duties.

It also involves fielding more unmanned platforms in the SAF's land, sea and air operations, such as the Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle.

On land, only three men are needed to operate the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, compared to the 12-men crews operating the older howitzers.

At sea, the Republic of Singapore Navy's stealth frigates are manned by 70 men, fewer than other navies' 120-men crews.

Although the Defence Ministry (Mindef) can spend up to 6 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product on equipping its troops, it actually spends less than that, said Dr Ng.

He is gratified to note that more than nine in 10 Singaporeans have said in Mindef polls that defence spending is important.

He said he has also gathered from his conversations with citizen soldiers that they believed the money spent on military hardware was well spent.

'We're 700 sq km, four million people. This is as vulnerable as it gets,' he said.

He said, however, that the technology that money can buy cannot make up for the commitment or ability of the soldiers. 'You are only as strong as your will to defend and your ability to defend (the nation).'

As Singapore marks 45 years of national service this year, with more than 900,000 Singaporeans having gone through the rite of passage, Dr Ng said he believed that the will to defend this nation has not weakened.

'I think people recognise that there's more to defend, but at the same time, we also recognise that there are added demands of work and family, and we're also trying to help our NSmen do things more efficiently so they can meet these demands,' he said.

'Sons not doing NS should not take up PR'

Permanent residents (PRs) who want to sponsor their non-citizen sons' residency in Singapore have to be prepared to send them for national service (NS).

If not, they should not take up the PR status, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in an interview ahead of today's SAF Day.

First-generation PRs are administratively exempted from NS, but when they apply for PR status for their children, they need to recognise that it is a duty for their sons to do NS, he said.

'So better don't take up the PR (for your sons) if they are not going to do NS.'

Dr Ng added that should NS-liable second-generation PRs choose not to fulfil their NS stints and give up their PR status, they will have to face 'harsh penalties'.

His response comes on the back of the highly publicised issue of NS-liable PRs renouncing their residency before serving NS.

This had touched off a debate about the need for more punitive measures to make them serve the military stint, including imposing a security bond on their parents, to be forfeited if the sons do not go through NS.

Citing letters that he received from families that have been separated because NS-liable PRs chose not to serve, Dr Ng noted that the current measures are already much harsher than that.

In a reply to a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page in May, Mindef spokesman Kenneth Liow said that NS-liable PRs who fail to register or enlist for national service will be treated as NS defaulters; those who renounce their PR status without serving NS will also face 'adverse consequences'.

'Their failure to serve national service will be taken into account when they subsequently apply to study or work here, or when they try to have their PR status reinstated,' said Colonel Liow.

Despite the difficulties, Singapore has to enforce the NS policy to send a clear signal that this NS duty must be fulfilled, said Dr Ng.

He added: 'The simple message I have is that if you take up PR and you know you are liable for NS and if you have not resolved that, better not take up PR.'

The Defence Minister on...

Web-savvy soldiers
'If you have gone to our tanks and looked at our battlefield management systems... there is a lot of information. But if you notice our young SAF soldiers, they respond to it like a duck to water. Intuitively, they know what the buttons are supposed to do and they are able to quickly manage it.'

Mindef's strict NS deferment policy
'It is a collective commitment and that collective commitment to NS does demand obligations and duties from each of us because when we start saying you can do less, or I can expect less from you, then it breaks down, as it has in other countries and that becomes a problem.'

Whether the SAF has the entire population behind it to win a war
'I believe that Singaporeans treasure this island home and our multiracial and religious harmony. They will fight to protect what is ours and for our children. Many of them are parents today, some even grandparents, who understand clearly that if Singaporeans choose not to defend ourselves, no one else will. They expect their sons to wear the uniform and do their duty when the time comes.'

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