Friday 10 May 2013

Panel seeks to sustain the young's NS commitment

Committee to gather views from national servicemen and the public
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 9 May 2013

JUST because older generations may have been committed to national service (NS) does not mean it is inevitable that their children and grandchildren will be too.

And it is up to Singapore to ensure that each new generation finds its own commitment to NS.

This was the message from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen after the Committee to Strengthen National Service concluded its first meeting at the Basic Military Training Centre in Pulau Tekong yesterday.

Acknowledging that today's younger generation has different aspirations to previous ones, he said the committee will focus on finding out how to maintain and improve the young's dedication.

"Commitment to NS is not something you transmit genetically. Just because you're committed doesn't mean that you can pass your commitment to your children," he said. But he stressed that the problem was not one of flagging commitment, but of how to maintain it by listening to servicemen's concerns and wishes.

With this in mind, the 20-member committee made up of ministers, MPs, top military brass, operationally ready national servicemen and employers will begin its work by spending the next six months holding focus group discussions and town hall sessions across the country.

It will hear views not just from national servicemen but also from society at large, including parents, employers, new citizens and permanent residents. They may also air their views on a new website - - or by e-mail at

Said Dr Ng: "This is a good time to talk about NS because it is a different generation from the last... If we allow our younger Singaporeans to express in their words and in their own experiences what their fears are, what they wish were better, I think that we can make NS stronger."

Dr Ng, who chairs the committee, announced its formation in Parliament in March. There was robust debate about how to better recognise servicemen in the light of a continued influx of immigrants and the Government's aim to preserve a Singaporean core.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair had earlier suggested a national defence tax be levied on non-citizens. But Mr Zainudin Nordin, an MP for the same ward, asked for ways to recognise the sacrifices of servicemen that "speak more to the heart than to the wallet".

A subsequent Straits Times poll of 100 national servicemen found nearly half calling for more monetary incentives - including increased subsidies for housing, transport, education and health. Others in a separate poll asked for time off to rest, with full pay, after their in-camp training.

Mr Allan Lim, chief executive officer of Alpha Biofuels and a committee member, felt that all national servicemen understood the need to protect the country. But he added: "How do we get them to do their best?"

The committee will complete its work within a year. Aside from aiming to keep servicemen motivated and committed, it seeks to help them balance their duty with family, career and personal needs, and bolster support for NS from the wider community.

"We will implement changes but we want to do them in a careful way that doesn't weaken our NS or our defence," said Dr Ng.

NS 'should be about citizen integration too'
Analysts suggest ways to help the young feel connected
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 11 May 2013

NATIONAL service (NS) should be as much about nation-building and integrating citizens old and new, as it is about deterring external threats, if it wants to gain traction with the present generation.

This was one of the suggestions offered by analysts, after the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) announced on Wednesday that it was looking for ways to strengthen the younger generation's commitment to NS.

In peacetime, the story of NS could be told differently, believed Dr Terence Lee, assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

"This goes beyond just 'the Singapore that I'm defending'. It has to also be about integration and nation-building," he said.

He pointed out that as an immigrant influx continues, "all the more, we need an institution that can bring us together".

Mr Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, maintained that Singapore needs a deterrent military force.

But the authorities could "enunciate more clearly the reasons for it".

After making Wednesday's announcement, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who chairs the CSNS, had recalled to reporters how a 19-year-old recruit told him that the possibility of threat from one of Singapore's neighbours had become "less real to his generation".

Dr Ng added then: "They don't see the threat immediately - they know it's there, mentally - they know that it could come about."

Some Members of Parliament have recently called for NS to be reassessed, asking if it could be used as a tool to integrate citizens.

Another issue that experts hope the CSNS will look into is the public perception of national servicemen.

International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow William Choong said that those in uniform in Singapore are often seen as just a part of the "landscape", while in Taiwan, for instance, they are treated with respect. Improving this relationship with the public would help motivate servicemen, he said.

Analysts also weighed in on how national servicemen should be rewarded, dismissing direct monetary incentives as unsustainable and questioning their effectiveness.

A Straits Times poll in March of 100 national servicemen found nearly half of them calling for more monetary incentives - including increased subsidies for housing, transport, education and health.

But Dr Lee said: "There is a greater calling that cannot be commoditised in terms of monetary value."

Added Mr Bitzinger, who is an American: "I don't know if money would necessarily be that strong a motivating factor. It's more of a consolation prize. You might satisfy some of them, but you might get some saying, 'Keep the money - I'd rather not serve'."

Subsidies to help national servicemen with education, or savings plans, might be more effective, he suggested.

Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, proposed giving national servicemen the day off on SAF Day, which falls on July 1.

Servicemen who complete reservist commitments and their families could also be given free tickets to the National Day Parade, he said.

Some national servicemen, who aired their views in an online survey by The Straits Times on Wednesday, agreed that rewards should go beyond money.

Wrote user Samuel Fong: "Money isn't the key in this predicament... belief is."

But he added that more should be done to explain the need to serve to the younger generation.

He said: "It is also a mistake to use the 'I-say-you-listen' approach of yesteryear on today's generation. We've trained them to be inquisitive, and telling them to do something because someone said so is not going to convince them.

"Once again, you need to tell them why they are doing so, what is the big picture, and why their part matters."

Let women decide whether to serve NS
Young participants say this will help forge a stronger national identity
By Elgin Toh, The Sunday Times, 12 May 2013

Giving women the option to serve National Service (NS) emerged as one of the top ideas for forging a stronger national identity at an Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) session last Friday night.

As many as five who stood up to air their views on the subject supported the move in one form or another - including 16-year-old Heng Jia Min from Raffles Girls' School, who insisted that she and her fellow Singaporean women were no less "willing to die for the country".

The 110 young people - representing schools and other youth groups - gathered at The Grassroots Club for a discussion on Singapore's national identity and volunteerism. The session was organised by the People's Association.

After breaking up into small groups of eight to 10 to converse at length on the two themes, participants voted for ideas that appealed to them most. NS for women turned out to be one of the most hotly discussed questions when the debate was opened to the floor, with the "Yes" camp dominating.

With Singapore's low birth rate, it would bolster the military. It would also help women understand what men go through, as well as give them a better sense of belonging to the nation, and the chance to interact with people from all walks of life, they said.

"National identity is about a shared national experience, and if NS can provide this platform, then I think it should be done," said Jia Min, who would like to be given at least the option of serving NS.

Participants also suggested that the service can last anything between six months and two years, and that it can comprise combat and non-combat courses.

Mr Muhammad Raiyan Waridwan, 20, a Year 2 student at ITE College West, said women could be taught to deal with war-time situations - for instance, taking charge of their neighbourhoods and ensuring low crime.

But Mr Azri Zulfarhan, 26, a marine engineer representing Marsiling Youth Executive Committee, did not see the need for a change.

Women, he said, may not serve NS formally, but most of them at one point or another provide support to a man who does - a son, a brother or a boyfriend.

The discussion was moderated by Dr Janil Puthucheary, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, and also touched on such topics as how special needs children can be better helped, and how local food culture can be promoted.

Dr Puthucheary said attendees' views will be fully reflected to the OSC committee. He said the level of engagement as well as the bonds formed between participants will go a long way in achieving the OSC's goals.

"After the session ended at 10.30pm, many participants were still hanging around, exchanging cards, telling stories and taking photographs with one another," he noted.

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