Thursday 24 October 2013

NSmen may get to choose vocation

Various possibilities, but Singapore’s defence is still main purpose of NS, says Ng
By Xue Jianyue, TODAY, 23 Oct 2013

Men serving their National Service (NS) may be able to choose their vocation to match their skills and interests to their preferred roles in the defence of Singapore.

Skills and attributes picked up by servicemen may also no longer be confined to within the barracks, allowing civilian soldiers to use what they learnt during NS when they return to the classroom and the workplace.

These are among the ideas that a high-level panel is studying, after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and some members of the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) returned last week from a visit to Switzerland and Finland, where they studied the countries’ conscription systems.

While touching on the possibilities, Dr Ng yesterday stressed that Singapore’s defence is still the main purpose of NS. “(The) primary purpose of National Service must be predicated (on) defending Singapore. We have to be focused on that,” he told reporters. “In the process, the fact that it confers national identity, imbues values and skills to conscripts are virtuous outcomes.”

Dr Ng yesterday also ruled out women being drafted into the Singapore Armed Forces, even though opportunities for them to volunteer will be expanded.

Both Switzerland and Finland were chosen by the committee for their striking similarities to Singapore: Small populations, developed economies and shared borders with much bigger countries.

Both nations suffered invasions in the past and their citizens are conscious of the need for conscription. In addition, despite long periods of peace in recent memory, conscription has remained popular among the Swiss and Finns, with more than seven in 10 supporting its continuation.

“These two nations gave us a look into our future, as our external environment changes, as our security needs change from time to time, over a longer horizon,” said Dr Ng. “We wanted that look because, as the Finns told us, national conscription is a one-way street, you can never backtrack on national conscription.”

He noted that Singapore, as well as its geopolitical surroundings, had changed from the time NS was introduced in 1967. “We were a Third World country in the 1960s, per capita GDP of less than S$1,000, but now the capita GDP is in excess of S$50,000, even S$60,000,” Dr Ng said, noting that Singapore’s external environment within ASEAN is also more stable.

In Switzerland, the delegation learnt how the Swiss Armed Forces strengthens employers’ support for conscription through various engagement activities, allowing employers to better appreciate how military training develops the individual and brings value to their companies. Skills picked up during conscription by the Swiss could also be converted into credits in university.

“(The) Swiss had a system where skills you picked up, or leadership positions within the army, gain credits, for example, in universities,” said Dr Ng. “We are studying how certain skill-based aspects, whether leadership or specific vocations, those skills can be made portable when they leave NS, perhaps working with the WDA (Singapore Workforce Development Authority), that’s an area we are looking at.”

Dr Ng, however, struck a note of caution. “If I teach you to fight as a combat soldier, are there modules that you can work on with the WDA? Obviously the answer is probably not.”

In Finland, the delegation was briefed on how conscripts’ aptitudes and preferences are taken into consideration for deployment. In Singapore, many National Servicemen have called for better matching of civilian skills and interests to NS roles, and to better utilise a highly-educated citizen defence force during the committee’s past five months of public consultation.

While the committee is studying Finland’s approach, Dr Ng acknowledged that some servicemen may be disappointed if they do not get their preferred role. However, he is confident that Singaporeans are “mature” and “responsible” enough to recognise the benefits of such a move, even if their wishes may not be eventually fulfilled.

Besides sharing about CSNS’ findings in Finland and Switzerland, the Defence Minister said that improving efficiency in NS administration has been a key theme in feedback gathered in the public consultation exercise, adding that this a “fair requirement” that the public can ask of NS.

“We recognise that time spent in NS is a duty that every able-bodied Singaporean is called on (to perform), but this doesn’t reduce our responsibility to make sure that we make the best use of the time,” Dr Ng said.

However, he warned: “There will always be pressures to be more efficient and cut corners, but this can be at the expense of safety and effectiveness of raising up a defence force.”

SAF looks to cut NS 'down time'
Servicemen can also be given more leeway to state preferred vocation
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 23 Oct 2013

THE Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is looking to shorten the amount of "down time" that young men face before and after their mandatory national service stints.

Many face a combined total of seven to eight months' waiting in the periods between school and NS, as well as NS and university.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen also said servicemen can be given more leeway to state their preferred vocations in the SAF, in an effort to match the serviceman's skills and expertise to his job.

Dr Ng revealed the plans in an interview yesterday, amid ongoing efforts by a high-level panel that he heads to strengthen support for and commitment to NS.

He said he was "gratified and humbled" by a recent poll that found 98 per cent of Singaporeans supported NS.

But he said more can be done.

The Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) is now at a "midpoint" in its efforts to submit recommendations to the Government early next year. Formed in May, it has held focus group discussions and canvassed the views of more than 10,000 people.

The SAF said it is looking to ensure that NS training is "efficient and effective" and "makes the best use of their (servicemen's) time". Some citizen soldiers and their parents have complained about the amount of spare time before and after NS stints.

Nearly 80 per cent of full-time national servicemen are A-level graduates or polytechnic diploma holders who will go to university.

Dr Ng said he has asked Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing to work with tertiary institutions to explore ways to provide a better transition. But he stressed that defence is a national priority and "we must never cut corners or reduce our capabilities".

Dr Ng was speaking after a four-day trip to Finland and Switzerland, where he learnt about conscription systems and how women are allowed to volunteer in the countries' military forces.

In Switzerland a serviceman's skills are matched to his military job. Dr Ng said Singapore is looking at doing the same. Currently, it only allows servicemen to state whether they want to become a commander.

But Dr Ng stressed that servicemen must understand that not everyone gets their first choice.

"The organisation must be responsible for making sure that all elements are strong," he added. "If we can make the SAF stronger, we can explore more options."

To better recognise the contributions of servicemen, Dr Ng said the CSNS is exploring the option of certifying "portable skills" picked up in the military so they can be recognised in the civilian working world.

The SAF also wants to improve its relationship with employers, both big and small, by allowing them to join expanded advisory bodies, or setting up networks like an "employers' council".

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