Friday 23 May 2014

Committee to Strengthen NS announces recommendations

Major steps to enhance and reinforce national service
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 23 May 2014

SWEEPING changes which will enhance national service (NS) and reinforce it as a key pillar of the nation's security will be tabled in Parliament next week.

If passed, operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) need to notify the authorities of their overseas trips only if they are longer than 14 days.

They will also have up to twice the current timeframe to pass their Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) and complete remedial training.

They will receive more generous monetary rewards for their service, including up to $6,000 more in Central Provident Fund top-ups, which currently stand at $9,000, and better insurance coverage.

For the first time, the concept of NS will be broadened to include women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens who are not liable for NS.

They can join the newly formed Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps, when it enlists its first batch of volunteers in the middle of next year.

These are among the 30 recommendations that have been made by the Committee to Strengthen NS, a high-ranking panel formed a year ago to think of ways to better recognise NSmen and boost public buy-in for the conscription scheme that started 47 years ago. More than 40,000 people were consulted.

Announcing these proposals, which will be implemented within the next two years if approved, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who heads the committee, said yesterday that they will help ensure NS remains relevant and responsive to a new generation of servicemen with "no direct memories of our early struggles".

Many of the committee's recommendations centre on a more efficiently run national service system, such as ensuring there will be better matching of skills and expertise to vocations for full-time national servicemen.

More than 1,300 new regulars will also be hired to improve the training of enlistees.

Other recommendations are aimed at working NSmen.

For instance, servicemen are currently required to pass the IPPT within nine months, or else, undergo 20 remedial training sessions in army camps within three months. The proposals give them more time to do both, possibly in the comfort of commercial gyms.

Dr Ng reiterated, however, that these benefits "must never dilute the spirit of service".

"NS recognition benefits must reflect the correct values of duty, honour and country. And they must be given and received in this spirit."

Volunteer arm of SAF to be set up next year
Over 100 expected in first batch, with two tracks - operations or specialist
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 23 May 2014

SINCE the age of 13, Teng Wen Li had waited for the day she could join the National Police Cadet Corps (Sea), a school uniformed group.

Her mother, a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), had often regaled her only child with stories of her adventures in camp, sparking her interest in being in the military.

Now 17, Wen Li plans to sign up for the newly formed Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps, which would give her an entree to that world while enabling her to do something for her country.

"Unlike the boys, we don't have national service, so I want to gain some experience and knowledge before committing to sign on," said the junior college student, who hopes to be a civil servant if she does not become a defence executive officer.

Every able-bodied man and woman between the ages of 18 and 45 who is exempt from national service will be eligible for the military volunteer corps when it is set up in the middle of next year.

Women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens will be the target of the new corps, first mooted last year and envisioned as a unit that will serve alongside regulars and national servicemen.

Defence planners hope to see about 100 to 150 step forward to form the first batch of volunteers.

They can choose to serve in two tracks:
- Operations - guarding the Republic's key installations like Jurong Island and crowd control during SAF-related events;
- Specialist - applying their expertise in the legal, medical, psychological and maritime fields, among others.
After signing up, they will have to wear a uniform and undergo a four-week course to familiarise themselves with military culture and operations.

Like every operationally ready national serviceman, volunteers are liable to be called up to serve for up to two weeks every year, for at least three years.

They are likely to be given an allowance during their in-camp stints.

The topic of women and first-generation permanent residents volunteering attracted intense discussion in recent focus groups led by the Committee to Strengthen NS.

In a recent Institute of Policy Studies survey, seven out of 10 Singaporeans said women should be allowed to volunteer for the country's defence.

This could include helping out at National Day parades and military open houses.

But Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday that NS must be for a real and critical need, and "neither tokenistic nor symbolic".

The military volunteer corps is likely to be a variant of the Singapore Police Force's Volunteer Special Constabulary, which helps in patrols, and the Singapore Civil Defence Force's Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit, whose members teach or man the 995 hotline.

Both units have about 900 volunteers.

Dr Ng said setting up the SAF's volunteer corps would not be "an exercise in numbers" but to ensure people are meaningfully deployed.

Easing red tape, cutting wait time
By Jermyn Chow and Lee Jianxuan, The Straits Times, 23 May 2014

FOR years, Singapore's citizen soldiers have expressed concern about the impact their national service commitments had on their lives. Now, the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) wants to ease some of this burden by relaxing administrative requirements and cutting back on waiting time.

Nine out of 10 overseas trips taken by operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) will no longer need to be reported to Mindef under a new proposal that requires such reporting only if the trip exceeds 14 days.

Currently, NSmen who are overseas for more than 24 hours need to notify Mindef through various means, including SMS and an online website.

"This will reduce inconvenience to NSmen, while still providing Mindef and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) with information on NSmen who are overseas for longer periods, which is important for manpower and operational training," said the committee in its report.

Another proposal would give less physically fit NSmen more time to get in shape, and more flexibility in achieving it.

They should be required to pass their annual Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) within 12 months, instead of the current nine, recommended the CSNS.

Currently, those who fail the test have to attend 20 remedial training sessions packed into a period of three months, which many servicemen noted was too short a time period to improve; it also wrecked their daily schedules.

Now, the committee is recommending that the 20 remedial training sessions be spread over 12 months. For further flexibility, the sessions can be done in commercial or Safra gyms instead of at four army camps islandwide.

The moves will benefit some 116,000 NSmen, who have to take their IPPT every year. More details will be announced in July.

Financial analyst Tan Khai Yang, 36, cheered the moves, saying: "If the centres are near the CBD and town areas, we can wrap up work quickly and head over for training."

The CSNS also noted that many young Singaporean males who had finished their post-secondary studies were waiting too long to be enlisted into full-time national service. Currently, about 45 per cent of the men wait four months to be enlisted while 55 per cent wait up to eight months.

Republic Polytechnic student Li Wenjie, 21, who is facing a wait of up to five months after he graduates next April, cheered this. "The earlier you go in, the earlier you get to come out. I don't want to wait too long," he said.

After NS, there is another wait of up to eight months to enter a local tertiary institution, noted the committee. It recommended that Mindef and MHA work with universities and tertiary institutions here to reduce this as well.

Regular cadre to train recruits
By Lee Jianxuan, The Straits Times, 23 May 2014

These were among recommendations made in a report released yesterday by the Committee to Strengthen National Service.

The measures, to be implemented in the next few years, aim to raise training standards in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

The 1,100-strong cadre of regulars will be deployed mostly in training schools and vocational training institutes. Another 230 will be hired by the Home Team.

Typically, full-time national servicemen (NSFs) are trained by older second-year commanders, while career soldiers are "more mature, senior and better at instilling discipline and values", said Colonel Ng Ying Thong, the SAF's assistant chief of the general staff (training). Some NSFs who have completed their two years' service will also be offered short-term contracts as regulars.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said earlier this year that time savings from employing regular trainers could lead to NS being shortened "by a few weeks".

Other recommendations will expand the role of NSFs in the army. One measure is to increase the number of officers and specialists, from 30 to 40 per cent.

Another is to better match new soldiers to vocations which suit their skills, while skills they learn during NS will be accredited in their certificate of service so they are recognised in civilian life.

Mr Alex Lee, 21, hopes to join the navy as a cook next month. "I'd like to be a chef so that would be useful, but I'm also open to new things."

Empowering changes will strengthen NS for generations
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 23 May 2014

STANDING in front of a life-sized statue of an infantry soldier carrying a Singapore Armed Forces flag a year ago, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen made a pledge to listen to the concerns and wishes of national servicemen.

It was a fitting backdrop to the start of a year-long journey by the Committee to Strengthen National Service, which Dr Ng leads, to find ways to increase Singaporeans' motivation for national service and boost buy-in from the community and employers.

Not that commitment to the rite of passage was flagging, cautioned Dr Ng. An Institute of Policy Studies survey on NS had shown that 98 per cent of respondents supported NS and agreed it was necessary for the defence of the country. Rather, the review was more about how to sustain the commitment to NS among a new generation of servicemen.

From the raft of 30 recommendations announced yesterday, Dr Ng and his panel seem to have delivered on many fronts.

For the working NSmen, the committee is proposing to give them more time and leeway to train and prepare for their Individual Physical Proficiency Test, addressing their perennial grumbles of juggling work, family and their NS obligations. It is even prepared to ease restrictions on those who go overseas, requiring only those whose trips are longer than 14 days to notify the authorities.

Committee member Allan Lim did not mince words, calling these "pain points" of NS. Removing them will "create greater goodwill and spur more people to be more interested to serve", he noted.

Hearing the 20-man steering committee yesterday, one could not help but sense a change in the way the Mindef views and deals with its servicemen.

The "I know better" attitude has been replaced by a greater willingness to engage millennial soldiers who, in Dr Ng's words, were "born and bred in an affluent Singapore with no direct memories of our early struggles". This lot of digital natives are also more vocal and questioning, and so have to be trained and dealt with differently. As Dr Ng noted in his first interview as Defence Minister in 2011, it is a new generation that "really has to find its own teaching moments".

That is, perhaps, most apparent in the committee's suggestion to give servicemen more time and flexibility to carry out their physical fitness training. If a person is given more freedom to determine when and how he wants to train and achieve his goals, chances are he ends up more self-motivated.

This itself has an indirect effect on the nation's defence. As Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing puts it: "When our NSmen take ownership of their own fitness and operational readiness, that is the strongest deterrent message we can send to anyone."

In sifting through the myriad suggestions thrown up by some 40,000 participants in townhalls and focus group discussions, the committee passed on many popular and easy wins that would have more obviously sealed its place in history, like giving preferential admission to primary schools and increasing full-time national servicemen's allowances.

By choosing instead to initiate a more subtle shift towards empowering Singapore's NSmen and making them more responsible for themselves and their country, the committee has better strengthened the NS pillar for many generations to come.

Strengthen NS website
Committee to Strengthen National Service Report
30 recommendations for better NS, strong S'pore
Speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, at Press Conference by the Committee to Strengthen National Service
Addenda to President's Address: Safe and Secure Singapore
Addendum to the President's Address
Plan to enlist poly students for NS earlier
What serving in volunteer corps means
Bringing national service up to date

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