Friday 30 May 2014

Dr Luisa Lee: What serving in SAF volunteer corps means

I AGREE with Ms Charissa Yong that the proposed Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps is not for everyone ("Why set up SAF volunteer corps?"; Sunday), and the prerequisites are useful in ensuring that those who do sign up will be "motivated by a strong sense of passion and service to Singapore".

Ms Yong had surmised that the SAFVC could provide "a chance to reduce the perceived inequality between those who do NS and those who do not".

Rather, the SAFVC promotes more opportunities for individuals from the broader society, who were not called up for NS, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to serve and defend our home. This is another avenue for those who want to take greater ownership and contribute to Singapore's well-being.

From the conversations on NS that the committee conducted, I was encouraged to hear women, new citizens and first-generation permanent residents expressing support for the scheme and their willingness to contribute.

The scheme will appeal to those who want a meaningful experience in supporting the SAF's operations, or want to contribute their specialised skills from their professional careers in the context of defence.

I volunteered as a medical officer when I was a 30-year-old mother of two sons, and feel privileged and proud to have served 20 years in the SAF alongside its men and women, seeing at first hand why Singapore needs a strong defence.

On reflection, I count my years as a volunteer in the SAF to be most fulfilling and an important part of my life.

The added bonus was that, as a mother, I could relate to what my three sons were going through when they enlisted for full-time NS and when they served their in-camp training.

They were encouraged by the fact that I had voluntarily undergone the training and sacrifice, and they understood that at the heart of their onerous training and sacrifice is the essence of NS as a duty and an honour for the country.

It is worth noting that people who eventually decide to join the SAFVC are not compelled to by law; neither will they be doing it because they are asked to. They will be doing it because they want to.

There will be a select group of people with such commitment and this scheme will provide them with the opportunity to serve the nation in their own meaningful ways.

Luisa Lee (Dr)
Member, Committee to Strengthen National Service
ST Forum, 30 May 2014

Volunteer corps aims to foster inclusive society
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Straits Times, 30 May 2014

FOR 20 years, Dr Luisa Lee wore two hats - one as a civilian medical doctor, the other as a volunteer medical officer in the Singapore Armed Forces before retiring with the rank of major in 1999.

Her double role was highlighted by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday when he read out her letter on the proposed SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC).

"As a mother, I could relate to what my three sons were going through when they enlisted. They were encouraged... that I had voluntarily undergone the training and sacrifice," wrote Dr Lee, who sits on the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS).

Dr Ng, pointing out how the 65-year-old Dr Lee can even share her experiences with her grandchildren who are now doing national service, said it is this type of inclusiveness which the SAFVC can promote.

The volunteer corps, one of 30 recommendations put before Parliament by the CSNS, hopes to take in women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens to serve alongside national servicemen.

While Members of Parliament like Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) have voiced their support for the volunteer corps, others have said that the SAFVC cannot match the commitment and contributions of servicemen. "It may be so. But we ought to let this scheme evolve and not judge it prematurely," said Dr Ng, promising volunteers will be "trained and meaningfully deployed".

Pointing out how the police and civil defence have successfully run similar volunteer corps for a long time - since 1946 and 2006 respectively, he said: "Their volunteers work alongside regulars and national servicemen, and perform similar duties... I believe that the SAFVC can make a similar impact."

Volunteer doctor a fervent NS supporter
Growing up, Dr Luisa Lee loved reading but money was tight at home. Turning to her neighbours, who were boys, she found that all they had for her to borrow were comics and books on combat and war. These were to have a lifelong effect on the medical doctor, who became Singapore's first woman doctor in the Singapore Armed Forces volunteer medical service in 1979. For 20 years, she served the military. It gave her a deep insight into the lives of national servicemen that proved invaluable when she sat on the Committee to Strengthen National Service. Dr Lee, 65, tells Maryam Mokhtar how the panel's recent recommendations will fortify the national service core and let Singaporeans show their commitment to the country.
The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2014

Five years of your childhood were spent in Melbourne, Australia. How did the experience shape you?

When I was between age four and nine, my father was studying engineering at the University of Melbourne, under a colonial government scholarship. We were poor because the scholarship covered only his expenses. The rest of us lived on my parents' savings. I loved reading and borrowed books and comics from my neighbours, who were boys.

These were all about combat, war and fighting and, at that impressionable age, I was taken by events like the Battle of Britain and war heroes like John Paul Jones of the American Revolutionary War. My penchant for the military was also stirred at school in Australia, where plenty of stories were told about war heroes. The school also celebrated wartime commemorations such as the annual Anzac Day and Poppy Day.

But you became a doctor instead of a military historian. Why?

I was eight years old when an aunt very proudly proclaimed that one of her nieces had become a nurse. It made me think that I could be one too, working in a hospital and helping to heal sick people. It sounded very glamorous. But the notion of nursing was put on hold when I decided to continue studying after my O levels.

I prepared my application to the then University of Singapore to do science but the day before submission, my cousin urged me to try medicine and I thought: "Why not?" I think one thing that drove me was that I wanted to keep on studying, and not work.

You joined the Health Ministry's Training Health and Education Department in 1974. What led you to volunteer in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)?

In 1979, I came to know the SAF had a group of volunteer doctors and nurses. When I heard they were recruiting, I asked the chief medical officer if I could volunteer. The women volunteers then were nurses, no doctors. He said: "Okay, put in your application." I was thrilled when they accepted me, and went for the Medical and Medical Ancillary Officers' course.

Was the training arduous?

For six months, we trained twice a week and one weekend each month, we got a crash course on every aspect of military life. We learnt individual field craft (how to camouflage, identify field signals and determine target indication), military history and military law.There was also medical evacuation which I found difficult because we had to lift heavy loads. We chose the smallest person to put on the stretcher.

Is there any part of the training that left an indelible mark on you? During one topography exercise, I was with an older nurse who was also a volunteer. We walked past a group of young NSmen who were training and one of them said: "Wah lau, an ni lao ("so old" in Hokkien)!" I still laugh about it but I hope we were an inspiration.

Another time, as a company commander, I had to decide where to set up our field hospital. It had everything you find in a hospital - but under tents and trailers. It was tough work for everyone. When it rained heavily, the site of another hospital company next to us was totally flooded and everybody was swearing. I was so relieved I had chosen a spot on higher ground for my company.

One recommendation of the Committee to Strengthen National Service was the formation of an SAF Volunteer Corps. How would it help people understand what it's like to defend our country?

The contributions of our NSmen are invaluable. I don't think anyone who has not gone through it would be able to realise the sacrifices they make.

In the early days when most Singaporeans were renting their flats, they were encouraged to own their homes so that they would be committed to the country and defend it.

Our male citizens are defending our country through NS. The volunteer corps opens the way for participation by women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens who want to show their commitment to Singapore by contributing to our defence, and signal support for NS by the larger community.

The first volunteer corps aims to get about 100 to 150 recruits. What are the key considerations for them to achieve success?

What's important is we get the right people who are committed and have passion. A survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies (and commissioned by the committee) shows 80 per cent of respondents, men and women alike, were in favour of letting women contribute to defence as volunteers. It shows the notion of volunteering for defence is surfacing.

If we had this conversation 10 years ago, it is highly unlikely we would get anywhere near this number.

How did the committee select and review people's various suggestions to strengthen NS?

All suggestions and feedback were carefully examined. The recommendations had to be meaningful and have an impact but also be pragmatic. They ranged from improving the training system and administration, to expanding community support, to providing opportunities for contribution, to rewards and recognition.

Suggestions that we felt would have limited impact, like giving NSmen's children priority for Primary 1 registration, were dropped since the fathers of most Primary 1 registrants are NSmen.

The rewards and recognition have to be understood as tokens; the panel felt they should not appear transactional, which would detract from the essence of NS.

With the implementation of the recommendations, how do you envision NS in the future?

It's going to take a lot of work to implement some of the measures, improve administrative processes, training and so on.

An example is shortening the time between school and enlistment and after that, from the completion of NS to pursuing higher education - for some, there is a lot of time wasted there.

I believe the recommendations as a whole will make the NS system more efficient and optimise time and resources.

Singaporeans are very pragmatic; they want to make the best use of their time, especially when they are young. So if this and other measures can be successfully implemented, it will go a long way in addressing the complaints on the ground.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the NS review and recommendations were made to take into account a new generation of NSmen with no experience of Singapore's early struggles. Is your enthusiasm and dedication to the nation a hallmark of an older generation?

I'd like to use the metaphor of disease. You need not suffer from a disease to know you want to prevent yourself from getting it.

If younger Singaporeans truly understand what is at stake and what needs to be done to safeguard our nation and way of life, they will respond appropriately.

That's where I think education will have to play a part to open their eyes. It would be good for some of the retired regulars and volunteers to help in national education, go to schools to explain and share their experiences.

How can we develop in the younger generation a sense of loyalty to and a deeper stake in the country?

Loyalty comes through participation. One has to get involved and contribute before one can understand. So we need to find ways to encourage participation.

You have three sons, two of whom were aged three and five when you began volunteering in the SAF. Did your work have an effect on them?

Definitely. I believe that because I was an officer, my three sons felt they had to be officers too. The eldest was an NS commando.

My second son told me it was because of me that he did not take the "softer" option of being in the SAF Sports Association tennis team. He went into Officer Cadet Training (OCT). My youngest son went into Specialist Cadet School before joining OCT.

Do you talk to your children about loyalty and a sense of responsibility in defending the nation? What was their response?

I never had to do it. It's imbibed in them.

There have been occasions when the topic comes up, of NS setting them back in higher education and career advancement by two years compared to women and non-citizens. It's a bugbear of many Singaporean men.

But this is something they have to accept. However, there's unanimous agreement that NS is necessary and it is their duty to serve as well as they can.

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