Thursday 26 June 2014

Bringing national service up to date

By Lim Wee Kiak, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jun 2014

RECENTLY, the Government accepted 30 recommendations put up by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) that looked at ways to bring the institution of national service (NS) up to date with the aspirations and needs of today's Singapore.

I was privileged to be on the committee, and was part of the group that took part in the largest public consultation effort ever conducted on NS. I started the CSNS journey with some trepidation. I had previously received negative feedback on NS, with some calling for it to be shortened or even scrapped. Some felt the geopolitics of the region had changed, and we were not in any danger of war.

But during the many CSNS focus group discussions, I was relieved to hear that a vast majority still agreed that NS was still important, for national defence, instilling discipline and values in Singapore's young men, and bringing people from different backgrounds together. The CSNS recommendation that is closest to my heart is allowing full-time NSmen (NSFs) to indicate their vocation preference when they enlist for NS. I believe this will invigorate NS simply because, if you get to serve in your preferred vocation, you will do it with fervour and commitment.

I remember receiving an e-mail from an NSF who had completed an aerospace engineering course at the Institute of Technical Education, and requested a posting to the Air Force as an aircraft technician. But he was posted to the Infantry because all NSFs were deployed according to their level of physical fitness and the operational needs of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

He suggested that the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) should, whenever possible, tap the skills and interests of its people to better serve the country. I agreed with him; not that our NSFs are lacking in commitment, but we can maximise their efforts in NS - for the country, and the individual.

When I went on a study trip with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and other CSNS members to Finland and Switzerland last October, I saw how their conscripts regard military service as a springboard for their personal development. I spoke to a mathematics teacher who chose to serve as a helicopter technician. I could see that he was in high spirits even though he had to attend one month of refresher training every year. And despite the fact that certain vocations, such as pilots, require a longer duration of service, there are people who are happy to choose those vocations.

The committee mulled over the idea of deploying our NSFs according to their skills or interests and recommended Mindef and the Ministry of Home Affairs take individual preferences into consideration. This would be a huge undertaking for Mindef and MHA given that personal preference will need to be weighed against operational needs.

Some vocations will be more popular than others. Many NSFs will not get their choice. The SAF and the Home Team have to ensure that they can meet their operational needs, come up with a fair system and manage the expectations on the ground. But even if some NSFs cannot get their preferred vocation, they can still make meaningful contributions. They can pick up valuable skills, some of which can potentially be accredited, transferring the valuable skills they picked up during NS to their new jobs and workplaces.

The other recommendation I found particularly worthwhile is allowing women, new citizens and first-generation permanent residents (PRs) to play a part in national defence. While there is currently no operational need to enlist these groups into NS, there are certainly roles for them in a volunteer corps.

Defending the country should not be the responsibility of Singaporean men alone; all citizens and PRs should also be given the opportunity to contribute. The numbers may not be large but it is a good first step to promote greater ownership within our community in the defence and protection of our home.

Interestingly, suggestions on how to recognise our NSmen's contributions to defence were hotly debated. Some called for greater monetary incentives for the IPPT (individual physical proficiency test), and more tax rebates. But an overwhelming number of Singaporeans, especially men who had gone through NS, cautioned against reducing NS to dollars and cents.

What the committee advocates is more societal recognition of NS. A focus group participant shared with me that in the United States, many American airlines offer veterans and men in uniform priority boarding on commercial planes. US society accords great respect and honour to its soldiers, a culture which I feel we should encourage.

This is taking root here too. Businesses offer discounts and freebies to NSmen. Some employers now encourage citizen soldiers to don their uniform on SAF Day. As a community, we all need to do more to recognise and support our NSmen.

The writer, a People's Action Party MP for Nee Soon GRC, is a member of the Committee to Strengthen National Service

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