NS: Priceless privilege


Doing National Service like these SAF servicemen taking part in a military exercise (above) is part of being Singaporean for many citizens. — ST FILE PHOTO, ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

WHEN Singapore became suddenly independent in 1965, its defence assets consisted of two untested infantry battalions, two lightly armed patrol boats and no air force to speak of.

Singapore was a new state in a tumultuous region, with an uncertain future. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was painfully aware that Singapore could not afford a fully professional army and so took the conscription route in 1967. Thus was ‘national service’ (NS) born: The armed forces’ backbone would be non-regular soldiers paid a token allowance.

A total of 9,000 able-bodied men were enlisted in 1967.

Today – 45 years later – more than 900,000 men have undergone the NS rite of passage.

But planners now grapple with another pressing issue – a simmering resentment among Singaporeans dismayed about the status of foreign-born permanent residents (PRs). They gripe that not all young male PRs are enlisted, and that second-generation PRs can renounce their residency to avoid NS.

Some have suggested that second-generation PRs who are liable for NS should be made to post a security bond. If they do not enlist, this bond will be forfeited.

And if they want to give up their PR, they would still have to serve NS first.

It is true that Singaporean men face penalties for defaulting on NS. And parents already stump up a bond to ensure that their kids who go overseas to study return to do NS when they are 18 years old.

But I feel that putting a price tag on NS cheapens this iconic institution.

  • What dollar value can you impute to the responsibilities and privileges of NS, and by extension, citizenship?

Over the years, the Government has rolled out a plethora of measures – such as tax rebates, higher NS allowances, discounted club memberships – to thank the citizens who have done their NS stints. It also introduced in 2010 a $9,000 handout, the biggest cash payout yet, to be disbursed to citizens who have done NS over 10 years.

  • PRs don’t get a cent.

But I’m not sure if all this money makes the Singaporean citizen-soldier feel more appreciated.

As former foreign minister George Yeo, who chaired a 1991 panel to recognise the contributions of operationally ready national servicemen, put it: ‘It is not possible to reduce national service to costs and benefits. Neither is it right.’

Money cannot be the carrot; it should not be the stick either.

Imposing security bonds and tying down those who have taken up residency is tantamount to rolling back the welcome mat for foreigners. It smacks of an attitude of wanting to extract maximum pain from PRs in return for them enjoying Singapore’s benefits.

Such negative measures dampen Singapore’s attraction as a talent destination.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once said that the Government ‘cannot make it so onerous for PRs and non-residents that they do not want to come’.

Already, PR numbers in the first six months of last year have fallen, for the first time in 20 years. There were 532,000 PRs last June, 9,000 fewer than in the same period in 2010.

Second-generation PRs are already liable for national service, like citizens.

Mindef spokesman Kenneth Liow said: ‘Singapore welcomes those who want to sink roots here and contribute as permanent residents, but they should do so only if they are fully committed to national service.’

The message is thus clear: NS is part of the package deal if you are a young man (first-generation PRs are exempted) wanting to settle in Singapore long term.

If that is not enough, what is?

As it is, the distinctions between PRs and citizens have been sharpened over the years.

  • PRs pay higher school fees and hospital bills as they enjoy less government subsidies. They do not get subsidised housing.
  • PRs pay taxes and contribute to the economy like any citizen. Many are active volunteers, giving back to the community.

But there is one crucial difference:

  • PRs are not citizens.

They have chosen Singapore as their home for now, putting down roots with their kin. But they can leave if they want to. They are not as invested as citizens in the long-term future of Singapore, which is why they do not get to vote.

And this is why we should not force them to do NS if they do not want to.

PRs have dual loyalties:

  • to their country of origin and their adopted country.
  • If their loyalty to Singapore is strong enough, they will fulfil their NS obligation.

Using a security bond to force a reluctant PR to serve NS, or worse, compelling a PR to serve NS before he can renounce his residency, does nothing to guarantee that the young man will be a loyal and fully committed Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier.

Call me an idealist, but more than 12 years after I reported for duty at Pulau Tekong camp as a nervous recruit, I continue to hold on to the rose-tinted view that it is a privilege to enter military training, to learn to bear arms for my country and my people.

Our blood, sweat and tears shed to build the SAF cannot be reduced to a dollar value. What is defining are priceless intangibles such as duty, honour, loyalty and national pride.

When then Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee asked Parliament to pass the National Service Bill in 1967, he said:

  • ‘Nothing creates loyalty and national consciousness more speedily and more thoroughly than participation in defence and membership of the armed forces.’

Mr Lee Kuan Yew‘s pitch to the nation was that those called up for duty must see it as a privilege to serve:

  • ‘It will take many years – perhaps five, perhaps seven, perhaps 10 years – before we can get the whole machine into gear. But in the end, every boy and girl here will understand that what he or she has in Singapore, he or she must be prepared to fight and defend. Otherwise, it will be lost.’

Forty-five years on,

  • are we reducing the meaning of NS by seeing it as a burden to be shared by foisting it on reluctant PRs?
  • Are we viewing the social contract between NS, Singaporeans and NS-liable PRs purely in terms of dollars and cents?

To do so will reduce the significance of NS and be a tragic loss to the meaning of this institution.

By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent
jermync@sph.com.sg, Published on Jun 2, 2012, The Straits Times

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