The contemporary National Service conundrum (Part one of…infinity)

Two recent articles in Singapore’s TODAYonline caught my attention.

In the first, a commentary piece, Yolanda Chin discusses how and why National Service (NS, i.e. conscription) policies pertaining to male Permanent Residents (PRs) of the country should be changed, suggesting that such policies should adjust to the reality of “today’s new migrant” and complex, evolving social and global phenomena.

This, incidentally, comes on the backs of other ongoing issues regarding NS.

Now: Most male Singaporeans (especially) will notice the snazzy new digitalised camo uniforms, SAR-21 carbines, and the, uhh, fingerless gloves. Photo courtesy of TODAYonline.

Unlike today, the conscription of PRs was non-controversial when it was first introduced in the Enlistment Act of 1970.

There was no question then that citizens were better off than PRs; PRs were required to serve NS alongside citizens, even though state-sponsored benefits remained the exclusive preserve of citizens.

The readiness of these PRs to die for the defence of Singapore was due to the fact that they were stateless individuals displaced by Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, and they aspired for citizenship which few qualified for.

Statelessness was a condition
that allegedly led many (men) to consider – and fulfill – the obligations of citizenship then. Never mind that citizenship in a state should have been first and foremost seen and implemented as a human right, as per Article 15 of the UDHR – and not merely a framework for invoking a set of privileges and responsibilities in policymaking. (For further reading, case studies such as this on ‘Statelessness and the Benefits of Citizenship’ is useful to both get a broader picture as well as an idea of specific country situations.)

But I digress. The issue here is not about the right to a nationality or citizenship per se, but about who should/can obtain it in the Singaporean context, and why. To continue:

Since serving NS was a guaranteed route to citizenship, it was not surprising that the overwhelming majority of those who completed NS between 1973 and 1978 — 2,564 of 2,811, or about 90 per cent — clamoured to trade in their blue identity cards for the prized pink ones, neutralising any complications over their rights and responsibilities to Singapore.

Chin goes on to say that in contrast, only about 54 per cent of PR conscripts who served between 2006 and 2010 chose to apply for (and presumably obtained) citizenship. The rest remained citizens of the countries that they or their parents had hailed from.


Unlike their predecessors, PRs today have no pragmatic incentive to take up Singapore citizenship since they are granted state-sponsored benefits even as they remain nationals of other countries. As this growing group of non-citizen NSmen cannot be legally compelled to fulfil the core mission of NS when the situation calls for it, their conscription seems superfluous. 

…second-generation PRs who are liable for NS may still be relieved of their military obligations simply by renouncing their residency status. Official statistics show a perceptible number exercise this option.

My problem starts with the first of the above two paragraphs. One – It’s not stated, even in general terms, what benefits those PRs who have served actually get. Would these be, say, somewhere in between that of other PRs (i.e. those who didn’t serve NS) and full citizens? If that’s the case, then there is the gender divide and issues of inequity – What about the women?

Two – The more dubious claim is the second half: Why can’t these “non-citizen NSmen” be “legally compelled to fulfil the core mission of NS”? Unless there’s a lot of nuances there, isn’t the whole purpose of National Service, as I understand it, to defend the country, or maybe (adjunct to that) even be deployed to peacekeeping missions overseas, for example? If they cannot be legally compelled to do this minimum, then what is the point of wasting time and resources (both theirs and the state’s) to have them serve in the first place?

(There’s a good response from a PR-turned-citizen in the comments section that addresses some of these issues.)

And unless there’s something I missed badly, IF from a “national security” viewpoint, NS is necessary, then policymakers and analysts should look at the social, cultural, economic, and political bases of what makes NS feasible and desirable. This need not even be framed in the ‘Total Defence’ ideology paradigm or the so-called non-traditional security one (which actually serve the over-aching needs of governments and states much too often), but one that looks at the needs and public life of the people – citizens and non-citizens alike.

Barely hours
after the news site posted this article, a reader wrote in in response (posted with accompanying photo of the old-school army uniforms from an earlier time).

Then: Ancient! M16 rifles! Old forest-green camo prints! Photo courtesy of TODAYonline

This second article is headlined “NS not the cornerstone of our national identity”. The views here are rather progressive, in my book.

Consider this:

To some extent, serving NS does contribute to Singaporean-ness but that is not its quintessential element because NS is more exclusive than inclusive.

Many Singaporeans — men who became citizens after a certain age, as well as women — have not served NS, and they are not lesser Singaporeans.

And while we bandy about the term “NS” as if it is a static monolith in our young history, so much has changed that NS should be many things, and not one. …..

The memories and realities of NS have been around for generations, but our cross-generational private discussions of NS are increasingly marked by differences, rather than similarities.

Actually, it’s only been around two generations at most, if you take one generation to be about 25 years. And really, it’s not so much the differences he listed that matters, but more of how official policies and practices change, and how norms develop as to how people experience and view NS. So the writer has good points in the first part of the extract above, but not so much in the second. (The comments section showcases the writer’s fair share of detractors as well.)

We can – and should – neither erase the differences nor dismiss the similarities.

The writer ends with this:

NS is evolving, and we should not regard it as the most significant cornerstone in our growing national identity at the expense of other, more inclusive elements, such as our public education system.

Sounds good at first blush. But one has to wonder how inclusive Singapore’s “public education system” is to begin with. And further, this public education could do well not to imbue the country’s young with a siege mentality that contributes to the militarisation of public culture and civil(ian) life.

, is there an ideal solution? (Hint: Probably not.)  There is, I would like to believe, space for legitimate yet competing claims and policies – Including mine.

How about this? (And I can’t even claim it’s original) – Abolish conscription. Or at least reduce it as much as possible. And at the same time, create more opportunities and incentives for recruiting an all-volunteer force. National Service policies cannot just serve a ‘national security’ imperative, because it tends to lead to all sorts of abuse – like denying citizenship because one didn’t serve, or not granting citizenship even after one has served and applied for the pink identity card – Yes, there have been cases.

Or serving in *ahem* unconventional capacities, like the Malaysian-born Member of Parliament from the ruling party, who once claimed – when he was then a candidate – during the 2011 parliamentary election campaign that his profession as a doctor “saving kids’ lives” was akin to serving NS. Yeah. Riiiiiight. (And there have been at least one other case.)

This is going to be a long-term national, err, conversation. But every once in a while, ludicrousness like these throw us for a loop. Go figure.


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