I regret not doing much better during NS 20-odd years ago.
I regret not distinguishing myself during BMT. I regret not becoming a commissioned officer. I regret not trying to get a Sword of Honour.
I had the opportunity and I just let it go.
Of course, my reasons at the time were understandable and no different from the other guys.
I hated NS. I resented having to waste 2.5 years of my life in NS. I was angry at being delayed three years into NUS while the girls in my class forged ahead and got a headstart in their careers.
And I hated everything about the Army.
I hated the food. I hated the physical exercise. I hated the drill. I hated the SOC. I hated the Rifle PT. I hated the Log PT. I hated the IPPT, especially the Standing Broad Jump.
I hated the area cleaning. I hated the inspections, the stand-by-beds, the knock-it-down pushups.
I hated the heat. I hated the smell. I hated the sweat. I hated the mosquitoes. I even hated my BMT POP Function because I had no girlfriend to bring with me.
I hated the stupid SAF procedures, processes and paperwork. I hated the 1206, which I had to sign numerous times because I lost things. I hated the punishments– extra drill, extra guard duty, extra daily reporting– that I incurred.
I hated the officers and NCO’s in Tekong who were there just to torture us during BMT. Later on, I would also hate the politicking regulars in my unit, who were always just playing games to try to advance their “careers” while trying to “siam” the annual IPPT and SOC tests.
I really hated how they always threatened to “charge” me for any infraction.
Even after my ROD, I continued to hate the SAF because I had to serve all my high-key and low-key ICT while other guys I knew went straight into the Mindef Internal Holding Lists and never heard from the SAF for years. In contrast, my first high-key training took place during my NUS 1st year vacation, barely nine months after ROD, and I completed my 13-year cycle by the time I was 35.
Of course, I also hated those who “deferred” or “disrupted” for both full-time NS and reservist, because my disruption and deferment requests were never approved.
I also hated the recall manning and mobilization exercises.
In short, I hated everything there was to hate about the Army. So I definitely would not have accepted a commission, even if they gave it to me on a silver platter, because I believed it the height of stupidity to stretch my reservist obligation to 50 when I could end it at 40.
But I see now that I was wrong to have such a negative attitude towards NS.
True, I did not volunteer, I was conscripted and compelled to join the Army. But everybody was–even those who deferred or disrupted were eventually called up.
True, if I’d made it as an officer, I would have had to shoulder more responsibility, carry greater accountability, book in earlier and book out later than the rest of the men, serve more reservist training and stay 10 years longer in the reserves than them.
But if I’d made it as a commissioned officer, my life would likely have changed for the better. I would be a better leader and better manager of men, I would be mentally and physically tougher, I would know how to plan better, I would know how to play office politics better, I would be more self-confident, I would have got a headstart in my career relative to other guys.
And if I’d distinguished myself, eg by winning the Sword of Honour, my career would really have taken off– and I don’t just mean getting a President’s Scholarship.
Because being an officer is really about distinguishing yourself, showing to employers that you are the top 10% of all the (male) fresh grads that he could possibly employ. And if you can show that you are elite– by winning a Sword of Honour or even just getting into West Point or Sandhurst through an exchange programme– then you move yourself from the top 10% to the top 1%.
In the US, they have an all-volunteer force, and those who graduate from West Point proudly put it in their CV’s as a mark of distinction. And if they have combat experience, medals and honors, they put that in too. Companies like that, because it shows patriotism in a candidate. It also helps in the future too, should they ever decide to join politics.
But I didn’t understand these things when I was 18, and I had no one to advise me. All I saw was the never-ending obligation, the meaningless drudgery of Army life, the unfairness of it all simply because I was born a Singaporean. I never saw that I could use my time in the SAF to distinguish myself and leapfrog over other guys in my career.
Now, 20-odd years later, young Singaporeans’ attitudes towards NS have changed somewhat. I assume most guys still hate NS for the same reasons I did. But more than that, they question why we can’t shorten NS, and they are pissed off at how NS handicaps them against “foreign talent” in the job market.
Some even feel that because they have done NS, they should be entitled to more benefits from the Govt, and they are particularly angry that they can’t get university places despite having done NS while the Govt gives so many scholarships to foreign students to study at NUS and NTU.
Lim ZiRui even made his famous “I don’t know what I’m defending any more” speech, which showed the angst young Singaporeans feel at doing NS in country where more than 20% of the resident population are foreigners with no such obligations.
From a political writings perspective, I can only say that times have changed, that young people expect more nowadays, and that young people question more nowadays.
They still resent NS, but it is different from my kind of resentment 20-odd years ago. They blame NS for handicapping them in job opportunities and promotions against foreigners. They feel that the Govt has made use of them, but given them nothing in return relative to what PR’s get– no guaranteed HDB flats, no guaranteed university places, no legislation to stop employers from discriminating against NSmen who have to disappear for a few weeks each year to serve their reservist obligations.
What can the Govt do to regain young people’s trust when so much resentment, so much frustration and so many sensitive but unrelated issues have been thrown into a volatile mix?
NS is NOT NUS
Can these young people ever understand that NS has nothing to do with NUS or even NTU? Can they accept that how many graduates Singapore should have each year is not a function of how many young men have served NS, and that serving NS is not an entitlement for a university place?
Rightly or wrongly, the Govt has set a target of 25% of each cohort to receive a public university education, and the cutoff for that target has nothing to do with who served NS.
Most of the men I served with 20-odd years agowere Hokkien-peng who would never have linked even primary school admission with their National service.
Can these young people accept and understand that?
Rightly or wrongly, the Govt has decided that once the 25% target is met, other places can go to foreign students, many of whom it invites here through scholarships. The Govt does this not because it wants to deprive Singaporeans of university places, but because it wants to get these foreign youngsters to work and sink roots in Singapore, this is one of its strategies to correct Singapore’s aging population problem.
I am not an educational expert, I don’t know whether the right number should be 25% or 75%, but can these young people accept and understand this? Can they understand that giving foreign students scholarships is not depriving them of university places, because the 25% target is already reached before such places are given out?
Can they understand and accept that NS has nothing to do with university education?
NS and Career Handicap
As far as the NS handicap on young people’s careers vis a vis foreigners, I think it’s no different from what I experienced 20-odd years ago. I had to compete against girls who graduated three years ahead of me, and who had no reservist obligations to speak of.
I did not believe that employers discriminated against me then, and now having been on the hiring side of an interview, I certainly know now that there are no HR policies to prefer the hiring of foreigners vs Singaporeans at any level in the companies I’ve worked in.
It is always about who’s the best man for the job, who has the right knowledge, skills and experience, who can conduct himself well during interviews, who can be trusted and relied upon. And sometimes, it is also about who can fit the budget available for the position.
While I don’t want to downplay the concerns of young Singaporean job seekers, I think they are making NS a bigger “issue” in their job search than it really is.
There certainly is a lot of foreign competition for jobs. I know because whenever I put out a job ad, I get inundated by CV’s from Indians who graduated from universities I’ve never heard of, along with a smattering of PRC scholars and Filipino applicants.
The foreigners actually outnumber Singaporean applicants, and they are actually more flexible, eg more willing to take on contract positions. They are also cheaper than Singaporeans, sometimes.
But to say that employers discriminate against male Singaporeans because of NS is stretching it.
Shortening Full-Time NS
How long NS should be is a difficult and sensitive question, but one really should not mix the length of one’s full-time service with how much the Govt “owes” someone for doing NS.
Some countries have NS for only six months, some have one year, some have two. But every country faces a different and unique security climate, and one cannot justify how long NS in Singapore by using other countries as benchmarks.
Notwithstanding the above, I find it remarkable that the length of national service has not been changed in over thirty years, despite massive changes in the military, political and technological environment we face. I thus believe there should be a full study, by a panel of military and defence policy experts, to determine if we still need NS at all (ie can Singapore rely on an all-volunteer force), and if so, what the right length should now be.
However, I think whatever number the study produces– six months, one year or five years– will not make young Singaporeans any happier for long. The problem they face is not how long full-time NS delays them from entering the workforce, but how the continuing reserve obligation affects (or is perceived to affect) their career path, and how this obligation disadvantages them vis a vis foreigners.
More importantly, some young Singaporeans think that because they’ve done NS, the Govt owes them in some way, and the longer the full-time NS, the more the Govt owes them.
That’s flawed thinking.
NS is not about how much you owe the country or how much the country owes you.
Go ask the Israelis, Koreans, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Egyptians, etc whether they are entitled to any benefits for their national service.
NS is simply an obligation on your part, as a citizen, to contribute to the defence of the country. When the Govt gives tax relief, CPF top-ups, etc to NSmen, it is a recognition to the sacrifices NSmen have made, but is in no way because the Govt owes them anything.
Frankly, the Govt cannot compensate me enough for my 2.5 years of lost youth, nor my 13 years of in-camp training.
In any family the burden of raising the family, ie making sure everyone has enough to eat, that the children are looked after and educated, that the house is in order, etc is typically distributed unevenly. Those more able assume a greater burden, but they do not say, I deserve to eat more just because I’m taking on more burden. Because that’s what being a family means– doing whatever you can for your family.
It is the same with a country. The burden of its defence falls on male citizens because society thinks that men are more able and appropriate to take up arms. One therefore does not say that one deserves more, just because of NS.
If you think the Govt is doing something wrong (like bringing in too many foreigners or giving them too many benefits, too many university places, etc), you should vote against it, and encourage others to do the same. But to say you deserve more because you did NS– that’s not right. By that logic, disabled people shouldn’t be entitled to anything, because they’re not contributing at all to the country.
NS for Foreigners
Finally, the more important question– the one alluded to in “I don’t know what I’m defending any more”– is whether Singaporeans should defend foreigners who are just freeloading in Singapore, and whether we should make all new citizens and PR’s do NS.
As far as PR’s are concerned, the answer is really quite obvious. No country in the world requires foreigners to serve in their military. It’s obvious why, isn’t it? Why would any country want to divulge its military capabilities, processes, procedures and possibly military secrets to non-citizens? Why would any country believe that it can rely on PR’s, who are citizens of a foreign country, to defend it in a time of war?
In this respect, Singapore’s requirement got second-generation PR’s to serve NS is really quite unprecedented.
To make new citizens and PR’s serve NS sounds very good from a “being fair to the rest of Singaporeans” perspective. But if you think about it deeply, it will kill off immigration. Why would anyone come here, renounce their citizenship to get a Singapore passport, only to be conscripted into the military for two years, even if they are above 18 at the time of citizenship?
Let’s be honest about this: Singapore needs the new citizens more than the new citizens need Singapore. Anyone who is contemplating giving up his passport for a Singaporean one is already asking whether it is worth it. If you force NS on them, they will almost certainly choose to stay as PR’s, and our target of growing the citizen population will never be achieved.
The same goes for new PR’s. Notwithstanding whether we can rely on PR’s for national defence in the first place, the same arguments apply. People apply for PR only because they want to work here, and more importantly, because the Govt thinks they can make an economic contribution here. Who will come if the cost of PR is two years of military service? Assuming what the Govt says is correct– that we need foreigners to boost our workforce because we don’t have enough– such a policy just goes against the strategic objective, doesn’t it?
In summary, young Singaporeans’ resentment of NS is real and different from 20 years ago. Their resentment has been heightened by the huge numbers of foreigners competing with them for university places, jobs and even HDB flats. Unfortunately for the PAP, young people can’t see that these two should not be mixed. The Govt owes me-mentality of the younger generation also creates new demands of the Govt to compensate them for NS.
Everybody’s Favourite Punching Bag is a series centered on the things Singaporeans love to hate.