Relooking National Service as a matter of human capital
By Yap Shiwen
Singapore recently embarked on an effort to bring about changes to our National Service (NS). This will be led by the Committee to Strengthen NS and began with a series of dialogues.
The Strengthening NS effort should be lauded for its efforts to engage citizens, and its focus on both fitting NS into our everyday civilian lives and increasing recognition for those who serve our nation. However, this effort might still have to go some way in addressing some of the more fundamental issues, to create a more inclusive system that better benefits our economy yet maintaining its effectiveness.
When the National Service (NS) policy was instituted in 1967, it was done in reaction to the withdrawal of British military assets east of the Suez Canal, during the decline of the British Empire and its decolonisation period. The objectives stated were social and military: To establish a collective national identity through integrating multiple ethnicities into the civil defence, police and military; and to minimise the economic burden of maintaining a large standing army.
46 years on, this policy needs review. There are new socioeconomic and demographic shifts within Singapore, as well as changes in the external security environment. The SAF itself possesses several institutional weaknesses, while also contributing at least partially to the lack of entrepreneurial success in Singapore.
With the prevailing drive to promote entrepreneurship and build up national identity, NS is crucial as a policy instrument in enabling this. However systemic reforms of the SAF in its treatment of different ethnicities and overall NS policy need to occur, in order to adapt to a changing society and geopolitical landscape.
Learning from the Israelis
The Singapore NS system has often been compared to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), for many good reasons, but one of them would not likely be the efficient deployment of conscripts as human capital.
Israel optimises its human capital within the military and as a society through their use of conscription, as well as the organisational culture of the IDF. Unit 8200 of the IDF and the Talpiot Program are two schemes in particular that produce a disproportionate ratio of Israeli entrepreneurs and innovators.
Unit 8200 is an Israeli Intelligence Corps units responsible for signal intelligence and decryption. According to Forbes, its former members are responsible for founding tech startups like ICQ, Check Point, Gilat, NICE and AudioCodes, amongst others.
The Talpiot Program identifies recruits with high academic ability in science, technology, engineering and mathematical discipline as well as leadership potential. They are then allowed to pursue higher education during their IDF service term, concurrently undergoing military training, before being deployed to either a combat position or technological leadership role.
Some graduates of this program include Arik Czerniak, the founder of Metacafe; Yoav Freund, a professor at USC San Diego and winner of the 2003 Gödel Prize; Marius Nacht, co-founder of Check Point Software Technologies and Eli Mintz, Simchon Faigler and Amir Natan, founders of Compugen Ltd.
Other schemes that operate along the same lines, designed to optimise the IDFs human capital, and by extension their organisational capability, are the Academic Reserve Program, IAF Pilot Course, Israeli Naval Academy and Havatzalot Program. All of these offer degree courses combined with field training, before their regular service term within the military. These schemes are diverse and capitalise on their access to a broad spectrum of the population and human talent therein.
These programs operate in a manner that within the context of Israeli culture, they are able to generate dividends for the nation in the long-term, through nurturing resilient and highly competent entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
Israelis come out of the military with practical experience of high-technology projects, in addition to teamwork, mission orientation, leadership and a strong entrepreneurial drive.
The military has a broad cultural impact, with compulsory service producing maturity not seen in foreign peers who spent that time in university. It teaches improvisation as well as emphasising outcomes rather than the processes leading to those outcomes.
Wither our NS?
Singapore, by comparison, has no such comprehensive programs to harness the opportunities presented by the conscription system. Neither does the SAF have the organisational culture to sustain innovation and entrepreneurship. It is highly standardised and bureaucratic, with a minimum of risk and innovation and a reliance on traditional procedures. Leadership is delegated upwards, resulting in a certain degree of organisational bloat.
NS is by and large seen as a detriment and opportunity cost, by virtue of the way the system operates.
The current scholarship system in no way matches what has been achieved by the Israeli system and rather than encouraging initiative and entrepreneurship, serves to inhibit it through inculcating and reinforcing a risk-averse attitude. In the age of the information economy, risk and innovation are what is required for further prosperity and the organisational culture prevalent through the SAF serves to hold this back, rather than push it forward.
Beyond scholars, the problem is inherent in the rank and file as well. A key point raised by external observers is the presence of multiple institutional weaknesses in National Service. The SAF faces challenges in recruitment and retention of high-quality personnel, as well as developing appropriate roles in the military for Singaporean Malays, historically perceived as a security risk but with strong cultural inclinations toward military service.
Singapore has reduced the effectiveness and professionalism of the SAF significantly by limiting Malay participation in key areas, and by using a promotion system favouring academic performance and scholarships than on proven military competence and managerial prowess.
For whatever its reasons, such a system increases tensions through the marginalisation and denial of opportunities, instead on focusing on ability. It also denies the military institution access to a large recruitment source, in terms of including a community with a cultural inclination to uniformed services.
Relooking, but in the right direction?
Thus, there is far more that can be done to improve national identity, promote entrepreneurship and start-up business activity in Singapore, optimise the human capital and social conditioning possible through NS as well as improve the welfare of the Malay-Muslim community.
The failure to achieve this is systemically sub-optimal in enhancing nation-building and social cohesion, as well as failing to exploit and optimise the human capital available to the various groups. Reviewing, correcting and reforming current NS policy would benefit the nation greatly, and the Malay-Muslim community specifically. We need internal security and social stability, by granting everyone an equal stake, in order to prepare for the coming external tensions.
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