Friday, 22 September 2023

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To walk the fire

Benjamin Cheah / Senior Writer

It goes against ethical principles of reciprocity to demand so much from servicemen, and giving so little in return — especially since many servicemen would not willingly serve their country in the military

The burden of the Full-time National Serviceman is a heavy one. Usually called up against his will, he is thrown head-first into a new, unfriendly world, with neither rule book nor directions, separated from his loved ones, loses two years of work experience and education to his female and foreign peers.

He is expected to fight, kill and die for his country when deemed adequately trained — a country that he may not even acknowledge.

When he completes his service, he is ejected into the civilian world two years older, and armed with mainly irrelevant skills, much of his equipment, a Certificate of Service, the recognition to be called up again for In-Camp Training (ICT) until he has fully discharged his National Service liability at the age of 40 or 50 – and a duty to take up arms if needed. For all the personal hardships incurred, one would expect, even demand, that the NSF is adequately compensated.

But he is not.

Disadvantaged as a serviceman

The Full-time National Serviceman is severely disadvantaged compared to his female and foreign peers. The NSF spends two years of his life training and preparing for war, and is expected to be called up for in-camp training for at least twenty years after his Operationally Ready Date (ORD). In those two years, female and foreign youths his age would have gained a considerable advantage over him in terms of work experience and/or education in a tertiary institute. Their employers, further, need not worry about losing experienced and competent staff to the SAF every time an ICT cycle begins.

Allow me to illustrate this difference. As an administrative support assistant, I work about 288 days a year, not including half- or full weekends when I do need to return to the office for work, and have to stay in camp during the working week. In that time, I am expected to do the work of at least two men, more often three, liaising with civilians and superiors, keeping track of dozens of pieces of paper as they move around Singapore, understand and tolerate the inner workings of the SAF’s online infrastructure, and other administrative work. For this, I earn an “allowance” of S$16.67 a day; I can only hope that this will one day increase to about S$20. Admittedly, this is only a rough guide; it is rather difficult to calculate an NSF’s allowance by day, because it is pro-rated.

Now consider my friend. She is a temporary staff in her job description, but is effectively a clerk. She works from 8 to 5 on weekdays, just helps out whenever she is needed, and her job scope does not require her to effectively look after the needs of over a hundred people at the same time. She may take leave any time she chooses, and quit when she wants to. She also gets to enter university, and the working world, two years before I do. For all this, she is paid S$54.27 a day — over two and a half times of my maximum allowance.

Of course, the difference in salary/allowance is not as dramatic as it appears to be. My meals in camp are free of charge; her meals are not. Unlike her, I can make transport, medical, dental and food claims to blunt the cost of making certain payments. I also need not pay for medical treatment at government hospitals and polyclinics. Most noticeably, I have a legal duty to my country; she does not.

Moral duty of the State

The State, too, has a duty to National Servicemen – a moral duty. It takes away the sons of Singapore, most of them against their will, and prepares and demands them to provide for the common defence. This unwilling sacrifice makes the burdens of service even heavier, and more acute. It goes against ethical principles of reciprocity to demand so much from servicemen, and giving so little in return — especially since many servicemen would not willingly serve their country in the military, as seen in the relatively few numbers of recruits who wish to sign on in every intake. The above-mentioned benefits do not completely discharge the State of its duties, for the above-mentioned reasons.

The greatest complaint National Servicemen have about NS is that it is an artificial barrier to entry into tertiary education and jobs. NSFs must wait for two years before they can matriculate into universities; eligible females and foreigners may do so when the next term begins. Employers could well favour foreigners and local women to Singaporean men, because the last are obliged to turn up for in-camp training, which will disrupt work inside the company.

Levelling the field

The very least the Government can do to even the odds is to provide NSFs with an end-of-service gratuity. This gratuity will be paid in one lump sum, following an NSF’s ORD. The actual amount will be tied directly to his rank; vocation; rating in his Certificate of Service; participation in operations and exercises; and participation in national events such as the National Day Parade.

For example, a full lieutenant in the Guards who has earned a double “Outstanding” rating may be entitled to $20,000, while a lance corporal who served as a clerk and has been rated as “good” may receive $5,000. The principle behind the gratuity is to allow the serviceman to make up for the two years he has lost to his peers, by helping to defray the costs of the first two years of higher education, making up for any difference in pay when he enters the work force, and so on. More importantly, it demonstrates to the serviceman that the SAF cares about the future of its servicemen, shoring up the faith of the soldier in the institution.

In addition, it goes without saying that being a soldier is one of the more dangerous occupations in the world. Death and injury can come in many forms: a hostile bullet, an accidental fall, and everything and anything in between. Most soldiers around the world know and accept these risks. But not the average Singaporean soldier; he is a conscript, and would, if given a choice, most probably not face this danger.

Yet the State will nevertheless place the trained children of Singapore on the frontlines, often without giving them a chance to object or a way to prevent a mobilisation. This much is understandable, because should Singapore go to war, Singapore’s survival is at stake. But asking NSFs to straddle the line of fire when diplomacy fails will redouble their existing burdens, and rightly so. Should the sons of Singapore perish in war, then who shall take care of their families? The answer is the State, through the Singapore Armed Forces. It is the only ethical answer, for it is the State that has sent them to die. Yet, all the SAF is obligated to provide are funeral wreaths and letters of condolences. Currently, it is up to the serviceman to take up life insurance, and pay for it from his own allowance.

Mandatory life insurance for servicemen

Because of this, I further propose that NSFs will be placed on a mandatory life insurance policy. Currently Aviva has a virtual monopoly on life insurance for National Servicemen, because they offer the best rates for soldiers who are wounded, maimed, or killed in the line of duty or in accidents. What the SAF can do is to place all NSFs on a basic life insurance policy with Aviva, and foot the bill. The policy will last for two years, because it covers the period of time in which an NSF is most likely to be injured, namely during training while serving his National Service. Servicemen who wish to extend the policy, or opt for premium plans, will make up the difference through their allowance. The policy may also be further amended to meet the contingencies of Operations Other than War, such as overseas humanitarian missions, In-Camp Training, and the outbreak of war.

These, I believe, are just the bare minimum. More can be done. The families of servicemen may, for example, be awarded additional subsidies for health care, to compensate for any loss of income, real or potential. The cap of claims of all sorts may be raised. Allowances may be revised upwards, or perhaps even tied to a benchmark of certain jobs in the private sector. The State needs to understand that the average NSF is bearing a huge burden on his shoulders against his will; in a rich country like Singapore, it is not out of the question for the SAF to lighten this burden through financial schemes.

Mindef is able

Certainly the SAF should not be constrained by budget. For FY2008, the Ministry of Defence has been allocated $10.8 billion – which is one-third of the entire national budget. Those monies should be sufficient to fund the above-mentioned schemes, in addition to paying for the daily costs of running the military. In addition, the military has initiated cost-cutting measures, ranging from mandating the temperatures of air-conditioning units to bidding procedures for outside contractors. Should there still be not enough money, the Government can always dip into its budget surpluses and readjust the following year’s budget accordingly. The Government, after all, did run up a budget surplus of about 6.4 billion dollars for FY2007, and keeps boasting of its strong economic policies.

Ultimately, it must be remembered that most NSFs do not have a reason to walk the fire for Singapore. They may fight for home, friends and family, but not for a country they are not rooted in. Given this mindset, it is the responsibility of the State to look after the citizens who might one day have to die for it. At the barest minimum, the SAF can help to even the playing field through end-of-service gratuities, and look after the needs of servicemen by introducing mandatory free life insurance schemes. The SAF could further expand this, by reviewing and improving the welfare scheme it has set aside for NSFs.

After all, should the government not adequately compensate a conscript for his services, especially if unwillingly given, then the government should not count on that conscript to feel obligated to fight for it. Or even remain in Singapore.


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