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Conscription – An Illusion of Security

The following is a contribution from a member of the audience at the Face to Face forum.

By Ajax Copperwater

Source: MICA Dr Goh Keng Swee, then-Minister for the Interior and Defence, inspecting newly trained soldiers from the first batch of national servicemen, 1967

Conscription in Singapore has a long history since its enactment in 1967. It was utilized out of necessity when Southeast Asia was at the height of political instability, when Indochina was embroiled in a series of war lasting decades and an Indonesia that was hostile to its neighbours. It was due to this chaotic times that conscription seems to be the most sensible solution to national defence.

Fast forward to the 21st Century CE, many young Singaporeans have expressed serious doubt whether conscription is still an effective policy for national defence. However, older generations believed conscription is for the good of the people and the nation. That I agree with them on this reasoning as conscription gave people the chance to work together.

I was at the “Face To Face” forum and asked the panellists the question on conscription. Mr Chiam replied that he supports conscription because he believes defence is a priority. Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam feels that serving period for conscription should be reduced and new citizens should be made to serve. Mr Chia Tik Lik believes conscription is a necessity and fears a political force might emerge should the SAF becomes a professional armed force. Mr Goh Meng Seng shares the view that conscription is a must, however added that conscripts should spend more time on defence matters rather than preparing for parades and can be reduced.

From the answers given by the opposition, I must admit I’m quite disappointed by most of the oppositions’ stance that conscription is a necessity, critical to our nation’s defence. However, I was given hope by Reform Party’s and National Solidarity Party’s views that conscription could be reduced from 2 years. This is because reduction is the first step to eventual abolishment.

I believe that conscription has no place in 21st Century Singapore for it’s not a cost-effective defence policy as compared to an all-volunteer service and it took up too much of Singapore’s National Budget that could have been used for the people’s health care and other welfare programmes. The institution of conscription can be said to be no different to that of the institution of slavery, except the owner is the State.

From the forum, it’s clear to me there’s more to be done to convince Singaporeans, young and old, that there’s a better alternative to conscription, an all-volunteer service. Most people believed conscription is a strong deterrent to aggression from enemies. However, that’s not true. The 2006 Lebanon War smashes this illusion to smithereens.

On 12 July 2006, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in an attempt to oust Hezbollah. The war would go on for 34 days. Though Israel succeeded in removing Hezbollah, it came at a huge cost to the civilian population and the Israeli Defence Force. After the war, a commission of inquiry, the Winograd Commission, had found Israeli troops were ill-trained for battle conditions in Lebanon. There was a lack of communication between the inexperienced civilian leadership and the military leadership. No exit strategy was planned out properly before going into war. The commission noted that "a semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages".

From the newspaper articles of the war, some were on the less-than-adequate fitness level of the Israeli reservists, most of who were working desk jobs, was insufficient for battle conditions. Conscription worked in the past because most conscripts had labour-intensive jobs. Most Singaporeans today are highly-educated and held sedentary jobs.

Our conscription system is similar to the Israeli system. The 2006 Lebanon War has proven using conscription as a deterrent is a flawed assumption. The huge manpower that is the Israeli Defence Force did not stop Hezbollah attack. Hezbollah rockets were fired into northern Israel throughout the war without effective response from the Israelis.

When groups of enemies are determined in the destruction of Singapore, a huge body of men and women would not deter them. Today’s wars demand quick and flexible mobilisation of soldiers to counter against an enemy who is invisible. To me, Singapore’s conscription system is a half-hearted approach to national defence. It does not provide flexibility to respond to today’s threats, not when soldiers aren’t allowed to keep weapons in their homes and mobilization is still a problem logistically. Conscription in Israel and Switzerland demands that reservists polish up their skills with their weapons on a more regular basis, something which is not possible in Singapore.

This half-hearted defence policy will doom Singapore to defeat by both internal and external threats. Singapore’s conscription is an illusion of security which does not keep us safe when the time comes. Not only it deprives Singaporeans of much needed funds for health care and other welfare, it infringes on basic human rights and puts us on par with groups like the Taliban, who utilise conscription to spread fear and genocide among its people.

Nevertheless, I feel conscription will be here to stay for a long time, not only because it has not reached a popular consensus among Singaporeans to reject this institution, it’s also due to geopolitics of Southeast Asia. ASEASN leaders distrusted each other and of China. Thus, this leads to heavy militarization of Southeast Asia. Even more worrying is the nuclear ambition of Burma’s military regime. Nonetheless, it is because we are still at peace with each other that now is a good time to start the transition to an all-volunteer service, to better prepare for more dangerous times in the future.

An all-volunteer service does not reduce Singapore’s capability of self-defence. It enables more young Singaporeans to expand their work and studies opportunities during their youth, without interruptions. Money saved from ending conscription could be used to improve the lives of Singaporeans. In addition, an all-volunteer service is a professional military that is more dedicated to the defence of Singapore. Therefore, I urge concerned Singaporeans to consider replacing conscription with an all-volunteer service and perhaps plan for its implementation in the future.

I shall end this article with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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