Is one year National Service possible?

~by: Eric Tan Heng Chong~

All eyes are on the new slate of opposition MPs and NCMPs. I hope that through their Parliamentary debates they can convince the government to make life better for Singaporeans on issues which the government overlooked. I hope they can pick one salient hot button issue and zero in on it to change it for the good of Singapore. I look forward to the fruits of the water shed 2011 GE.

There is one issue I hope Parliament will find time debate. It is the possibility of shortening the length of National Service. Although this has been raised by one of the Presidential Election candidates before, I believe we can take the idea further with a proposed solution. The proposal which I am suggesting for NS can make a significant impact on our lives.

National Service (NS) requires all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents who have reached the age of 18 to enrol in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Police Force (SPF), or the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).They serve 22- 24 months as Full Time National Servicemen (NSFs). Most NSFs serve in the SAF, as part of the army.

Despite being introduced in 1967, and being accepted as a way of life, NS can still arouse passions. In the May general election, a guest speaker at an Opposition rally got the loudest cheers when he told the audience that as a doctor he saved lives and did NS. He was riposting a comment by a governing party MP candidate who when asked about his NS liability (he was born and educated overseas, coming to Singapore in his thirties) tried to excuse himself by saying he saved babies..

While NS has always been part of our way of life, the length of service has not changed very much. With the rapid change of technology over the last decades, I cannot understand why the period of NS has not changed very much. When I served NS in the very early days, other ranks served 24 months while officers and NCOs above corporals served 30 months. .

So from 1971, all A-level holders, polytechnic graduates and university graduates had to serve 30 months and all others 24 months. It stayed this way until 2005, when all NS men were made to serve between 22 to 24 months. For most Singaporean males, there is not much difference.

There have been regular calls that the period should be cut to 12 months. Singapore is currently among a list of countries with the longest military service exceeding 18 months, just behind Israel and South Korea, with a reservist obligation lasting up to age 40 for enlisted men and 50 for officers. Until 2005 we had one of the longest mandatory military service periods, 30 months.

One reason that it is not possible for us to reduce NS to one year is because while the training for operational readiness of an enlisted man could be completed in one year, the training of an officer takes at least two years. As a result all males got serve NS for two years. But not everyone is cut out to be an officer or will be chosen to be one and so forcing everyone to do two years doesn’t make sense.

My suggestion is to make everyone serve 12 months full time NS, with special incentives to motivate people to want to become officers.

  1. All Singaporean males will do full time NS for 12 months.
  2. However for those who want to be officers, they must qualify to enter University or Polytechnics first and if they are chosen then they will be given the option to enter University or Polytechnics first before NS .This is an incentive for them to be trained to be an officer part time during their university years. Another incentive is to rebrand the OCS course as huge investment in developing leadership skills which will be sought after in the private sector. Upon graduation, he would have also completed his OCS course and received his commission. After which, he will join the others to do one year full time NS.

The second suggestion is not new to the world as the US has already such a scheme in place. In the US, the Reservist Officer Training Course (ROTC) provides 57 per cent of the US Army officers. The ROTC programme is a way of recruiting military officers by offering a university education in exchange for serving in the military after they graduate. They do military training during the weekends and over the long vacations.

On a positive note, this scheme will enhance the status of being an officer and hopefully Singaporean males will compete to get into this programme like gaining admissions into Raffles Institution or Hwa Chong. This country invests heavily in training a SAF officer but somehow it is not recognised. We need a motivated officer corps who will inspire the NS enlisted men and make their   NS experience more meaningful.

In the unfortunate event when there are insufficient candidates wanting to embrace the scheme then we can either decide as a nation if we want to supplement the shortfall of NS officers with professional officers or we can come up with a balloting scheme for those who qualify. I hope we do not need to come to this stage as the incentive of doing your University first and the quality of the officer training programme should motivate our young males to compete for it.

The benefit of serving one year NS will appeal to parents and NS men alike as when Singapore welcomes more foreigners to come and work here, we need to close the gap when our males start their working life. Also I have asked several of my friend’s sons who are serving NS as other ranks and they tell me that they find two years a waste of time. Their responses are not much different from that of their fathers when we served our NS decades ago.

My proposal may not have all the answers or details as it is based on anecdotal evidence. But I believe we should debate this important issue in Parliament and the Minister of Defence should review this aspect of NS. He can revert to Parliament with his findings for all the MPs to scrutinise and debate. They can then decide if we should change the system or remain status quo. The public will enlightened from such a debate and it will reinforce their commitment to National Service.

I served my NS in the early 1970s as a naval officer and completed my reservist as a Captain.