~ By Melvin Low ~
I read with sadness the passing of Private Lee Rui Feng Dominique. I am also an NSF having seven months left to complete my national service. My view is that such deaths can definitely be prevented. I feel that the medical board in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) does not take the health and welfare of soldiers seriously. Sometimes, when soldiers report sick, they can even be reprimanded by the medical officer (MO). It is also common for the MO to simply prescribe painkillers without ordering further investigations such as X-RAYS or MRI scans. This is not the way that the SAF should operate.
It should take the health of its soldiers much more seriously. If PTE Lee had a asthma condition, why was he still declared combat fit? Let those who are medically well serve as combat soldiers. For those who have medical conditions, they should be downgraded to an appropriate Physical Employment Status (PES). I feel that medical board in SAF is too strict with their PES grading and often tries to give servicemen the highest grading possible, instead of the safest or most appropriate one. For myself, I have both serious heart conditions as well as asthma which require me to use inhalers multiple times a day. However, I am not being assigned an appropriate PES status by the medical board. I can only imagine how the parents of PTE Lee are feeling.
It is not easy to bring up a child from birth, through primary and secondary school, pre-university education and then national service, only to see them lose their life in NS. Every Singapore Son’s life is precious. Although I may not know the full details of the case, I feel that commanders’ attitude towards soldiers also need to change. Some commanders tend to instil fear into their charges from reporting sick, threatening to punish them with weekend duties and confinement. As a result, even when the soldiers feel terrible and ought to seek medical attention, they tolerate and bear with the pain and discomfort.
If attitudes do not change, I believe that we will continue to see more deaths of servicemen in our armed forces. MINDEF should also look into the way its training is being conducted, as sometimes the commanders do not follow the training program and ask the soldiers to do more than they are supposed to. Commanders need to understand that soldiers are only human and are not robots. They have physical limits, which if pushed too far, may result in permanent injury or even death. There is a large opportunity cost to our NSFs to serve two years of national service. They lose out in terms of tertiary education, job experience, freedom and family time.
Change is urgently required
I salute all current serving national servicemen as those who have served since the beginning of national service. PTE Lee is a hero, having died for Singapore. But more should be done to review the safety procedures in place, the safety of the equipment used, the quality of food served to our soldiers, as well as the medical classification system, so that such events will not happen again.
Yes, perhaps people might say that the soldiers today are weaker compared to those in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Some even call us the strawberry generation. However, these are different times. People in the past led less sedentary lifestyles. However, the system should adjust to fit the people and not the other way around. Training can be tweaked to take into account that the soldiers of today are physically and mentally different from soldiers of the past.
In addition, I feel that the duration of national service should be revised as NCMP Mrs Lina Chiam has suggested. Yes, I understand that there are operational requirements and that it is important to ensure that the soldiers are sufficiently well trained. I feel that it is possible to reduce the duration of national service to 22 months for officers and 18 months for specialists and enlistees. Especially for NSFs who are serving in service support vocations such as medic, store man, clerk. Most of the time, we are not doing much or anything productive in unit and are just wasting time, waiting for Operationally Ready Date (ORD).
It is not necesarry to waste resources to pay us and feed us to do nothing when we could better spend this time studying or working to earn a living outside. I am sure many NSFs who have ORDed will have experienced what it is like to be behind others in terms of jobs, promotions, salary, experience, etc. And with the influx of foreigners coming to Singapore to compete for jobs, we should be placed at a lesser disadvantage so that we are better able to compete in the workplace.
Address the fallout reservist duty creates
Also, the reservist cycle of NS men should be reduced to 8 cycles. The number of days a year that NS men can be called back should be reduced from 40 days to 28 days. Training should be efficient, short and concise. What sense does it make to call reservists back to camp and pay them to sit in bunks to do nothing? I am sure many NS men dread the SAF 100 as it disrupts their work. Many bosses would probably prefer to give priority and favour to the foreign talents who do not have any reservist liability.
Singaporean men who work in the private sector do not enjoy higher salary for having served NS. The least the government could do is to minimise the inconvenience and disadvantage caused to them. Last but not least, I feel that more benefits should be given to all who have served or are currently serving national service. The National Service Recognition Award (NSRA) introduced in 2010 consisted of $9000 paid out over three milestones.
1. $3000 into Post-Secondary Education Account (PSEA) at 20th month of NSF
2. $3000 into CPF after 3 high-key ICT or 5 ICT
3. $3000 into CPF upon completion of ORNS cycle
There is also the $3000 tax relief given to NS men.
Give them more recognition
However, I feel that these measures are not enough. More can be done to show the government's appreciation towards us who have served the country.
1. ORD Bonus: NSFs will get paid $2000 upon completion of their full time NS
2. ICT Bonus: NS men will get paid $2000 upon completion of that year's ICT
3. ROD Bonus: NS men will get $4000
Those who have RODed should also be given the awards. I am sure that the government is able to afford it. There are a lot of issues bugging Singaporeans now. Issues such as competition from foreign talent, housing, inflation, income inequality, immigration, just to name a few.
The PAP promised us change in the last election. But it seems that after being voted into power, they have forgotten their promises and obligations. Now, they just sit on their bums and are not doing their best to improve the various aspects of life of Singaporeans. I feel that if this continues on, more and more Singaporeans will develop a resentment towards the government. And when the next elections come, I am sure that the results will be different from the previous ones. But for the next few years, the 40% minority have to suffer due to the decision of the other 60%.
Can the government please, wake up your idea?
Headline photo courtesy of Days Were The Those