By Howard Lee
Application for SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) opens today, 13 October, and just reading the process by which they will be selected, enlist and serve, we can already see quite a number of issues.
The SAFVC was first proposed by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) to “enable women, first generation Permanent Residents and new citizens to contribute to national defence and strengthen support for NS (National Service).”
But taking a look at the process casts doubts on whether this can be done effectively, and – oddly enough if you think thoroughly about it – at no risk to national security.
The scheme in a (fairly large) nutshell
Drawing parallels between standard conscripted NS and SAFVC, we can arrive at the following summary.
|Selection||None, mandatory for all male citizens once they reach 16 years old.||Optional for female Singaporeans, first generation permanent residents, and new citizens between 18 and 45 years old. Applicants will undergo a medical screening and interview to assess if they have the “right attitude for military service”. 100 to 150 will be recruited annually.|
|Vocations||All, from combat to service support. Conscripts do not have a choice in what vocation they serve, although a select few might get to choose.||All, from combat to service support. Volunteers can choose their vocations, with an option to “re-role” to other vocations if they feel like it.|
|Basic Military Training||Three months, fully in-camp with weekends off.||Two weeks “for an understanding of national defence”. Option to stay in-camp or served over a series of weekends.|
|Trade course (training to fit specific roles)||Six to nine months, fully in-camp with weekends off.||One week qualification training “tailored for specific roles”. An advanced course will be available for roles such as “close combat and equipment training for security troopers”. Option to stay in-camp or served over a series of weekends.|
|Full service duration||Two years full-time with 10-year call-up service obligation, longer for officers. In-camp training periods range from 7 to 14 days.||Not defined due to varying dates between “BMT” (two weeks), trade course (one week) and advance course. No indication of regularity and duration of in-camp training.|
|In-service benefits||Full medical benefits. Token allowance – S$480-S$1180 a month depending on rank and excluding vocation benefits.||Full medical benefits. Career professionals will get make-up pay for their service.|
|Other obligations||Full military discipline. Permission needed for deferment. Need to notify Mindef when going overseas. No option to leave before end of service.||Full military discipline. Permission needed for deferment. Option to leave with three-month notification period.|
|Post-service benefits||Advance in starting pay if working in government service.||No pay benefits. It is also not clear if non-citizen volunteers will get advanced standing for citizenship application – neither Mindef nor the Immigration Checkpoint Authority has publicly stipulated this.|
Contribute to national defence, or risk?
Looking at the comparison between the two types of service would have highlighted the painfully obvious inadequacy of the scheme to support national defence initiatives. A mere 100 to 150 recruited every year on an optional basis, with a service duration of at most a few months, pales in comparison to the thousands of Singaporean males who are conscripted every year, in the prime of their lives, to serve two years of their young lives with a pathetic token pay and in mainly high-risk combat vocations.
It is also more than clear that SAFVC volunteers would likely be fielded in mainly non-combat vocations. It would be hard to imagine that a two-week BMT stint would be enough for full immersion into combat vocations. Non-combat vocations can include the medical, administrative, logistics and service support fields. What kind of contribution to the entire NS system can we expect from this incremental increase in manpower?
However, the administrative support needed to run this separate scheme would be another matter altogether. Volunteers have to be screened, interviewed and assigned to roles according to their interests. If they decide to change vocations, re-assignment would be required. Their make-up pay would have to be administered to, and should they choose to leave, they will have to be screened for three months prior to their exit. A separate promotion scheme has to be dreamed up and administered.
We also learnt that they will be “deployed alongside NSmen and regulars doing the same role”. How will this affect the functional effectiveness of active units? Are SAFVC volunteers going to be “shadows”, a popular term coined among NS conscripts for personnel who follow, learn and do nothing to contribute to the actual operation?
In addition, it would be clear that the deployment of SAFVC volunteers would likely put them in close proximity to sensitive material. Is Mindef not concerned that opening access to non-citizens might run the risk of such materials reaching foreign hands? A three-month notice to leave is hardly sufficient for someone with a clear intent to slip past immigration barriers to conduct harmful activities. Need we bring up the case of Yang Yin once again?
Indeed, it was SAFVC commander Colonel Mike Tan who was quoted by media as saying, “Somebody wishing to be a security trooper at first may find later that he or she is more suited to be in the business of information. We have facilitated this (role switching) as part of the SAFVC scheme.” So a volunteer trooper can be put in close proximity to access information simply by requesting for a role-switch? Do we even have sight of the process? For that matter, how do we even ascertain that volunteers are citizens or new-citizens, given that the government has consistently claimed that it does not track conversions?
Did Mindef just opened another door for potential infiltration? Or perhaps it is too obsessed with our own army boys giving away sensitive military secrets – such as the confinement of animals in camp toilets – that the loopholes in the SAFVC scheme have become inconsequential?
Strengthen support for NS?
What does this “strengthen support” mean? If it refers to the organisational support of the NS infrastructure, it would be quite clear that the token numbers recruited for the Corps would hardly make a scratch on the entire NS structure, if not giving more administrative and security headaches.
But what confronts us now is that there would be a proportion of the population who think that a short token stint with SAFVC counts towards national defence. Non-citizens and even some citizens can be excused for not understanding the sacrifices made by our young men. But to have such a scheme drawn as a “contribution to national defence” is little more than an insult, and speaks even less of those in command who should really know better.
In addition, if we are now to believe that the fulfilment of national defence obligations can be completed within a few weeks with the SAFVC, why then do we have a NS conscription scheme that lasts two-plus-ten years? Why not keep a regular professional army, increase the viability and adoption of SAFVC?
No really, what is the SAFVC scheme really for?
In this light, we have to evaluate the SAFVC scheme through the two issues that has been identified, but never answered – foreigners using this as a fast-track to citizenship; and the government using this as a means of appeasing our NS personnel that non-citizens will be treated “fairly”.
It would be wrong to say that all who volunteer with SAFVC are out to get citizenship and bragging rights. In fact, I believe that the bulk of the volunteers would have the right intentions and a genuine desire to serve Singapore in any way they can. But we cannot rule out the fact that having such a scheme with undefined limiters to prevent exploitation, coupled with our current immigration climate and all the security breaches we have seen thus far, casts an unfriendly suspicion on volunteers.
At best, we are led to believe that Mindef has put too little thought into this scheme. At worst, we can just as much deduce that Mindef is responding poorly to the people’s call for greater parity between citizens and non-citizens, a bug-bear since the last general elections. What can at best be described as a half-hearted political response can barely be considered successful or even sufficient for real-life societal cohesion.
Our boys in green and blue certainly deserve better. They deserve a proper review of the NS system which accounts for the realities of their everyday lives, rather than half-measures and fringe incentives/ CPF top-ups that do little to address their real concerns of opportunity costs and misconceptions about NS. They do not deserve the unfortunate implications on operational effectiveness, national security and “re-calibrated” image that the SAFVC scheme potentially holds. They deserve our respect, not token gestures.