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National Service: The wrath over people “running away” from conscription

By Ghui

National service (NS) has always been a hot button issue. Given that it is a mandatory 2-year (formerly 2.5 years) sacrifice meted out on our young men in this increasingly competitive world, it comes as no surprise that this topic is a controversial one which elicits much angst and fervour.

Not serving NS has been the perennial bugbear that has returned to bite the asses of more than a fair few from musicians to Members of Parliament as Melvyn Tan and Janil Puthicheary would attest. It is easy to point fingers and jump on the bandwagon of anger or envy but what makes Singaporeans have such deep-seated or seemingly primordial responses to NS? This multi-faceted matter is certainly worth a deeper look.

I will not go into the necessity of national service as that is a whole other debate altogether. What I hope to discuss however are the root causes behind the anger levied at those who have not served NS and why it has become increasingly illogical.

In the Janil Puthicheary case, the fact that he did not serve NS created a furore and questions on his "Singaporeanness" (or lack thereof) abounded with ferocity. While serving NS is arguably a means to foster "Singaporeanness", does not serving NS make you less Singaporean? What then of Singaporean women? Are they then less Singaporean? Or is there a different standard for women and if so, why? Without examining the underlying concerns, any reaction is simply an emotional one that will not help resolve anything.

Puthicheary was already 35 when he became a Singaporean citizen. He had already begun his medical career and was already fairly established. Would it make economic sense to make him serve national service then? His handling of the situation definitely left much to be desired. He was over defensive and made no overtures to come across as more approachable. That, however, is a different issue from his failure to serve NS. Besides, it wasn’t a case of his refusal but more a case of timing. So unless we have evidence of his deliberately timing his citizenship to avoid NS, any anger levied at the fact that he did not serve NS is not grounded on NS per se but on some other factor. What is that other factor?

The argument that one needs to serve NS in order to be considered Singaporean is irrational at best. While I do not condone those who employ deceit and money to avoid NS, there are those who have been persecuted excessively because they have somehow been outed.

Melvyn Tan faced the wrath of Singaporeans for having the temerity to perform in Singapore despite not having served national service. This is in spite of the fact that he has already paid a fine and is a British citizen who is not and has not taken any benefits that come with being a Singaporean citizen.

It is easy to make Tan the punching bag but isn’t the bigger issue about the lack of transparency on how conscription is being managed in the first place?

The issue with Kiwi citizen, Brandon has raised this issue to the spotlight again. This is not someone who is hoping to have his cake and eat it too. He doesn’t want to be Singaporean. He grew up in New Zealand. Why is he being lambasted online just for calling a spade a spade? He grew up in New Zealand. New Zealand is his home. And if he is not Singaporean, why should he serve NS? He isn’t asking to live in Singapore as a Singaporean but yet still be exempted from NS?

Many have put forth the argument that serving NS makes one Singaporean. I don’t buy this because it then completely excludes females. Besides what about people who are in ill health and cannot serve NS? Are they less Singaporean? I do not dispute that NS creates a thread of commonality that can bind Singaporeans. But is NS the only thing that can unify Singaporean males? Is NS the only way one can show his commitment to Singapore? What about paying taxes and doing charity work? What about working hard and well in your chosen profession to benefit Singapore? Do all these not count?

I think the issue lies not in NS per se but in how the rules are being applied and the lack of transparency. The process for the deferment of NS is not clear, and there are consistent rumours of how certain individuals either through connections or wealth have managed to evade NS. (See note about Patrick Tan)

Besides having the "right" reasons to defer NS, there also needs to be payment of a S$75,000 bond or 50% of combined annual income, whichever is higher. (see exit permit requirement) This is already unfair as it automatically favours those who have the means to stump up the cash. How does this stand in the face of NS being a social equaliser?

Before we rise up like a mob and lash out at those who have not served NS, perhaps it is high time to ask ourselves why we are incited as such. I think it is the inherent injustice of how the process is being managed where those who are more financially healthy are given more options. It is also a case whereby inconsistency consistently abounds. Melvyn Tan was only fined $3,000 while others have been jailed in the detention barracks or made to pay higher sums. (link)

There are many ways to contribute to Singapore. NS is just one of the ways we can do so. Serving NS is indeed a way to foster shared experiences, but it would be a sad day indeed if NS was the only thing Singaporeans share in common.

I think the real reasons why the anger of people has been roused is that it appears to be a case of different rules for different folks without a clear guideline outside government discretion as to who should be permitted to defer. There is also the hefty sum of S$75,000 which immediately rules out most of Singaporeans.

Let's not target and punish those whose only crime is to have followed their parents overseas when they were kids. (link) Instead, our attentions should be focused on:

  1. those who want to have their cake and eat it too; and
  2. the systemic loopholes that allow them to do so.

I don’t personally think that there should be a bond in the first place nor do I think those who have no intention to reside in Singapore as Singaporeans or PR should be penalised for not serving NS. If they are not taking the benefit of being either a Singaporean or a PR, on what grounds are imposing this obligation on them?

Surely, it is not their fault where they were born or where their parents may have chosen to live? While each case of deferment needs to be looked in accordance with its own merits, there must be clear guidelines as to what is considered.

Some may argue that without a bond, people would abscond. My counter argument is let them! If they abscond, they will longer be Singaporeans and will give up all the benefits of so being and if they are happy to do that, then it really is no loss to us?