Why women need to talk about NS

By Dhevy Sivaprakasam

Even as commentaries(1) have been written about clear differential treatment between men and women with respect to National Service (NS) in Singapore, women’s attitudes here towards NS have remained relatively nonchalant. The fact that men give up at least two years of their lives towards serving in the military or civil defence is a glaring physical recurrence that we cannot ignore.

So why have most women not spoken up enough about this difference in treatment based on gender? A recent study in 2013 indicated that only 9.3% of all women and 13.6% of those under 30 surveyed supported 2-year full-time NS for women.(3) The general consensus thus seems to be that most women refrain from comment because as Ho Kwon Ping put it recently, “it's great for my father, husband, boyfriend or son to do NS, but not me.” (2)  This inconsistent reasoning needs to be challenged.

When we speak of rights due to women as human beings, we must also acknowledge the rights of men as human beings. The starting point of discussion therefore must be that the liberty to choose whether to do NS and/or the absence of this liberty to choose must apply equally to every person regardless of gender.

In stating this, I am not saying that in a bid to champion gender equality all women should campaign to do full-time military training in the manner that men now do in Singapore. (In fact, not even all men are conscripted into the military.)

What I am trying to highlight instead is that ingrained in discussions and debate about NS is a deep seated gender bias which reinforces socio-cultural distinctions between males and females and masculinity and femininity.

During the 2013 survey, a majority of women agreed that NS was beneficial as a ‘rite of passage’ to ‘transform boys into men’.

Did these women mean that ‘manlihood’ should somehow be ascribed by society to mould ‘real men’ in a particular rigorous manner? Do the values of ‘manlihood’ only apply to men?

What exactly are these values?

By implicitly supporting these values, do we not reinforce negative stereotypes about masculinity and violence, which in turn impact negatively upon stereotypes about women and femininity?

For instance, some women have suggested that giving birth to and caring for babies is their equivalent of NS (4) – By saying that, do they mean that caring for children is only a woman’s duty the way national defence is only a man’s?

How do we reconcile why, as the 2013 study revealed, many more participants are inclined towards voluntary service for women but not the same for men? These questions simply cannot be answered rationally without acknowledging gender bias, and in not challenging such inconsistencies, far reaching changes to gender roles is impossible.

Debate about NS needs to be gender-neutral because the spirit of equality demands it should be. Statements that men should do two years of compulsory military service but women should not cannot be made without reinforcing gender stereotypes.

There are men in Singapore who are not physically inclined while there are women who are extremely so. Employing a general statement about members from both genders as supposed justification is not justification, it can only be an assumption stemming from bias.

If we support NS, we have to support it for both men and women and if we do not, it is not for both. If we support mandatory service, it has to be mandatory for both men and women, and if we say it must be for two years, it has to be two years for both. It is only after such rationalisation that we can speak about the logistics of the manner of service that different people with different capacities, and not different genders, can offer. Apart from the military, NS men work in civil defence and there have been suggestions that NS can be performed in other forms of community service such as nursing and care of aged citizens. (2)

Women (and men) need to employ the gender lens when looking at public institutions such as NS because the alternative is to implicitly support notions of masculinity which reinforce barriers against women’s rights and empowerment of women.

We also need to realise that clinging to a privilege we hold as women in Singapore even as we attempt to abolish gender bias is like pouring kerosene into a fire while hosing it down with water. The better step forward would be for women to acknowledge gender privilege of both women and men and discuss and debate about NS, not only to engage men in the task of redefining gender roles for both men and women but also to aspire towards creating more fulfilling and balanced lives for everyone.

  1. http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/case-women-national-service
  2. Ho Kwon Ping http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/national-service-for-women-time-to-change-mindset
  3. Study - http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/ips/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/04/NS-study-8-Oct-2013_web.pdf
  4. http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/case-women-national-service; http://ndru1.blogspot.sg/2013/06/should-women-serve-national-service.html; http://www.menshealth.com.sg/sex-relationships/women-should-serve-national-service