Recruits ordered to strip and lay out the weapon parts in a specific order within 45 seconds / photo: Basic Military Training Centre Facebook

A former full-time national servicemen (NSF) who was a clerk in a Camp Commandant’s Office (CCO) rebutted Minister Josephine Teo’s remark that NSmen’s service for the nation cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Ms Teo said this back in 2015 when she was Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport. Channel News Asia (CNA) has reported, “While she noted the importance of giving NSmen recognition, Mrs Teo said service for the country cannot be measured in dollars and cents.”

The article was later deleted without comment from CNA following a public uproar over the remark.

The former NSF, Micheal Tan, said in a Facebook post on Tuesday (3 August) that in his 2.5 years serving as a clerk in the CCO, he witnessed at least 20 soldiers who served time in detention for being Absent without Official Leave (AWOL). His job required him to prepare charge sheets, statements, and coordinate with the Regimental Police to prepare those soldiers to face charges in the presence of a Senior Disciplinary Officer.

He went on, “I can confirm that the root cause of more than 70% of the AWOL cases was related to financial problems. These AWOLees came from complicated family and detested SAF because the allowances as a Private was pathetic.”

He added, “They needed to work outside to boost their family income. Otherwise, how could the family survive on SAF allowance of barely $350 a month?”

Mr Tan said that upon talking to some of these soldiers, he found that while they book into a camp, they still worry about bills at home, taking care of younger siblings as well as sick parents.

“Financially strapped, they AWOLed to moonlight,” he said simply, adding that these soldiers put their families first, not the SAF who “pays a pittance under the excuse of national service”.

On why these soldiers didn’t reach out for financial assistance, Mr Tan suggested, “Those who served NS in the Army will know how much red-tape and the “world-class efficiency” in getting things done.”

He elaborated, “One form had to be accompanied by documentary proof that your family is in hardship, and it also had to be passed through the chain-of-command.”

Mr Tan went on to say that these soldiers with financial problems tend to be “storemen and drivers who have a reputation in the army due to their background and tattoos”. He added that the S1 and chief clerks tend to view them as “gengsters” with “attitude problems”.

“So it ends up that these soldiers who had financial problems don’t see eye to eye with those doing administrative work which eventually delayed the financial assistance to the poor soldiers, making them more desperate to earn extra income for home,” he explained.

Addressing Ms Teo’s remark about how a soldier’s service cannot be measured in monetary terms, Mr Tan quoted from the PAP’s constitution which says, “The Party shall be a national movement dedicated to serving our nation and advancing the well-being of our people.”

He went on, “The PAP views themselves as servants to the nation. Just like how SAF views its conscripts as servants of the nation. The only difference one pays themselves millions a month to serve Singapore, the other was paid $350 allowance a month.”

Mr Tan concluded by saying, “If PAP MPs do not know the reality on the ground, they should just keep their mouth shut.”

“PAP MPs and Ministers who are being paid millions to serve the nation are not in moral high ground to dictate how Singaporean sons should spend their time serving the nation,” he slammed.

An old, ongoing issue

The issue of NSFs being convicted for AWOL due to financial hardship is not a new one. Back in 2018, then-Senior Minister of State for Defence Dr Maliki Osman said told Parliament that 14 per cent of NSF who were convicted of being AWOL cited financial hardship as the main reason for their offence. That’s about 28 AWOL offenders convicted in General Court Martial per year.

Dr Maliki added, however, that the number of NSF who commit AWOL offences despite receiving financial assistance is “very small”. In 2017, only one serviceman went AWOL even though he received financial aid.

The thing is, the incident does not appear to be as uncommon as the government says it is.

Just last month (14 July), Straits Times published an article about an man who went AWOL while in the army in order to do part-time jobs. The article described how the man, Lee Rui Xuan, came from a struggling family – his father’s business venture failed, is mother did odd jobs, and his two younger siblings were in school while he was in college. Mr Lee had to take up a part-time job to help support his family financially, working as a cashier.

Eventually, Mr Lee dropped out of school when he realised that his school bills were unpaid and how terribly his parents were struggling financially. A year later, Mr Lee was enlisted in the army.

However, the financial situation did not improve. So Mr Lee resorted to faking illnesses in order to convince the medical officer on duty to give him medicate certificates which enabled him to skive off and work part time elsewhere to earn more money.

His army superiors eventually found out and Mr Lee was sentenced to several weeks in detention.

This story illustrates that the issue of soldiers going AWOL due to financial hardships may not be as uncommon as we think.

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