Monday, October 14, 2013

National Service in Singapore - an opinion on how to make it better

For visitors unfamiliar with Singapore, the nation has a conscription system whereby all able bodied young men are forced to do 2 years of National Service - mainly in the armed forces. This is not some kind of weekend retreat where you can pick and choose which dates are suitable for you to do. Its practically a straight out prison sentence. You get in (the army) and you don't get out until you complete the 2 years. (Previously it was 2.5 years)

The pay is pathetic. When I was doing my NS - my recruit pay was about $150 a month. I was living alone at the time because my father (+mother) was overseas working. I ran out of cash at one stage because my ATM card got crunched by the ATM machine and because banks close on Saturday afternoon I couldn't get to the bank in time to get a new one. What I found esp. annoying was the total lack of sympathy from the outside world - female bank staff, relatives advised me to just take a day off work and go to the bank and get a new one. When I explained that my base was at Tekong Island and it took me a couple of hours to get off - my reply was met with glazed stares. I might as well have been on Mars.

I survived on army hard-tack biscuits for my first CNY back home. No one bothered to ask me how I was doing. One of my neighbors frequently complained to me about the noise I was making on the weekend when I walked down the steps in my army boots.

Most NS men - unless they are Whitehorse (rich polly's son) clerks - are stuck at camp or training from Sunday evening to Saturday afternoon. We had less than 24 hours time off a week. On top of that, we also had weekend guard duty to perform or some kind of clerical BS to do. And then there were the summary punishments. God help you if you had a "siao on" (strict) commander. In one unit that I was in soldiers, including a full-time NCO, ended up in jail for 40 days for being late coming back from lunch - charged with being AWOL.

OK. But... it did some good. No doubt about that. All Singaporean men have that bonding experience. They've all been through that and they all have a shared experience and story to tell.

Personally, I found the first 3 months of army training damn challenging but also physically enlightening. For the first time in my life, I was pushed to the max physically and intensively - even pushed pass beyond for my physical endurance. And to my amazement, my body lifted its game and I got uber-fit for the first time in my life.

Before I joined the army, I was overweight. Afraid of heights. And suffered from insomnia. By Day 2, my insomnia was instantly cured. It seems exercising had a lot to do with it. We woke up at 6am. Ran 5km. Had breakfast. Did more training. Ran 3km... etc.. In one day, I easily did at least 100 situps and pushups - and ran about 10 km a day easily.

By day 10, I was cured of my fear of heights. I remember looking at the SOC course and wanting to go tell the corporal that I had to be excused from it because of my fear of heights and my inability to climb rope. By Day 30 I was running up and down the Jacob's Ladder with my helmet and rifle. Wow!

What also amazed me was to discover that I could run faster than most of the men in my platoon - despite being slightly still overweight compared to them. I managed a personal best of 7.30minutes for my 2.4km.

What a remarkable transformation! All thanks to the Army.

As humans we tell ourselves we can't do this, we can't do that. We make excuses. But the Army pushes you to excel. It demands it. And in this happy case, I realized fuck. I could and can.
And by the end of BMT, I had dropped from 80kg to a nice tight 68. I don't think I ever dropped to my optimal weight which would be 60 - 65kg but that had to do with the really bad diet we had back then - plenty of fried stuff. Too much sugar. etc..

So thanks to the army I now have a physical fitness benchmark that I can lean to. It doesn't take me that long to get up to physical coolness.

However.... 2 years is a fucking long time. A lot of people can do heaps of stuff in 2 years. Complete 2/3 of a degree. Learn a useful trade. etc.. For the lower income families - the conscription of their boy means a dreadful loss of income for the family - as the son is usually helping out in the family business or already working.

And for what? What are we defending for?

In the past, Singaporean men knew what they were fighting for - their home, their jobs, their family, their future.

The Govt has really thrown a spanner into the works by allowing a lot of foreigners into the country - at virtually all levels of business employment.

Suddenly NS men are faced with the frightful realization that while they are stuck in some mosquito infested swamp playing soldier - their girl friends are now furthering their education and quite likely dating someone else. God knows how many relationships went belly up because the girls got bored or lonely when their bfs are in the Army. Seriously girls? C'mon.

And then when they get out of the Army - they still face another two decades of reservist training - which if you miss - can land you in prison. This reservist liability will also affect your future earnings and employment. No private company is going to want to hire an employee who has to run off to play soldier somewhere for a couple of weeks. They would certainly prefer to hire a female or a foreigner who probably spent the 2 years further their educational skills to do the job instead.

I'm sure some PAP boffin will suggest that the 2 years is akin to backpacking around Europe or doing some charitable service like what the angmos do all the time. But hey, this isn't Australia, America, or a Western Democracy which has a lot of spare land, welfare systems to rely upon - this is Singapore and in Singapore if you don't cut it you can't survive. Its a rat race.

Meanwhile a lot of Singaporean families are migrating overseas to escape from this - their sons, even if they had left after 1 years old, will never be allowed to come back to live or work in Singapore. Meanwhile the Govt is actively trying to get total strangers - people with no cultural ties to our nation - foreigners to migrate to Singapore - the foreign men (who are pass the age) are NOT required to serve NS.

Seriously WTF? Hello PAP why are you chasing out the real children of Singapore and bringing in people who have no affinity to our country?

Currently the Govt threatens any dude who doesn't want to do NS with imprisonment - which apparently  lasts over three years or more. All the Jehovah Witness Christians and pacifist men end up there.

I think to make it fair and just. The Govt ought to provide positive incentives for Singaporean men to do their NS.

1. Do not make it compulsory. If they don't want to do it, don't force them to serve. And don't penalize people who don't want to do NS either. If the govt is so happy happy to let foreigners into the country to become citizens without the need to do NS I don't see the point of forcing our young men to do it if they don't want too. And whats the morality of chasing away our natural born sons only to kowtow and chase after foreigners to come and become citizens?

2. Provide clear benefits for people to do NS. This is something the PAP should definitely do. It has argued very strongly for providing huge monetary incentives for its MPs, Ministers, and top civil servants - Singapore has the highest paid political and civil servants in the world- exceedingly any 1st world nation. Consequently I think it is plain BS for the govt to argue that it should pay NS men low pay. Many of them will risk life and limb to defend the nation - and for what? A nice pat on the head? Maybe a cheap medal?

I think this policy is plain hypocritical. The Govt CANNOT argue that it should pay its politicians a top wage and then expect the people who are actually defending the nation to survive on rock-bottom salaries.

Look - it doesn't have to be hard cold cash. The Govt can offer a sizable grant for an HDB (Govt) flat - ie. $50k for risking life and limb - or a similar amount for generous education grants for local Universities. This grant is in-house, so the Govt doesn't have to actually cough up cash for it. Plus it provides a positive incentive for the men (and women) to serve - well, what works for the PAP politicians and top civil servants should also work for the soldier defending them.

3. Have a fairer less draconian army system of punishments. Well, this seems to be getting there. I remember hearing horror stories in the 1970s of a lot of NS men dying from physical training punishments. I think if you are charged for minor infractions in the Army, including being AWOL, - the charges should be automatically be dismissed once you leave the service or after a period of a few years.

4. Full health insurance and compensation for men injured during NS. During my time at NS, if a soldier got killed during training MINDEF would award the family (I think about $3000) which didn't even cover the funeral expenses - that is absolutely appalling. The amount awarded to soldiers who were badly maimed also didn't amount to much. I don't know how the Govt leaders can sleep easily at night knowing they have this sort of fucked up policy.

5. If they still feel its necessary to have a full scale conscript army without giving the men adequate financial compensation - then please shorten the duration of the NS. Check out what Germany is doing. And please don't imprison people who for religious or conscious reasons don't want to serve in the military - get them to do something else commensurate - like Coast Guard duty, working in the paramedics, hospitals, parks and gardens etc.. not happy? - then get them to serve a slightly longer sentence.

Singapore isn't exactly a dirt poor country - if it can afford to pay top dollar to get possibly the best air force in the region and to pay its top civil and political leaders the world's highest salaries - then surely this sort of incentive scheme can be done.

6. Total defence: I think the Govt should really realize that its policy of emphasizing Mandarin for Singaporean Chinese is not helpful in getting us integrated in the region. For all the effort we put into military, and it seems we spend a disproportionate chunk of our GDP on our military, Singaporeans should realize that we are not going to win if there is open hostilities with Indonesia or Malaysia. We aren't self-sufficient. We have a much smaller even tiny population. And most esp. we are highly dependent on trade and the goodwill of our neighbors for our own prosperity. One step in the right direction is to allow Chinese Singaporeans to learn Malay rather than Mandarin. The whole idea that the "Mother tongue" of Chinese ethnic people is Mandarin is absurd.

Its getting late I'm going to end it here - I just wish the Govt would realize that its not OK to fuck around with your own citizens and to treat them like kids. They don't like it anymore.



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