Ah boys to men, only if we respect them: NS debate Part 2

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By Zach Isaiah Chia

A recent IPS survey showed that many people think that NS makes boys into men, a key right of passage into adulthood. Theoretically, this should have empowered Singaporean males to be fighting fit and be resolute defenders of our state. But this is not always the case.

Why is this so?

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One, race. In 1987, then Second Defence Minister Lee Hsien Loong caused an uproar when he explained that Malays were left out of sensitive positions due to concerns about their loyalty. Even today, some vocations are a no-no for some because of their race. This has been a sore point with the Malay community because it questions the loyalty of Malay Singaporeans.

Mindef has contested these claims, but what remains is that this is a view deeply etched in the public conscience. How many of us remember that some of the bravest defenders during the Battle of Singapore were 42 soldiers of the Malay Regiment in the Battle of Bukit Chandu, led by Lt Adnan bin Saidi?

Two, educational background. Junior college and ITE/Polytechnic students are enlisted at different times. They don’t get to meet as equals. At one point, JC-students will be seniors, at another point Poly/ITE students become seniors.

Three, socio-economic background. Recent data suggest that there is a very clear link between educational and financial background. When taken with point two, what becomes apparent is that NS does not help people mix but keeps them in the same circle.

Four, leadership. Many have mentioned that the selection of leaders seems to focus more on academic background than performance. Many have complained that, empirically, the leadership levels have a disproportionate number of students from top schools. There have been disagreements between NSFs and regulars, with the former charging that regulars are better off because of their employment status.

Five, conflict with MOE. Our system looks to train students to speak up and to empower each student, but the army challenges that because it requires obedience to hierarchy. This is even more acute for today’s students because the system has changed.

Some have also challenged that NS prevents the especially talented from going on to pursuing greater things. Apart from government scholars, swimmer Joseph Schooling was one high profile case to successfully get deferment.

One can detect a sense of frustration among new soldiers that they are being belittled. They are told that life now is easier than before, with examples being highlighted in the media. How can anyone forget the case of a maid carrying an NSF man’s bag?

By and large people know that the world is not fair; the key reason for the disgruntlement of our young NSFs seems to be the lack of recognition that society as a whole gives to them.

In part, this has been due to the fact that our servicemen have rarely been deployed for actual missions and the threat of confrontation seems to have diminished in the public consciousness. We need to encourage society to look up to our NSF men and give them the respect that is vital to a strong defence force. Here are some ideas.

  • Return to the pre-NS send-off dinners in every constituency and get all MPs to personally host these dinners.
  • Set up an elite athletes unit that is staffed by athletes. The training model can be tailored to allow them to serve and defend the country full time while also allowing them to train and compete full time
  • Make enlistment dates same for all.
  • Relook the security classification of soldiers to minimise race as a part of security considerations.
  • Require scholars to serve out their service terms. This has more long-term benefits as they get to interact with the common man before the insulation of scholarship hits.
  • Make clear that hierarchy is important in the army, but has no value on the service rendered by each soldier.
  • Encourage older soldiers to realise that comments such as “it was more difficult in my time” inadvertently serve to demean the service of our young soldiers.

Part 3: Competing demands tear NSmen apart