Conscription: Asking the right questions?

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The National Service (NS) issue remains a contentious one in Singapore with survey after surveys throwing up interesting questions rather than providing answers


IN the highly-popular, widely-claimed, and by her own admission – the favourite television programme of then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, satirical British comedy series Yes Prime Minister, Humphrey Appleby, the cabinet secretary explains the importance of leading questions while doing a survey to one of his juniors, Bernard Woolley.

“My dear Bernard, if a young lady comes to you and ask the following questions, what will be your replies,” Appleby says.

“Are you worried about the number of young people without jobs? Are you worried about the rising crime among teenagers? Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools? Do you think young people welcome some authority, leadership in their lives? Do you think they respond to a challenge?”

“And follows it up by asking whether you would be in favour of reintroducing national service? I am sure your answers to all the above would be – Yes.”

“But if the same lady follows a different line of questioning, such as – Are you worried about the dangers of war? Are you worried about the growth of arms? Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill? Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?”

“And then fills in the same question at the end – Would you oppose the reintroduction of national service? I am sure your opinion would be very different now. You will say – No.”


Similar such doubts were raised when an independent research study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), on Singaporeans’ perception of NS reported that more than 98% of 1,251 citizens interviewed “regard NS as a cornerstone for the security and prosperity of Singapore”. The New Paper newspaper even reported that the “results were so positive, they [researchers] had to relook NS study”.

The study was commissioned by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS), set by the defence minister Ng Eng Hen in March this year. “Our most important goals are to strengthen Singapore, strengthen NS and the Armed Forces (SAF), and serve all Singaporeans, in that order. Important order. Singapore first, SAF and NS second, personal interest of all Singaporeans next. Often it comes in the reverse order. But we should set the direction right. The CSNS must ensure that NS must still be focused on defending Singapore,” Ng said.

Adequate or more recognition?

 Recognition of NS contribution from servicemen

Recognition of NS contribution from servicemen

Significantly, the study while describing the data for Recognition of NS contributions from servicemen reported 95.4% of respondents feeling that the government adequately recognises the NS contributions of servicemen. When asked whether the public adequately recognises the such contributions, the percentage of agreeing respondents rose slightly to 96.1.

This is indicative of a overwhelming majority feeling that NS contributions of servicemen are being recognised adequately both by the government as well as the public in general.

But the same respondents when asked on the ways for “strengthening NS” – also the mandate of CSNS – an overwhelming majority said that more recognition is important.

Strengthening NS
Strengthening NS

To strengthen NS, 98.4% said it’s important to have “more recognition for servicemen at certain stages of NS such as completion of full-time NS (ORD) and ICT (in-camp training)”. 98.3% indicated towards “more public recognition for servicemen’s contributions”, 97.1% agreed on “more recognition for servicemen at certain life stages such as marriage and childbirth”, and 97% said “more matching of servicemen’s personal skills and abilities to NS vocations” is important to strengthen NS.

Also, shockingly, 42.1% of respondents felt that “employers prefer to hire people without NS commitments”. Since, under the Enlistment Act of Singapore, all male Singaporeans citizens and second generation permanent residents are liable to register for NS, and thus would be having NS commitments, this figure has raised some concerns.

Last month, a focus group discussion called by the CSNS of some 20 full-time and operationally ready national servicemen expressed the same concerns of lack of support from employers for ICT.

Employed servicemen only
Employed servicemen only

Even though, the study also reported that about “4 out of 5 servicemen perceived their employers to be supportive of NS”, is it because it is mandatory by law was not detailed in the study.


Since 1967

After Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, an urgent need was left to build indigenous defence capabilities, and transform the country’s armed forces into a large citizen army based on conscription and long-term compulsory reservist service. Another aiding factor was the decision by the United Kingdom to withdraw its forces from the lion-city by early 1970s. This resulted in tabling of the National Service (Amendment) Bill in the Parliament by then minister for defence Goh Keng Swee on February 27, 1967, which it passed March 14. Over 900 young men enlisted in the first batch of full-time national servicemen on July 17, in two newly formed battalions.

 Members of the CSNS at its fourth meeting, Source: Ministry of Defense

All tables in this story are courtesy IPS, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The study in question is accessible here.

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