NS in the hospital or the police

Tang Li

Looking back at National Service

As a Singaporean who served National Service (NS) in a combat unit (23 SA, 1994-1997), I enjoyed Paul Gilfeather’s commentary “A lesson from Singapore”(April 29). However, much as I appreciate his endorsement of our NS and my own experiences in it, I have to ask myself if NS – as we know it – is still as relevant to the current state of affairs.

Singapore established NS in March 1967 because there was a need to build a credible defence force and deterrent as quickly as possible with limited resources. Thanks to more than 40 years of NS, Singapore can mobilise nearly half a million soldiers if the need arises. Foreign military experts have described the Singapore Armed Forces as capable of defending Singapore effectively.

However, while Singapore’s defence policy has thus far proved to be the right one, one has to ask if the institution of NS is suitably geared to the wars of tomorrow?

There are fewer and fewer conflicts between nation states. More often conflicts are between nation states and international terrorist groups. The United States talks about war with Al Qaeda and not with Afghanistan. Israel fights the Hezbollah and Hamas rather than Syria. In South-east Asia, we are more likely to see a scenario where we work with our neighbours to defeat groups like Abu Sayyaf or Jemaah Islamiah.

Armed forces are moving away from being about delivering massive firepower on the battlefield to being about delivering “smart” firepower on specific targets. Special forces like the British Special Air Service or the US Navy Seals are growing in prominence.

Yes, it’s important to still have the capability to fight a conventional war. Yes, NS is a credible deterrent. And, yes, NS is still important to Singapore society.

However, is our ability to mobilise as many troops as we can a little outdated? Should we instead focus more on training a smaller force of more specialised troops?

If the SAF were to become more specialised and require less manpower (bearing in mind that birth rates have fallen and cohorts are getting smaller), where could the remaining enlistees be sent to?

One possibility is the Ministry of Home Affairs: To work with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority or the police.

Given the growing likelihood that the enemy of the future will be a terrorist group, it is important that our NS personnel be trained in investigation and working with civilians.

Another area where more NS personnel could be deployed is in the Ministry of Health, where they could learn first aid skills and also help to ease manpower shortages at hospitals. In the event of a terrorist attack, shouldn’t the majority of our population be able to deal with the wounded?

Our economy is moving away from labour-intensive manufacturing that competes on price to more-advanced, value-added services, where a premium is placed on brain power rather than manpower. To prepare Singaporeans to meet the needs of the economy, we are training our workers to work smart and be more productive.

Perhaps, NS should mirror the transformation in our economy – training Singaporeans who are prepared to “serve” smart.

This article was first published at TODAYonline on 4 May 2010.