Gordon Lee on National Service
“The government’s stand since independence is that conscription is necessary for Singapore’s national defence because the country is unable to afford a fully professional force. Over the years, it has also marketed National Service as being an opportune time to “bond” male Singaporeans together, regardless of their respective backgrounds.
Conscription takes away two years of a citizen’s freedom in the name of “national interests”. Unfortunately, in the case of Singapore, where tensions are cool, these “national” or “security” interests do not outweigh two years of the lives of every male citizen. Even though the government often compares Singapore with Israel, South Korea and Taiwan as being small vulnerable states, the fact is, they live in much tenser situations and have fought wars with their neighbours in their recent history. It is also to be noted that Taiwan intends to end conscription by decreasing the number of conscripts by 10% each year from 2011, and replacing them with professional soldiers.
In addition, conscription is also systemically biased against males, as females do not need to serve in the military (or to contribute in any department of the government). This creates a situation where males are disadvantaged as compared to their female peers, by two years.
The government’s pro-foreigner policy (under which many foreigners have entered Singapore such that the citizen population is just 63.6% of the total population) also causes citizens who serve NS to be penalised not just in the job markets because they lack two years of experience, but also by employers because of the NS reservist liability which includes yearly call-ups and in-camp trainings. There have been cases of employers openly discriminating against Singaporeans through their advertisements of job vacancies.
Whilst the lack of affordability of a fully professional force may have been a problem in the early days, it is hard to imagine that the same problem still exists today. Even when corrected for inflation, the IMF estimates Singapore GDP to be 25,117 million dollars in 1980, and some 235,632 million dollars in 2008. That is a ten-fold increase from 1980, and the affordability problem was mentioned during 1967, when the NS (Amendment) Act was passed. Imagine how much more Singapore is able to afford a professional force now, compared to then! If anything, a conscript army based on the problem of affordability is a serious anachronism that does not stand true today.
Whilst there is certain “bonding” that takes place during NS, my experience fails to show me, contrary to what is claimed, that NS improves feelings of loyalty to the country, nor that the “bonding” that takes place during NS cannot be achieved outside of NS. If anything, Singaporeans are just further trained to blindly obey instructions from their superiors – which would probably also be to the benefit of the government. This culture is detrimental to society as a whole, and seems to affect creativity in the society, which is important for the spirit of free enterprise and global corporations. Surely two years of a person’s life is more important than this “bonding” that presumably takes place?
The active size of Singapore’s military of 60,500 compares with Australia’s 55,000, the Netherlands’ 53,000, Cuba’s 46,000, Austria’s 35,000, Lao’s 29,000, New Zealand’s 9,000 and Brunei’s 7,000. Singapore’s total military force (active, reserve and para-military) of 470,000 compares with Philippines’ 403,000, Japan’s 297,000, Malaysia’s 172,000, Canada’s 112,000 and Australia’s 81,000. The size of Singapore’s military is clearly too large, but we should not allow ourselves to be deceived by the government’s rhetoric that it is either this number or nothing at all. My proposal will be set out later on.
Only a fixed number of personnel is needed to defend Singapore effectively, regardless of GDP or the population, since military strategy largely revolves around covering land – the area of which is a constant. As one of the wealthiest states in the region, having this professional force will be easily affordable. On the contrary, having a conscript army instead increases the costs of running the army because the larger the population (which grows over time), the more conscripts there are, and the more money has to be spent on their allowance, on training facilities, training equipment, and many other miscellaneous expenses – not to forget the hidden economic costs of not having them otherwise contributing to the economy.
27,000 males enlist annually, making that a total of 54,000 males serving their two years of NS annually. Assuming that they all get a recruit’s allowance of $420 per month, that works out to $272 million a year. Not only does the government spend that amount, but by the government’s own statistic of $53,192 as being GDP per capita, these 54,000 males could have otherwise contributed some $2.8 billion per year. That puts the total economic cost of the labour required for the conscript system at over $3 billion per year, even before considering all other expenses that concerns the training and administration of these 54,000 males. Government revenue (mainly through taxes) is currently just above 10% of GDP, in other words, the almost $3 billion increase in GDP from having these people in the workforce can also increase government revenue by almost $300 million. This money can then be better spent on healthcare, education or supporting the needy.
Yes, the size of Singapore’s military is artificially huge because of the number of conscripts on which it is overly reliant. Singaporeans just need to ask around for anecdotal evidence on training standards, training alongside foreign troops and the incidence of malingering to get an idea of the true quality of the troops disguised behind a number.
I propose that conscription be gradually phased out over a period of a few years, and the $272 million of allowances, and hundreds of millions more from training and administration costs be used instead of increase the salary of regular personnel (whose wages are depressed by the influx of conscripts), and with this higher salary, the SAF can afford to hire more and better regular soldiers than it currently has. From the savings from allowances alone, the SAF can afford to hire an additional 5,500 regular soldiers at an average monthly wage of $4,000.
With better salary, and also with training and equipment funds used on a smaller pool of soldiers, the SAF can be more selective on recruitment for the force, and will also be able to provide the force with better equipment and better training. Leftover funds from training facilities, administration and equipment can also be channelled to hire more soldiers, or to purchase more strategic weapons like long-ranged missiles, which do not generally cost more than $100,000 each, and serve an equally strong, if not stronger, deterrent. These equipment are much quicker to mobilise and attack, making this deterrent even more effective, and less labour-intensive.
In addition to having a larger professional force, the SAF should also have a military reserve force not from conscription, but as part of a contract – just like the United States and the United Kingdom. This military reserve force will also be leaner than our current 300,000 (which is clearly excessive), but also better trained as they are contracted. This works by offering potential recruits a generous pay package for a period of military training (just like the current National Service term), after which they can go on to fulfil their civilian role and take on a job, whilst still going for monthly military trainings on weekends during their bond period.
This dual system of bulking up the professional force in numbers and quality, whilst reducing the number of reserves (but improving their training) will go a long way in addressing the problems and injustice identified with the current system, and also make the military more effective and efficient – spending money wisely and having a larger workforce contributing to the economy.
I recognise that citizens who have served National Service might have certain reservations over this proposal either out of nostalgia or injustice (that they were forced to serve, but future generations need not). I put it to them that the conscript system is a seriously flawed system especially in the modern Singapore context, and that this degenerate system should not be allowed to perpetuate and continue to harm future generations, the economy and our society. I hope that even after decades of spewing propaganda about the absolute necessity of National Service, the government will have the political courage to recognise that it is no longer relevant, and take actions to correct this harmful policy.
I welcome any corrections on figures, and for information on figures which I do not currently have.”
Written by Gordon Lee student of University of Warwick currently studying Economics, Politics and International Studies