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
I have another solution: go nuclear!
Let’s invest in creating the most powerful weapon out there. This way, not even China would even want to invade Singapore. Then no need for NS altogether.
you have some good arguments here.
I’m no PAP dog, but i’ll be honest, national security is something I won’t take chances with. In the very first line of the Art of War, Sun Tzu warns against that. it’s a matter of life and death, so he says.
As it stands, SAF personnel are being very comfortably paid. They, like most other civil servants, are getting an above average level of salary for their qualifications (based just on starting salary figures.). Increasing the salary some more is not likely to attract more soldiers. Additionally, you want soldiers who genuinely want to be soldiers, not people who are in it just for the money. you don’t want professional, well-paid regular soldiers who will turn tail and run at first sight of war.
Additionally, there is no guarantee that raising regulars’ salary will ensure that enough people will sign on to achieve an armed forces with enough manpower to take on any aggressor. The harsh reality is, most people don’t want the hardship associated with soldering. Furthermore, most people also don’t want a career in the military – there are other things in life that they like and find more fulfillment doing; whilst already well-paying, most people have not signed on for a military career, instead pursuing jobs or starting their own companies, affording them only a fraction of a military salary.
I still believe that a conscript system has flaws/offers other problems, and when I was an NSF it was hard to not feel like my precious life was trickling slowly away, wasting my time and energy on menial tasks while preventing/delaying me from pursuing my life’s passions.
But I think the hard reality still has to be faced – I’m not willing to be a citizen of a country which gets careless with its national security. I don’t want to face the possibility of ever being conquered. and neither will investors.
Let’s face it. Singapore will never withstand an invasion from Malaysia or Indonesia if they ever want to attack, no matter how big our armed forces are. Sure with conscription, we an hold back for 48 hours. Without it, maybe 12 hours.
The only reasons why they haven’t attacked yet is this: our relationships with 1) the US of A; and 2) China.
I suggest this:
1) Abolish NS
2) Bolster the number of regulars, possibly by increasing pay and promotion based on performance, rather than paper qualifications
3) Improve our relationships with not just the US and China, but Canada, the UK, and Australia. How? By doing away with ridiculous laws and improving human rights. And stop paying LHL millions of dollars in the name of preventing corruption.
You made the assumption that Singaporeans won’t turn tail and run; throughout history, there where instances of militia army desserting as well.
How can we trust your piece when it is based on assumptions too.
By the way, I am not willing to fight for a Nation that impose corvee labour on me that is disproportionate to the needs of the times, and unfairly as well (women citizens etc get benefits without obligation, its almost the same as preferential treatment malays get over other races in Malaysia)
Btw, I am replying to Clement
PS: the Chinese art of War says alot of other things as well, which you omit to mention, such as:
1. 赏罚分明 fair and equal punishment/duties and reward/privileges.. for army morale
2. The reason for war/buildup for war
breaking those two rules alone can lose public perception of the “justness” of the army, thereby weaking and/or providing the opposition to utilize the weak points.
Well written article. It’s time to get LHL and PAP to shove NS up their asses.
Abolish NS, and bring all NS liable defaulters home.
I do not think Singapore can ever have a army with only professional soldiers. The mindset and culture simply is not there.
If our pool of willingly volunteers is insufficient- just recruit some Gurkhas and foreign legionaires to augment the local troops. Learn from the British and French to see how they make such “mercenaries” so loyal even when under fire at the front. From what I know- these so called mercenaries always remained loyal.
Great article and agree with a lot of the points raised. NS needs to be abolished completely as it is outdated and a drag on the country’s image. Apart from the stats of the gains to the country from the NS eligible population – tons of PRs who contribute greatly to the economy and society here will also choose to become citizens and this is good for the country.
There is a real danger of our young men having a mass exodus out of the country given the world is a very open and connected place.
You may be right in that we could “defend” ourselves with a fully professional force. But you should have realized that the moment we are in the defensive mode on our own soil, the battle has already been lost. In that context, your comparison of standing troop sizes with other obviously larger countries like Australia and NZ is irrelevant and pointless, because our situation and options are totally different from their.
A concerned Singaporean
What makes you think a fully professional force can’t take the offensive? our main arms- the airforce and navy are all regulars, all we need to do now is professionalize the remaining 35000 or so NSF
In addition to that, enemy in our soil doesn’t equal to defeat- our airforce and navy could be based and resupplied from elsewhere. Theoretically speaking, with singapore being an island, and us possesing the strongest navy and airforce in the region, we can effectively besiege the invading forces in our urban landscape surround by sea,
and that should be a good enough deterrent for Malaysia and Indonesia. On top of that, there would be no economic incentive to do so (why dig the gold when you can sell supplies and coexist happily and prosper? ie- the Iskander project in Johor- one way for Malaysia to reap the economic prosperity of Singapore) and any move by our neighbours would be political suicide of the leader who ordered the invasion, both from the international community and from their countrymen. Why? there is no popular support for such a move (contrary to what the PAP is always hyping about, Muslims in Malaysia and Indon are too engrossed leading their lives conscription free, and any attempt to mobilize them from their everyday existence to invade Singapore would be met with resistance, just like the average Singaporean wouldn’t think of invading Malaysia over water supplies (LOL! The political repercussions and economic cost would be disastrous whether we won the battle or not, the war would be lost- cross straits relations would be damaged for the foreseeable future and the moment we withdraw, supplies could be cut again, not to mention economic cost of drawing out the workforce to become soldiers for the invasion- no win))
Well, the Navy and Airforce are made up of regulars, why not professionalize the army as well?
And what defensive mode are you talking about? come on only 70000 or less than that are actually active NSF in the army (land). The other 200000 or so are aging men past their prime= more than 50% cannot even past their age specific IPPT (check out what the ministry of defense have to say, thats why IPPT is reduced to 3 stations)
By contrast, the malaysians have more or less the same total number of troops as Singapore, but all are dedicated professionals (which means they train more regularly than our reservist land soldiers)
My solution is to professionalize the army, drawing on our local pool of fit Singaporean citizens, PR willing to serve. For the shortfall, first recruit the gurkha from Nepal (for we already have shared camps with the British there) and then set up something similar to the French Foreign legion to make up the remaining shortfall.
All very good points indeed. Its time to rethink NS for Singapore. We can certainly afford a full-time professional army. I especially like your pint about the economic costs of taking 2 years from a fully fit and highly employable Singaporean male. I would also add that the 2 years of NS impacts the total fertility rate (TFR) as it means Singaporean males start working 2 years later which means marrying 2 years later. This 2 years could make the difference between 1 child or 2 child. Keep up the good and insightful blogs.
Gordon, pls get a grip of reality and look at who your neigbours. You whine like a femine guy from the strawberry generation. When georgia got invaded by russia, did anybody helped them? Pls stop writing stupid articles like this.
How is this article stupid? It brings up valid and legitimate points of concern. What does Georgia and Russia have to do with this? I do not know what point your were trying to make so I’ll cover the simplest one. The situation that war was set in is completely unrelated to our currently neighboring tension. The war they had revolved around the land of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Both sides were at fault as Georgia took offensive actions first and Russia’s response were too heavy for the situation. Both side suffered equal amounts of casualty lost. Both side employed mainly regular forces with conscription of 18 months or less. Both sides main fighting force was regulars. Your comparison is way out of the ball park.
Most armed conflicts results from build-up of troops at the borders, as it was with the Russia-Georgia war and the tension between South and North Korea. For Singapore, our land is equals to our borders. Which means we are constantly building up troops at our borders. Compared to the 15,000 build-up by Russia, do you really think our neighboring countries feels safe with out currently active, reserve and standby all in the same place so close to their borders?
Singapore currently has a estimate total of 950,000 soldiers, NSF, Regulars and Reservists combined. Do you have any idea how many people that is? That’s 63 times more than the soldiers buildup in the Russia-Georgia war. If each soldier of Singapore was to stand 100 meters away from each other on the island, we’d still have about 200,000 left spilling out into the sea. It is 1/7 of the entire population density of Singapore, 1/4 of the entire non-FT population of Singapore.
Maybe a reduced conscription and army size is considered a ‘feminine’ way by your standard. But if it can help reduce tension, secure fair and social equality and freedom among Singaporean males in modern times, help draft up a better, stronger (and smaller) army, and most importantly help prevent war, then yeah, I am a fucking feminine guy.
If anyone got invaded by Russia, you think they could resist them if they weren’t either Chinese/Americans?
Judging by our military size and spending, it appears that we are the one that are going to invade malaysia, not the other way round.
LKY really do have this mentality of “overspamming”, not only does he propose this policy economically, he also propose this militarily.
as a NSF, your article certainly hit lots of right notes , some of the points are extremely valid, specially the one on the ability to increase the pay of regulars if all the funds used to train NSF are diverted to regulars, and, serving NS to increase loyalty to the country.
With each passing day while I’m in green, more and more foreigners make way to our shore, with such an obvious and significant lost of national identity and sense sovereignty, I find myself and many of my peers around me asking why we subject ourselves to such treatment and sacrifice when our rice bowl is not even guaranteed when we start to work. We in turn became less accepting of having immigrants, after all, what did they do to contribute to the defense of Singapore, what did they do other than competing with us in the employment field and driving wages down?? And then in the end, you’ll ask, why are they here?? Do they belong here?? Are they gonna seek out greener pastures once they’ve out grown Singapore??
Even after two years of conscription
Reservist will continue to haunt many all the way from university to when you enter the employment field. If you’re one of those which hate your job and treat reservist as a getaway, good for you, but for people who are serious about their future, it’s yet another extended form of liability.
I’m an NSF, any changes if need be to conscription wouldn’t benefit me by the time it is implemented (even if it is accepted by a very reluctant government).
I’m penning this down for the benefit of our future generations.
I really hope people at the top can see what’s so wrong with conscription considering the era we’re living in. I just hope they didn’t choose to be so excessive in terms of defense just because someone called us a little red dot. It’s time to get over it and reflect what and by how much, we really need.