UPDATE 14 September 2006: I've been informed that this post (or an earlier version of it) has been forwarded to Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean via the Government Feedback Unit. Or something like that.
NS is a provocative issue. So is foreign talent. Link the two, as I did here, and what we get is a passionate flurry of readers' responses. All good and well, but as in all passionate debates, people can get a little hasty and muddle up their own thinking.
So I begin by explaining my basic premises again. It is an ongoing policy objective for MINDEF "to make our NSmen feel appreciated for their contributions to National Defence". That policy objective came into existence long before "foreign talent" ever became topical. The question is how well MINDEF is succeeding with its policy objective today.
The new and major challenge for this old MINDEF objective is the foreign talent policy. Increasingly, Singaporeans are angry and dissatisfied because:
1. NS compels them to make heavy personal sacrifices;
2. foreigners in Singapore enjoy the benefits of these sacrifices;
3. foreigners in Singapore do not have to make such sacrifices themselves;
4. there are, and will be, more and more foreigners in Singapore; and
5. NSmen, in their civilian lives, are disadvantaged by having to compete with these foreigners who need not make these sacrifices.
Next, we need to make some basic assumptions to simplify the matter. We assume that:
(A) NS is necessary;
(B) Singapore needs its foreigners;
(C) the government cares about Singaporeans' inequitable situation;
(D) the government wants to manage Singaporeans' dissatisfaction.
All four assumptions are questionable. But since I am a blogger, not an author of thick books, I make these assumptions and move on. Some suggestions I have to improve the situation are:
Increase NSFs' pay. Following the fine example of our ministers and their salaries, NSFs salaries should be pegged to market rates. While the exact salary of an NSF would vary with his rank and vocation, NSF salaries in general should be pegged to the salaries they would be drawing, if they were not serving NS.
For example, assuming that the majority of NSFs are polytechnic grads, NSF salaries could be pegged to the starting salary of fresh polytechnic grads. Depending on the defence budget, the NSF's pay could be pegged to, say, 100%, 85% or 65% of a poly grad's pay.
The obvious argument against this suggestion is that the cost is too high. However, what we must recognise is that the loss already exists. Each year, about 36,000 NSFs (my estimate) and their families are already suffering financial loss. The loss is the money that the NSFs would be earning, if they were not serving NS.
The question then arises - who should bear the loss? Under our current system, the NSFs (and their families) bear the loss. However, the benefits of NS are for the entire state. Thus my view is that the loss should be transferred to the government, and indirectly to all taxpayers (instead of being borne by the NSFs themselves).
NS for University Admission. In recent years, universities in Singapore have broadened their selection criteria beyond academic grades. For example, in deciding whether to admit an applicant, the university may give consideration to his achievements in non-scholastic areas, such as sports or music or volunteer work.
I think that MINDEF should encourage local universities to give similar recognition to NSFs' military performance. As things currently stand, the university will favour the applications of students who, in junior college:
(1) learned to fire an air rifle at static target boards;
(2) were class chairmen; or
(3) organised the college fun fair;
(3) went overseas to Taiwan for language immersion programmes.
It seems ridiculous that the university would not similarly favour the applications of NSFs who, during NS:
(1) learned to fire missiles to destroy enemy naval vessels;
(2) were section or platoon commanders;
(3) organised a 500-man combat mission; or
(3) went overseas to Taiwan for full-scale live-firing military exercises.
SAF personnel administrative systems need to change such that NSFs leave the SAF with a Certificate of Service which does not merely say that they aren't liable for AWOL offences any more. Like a "School Leaving Certificate", the SAF Certificate of Service should properly reflect what the NSF had been doing in the past two years.
(And if the girls complain of unfairness, then they, like the boys, can take two years off from pursuing their studies, and go spend those two years pursuing achievements in sports or music or volunteer work.)
Insurance Benefits. I have heard stories about how the SAF compensates the family with a few thousand dollars, when an NSF dies in a training accident. That's like an insult. I cannot substantiate these stories - they are more hearsay and rumour than anything else. But I think few of us would really be surprised to learn that the SAF pays little, if an NSF suffers death or serious injury as a result of military training.
Singapore forces its young men into military service, which in turn necessarily entails some degree of risk of death or injury. It is bizarre to me that the SAF has no standard insurance plan in place for NSFs. I think that it is only reasonable that the SAF buys life, disability and personal accident insurance for NSFs (at least for those in combat vocations, and for something significantly more than a few thousand dollars). In fact, the coverage should extend to active NSmen as well. As a fringe benefit, NSmen should have the option of continuing with the coverage (and paying for it themselves), when their NS liability is completed.
These measures would show that the SAF has the welfare of NSmen and NSFs at heart (I have to make that assumption, of course) and also serves the very real purpose of protecting the individual financially. The other significant side benefit is that the SAF will have an added incentive to maintain high safety standards (otherwise the occurrence of training accidents will drive insurance premiums upwards over time - costing MINDEF more money). Personally, I have a poor impression of the SAF's safety record.
Making NS a Worthwhile Experience. Many Singaporeans feel that NS was a heavy personal sacrifice, because they got little out of it. A common perception is that NS was basically a waste of their time - it was not a meaningful experience. What's meaningful will vary from individual from individual. But to quote a real-life individual, Victor, as one example:
"I am a 100% true blue Singaporean;Some Singaporeans would be delighted to get a desk job in NS. But it is also easy to understand why some other people who spent two years of their lives filing documents, typing letters and making coffee for their superiors in the SAF might regard their NS experience as meaningless. Victor is grateful for at least one thing - things could have been worse. His fate could have been as an SAF flower-pot mover for events like the IMF/World Bank conference.
I wanted to serve, but they didn't want me the way I wanted it to be;
I wanted to pull the trigger of a rifle, but they made me push a pen instead;
I wanted to march with soldiers, but I ended up fraternizing with CMPB SAF girls instead.
- From a 50-year old who was base-employed not by choice. (But I guess it is still better than moving flower pots.)"
What if things were different? What if more Singaporeans found their NS experience to be meaningful, exciting, interesting, rewarding, personally fulfilling ....? I feel that it is important that the SAF make some attempt at channelling NSFs into vocations that:
(1) they are likely to enjoy (or at least to hate less);
(2) they may possibly acquire some relevant working experience;
(3) tap their individual strengths and abilities.
The process is straightforward. At the pre-enlistment stage, or in the early months of NS, the SAF can provide NSFs with basic information about different types of vocations. NSFs can then rank their preferences, and briefly state why they have such preferences. Wherever feasible, they are posted to their preferred vocations.
This would be heavily subject to operational requirements, of course. NS is to fulfill the nation's defence needs, not the individual's preferences. On the other hand, if individuals get to go where they want to go in the SAF, then overall, they are likely to find their NS a more worthwhile experience, and the SAF is more likely to benefit from having more motivated servicemen.
Currently, in some very limited ways, the SAF does take into account NSFs' preferences and strengths. NSFs with prior training in karate are, for example, often selected to be instructors in unarmed combat. BMT recruits are specifically asked if they would like to go to OCS. But overall, these ways of tapping NSFs and NSmen are still very limited.
I would suggest a system which is much more broadly based. Some Singaporeans do long for the challenge of the really gruelling vocations like the Commandos - if that is what they want, why not let them do it. Singaporeans who aspire to work in the healthcare industry may be interested to be medics; Singaporeans who studied mechanical engineering in poly may have a preference for vocations involving heavy military equipment like artillery or tanks. From the SAF perspective, if you already have a motorcycle licence, it is more sensible to make you a scout than a sniper; if you already have a Diploma in Nautical Studies from the Singapore Polytechnic, it would be more sensible to send you to the Navy than the Air Force. These are just some examples.
Yes, there are operational constraints in giving everyone what they want. But if out of 18,000 recruits a year, 3,000 get to go where they want to go, then I think we have achieved great success.
That's all I have, for Part 2. I will share more ideas in "Rethinking NS - Part 3".
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