SINGAPORE: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that a key reason for the success of National Service (NS) in Singapore was its continued strong support from the public, and its policy of fairness balanced with practical flexibility, recognising the needs of exceptional talent that can bring honour and glory to Singapore.
Such individuals could be athletes like swimmer Joseph Schooling, who have the potential to bring home an Olympic medal, or talented musicians. But less clear-cut cases do exist, such as when a person has yet to achieve those standards but himself or others around him feel that he needs more time to do so. Other cases include those in "special circumstances," such as individuals who are the sole breadwinners of their families.
"Every year, MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) gets many requests to say, ‘Can I be deferred or disrupted’? We do it transparently to say it cannot be for personal needs. If it’s for personal needs, then you have many, many personal needs," said Dr Ng. "And if we allow some to be deferred or disrupted for personal needs, then it becomes unfair for the others. Because everyone will say, ‘I would like to finish my education first become I come back (to serve NS)".
"MINDEF will support requests for deferment which we can explain to the rest of the public, and that the public feels it is fair. And for those with long-term deferments, we will publish those names that we deferred, as we have promised," he said. "It is still a national mandate."
But he noted that even for those offered deferment, some still chose to continue balancing their NS liabilities with training. He added that many of them ended up winning medals at the recent SEA Games.
"I suppose it is a matter of saying, ‘Look, I can do this training and if you give me some flexibility, I can train during NS’, which was exactly what they did. So they were given that option," said Dr Ng.
SHRINKING DEFENCE FORCE
Dr Ng also touched on a broad range of issues in his annual SAF Day interview on Tuesday (Jun 30), including having a relevant and effective force despite a falling birth rate.
In an earlier speech in May, he revealed that the number of full-time National Servicemen would shrink by about 30 per cent from now until 2030. Adding to the challenge was an increasingly diversified society.
"Yet we have been able to maintain and integrate, and bring in each year new national servicemen who identify with the needs, the ethos, the history of Singapore, and why we need a strong SAF. We need to keep doing this, so national education is obviously important".
He remains confident at least until 2050, of the SAF's ability to function as a leaner, stronger force that remains just as potent. Such moves to reduce manpower include the increased used of automation and better technological design in individual platforms - such as the use of cameras on Navy frigates, mobile artillery platforms in the Army, and better use of intelligence in the field by each soldier.
Dr Ng added that these challenges are not unique to Singapore.
"It’s not a constraint that only the SAF faces. In fact, many modern militaries face that same challenge, if not worse, because they don’t have national conscription, because they have to hire a regular army. And they are having problems not only in manpower but budget,” he said.
"Thankfully, because our economy is doing well, we’re well-resourced so we can make up for a relative reduction in manpower with these modern systems. So I would say that we have adjusted to it and at this point of time there is no need to extend National Service nor bring in women. I think we are coping fine, but it does mean that modern systems will require National Servicemen to do more and take more and higher responsibility which I think they are well-equipped to do."
And as modern militaries increasingly use other skill sets such as the use of intelligence and information, such NSmen - as well as those physically unable to take on combat roles - could also be looped in into non-traditional roles such as cyber ops.
"Students of military strategy are studying very carefully what hybrid war means – how you can soften the belly of a target nation for many years and finally bring it down to its knees slowly, because people have lost the will through misinformation, or prepositioning would have reduced the ability (of the target nation) to respond."
"So as with many other countries, we are beefing up our cyber soldiers, and in some senses, that works to our advantage. Because our chaps are very good in cyber, perhaps because they are on the computer so much… net natives; and this ability to use those who have physical conditions that can’t make them completely combat fit. So you now have a new arena where more and more people can make a fundamental difference, even a bigger impact, contribute more, so this works to our advantage."
And as modern militaries evolve to recognise other skill sets, Dr Ng also addressed the issue of women in the armed forces - after the Singapore Armed Forces recently announced that Colonel Gan Siow Huang will become its first female Brigadier General.
"So, the question is, is this history making? Yes. She happens to be female. Is she there because she’s broken a ceiling? No, there was never a ceiling. And she’s risen on her own merit. If there are more, well and good, others who are, regardless of whether it be gender or race or ethnicity, we will promote them. So, my pitch is that if you feel you are good enough to be a general, come and join the SAF."
"Whoever rises to that position, and is able to meet the requirements of that position, we will promote."