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Should women do National Service now? Societal cost will 'far outweigh' benefits, says Ng Eng Hen

Should women do National Service now? Societal cost will 'far outweigh' benefits, says Ng Eng Hen
Female recruits who will go on to become regulars at the Basic Military Training Centre on Pulau Tekong on Feb 11, 2020. (Photo: CNA/Try Sutrisno Foo)

SINGAPORE: The “societal cost” of enlisting women into National Service (NS) now will “far outweigh” the benefits, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (May 9).

“Women will be delayed in their entry into the workforce. The immediate effect will be an accentuated decline in the size of our local workforce, and a reduction of household incomes,” he said.

“Even if women are enlisted for non-military National Service roles to augment our healthcare and social services, it may make manpower shortages in other industries worse. Over the long term, it will impose a great cost not only on women themselves, but also on their families, children and spouses and society as a whole.

“Is that cost justified to send a signal or to reverse stereotypes? From the Government’s perspective, no. I think most Singaporeans would say no too, from a security perspective.”

Dr Ng was responding to a question by MP Carrie Tan (PAP-Nee Soon), who asked about the enlistment of women and its considerations beyond having an adequate NS population to meet defence needs.

The minister pointed to how some had suggested, during the debate on the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development, that women be enlisted for reasons of gender equality, in potential roles like nurses or teachers.

“Having reached this position of strength, should we for the sake of gender equality, now introduce NS for women?” he asked, highlighting how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), despite reduced manpower, has remained operationally ready by using technology and optimising resources.

“I think there are distinct pitfalls if conscription is implemented for any other reason than the critical need of military defence, whether it is for men or women.”

The “primary reason” for enlistment must remain to train a soldier who is able to defend Singapore, and to repel if not defeat an enemy who wants to invade the country, Dr Ng said.

Likewise, he said enlistment in the police and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) must be based on the national need for homeland security and emergency services.

“It's very far off from the proposals to enlist women to serve in roles such as caregivers and healthcare workers, or to send a powerful signal of gender equality,” he added.

“These are inadequate justifications or reasons to mandate that someone must suspend individual liberties as a civilian, give up two years of his or her life, and if they do not, they go to jail, as our courts have sentenced NS defaulters.”

Dr Ng stressed that women should therefore not be enlisted to perform roles outside the SAF, police and SCDF even if this achieves “some social good”.

“There is currently no need for us to enlist women for National Service,” he said.

But if Singapore ever faces an “existential threat” by an aggressor, with a “sudden and great need” to boost its military, Dr Ng said he is certain that the Ministry of Defence and SAF would call on the Government of that day to enlist not only women, but also teenagers and older men to defend and save Singapore.

When Ukraine was invaded by Russia, it required women aged between 18 and 60 to register for possible military conscription, Dr Ng said.

“Young men and elderly, who are well past their retirement age, also volunteered to fight on the front lines to protect their country,” he said, citing a report about a 79-year-old Ukrainian woman who was filmed at a training ground handling a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

“But we are not there today and hope never to be.”

WOMEN ALREADY CONTRIBUTING TO DEFENCE

Nevertheless, Dr Ng said the “significant” contributions that women make in national defence and security, by serving as regulars and volunteers, should not be downplayed or dismissed.

Regular servicewomen currently serve in vocations such as infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, pilots and naval officers, he said.

The SAF currently has more than 1,600 uniformed servicewomen who make up about 8 per cent of its regulars, he said. Since 2015, more than 500 women have also been trained and deployed in different roles as volunteers in the SAF Volunteer Corps.

Dr Ng said the SAF wants more women to join its ranks and will make it more attractive for them to do so.

For example, it facilitates flexible work arrangements such as part-time or job-sharing and telecommuting where possible, without compromising operational readiness.

The SAF also has a Women Outreach Office to review policies and create a conducive and progressive workplace experience for servicewomen.

MP Poh Li San (PAP-Sembawang), a former flight commander and helicopter search and rescue pilot in the Republic of Singapore Air Force, also asked about the current proportion of SAF servicewomen in senior leadership, and what could be done to increase this.

Dr Ng said women make up 5 per cent of regulars holding senior ranks of Lieutenant Colonel, Military Expert 6, or Master Warrant Officer and above.

“Progression to senior ranks for all personnel is based on merit, capability and aptitude, as it is for all soldiers,” he added. “We hope to see this figure increase as the proportion of servicewomen in the SAF continues to grow.”

Still, Dr Ng said the SAF is not only trying to attract women but also "Singaporeans across the board".

"Thankfully and I suppose, expectedly, we are counter-cyclical when it comes to the economy. Our recruitment has been fairly successful and our attrition quite low," he said.

"Despite being a military, how do you attract and recruit Singaporeans who you want to join you? And we are taking this challenge seriously; we recognise that COVID precipitated a number of changes which will not go back to status quo ante."

While Dr Ng said working from home might not be possible as the SAF's IT systems are usually separated from the Internet, he added that the military has set up locations with secure systems across the island where servicemen and women can do their work.

"Just like the whole of government and civil service, we are seeing how work away from office is very much, we believe, an entrenched concept," he said.

"You try to fight it, you will not become an attractive recruiter as an organisation. We will embrace it, but see how it works."

Source: CNA/hz(ac)

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