National service would not have been the backbone of Singapore's defences for 50 years without the sacrifices of more than a million men over the decades who had served in the armed forces, police and civil defence. If they had not taken their tasks seriously and built credible resources from scratch, there would have been little assurance that tiny Singapore could stand tall to celebrate 50 years of independence, which it did two years ago. Now, it's the turn of NS to mark this important milestone. In doing so, the nation must also acknowledge the wholehearted support for NS shown by family members, employers and others in the community. They also deserve to be saluted, although for practical reasons, an NS50 Recognition Package of $100 in vouchers will go to only past and present national servicemen.
The amount is not important. What matters is the symbolic value of the package. It is a way of showing deep appreciation to those who built security so that a spatial gathering of mostly diasporic people could imagine themselves as a nation with a future, and a city-state could have borders that larger nations would be obliged to respect. Singapore's potent citizen army gave others a reason to give due regard to the small nation.
A large standing army would have been ruinous, not just for the cost involved, but also for the precious manpower it would have diverted from the economy. But anything less than credible deterrence could have made independence short-lived.
In the process of securing Singapore from external threats, NS also built a more secure country within. NS created new ways of coming together for male Singaporeans. It forged the camaraderie of comradeship, not only through the necessary rituals of peacetime - growing up in school together, and making lifelong friends in the community and at work - but also in the heat of preparing for security challenges. Differences of race, religion, education and status mattered less when life itself depended on the friendship, trust and support of others in one's operating unit. The habits of the heart cultivated during NS stayed on after the re-entry to civilian life. They strengthened the bonds that made all - Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians - Singaporeans first and last.
Half a century of that rite of passage for men has turned NS into a fact of Singapore life. An enduring institution, it makes demands of discipline and time from one's teen years to adulthood, while careers are built and new families are formed. It is to the credit of Singaporeans that they have accepted NS as a natural part of life and a challenge that must be met by adhering to the highest standards. It is arduous, but it also evokes much pride and tugs at the heart, especially when one sees many generations bound by the shared experience of NS over half a century.