Parag Khanna, For The Straits Times

National service for the 21st century

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Offer young Singaporeans a menu of options in national service beyond the military.

"Switzerland doesn't have an army, it is an army."

So described the American writer John McPhee the Swiss military in his famous reportage La Place de la Concorde Suisse.

For over 200 years, conscripted Swiss men have trained to mobilise to defend the whole country in less than 48 hours. In a referendum last year, an overwhelming 73 per cent of Swiss citizens showed continued support for mandatory conscription.

Singaporeans also believe that full-time national service (NS) is essential for defence, identity building, fitness and other reasons. But like all venerable institutions, NS must evolve with the times to remain relevant to the challenges it is designed to address.

The state has substantial and diverse priorities. These include national defence and internal security, social services, and a desire to stimulate creativity and promote economic growth. Singapore's NS should therefore be broadened to encompass these functions in a way that does not compromise fundamental security needs.

21st century info-states

SINGAPORE and Switzerland are what I have called "info-states". These are societies where data, technology, master planning and alternative scenarios are as critical to governance as democracy. The two countries are often characterised as having inverted political systems, with Switzerland having a "bottom-up" system while Singapore maintains a "top-down" one. But Singapore and Switzerland can also be viewed as being quite similar, not least for their propensity to top many global competitiveness rankings.

A strong military is vital to protecting such small countries that are rich in financial, technical and human capital. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is thus unstinting in its pursuit of military excellence. It must continue to acquire all the assets necessary to deter aggression: military, cyber and economic. But even with razor- sharp defences, info-states fundamentally thrive on connectedness. Their economic and diplomatic footprint will always be far larger than their military one.

A 21st century country must think in 21st century terms about national security. Only two advanced countries still have military-only national service schemes: South Korea and Israel. Arguably they still need it.

But many stable societies in the world also modify their national service requirements to changing circumstances. The decade following the reunification of Germany in 1990 saw a wave of such adjustments. Just as I was leaving high school near Hamburg, all my German contemporaries went off to diverse military or civil service assignments lasting only one year.

If I have a bias in this debate, it is to keep national service a primarily military activity rather than diluting it. My undergraduate concentration was military strategy - known much more by its campus nickname "Guns & Bombs". I also served as an adviser with the United States Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting counter-terrorism missions.

My first book, The Second World, is a geopolitical travelogue covering high-stakes countries from Libya and Ukraine to Venezuela and Kazakhstan. I have worked with the US National Intelligence Council to develop scenarios on major regional conflicts.

Yet what I have learnt from all of these experiences is that someone who is expert in only "security" is missing the big picture.

Malaysia: Shifting dynamics

THE shifting dynamics between Singapore and Malaysia are a key case in point. Across the former British Empire, countries that shunned each other at independence a half-century ago are now sharing currencies, pooling capital, building cross-border infrastructure, and attracting joint investments.

Singapore and Malaysia fit this pattern of post-colonial fraternity. Malaysia has become a major economic opportunity for Singapore. But it is also the source of a variety of micro-threats, such as drugs and illegal immigrants. None of these can be dealt with using primarily military means (as the US has learnt on the Mexican border).

The solution requires more joint investment, job creation, law enforcement, and other tools. In this context, we should ask: How does NS contribute to greater stability in this new regional paradigm?

New model army

THE most fundamental question is how to allocate human resources efficiently. The SAF is a crucial foundation of this strength - but it is not the only one. Nor is it the only one that requires able-bodied citizens to commit time and effort.

Indeed, it is rather odd for a country whose civil service is perhaps the world's most competent and effective to limit formal service requirements to defence alone.

Given Singapore's particular circumstances, NS should become a menu of options across military, civil, commercial and social entities. But it should be managed in a manner that preserves the equity of the programme.

Basic training must remain a universal commitment. But it should be carried out by the SAF, Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and police - a distribution that is critical especially if women become integrated into NS so that exercises are more flexibly suited to physical abilities.

Each year, a wide range of places will be available for NS positions across corporate, civil, social and military functions, with dynamic quotas based on positions available and needed each year. Students will indicate their preferences across "hard" and "soft" placements, but with the SAF, SCDF and police having priority to ensure they meet their force adequacy requirements.

Not everyone will get their first choice, but fairness should be built in by requiring each NS-hosting entity to take in a representative cross-section of youth from all backgrounds and education levels to avoid giving unfair career advantages to those in corporate or civil roles rather than military. This is essential to preserve one of the key virtues of national service as it stands today: the integration of all racial groups and income levels. 

If choices are unevenly distributed - for example, if too many young people choose the engineering option and not enough choose the educational one - a ballot may be held and some routed to their second or even third choices.

No doubt the allocation process may get a little complicated, but it will not be anything out of the ordinary for Singaporeans used to the posting exercises for admission to secondary schools, polytechnics and universities. The key is to make sure that criteria for deployments are transparent and the process, such as a ballot, is seen as equitable.

Upgrade, not upsize

BUT ensuring the primacy of the military is not a race for numbers. Looking around the world, it is clear that military effectiveness does not correlate with the number of soldiers under arms. America's defence establishment is being forced to consider how to get more value from technology rather than manpower, hence the greater investments in drones and wearable exoskeletons.

With opportunities in hardware innovation and cyber security, Singapore could indeed become even more of a "start-up nation" than Israel, with tighter links between the defence and technology sectors. A professional army with a well-trained and compensated officer corps and more linkages outside the military would also struggle less with career transitions at the age of 50 or 55.

NS provides a captive audience of highly capable youth whose abilities can be leveraged and skills upgraded. NS can be used to train responsible stakeholders, not just in law and order, but also in welfare and productivity.

Formally designating strategic industries as a form of national service is not at all new. During World War II, the US exempted from the draft men working in crucial sectors such as automobile and tank assembly. In Singapore in the 1980s, more than 10,000 servicemen were diverted into the so-called "construction brigade" to accelerate Housing Board public housing development. At the time, Singapore faced a labour shortage. Now, of course, it seeks to cap foreign labour.

Shouldn't some NS men become structural engineers, building next-generation infrastructure at home while developing skills for a lucrative industry Singapore can export? Indeed, as the labour component of manufacturing and its gross domestic product contribution decreases, it is likely that more Singaporeans will have to venture abroad as managers, trainers and investors.

The French system includes rigorous training in public administration as well as work in commercial entities. Singaporeans should similarly become commercial cadets within the many government-linked companies, learning management skills essential for both climbing corporate ladders and running entrepreneurial start-ups. They could even do service projects in neighbouring Asean countries in a Singapore-style peace corps.

Education is as strategic as any other sector. From pre-schools to polytechnics, more educational institutes are mushrooming, each with needs in staffing, administration and training. Many of those who begin with teaching apprenticeships during NS may later choose education as a profession.

Health care, particularly for the elderly, also needs a manpower boost.

Given Singapore's concern about growing ethnic diversity and inequality, another function from the French NS system is instructive: social integration. Providing counselling to new arrivals, marginalised families, and under-skilled individuals will ensure that a more diverse Singapore continues to build a common identity.

Whatever the role, NS members should get similar stipends during their year of service, and return once a year to mentor their successors.

Once NS functions are broadened, there is even more reason to draw from two enormous and untapped pools of labour to ensure that defence and non-defence requirements are fulfilled: women and permanent residents (PRs).

It is clear from the Singapore Conversation dialogues that there is some public sentiment - among men and women alike - for women to play a stronger role in national service. More inter-gender bonding during various NS duties may even lead to earlier marriages and a much-desired boost in the birth rate.

As a country with a large, permanent expatriate population, PRs can also provide necessary talent and manpower while deepening their integration into Singaporean society.

Building solidarity

THERE is no underestimating how important NS is to building solidarity, promoting fitness, and boosting long-term volunteerism. But evidence from around the world suggests that there are many ways to achieve social cohesion. Teach for America, a nonprofit organisation founded in 1990, pays graduates meagre stipends to work in inner-city schools, yet jockeys with investment banking and management consulting as the most competitive and desirable first step after college. Employers view it as a true demonstration of character and teamwork.

Broadening NS options taps the latent idealism of youth and channels it into fruitful service for the nation. Rather than being viewed as an opportunity cost, it will provide a platform for youth to develop their interests early on, leading to better focus in universities and polytechnics.

When the time comes, my son will do Singaporean national service whatever form it takes. So the question is not whether to serve, but what service is needed?

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The author is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.