Budget backgrounder: National Service

Servicemen from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) participating in a military exercise on Pulau Sudong on Aug 2, 2011. National Service stints may be shortened by a few weeks from the current two years, under a plan by the SAF to hire more career
Servicemen from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) participating in a military exercise on Pulau Sudong on Aug 2, 2011. National Service stints may be shortened by a few weeks from the current two years, under a plan by the SAF to hire more career soldiers to make NS training more effective. -- ST FILE PHOTO: NURIA LING

National Service stints may be shortened by a few weeks from the current two years, under a plan by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to hire more career soldiers to make NS training more effective.

Young men due to be enlisted may also face a shorter wait of four to five months, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen during the debate on his ministry's Budget on Thursday. We look at five facts about NS:

1. Once upon a time, NS was as long as three years

When NS started in 1967, officers served 36 months and the rest had to complete 30 months of training.

In 1971, the service period was cut to 30 months for those who held the rank of corporal and above, and 24 months for those below.

In 1991, under the Graduated Basic Military Training (BMT) scheme, enlistees who obtained a silver or gold fitness standard need go through only a three-month BMT, rather than four months.

Two years later, enlistees who attained at least the silver standard in the Physical Training Programme were given a discount of two months. Their NS duration was cut to 28 months.

In 2004, full-time NS was shortened to 24 months for those who held the rank of corporal and above. The move was made possible because the SAF was relying more on technology, and there was a projected surge in the number of enlistees because of higher birth rates between 1988 and 1997.

2. The "down time" before and after NS

Some have complained about the amount of "down time" before and after NS stints. Many now face a combined total of seven to eight months' waiting in the periods between school and NS, as well as NS and university.

Currently, polytechnic students wait between three and six months to be called up for NS. The wait for junior college students is shorter. Dr Ng said on Thursday the SAF is looking at cutting the call-up waiting time to four to five months.

Some have also called for a shorter wait between completing NS and entering university. Currently, it can be six months or longer.

Nearly 80 per cent of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) are A-level graduates or polytechnic diploma holders who will go to university.

3. Shrinking pool of enlistees

More than 900,000 Singaporeans had gone through NS since 1967.

In 2011, about 26,000 were enlisted. But with declining birth rates, the number is expected to fall from 2016. The decline will continue until 2025, when the projected number of enlistees will fall to 19,500.

To cope with the smaller cohort, the SAF is turning to technology, better training for NSFs, and outsourcing non-core functions to civilian contractors to free up soldiers for more combat duties, among others.

4. The annual call to serve

There will be no change in the number of in-camp trainings (ICT) that Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) have to fulfil. This is so that Singapore can maintain the strength in its standing force even with falling birth rates, Dr Ng said on Thursday.

Currently, NSmen are called up annually for 10 years for up to 40 days of in-camp training. Some 300,000 NSmen are called up for ICT every year.

ICT was shortened in 2006 from 13 to 10 years, after the SAF changed its focus to rely on technology over numbers.

5. Better trainers, better soldiers

For more effective training, the SAF is planning to recruit about 1,100 career soldiers to train NSFs.

Currently, the training is now being conducted by second-year NSFs.

Today, only one in six trainers in the Basic Military Training Centre are career soldiers. SAF hopes to raise the proportion to one in three, with the move to hire full-time trainers.