NS 'should be about citizen integration too'

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 11, 2013

NATIONAL service (NS) should be as much about nation-building and integrating citizens old and new, as it is about deterring external threats, if it wants to gain traction with the present generation.

This was one of the suggestions offered by analysts, after the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) announced on Wednesday that it was looking for ways to strengthen the younger generation's commitment to NS.

In peacetime, the story of NS could be told differently, believed Dr Terence Lee, assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

"This goes beyond just 'the Singapore that I'm defending'. It has to also be about integration and nation-building," he said.

He pointed out that as an immigrant influx continues, "all the more, we need an institution that can bring us together".

Mr Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, maintained that Singapore needs a deterrent military force.

But the authorities could "enunciate more clearly the reasons for it".

After making Wednesday's announcement, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who chairs the CSNS, had recalled to reporters how a 19-year-old recruit told him that the possibility of threat from one of Singapore's neighbours had become "less real to his generation".

Dr Ng added then: "They don't see the threat immediately - they know it's there, mentally - they know that it could come about."

Some Members of Parliament have recently called for NS to be reassessed, asking if it could be used as a tool to integrate citizens.

Another issue that experts hope the CSNS will look into is the public perception of national servicemen.

International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow William Choong said that those in uniform in Singapore are often seen as just a part of the "landscape", while in Taiwan, for instance, they are treated with respect. Improving this relationship with the public would help motivate servicemen, he said.

Analysts also weighed in on how national servicemen should be rewarded, dismissing direct monetary incentives as unsustainable and questioning their effectiveness.

A Straits Times poll in March of 100 national servicemen found nearly half of them calling for more monetary incentives - including increased subsidies for housing, transport, education and health.

But Dr Lee said: "There is a greater calling that cannot be commoditised in terms of monetary value."

Added Mr Bitzinger, who is an American: "I don't know if money would necessarily be that strong a motivating factor. It's more of a consolation prize. You might satisfy some of them, but you might get some saying, 'Keep the money - I'd rather not serve'."

Subsidies to help national servicemen with education, or savings plans, might be more effective, he suggested.

Dr Leong Chan-Hoong, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, proposed giving national servicemen the day off on SAF Day, which falls on July 1.

Servicemen who complete reservist commitments and their families could also be given free tickets to the National Day Parade, he said.

Some national servicemen, who aired their views in an online survey by The Straits Times on Wednesday, agreed that rewards should go beyond money.

Wrote user Samuel Fong: "Money isn't the key in this predicament... belief is."

But he added that more should be done to explain the need to serve to the younger generation.

He said: "It is also a mistake to use the 'I-say-you-listen' approach of yesteryear on today's generation. We've trained them to be inquisitive, and telling them to do something because someone said so is not going to convince them.

"Once again, you need to tell them why they are doing so, what is the big picture, and why their part matters."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 11, 2013

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