Plan to enlist poly students for NS earlier

Change among NS recommendations set to cost $4.5 billion over a decade

Polytechnic students are likely to start their national service in May or August next year, a month earlier than usual, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament yesterday.

The proposed change, which will affect an annual intake of some 11,000 polytechnic students, is one of 30 recommendations by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS), which released its report last week.

Their implementation, including enhanced benefits for NSmen, is expected to cost about $4.5 billion over the next decade, Dr Ng said. It is a move that will have a "huge administrative impact" and require "significant investment" from the Defence Ministry, he said. About 24,500 servicemen are enlisted annually.

"My SAF commanders are sweating over this... Each batch is about five, six, seven thousand, and they're wondering how do we do this."

But enlisting these students earlier means they get into the workforce earlier. For those who enlist in September and are bound for local universities at the end of their two years in August, they will no longer need to disrupt their NS, he said, speaking at the debate on the President's Address.

Junior college and Institute of Technical Education students will also benefit from a shorter waiting time, as the Singapore Armed Forces aims to enlist 90 per cent of its incoming recruits in a four-month window, up from 45 per cent now.

If these suggestions are accepted, they could take effect as early as the middle of next year, said Dr Ng, who chaired the CSNS. Such changes will bring "substantial" benefits to servicemen and Singapore, he noted.

Earlier in his speech, Dr Ng also highlighted the importance of NS to building a credible SAF, since national servicemen form the bulk of the fighting force.

He observed that Singapore is one of the few countries that has sustained its conscript system - for 47 years, as other states gradually phased them out, due to waning public support or to reap peace dividends. He attributed Singapore's success to the NSmen who had discharged their duties, and high levels of public support.

Despite that, the CSNS pressed on with its work, to ensure that NS remains "responsive and relevant to a new generation of millennial national servicemen".

"Better to hear them now and adjust policies, rather than wait and assume previous policies will work even when circumstances have changed," said Dr Ng.

For instance, family sizes have shrunk, work life is more hectic and more Singaporeans aspire to higher education. "Motivating national servicemen will have to change. Especially when this new generation has no direct experience of our early struggles."

He also welcomed positive feedback on the committee's work and explained the rejection of certain suggestions. "For example, priority places in primary schools... if we give priority to all NSmen then nobody gets priority."

On the additional benefits the committee recommended, he noted: "The benefits we give must reflect the right values of service... (they) must never dilute the spirit of service - that is for duty, honour and country."

jianxuan@sph.com.sg

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