IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Why do Singaporeans serve national service?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 1, 2013

EARLY this year, I celebrated reunion dinner with my wife's parents, her extended family and mine. We sat around the table sharing the latest news of how the younger children have enjoyed different pursuits in school and the latest goings-on in Singapore.

Reunions may not always be happy occasions, especially when a family member is ill or has left us the previous year. But, reunion is about family and that is why we go, rain or shine - to share, to bond, to remember, to encourage and to hope, together.

Every year, around Chinese New Year, I also attend a different reunion dinner. It is a gathering of former Officer Cadet School mates who make it a point to meet up every year to catch up on old times, reminisce about the hard days of training and combat squadron life and hear how the past year has treated one another. The conversation is ripe with honesty and frankness.

After all, we went through so much together during full-time national service training all those 17 years ago, often entrusting our lives to one another. It created a bond in us, which is difficult to break. We are like family.

We went for one another's weddings, celebrated the birth of our children, supported one another through hardship, and offered one another encouragement. They are a group of men in whom I would entrust my life, even today.

Last October, I completed my ninth in-camp training (ICT) as an operationally ready NSman.

The 163 Squadron's mission is to protect Singapore's skies by manning surface to air missile systems. We take our mission seriously. I consider it a privilege to don the green fatigues and serve our country every year as a reservist. Many soldiers in the 163 Squadron feel the same way.

During a rural night exercise on my recent ICT, I found myself covered with sweat from head to toe and being eaten by insects. I asked myself "Why?".

Four reasons came forward that night:

1 SOVEREIGNTY

THERE is a scene in Master And Commander, where Captain Jack Aubrey rouses his crew of British sailors. Their mission is to pursue and disable an enemy French ship.

Captain Aubrey asks: "Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly?"

Crew: "No!"

Captain Aubrey: "Want to call… Napoleon your king?"

Crew: "No!"

Captain Aubrey: "You want your children to sing La Marseillaise?"

Crew: "No!"

Do I want my country, Singapore, to be subsumed by a foreign nation? Do I want our children to stop singing Majulah Singapura? Do I want to see our red-and- white flag replaced by the flag of another nation?

No.

We should never forget that the small state of Singapore has many odds stacked against it. And I should never ever take her sovereignty for granted.

That is why so many fellow Singaporean men go through NS and reservist. We know that it is a simple, logical equation - no armed forces equals no sovereignty.

2 PEOPLE

OVER the past seven years, I have had the privilege of serving Singaporeans as a Member of Parliament in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. During home visits, parents often show me their son's ceremonial sword, the specialist's bayonet or a photo of their son in uniform - in the Singapore Armed Forces or the Home Team.

It will be displayed prominently in a case or on the wall. The parents do not say it - but you can see the pride all over their faces. I feel proud for them too. It is a moment I cherish very much.

At the heart of it all, we serve to protect our parents, our wives, our children, our neighbours, our friends. We serve to protect the way of life that exists in Singapore, that is embodied in Singaporeans. We serve to protect our future and Singaporeans' stake in this country. We serve to protect one another.

3 FELLOW SOLDIERS

IT WAS difficult to sleep during that night exercise, so I ended up chatting with a fellow soldier. Rank did not matter. Race, education and background certainly did not matter. We were simply fellow soldiers on a hill in the dead of night sharing our dreams and difficulties.

It brought back a memory of the time during my NS days when everyone in our course had achieved a "gold" or "silver" standard in the IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test), except for one course mate. He needed to achieve a minimum of a "silver" to graduate from the course. To help him improve his 2.4km timing, the instructors gave him extra physical training when the rest of us were in field classes.

It was a blistering afternoon when he finally took his test. The rest of us saw him running the 2.4km from the training shed. He was in his vest and running shorts and SAF issued shoes, sweating and trying to run as fast as he could. We were in our green camouflage uniform, with our army boots on. We asked permission to leave the class and run with him.

The instructor gave us permission and we raced down to run beside him, cheer him and encourage him to the finish line. He crossed the finish line with all his course mates running alongside him. That soldier was my buddy, and he received his silver grade.

All of us graduated from that combat course, together. No soldier was left behind.

I, too, had to rely on fellow soldiers so that I would not be left behind.

During my time as a full-time NSman, I sustained a bad injury to my ankle. Rather than have me left out, my course mates carried me on their backs so I could attend field classes and training. After my ankle healed, I had the privilege of carrying them when they were injured. Such was our camaraderie. We completed our training at Officer Cadet School and were posted to the 163 Squadron.

NS is one of the most important and valuable experiences that a Singaporean son can have. It is a unique rite of passage that binds us together in an undefinable way.

But should it only be for our sons? I think it's worth exploring the idea, mooted during a recent Our Singapore Conversation, that young Singaporean women be given the choice of serving NS at the same age as the men. I was trained by exceptional female officers and sergeants in Cadet School and would have no hesitation serving alongside them, operationally.

4 SINGAPOREANS' FUTURE

AFTER sleeping on the hill during the rural ICT exercise, I recalled a song that we were taught during tough moments in NS. It reflects why so many Singaporean soldiers - both men and women - are wholehearted about serving in the regular and reservist corps. The lyrics go:

Have you ever wondered, why we must serve?

Because we love our land -And we want it to be free, to be free.

It is my hope that this song will be sung for generations of Singaporean men and women to come.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is an operationally ready NSman and serves as an officer in RSAF's 163 Squadron. He is a People's Action Party MP for Holland Bukit-Timah GRC and a litigator at WongPartnership LLP.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 1, 2013

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