What is the future of Singapore's national service as it turns 55?

Soldiers singing the National Anthem at the Total Defence Day event on Feb 15, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Although the National Service (Amendment) Bill was passed on March 14, 1967, Singapore's first experience with national service actually started in the 1950s.

A national service law was implemented in 1954 for the part-time conscription of eligible male British subjects and Federal citizens.

It was a move opposed by Chinese middle school students, who felt they were discriminated against by the British government in terms of education and language policies.

On May 13 that year, hundreds of students rioted as they fought against compulsory conscription.

Since 1967, more than a million male Singaporeans and permanent residents have served national service (NS).

But as observers and policymakers have noted, it will need to continue evolving to fulfil its mandate, and take into account the profile of national servicemen, the declining birth rate, and the changing nature of external threats.

As Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament last month, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that Singapore cannot lose the ability to defend itself, and this is why the country has invested consistently to build up a credible and strong Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and to maintain NS.

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The need for a critical number of able-bodied men to defend Singapore was pressing in the early days of independence in 1965, coming from the painful memories of the Japanese Occupation and Indonesia's policy of Konfrontasi.

Then, Singapore had just two under-strength battalions, an ageing gunboat and not a single aircraft, wrote Associate Professor Albert Lau from the National University of Singapore's history department in a chapter for a book titled National Service In Singapore published in 2018.

In 1968, Britain announced it would accelerate the withdrawal of its troops from Singapore by 1971.

Singapore first sought help from Egypt, India and Israel to build up its armed forces. Israel responded and it recommended creating a citizens' army of conscripts as the most cost- and manpower-effective way to build a credible SAF.

In July 1967, the first batch of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) were enlisted to serve in two newly formed battalions.

Singapore youths reporting for national service on Aug 30, 1967. ST PHOTO: KOK AH CHONG

Today, Singapore males serve up to two years in either the SAF, police or the Singapore Civil Defence Force, with the majority of the enlistees deployed in the SAF.

After completing full-time service, NSFs become operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen), which number 350,000 and form the bulk of the armed forces when it is fully mobilised. They serve a 10-year cycle and can be called up for up to 40 days a year.

In 1970, the Government changed NS from part-time to full-time service for all, and standardised NS liability to 2½ years for both officers and non-commissioned officers, and two years for other ranks.

In 2004, the Government reduced the conscription period to two years across the board.

How servicemen are equipped and trained have changed substantially through the years, from the first-generation, thick-cottoned Temasek Green uniform that debuted in 1967, to the latest pixelised version introduced in 2012 that improves comfort and stealth.

Training and standards of regimentation have also evolved, in line with a new generation of soldiers that grew up in the digital age.

A scheme introduced in 2018 allows NSFs with aptitude in cyber security to serve as cyber defenders while studying part-time for university credits. Those enlisting from 2017 can indicate their interest in more than 30 vocations.

Better deployment of servicemen and utilisation of combat platforms with advanced technology will be critical to tackling an expected one-third reduction in manpower by 2030 due to falling birth rates, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in a 2019 interview.

An Institute of Policy Studies survey of 1,200 Singaporeans in 2013 showed strong public support for NS, with many seeing it as fulfilling a social mission of instilling discipline and values in the young, beyond its defence mandate.

NS is also one of the few issues to receive political support from both the ruling People's Action Party and the main opposition party, the Workers' Party.

Even so, efforts have been made over the years to strengthen understanding and support for NS. From 1997, parents were invited to accompany their enlisting sons directly into camp.

The top-level NS Review Committee recently unveiled initiatives to deploy servicemen of different physical abilities to a wider range of operational roles, and for all NSmen to receive a new base pay of at least $1,600 for every month of in-camp training they attend.

The formation of a new Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) by this year to counter digital threats will mean more NSFs trained in areas that are unlike traditional soldiering roles.

"NS is the bedrock of the SAF," said Prof Lau of NUS. "Keeping this institution relevant, its purpose clear, and a united citizenry behind it are key challenges as NS continues to evolve in response to changing security threats and demographic trends in Singapore."

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