Army chief recounts power of NS experience in times of crisis

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The Singapore Army will resume more overseas training exercises this year as Singapore moves to living with Covid-19, said Brigadier-General David Neo, on the army's focus in 2022.

SINGAPORE - As the Singapore Armed Forces' director of joint operations during the pandemic in 2020, Brigadier-General (BG) David Neo was asked to help out in the fight to contain the outbreak of the virus in migrant worker dormitories.

Knowing the size of the task at hand, he approached representatives from hospitals and did not want to be "too military" in communicating with them.

But the representatives turned out to be either former army chief medical officers or NSmen (operationally ready national servicemen), who told him, "Sir, you don't need to explain so many things to us. You just tell us what's the ops plan and we will get it done."

Recounting his experience on Wednesday (May 25), the current Chief of Army said: "That's the power of national service in a moment of crisis and I think you see that not just in the operations we did with the medical officers, there were also other areas... you just see our NSmen everywhere and there's this common language, common lingo, common ethos, common idea of being mission focused, to just get our nation out of this crisis."

He was speaking to reporters at the F1 Pit Building a few days before the Army Open House, which commemorates 55 years of NS with the theme "Generations of Strength".

NS is something that is critically important for Singapore, said BG Neo, who has been army chief for a little over two months.

"It's a way by which a small country, in an uncertain world, can defend itself and call upon every citizen, if need be, to come together for the purpose of defending our country."

As for the theme of the event, he said it was about the commitment of generations of servicemen to defence of Singapore.

"It's about... the sacrifice to put aside the needs of the few for the needs of the many. And it's something that I think we ought to guard jealously, and continue to strengthen, nurture and build in the years ahead."

National servicemen can now serve in more roles. BG Neo said underpinning efforts to make the army stronger is having a more "enabling philosophy" towards soldier deployment.

He noted a trial last year that was intended to replace a binary mode of classifying soldiers into combat-fit and non-combat-fit, by using functional assessments to determine national servicemen's deployability in specific vocations.

This trial, which was used for transport operators, was well-received and BG Neo said the army will extend such functional assessments to other vocations and redesign new jobs.

This would translate into expanded deployment for 1,600 full-time national servicemen jobs across 89 vocations.

In the same vein, he cited the Expertise Deployment Centre in the NS Affairs Department which was set up last year and facilitates the tapping of NSmen's civilian expertise to fill operational roles.

BG Neo at the F1 Pit Building, the venue for the Army Open House 2022, which commemorates 55 years of NS. PHOTO: MINDEF

While there are enhancements at present to the NS experience, there have been recent calls for women to be conscripted as well.

In Parliament this month, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the societal cost of enlisting women for NS would far outweigh any benefits.

BG Neo thinks that it is not necessary for now for women to be conscripted. The army is looking for more of them to join the regular force, he said, and the SAF Volunteer Corps is also a good avenue for them to contribute.

He urged the public to thank five NSmen in uniform whom they do not know.

He said: "Just say five words to them - 'thank you for your service'. It's a very simple thing do, but to our NSmen, it means the world to them."

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