Singapore's success means today's national servicemen have much more to protect than when national service (NS) was first instituted 50 years ago, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday as he launched a year-long series of events to commemorate 50 years of national service.
Painting Singapore as a modern metropolis in which a majority of citizens own homes and enjoy world-class education, healthcare and transport systems, Dr Ng told 100 recruits on Pulau Tekong moments before they were sworn in to begin their basic military training: "Your generation inherits a better Singapore, a stronger SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) and greater support for NS than the one the older generation started with."
But the milestone is also a reminder that a strong defence is always needed, even in times of peace, Dr Ng said.
For instance, Lithuania abolished NS in the belief that it was one of the fruits of the "peace dividend" derived from the end of the Cold War.
Barely 20 years later, Russia's annexation of Crimea and troubles in neighbouring Ukraine have undermined stability in the region.
PROTECTING THE NATION
We can never change the fact that we are a small country, but today, after 50 years of NS, we have built an SAF capable of defending Singapore.
DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN
"Today, Lithuania wants to reinstate NS in the face of bold aggression, but finds it almost impossible to raise a strong military when they need it most," he said.
Closer to home, the recent seizure of Singapore's armoured vehicles in Hong Kong has led some to question whether this would have happened if Singapore were a big country, said Dr Ng.
"We can never change the fact that we are a small country, but today, after 50 years of NS, we have built an SAF capable of defending Singapore," he said at the oath-taking ceremony, which was also attended by some of the first citizen soldiers to don the uniform of the country's nascent military.
These pioneers had to build up the SAF from scratch to meet the threat of Konfrontasi, the communist insurgency in the region, and a possible fallout from the Vietnam War.
Today, Dr Ng noted, SAF troops combat terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, participate in anti- piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and regularly conduct humanitarian relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters.
The evolution of NS as an institution is featured in the newly opened NS Gallery, a permanent exhibition that was also launched by Dr Ng at the Basic Military Training Centre.
The event on Pulau Tekong kicks off a year of activities to commemorate the golden jubilee of NS, including an NS50 Week in August, the same month during which the first batch of full-time national servicemen enlisted in 1967.
Since then, more than a million people have gone through what is now a rite of passage for Singaporean men, with about one in four serving in the police and civil defence forces.
"Indeed, over the past 50 years, NS has become an institution through which Singaporean males define themselves in their formative years, a crucial period where close friends are made for life; where values and character are deeply forged; where they begin to understand why and how they protect those that they love and what they cherish on this island home," Dr Ng said.
Recruit Jeremy Lee, 24, who was one of those sworn in yesterday, said he was excited to enter the military. His father also served NS and helped to prepare him mentally for his new life as a soldier. "I hope to do my father and family proud," he said.