This story was originally published in The Straits Times print edition on Oct 9, 2013.
SINGAPORE - When national service was introduced in 1967, its primary purpose was to bolster the defence of Singapore.
Now, a new study has found that many view its main task as being to instil discipline and values into young men.
The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) quizzed 1,251 Singaporeans on what NS meant to them, asking them to grade eight different purposes on a scale of one (not important at all) to six (extremely important).
Instilling discipline and values (mean score 4.9) just edged out national defence (4.86), which the study's authors said showed that NS has become a "social edifice".
"Defence is not any less important," said IPS senior research fellow Leong Chan Hoong, who led the study. "But what used to be peripheral roles of NS are now recognised by many Singaporeans as a major contribution."
The IPS was commissioned to carry out the survey by the high- level panel, the Committee to Strengthen National Service. The survey was carried out between July and last month.
Ninety-eight per cent of respondents agreed that NS is necessary for the defence of the country. The strongest support for NS came from soldiers over 40 who have completed their 13-year training cycles.
Eight out of 10 younger NSmen, aged in their 20s and 30s, believe that women and first- generation permanent residents - who are not required to perform NS - should be allowed to do their part for the country's defence as volunteers.
This could include them serving two-year stints or helping out at National Day parades and military open houses.
Entrepreneur Wong Wei Peng, who sits on the committee and whose parents were first-generation PRs, said that while the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) should not refuse anyone who wants to volunteer, PRs must make "meaningful contributions".
The survey also spotlighted areas in which NSmen can be better supported and motivated.
Although employers backed NS, two out of five people believe that bosses prefer to hire people without commitments like annual call-ups for in-camp training. Respondents were also not so convinced that NS helped their career prospects.
Dr Lim Wee Kiak, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs, said the SAF will have to manage the trade-offs in meeting Singaporeans' rising aspirations and fulfilling defence requirements.
"If you can align them, people will definitely be more motivated to serve," he said.