Make NS meaningful for every recruit

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 26, 2013

After completing basic military training (BMT) back in 2004, two platoon mates and I found to our dismay that we were being dispatched to be trained as logistics supervisors.

We were medically fit and while not exactly top performers, we had passed all the physical, marksmanship and field craft tests reasonably well. So we were mystified that the army had found us unsuitable for combat roles.

I went where I was sent, and it was not a "slack" non-combat role. That stint providing logistical support to about 100 men proved mentally draining at times, but I soon grew frustrated with a job I simply had no interest in.

After months of fighting administrative battles, I managed to get redeployed as a radio signaller. Relaying coded messages and bridging communications may not sound like much, but it was a world of excitement after dealing with inventory logs and ration schedules.

This is why, rather than the recent proposals of more ways to recognise the contributions of Singaporean men who have completed full-time national service, the Defence Minister's idea of matching servicemen's interests to their deployment caught my attention.

It may seem like common sense, but that has been a long time coming. Far too many men find themselves spending their NS days in roles they care little about, instead of being assigned where they might have a fighting chance of doing well.

During NS, I got to know a lieutenant who was his company's best recruit in BMT. But he was not given a leadership posting and was sorely disappointed.

He appealed all the way up his chain of command but to no avail. He even went to his Member of Parliament before the army relented and sent him to Officer Cadet School, where he earned the sword of honour, the top award.

His experience, and mine, left me with the uncomfortable conclusion that a meaningful vocation and a positive NS experience was more a matter of luck than ability.

Most who are disappointed with their deployment after BMT may not try as hard to move, but they too cannot escape forming the impression that they are mere digits on a bureaucrat's computer screen, being plugged into manpower gaps.

Over the years, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has made changes in the ways it matches servicemen to roles, including introducing a variety of tests soldiers are put through. In a large organisation with numerous roles, some physically demanding and others requiring more brain work, it does make sense to post full-time national servicemen (NSF) according to their fitness, ability and skills.

The more this is done, the better. Aside from that, the military might do well to also consider another group of servicemen.

Anyone who has served in uniform knows that every unit always seems to have a surplus of a few men nobody quite knows what to do with.

Some may be recovering from training injuries; some are not fit; others quite simply appear to have been posted to camps that have no use for them. So they end up as "store men", even when there already are too many men in the store.

In reality, these fellows have no meaningful role, and surface now and then to perform random odd jobs. Otherwise they might well pass their time prone, not in some jungle undergrowth but on their bunk beds.

Instead of firing weapons, driving tanks and doing the other cool stuff you see in army ads, their NS experience consists of long bouts of boredom or trying their luck at the doctor's to get medical leave.

Eventually, they finish their service and are glad to see the last of their camps - a sentiment most likely reciprocated by supervisors relieved to see them go.

If the SAF has more NSFs than it can gainfully employ - even if this is a small number - it is worth thinking about ways to make better use of them, especially when the rest of Singapore is starving for labour.

Bearing arms to defend the country is the primary goal of NS, and that should remain so by sending all recruits for BMT. But the initial training period should also be used to assess who is suitable for military roles and how many are needed.

Could the others be dispatched to do other worthwhile work outside the military for the rest of their NS stint, instead of doing very little?

After all, for some years now the military has been trumpeting its ability to do more with fewer men thanks to its technological edge, and that is a reason why the NS duration can been trimmed gradually by six months over the years.

But it should also aim for a meaningful NS experience for all. Rather than have some NSFs merely marking time, would they be better used and Singapore better served if they are assigned to jobs outside the military?

Other countries have tried different variants of NS.

Those who refuse to join the military in Switzerland can perform public services at a diverse number of places such as health-care facilities, farms, and the forestry department. Finland has a similar scheme.

Having such an option here would not be about giving young men a choice of doing NS or providing an easy way out. Rather, it would be about making sure that every NSF contributes in some way and none completes NS having done very little.

Our health-care industry has a severe lack of caregivers at hospitals and nursing homes. The service sector is crying out for a variety of front-line staff. Construction companies are perennially short of workers.

Community centres, community development councils, family service centres and other agencies would greatly appreciate more volunteers to relieve overworked social workers.

The experience might even lead some youths to their future careers.

Indeed, the idea is not one never tried in Singapore. Back in 1981, a construction brigade comprising NS soldiers was started to help build Housing Board flats among other things.

The main objective was to develop a corps of men skilled at building air-raid shelters, repairs, and restoration of water and electrical supplies. But the labour-intensive construction industry received a welcome boost of manpower as well.

About 100 men formed the pioneer batch of the brigade and more than 10,000 would serve in it over the next decade.

In a speech that still rings true today, the Home Affairs Minister at that time said: "We need a group of construction workers to help in civil defence in an emergency... If we had to depend on work-permit holders, these workers might just disappear in an emergency."

A government survey later showed that one in five who served in the brigade ended up remaining in the construction industry.

NS asks for two years of every male citizen. While Singapore's defence must continue to be the priority, it seems a waste of resources to have underused manpower locked away even as employers complain unrelentingly about a shortage of workers.

It is always nice to hear of new efforts to reward those who have done NS, whether with vouchers or other monetary benefits.

But the military would go a long way in demonstrating that every NSF's sacrifice is honoured by deploying soldiers in roles that they are interested in and can excel at, even if for some it means serving outside the SAF.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 26, 2013

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