NS changes: Give SAF Volunteer Corps a real fighting chance

Watch out, Singaporean men. National Service, a long-time favourite calling card when we need to prove how we have it worse than Singapore women, will soon no longer be our exclusive domain. Women, along with new citizens and first-generation permanent residents, will soon be able to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps.

That's right, we may be finding our girlfriends, wives and sisters serving in uniform alongside us one day.

The Volunteer Corps, which will be set up in the middle of next year, will take up supporting roles such as protecting key installations, and can join other specialist fields like the legal, medical, information and engineering branches of the armed forces. They will receive four weeks of training, after which they perform their military duties for one to two weeks annually for a minimum of three years.

The intention behind this initiative, which was announced on Thursday alongside other proposed changes to NS, is no doubt noble. More people can get to contribute to this key institution and also learn about something that forms a significant part in the lives of generations of NS men. It will also go some way in dispelling the perception that women and those who are not born here enjoy the free ride of a peaceful Singapore on the backs of those who give up two years of their time for NS.

The Volunteer Corps will lead to an increase in personnel - although time will tell by how much - and this may not necessarily be a good thing.

I argued in a 2013 Sunday Times column that what the armed forces needs is better deployment of the people it already has, and not even more boots on the ground. Some full-time national servicemen find themselves stuck in vocations that they have no interest in. Others don't even seem to have a proper job in their barracks. As I wrote in my previous column:

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.

Apart from the waste of both the SAF and these NSFs' time, the real tragedy is that these young men leave the army disillusioned by their experience. The indelibly negative impression that some hold of their NS stints can't be good for the organisation.

With the fresh injection of 100 to 150 volunteers that the SAF is targeting for a start, the challenge would be to make their service a meaningful undertaking. Those who sign up will spend four weeks picking up basic military skills and values. Given that this is only half of the nine weeks of Basic Military Training that similarly fresh-faced NSF recruits go through, that precious month must be truly maximised if training for the volunteers is to be adequate.

Their subsequent annual service commitment of one to two weeks for a minimum of three years must also have the same focus and intensity. If my last five in-camp training stints are anything to go by, there are long periods of idleness where time is simply frittered away.

If members of the Volunteer Corps aren't gainfully employed, a new group of people will become cynical about serving in Singapore's citizen army. This, in turn, will make it easy for detractors to say that the Corps is just paying lip service to getting more Singaporeans to pull their weight in the country's defence. After all, the volunteers serve only a fraction of the time that those doing mandatory NS must go through. Even the police force's Volunteer Special Constabulary demands more from those who step forward. The law enforcement officers must go through twice-a-week training for nine months and then perform at least 16 hours of duty a month.

But at least it seems the SAF is clear on its purpose for establishing the Corps.

As recently as March 2011, then Second Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said there was no operational need to draft women for NS.

The recruitment target of 100 to 150 for the first batch of volunteers indicates that this remains unchanged and the SAF's goal is more about boosting stakeholdership than enlistment numbers. By starting small, it is also easier to find a tangible role for the unit.

A reply to my 2013 column from a member of the Committee to Strengthen National Service said that "increasingly, the SAF needs every NSF it can get" due in part to "the increased spectrum of operations that it has to undertake nowadays". If manpower is indeed tightening, then the Volunteer Corps will have the opportunity to be meaningfully deployed.

In his remarks to the media on Thursday, Dr Ng, who now helms Mindef, recognised that some people who do not have NS obligations nevertheless wish to contribute to national defence. But he emphasised that "NS must be for a real and critical need to defend Singapore, neither tokenistic nor symbolic".

To honour the commitment of those who stand up to be counted, the same purpose must be brought to bear on the Volunteer Corps. Our future sisters - and brothers - in arms must have a fighting chance of being more than just a novelty but actual fellow soldiers.

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