SINGAPORE - The societal cost of enlisting women into national service (NS), even for non-military roles, would far outweigh any benefits, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday (May 9).
Compulsory national service can be justified only if it serves a critical need of national security and defence, he said, adding that there are "distinct pitfalls" if conscription is implemented for any other reason, whether it is for men or women.
Responding to Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon GRC) and Ms Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC) in Parliament, Dr Ng cautioned that enlisting women into NS would delay their entry into the workforce, and this would have the immediate effect of accentuating a decline in the local manpower pool and a reduction of household incomes.
"Even if women are enlisted for non-military national service roles to augment our healthcare and social services, it may make manpower shortages in other industries worse," Dr Ng said.
"Over the long term, it will impose a great cost, not only on women themselves, but also their families, children and spouses, and society as a whole," he added.
"Is that cost justified to send a signal or to reverse stereotypes? From the Government's perspective, no. I think most Singaporeans would say 'no' too, from a security perspective."
During the debate on the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development in Parliament last month, Ms Tan had suggested expanding the scope of national service to include care vocations, enlisting both young men and women to these roles.
She suggested that this would help to support the community with their caregiving needs, reduce the stress of Singapore's people and workforce, and more critically, help care work be seen as a shared civic responsibility.
In her third IPS-Nathan Lecture last year, Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), had also called for NS to be made gender-neutral, and expanded beyond the traditional domains of the army, navy, air force and police.
On Monday, Dr Ng said the primary reason for enlistment into the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) must be to train soldiers who are able to defend Singapore, and repel, if not defeat, enemies who want to invade the country.
Similarly, enlistment into the police and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has to be based on the national need for homeland security and emergency services, he added.
"It is very far off from the proposals to conscript women to serve in roles such as caregivers and healthcare workers, or to send a signal, a powerful signal, of gender equality," he noted.
"These are inadequate justifications or reasons to mandate that someone must suspend individual liberties as a civilian, give up two years of his or her life, and if they do not, they go to jail, as our courts have sentenced NS defaulters."
Dr Ng added that proposals for women to enlist into NS are not new, and that the issue was debated as early as 1967 when conscription was introduced.
He said the Enlistment Act, passed in 1970, does not exclude women, but the Government at the time thought it would be an “extra burden” to enlist women, given the acute shortage of trainers and commanders then.
When the issue resurfaced in 1983, the assessment was that the SAF could cope with the manpower shortage, Dr Ng added.
While he acknowledged that birth rates have continued to fall, Dr Ng said the use of technology and the optimisation of resources have produced a modern SAF that is more lethal and effective despite a smaller number of soldiers.
"If Singapore is ever threatened with an existential threat by an aggressor, and there is a sudden and grave need to boost our military, I am certain that Mindef (Ministry of Defence) and the SAF will call on the government of that day to enlist not only women, but even teenagers and older men into military service... The Ukrainians did exactly this when their homeland was invaded," he added.
Dr Ng said there are currently more than 1,600 uniformed servicewomen in the SAF, making up about 8 per cent of its regulars.
Women make up 5 per cent of SAF regulars holding senior ranks of lieutenant-colonel, military expert 6, or master warrant officer and above.
Additionally, more than 500 women have also been trained and deployed in different roles as volunteers in the SAF Volunteer Corps since 2015, the minister said.
"There is currently no need for us to enlist women (into) national service," he told the House. "Women are already contributing to national building as regulars and volunteers," he added.
Ms Poh, a former helicopter pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, asked if Mindef had plans to recruit more full-time servicewomen, and do more for those looking to start a family beyond flexible work arrangements.
In response, Dr Ng said the SAF’s recruitment has been fairly successful and attrition has been low, but he did not provide specific figures.
“We have stepped up our recruitment of women because the SAF wants more women to join our ranks,” Dr Ng said, citing the establishment of the SAF Women Outreach Office in July 2020 as an example.
The SAF has also set up “work near home” sites in north-east, south-west and central Singapore. “Work away from office is very much, we believe, an entrenched concept... We are going to embrace it, see how it works,” Dr Ng said.
In a Facebook post later in the day, Ms Tan said she appreciated the minister’s reply and clarified that her suggestion for women to be enlisted in roles beyond the military was not driven by a simplistic ideal of equality but to meet national caregiving needs in the face of an ageing population.
Reiterating her call for NS to be expanded to include caregiving roles, she wrote: “If national service means service to the nation, it only makes sense that we evolve it to meet the most pressing needs of our nation.”
Aware’s Ms Lim said the association does not support conscription in principle, and the suggestion to make national service gender-neutral and expand it beyond the military was borne out of the need for more participation in areas such as eldercare and climate change.
“We agree with Dr Ng that the incautious introduction of NS for women today would likely have negative consequences,” Ms Lim said, adding that any initiatives to make NS gender-neutral must come hand-in-hand with efforts to remove barriers that keep women from decent work and commensurate pay.