Promote NS volunteer scheme for women

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 8, 2013

DEFENCE planners have been doing some soul searching about national service (NS). What lies ahead for this rite of passage for the nation's young men, 46 years after it was first introduced?

As part of that crystal ball-gazing exercise, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) organised a series of focus group discussions with Singaporeans on NS.

One issue that cropped up was how women can play a bigger role in Singapore's defence. "We cannot just be bystanders and just watch the men slog...we also have to do our part for the country," said Ms Estelle Lek, a 36-year-old sales manager. She would serve NS - and said her 13-year-old daughter would too.

She is among a group of females who clamour for women to do NS. Some favour shorter stints, or duties that involve administrative, logistics or nursing roles. Others think girls, like boys, should do compulsory NS.

Real estate agent Lucie Chua, who has a daughter and a son, said: "NS will not only strengthen women mentally and physically. The experience will also help to correct any misconceptions about NS and get more buy-in from everyone."

The issue of NS for women has been debated since the 1980s. Some want women to be allowed to opt in to do NS, while others think women should be conscripted the same way as men, if they want true gender equality.

In 2004, then-MP Lim Hwee Hua, the former chairman of the PAP Women's Wing, said: "Women have equal responsibility to men. Women have equal access to education and employment ... It's a form of discrimination if only men serve NS."

In fact, only Israel has compulsory military service for women. They serve for two years, form a third of all Israeli Defence Force soldiers and half its officer corps.

In 2015, Norway, a self-touted leader in equal rights, will become the first European and Nato country to enlist women, who will serve one-year stints. These female enlistees are likely to undergo outfield training to learn how to fire weapons, manoeuvre in the battlefield and build up stamina.

This comes even as others, including Sweden and Taiwan, ditch conscription altogether. The abolitions are fuelled by financial pressures as countries slash their defence budgets.

For Singapore, NS has been a must for men since 1967. More than a million Singaporean men have donned uniforms to serve in the military, civil defence and police force. NS is touted as a social leveller, a glue that binds Singaporeans together.

For now, though, the official stand is that there's no need to enlist women. There are "no operational needs to justify doing so", explained Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in 2011, when he was Second Defence Minister.

This is despite declining birth rates, which will result in the number of qualified male enlistees shrinking from the current 20,000-plus to about 15,000 a year in future. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) responds by relying more on technology.

In Singapore, women who are keen to play an active role can sign up as career soldiers. The army broke its all-male tradition and recruited its first women combatants in 1986. Today, there are 1,500 women who hold combat jobs, with 60 young women signing on every year as officers, specialists and military experts.

Now, the SAF wants to double its current female combatant population.

Women who want to do NS but not become career soldiers already have an avenue to do so. They can sign up as volunteers once they turn 17.

The trouble is that not enough is being done to promote the volunteer option for women.

The last publicly available figures show that more than 80 females volunteered as nursing and medical officers in 1995.

When contacted, Mindef declined to give the latest number of female volunteers or how many times they have been called up.

There is hardly any information on how and where women can serve. Attempts to look through SAF or Mindef-related websites drew a blank.

The SAF should make its volunteer scheme for women more widely known. This will also serve as a litmus test of the support for NS for women.

To get more female volunteers, Mindef has to broaden the roles available to them. Besides nursing, administrative or logistics jobs, today's tech-savvy women should also be allowed to serve in new warfare areas such as cyber-defence and military intelligence.

A spell in the SAF units will give the women a realistic sense of today's high-tech battlefield and better showcase military careers for women, something that has been quite difficult to do without compulsory NS.

But defence planners must make sure the volunteer enlistment programme for women has enough depth and duration for the women to make a meaningful contribution.

Military service is serious business in which all servicemen and women are trained to defend every citizen. A huge amount of money, resources and time will be invested to house, feed and train future G.I. Janes.

The last thing anyone wants is for the volunteer programme to be seen by parents and teenage girls as an adventure camp to toughen up princesses.

It will be counter-productive to boost the NS corps with those who are only planning to play at adventure, and leave after they've had enough of green fatigues.

Dr Ng, who is spearheading the ongoing NS review, said it is timely to look long and hard at how to strengthen NS because "every new generation will need to find its own commitment to NS".

Maybe this millennial generation is ready to embrace a new breed of women warriors.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 8, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to