Governance of a City-State
Will women serve National Service in Singapore?

National Service (NS) through the years

The first batch of NS servicemen was enlisted in 1967. All 18 year old, abled-bodied male citizens are obliged to serve two years in a uniformed group. This policy was implemented in the 1960s in response to the external threats that Singapore faced post-independence.

As a small and young nation in Southeast Asia, Singapore was, and still is, a vulnerable target in the region. Back in the 1960s, Singapore had to cope with a double whammy in national security. In the north, we were in the shadow of the communist threat from China. Down south, we were faced with political confrontation with Indonesia, our largest Muslim neighbour.

We are not alone in maintaining a pool of citizen soldiers. More than 80 countries have, at some point in their history, conscripted young men to serve in the military. When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, many countries no longer saw the need for enlistment. Between 2000 and 2014, more than 20 European countries abolished national service; these countries include France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. The world unfortunately is not a safer place despite the collapse of the former Soviet empire and the end to the Cold War. Religious extremism, cross-border terrorism, and ethnic and nationalist skirmishes remain a serious threat to security, sovereignty, and social stability. Countries that have abolished compulsory military service now find it hard to meet their defence obligations. Just a few weeks ago, Norway passed a bill to conscript women into their military.

I don’t think Singapore needs to enlist women for the armed forces but I believe we should have the option, at least on a voluntary basis.

In Singapore, national service, or NS, remains a critical pillar for the prosperity and security of the city-state. The region remains unpredictable even as we enjoy a long period of peace and respectable economic growth. In recent times, NS is not just an instrument that meets our defence imperatives but also a critical institution that promotes social bonding between Singaporeans from all walks of life — that includes new immigrants and people from different races and social-economic classes.

In an IPS survey that I conducted in 2013, commissioned by the Committee to Strengthen National Service, many of the respondents viewed NS as an embodiment of our values. It is a rite of passage for all Singaporean men and for their families who support them while they fulfilled their duties. NS is a family affair.

Women can fulfil a greater role in defence, whether in a military set up or otherwise. From our survey, 9% of all female respondents said that given the option they would consider serving in the armed forces — that’s about one in every 10 women. Among the younger women below the age of 30, 13% said they would do so.

Of course it is easier said than done. I don’t think all 10% of our female population will choose to serve in the military but I do believe that if we have the right policies and attitudes, more women will step forward to contribute to defence in various capacities.

What are the obstacles for women? This brings me to the next point.

NS barriers

What are the barriers and limitations for women to take part in the military? First, I’ll assess some commonly held notions about women’s military participation:

I do not think there is a social stigma against women serving in the military. Our surveys support that.

I do not think there is a glass ceiling for women’s career progression.

I do not think the chance of sexual harassment is any higher in the military than in the corporate sector.

In fact, at the individual level, I do not think women will be worse off in any way.

But at the operational level, I am not sure if we are ready to treat women as combat soldiers in the same way as their male counterparts. In non-combat vocations, I believe women can perform just as well and both Singapore and the Singapore Armed Forces would benefit as a whole with more diverse perspectives.

But in combat vocations, are Singaporeans (women included) ready to embrace women as equals? In the event of a war, will the morale of our soldiers and the nation be affected when the enemies capture our women? Are we prepared to see women prisoners of war held in captivity?

These are some of the inconvenient topics that we need think about if we plan to engage more women in the military.

NS purpose

Next, let’s address the elephant in the room. What is the purpose of NS for women? More precisely, why should women serve, what do they get out of this? This is the hard truth in human psychology; we all want something in return. There is no free lunch.

There are 7 billion people in the world and some of the top talents will come to Singapore and we will all have to compete with them. Even among Singaporeans, possibly half of the people in today’s school cohort will do well. By 2020, 3,000 additional places will have been created in Singapore’s publicly funded universities, to offer 40% of each cohort a chance to receive a degree education, not to mention the 10% of each cohort expected to receive a degree education through publicly funded part-time places. And this is just local government-subsidised education.

Those who do not make it to the top schools could find other ways to stand out. They could excel in other areas, with other skills and competencies. Intellectual achievement is no longer the only yardstick in measuring success.

When we look at the admission criteria for graduate schools in the top US universities, we will realise that good grades alone no longer guarantee us a place in Ivy League universities. The reason is simple. Almost everyone who applies for admission to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or MIT will have a perfect or near-perfect score for their A Levels, SAT, GRE or International Baccalaureate. Admission officers are increasingly looking for people with conviction — a belief that they can make a difference for the broader community, be that for the environment, animal rights, gender equality, or the fight against poverty.

Prospective students are recruited for having strength of character. The same can also be said about the workplace. Employers are no longer just hiring graduates with unblemished academic records or job experience. Increasingly, they are looking for people who know what they stand for, who are passionate about upholding their values and beliefs. It matters because those who know who they are and what they stand for will go into a task giving nothing but their best.

Now, I am not here to recruit young women to join the army. But consider this:

If we truly wish to stand out and be counted, do something for the larger good. Military service — especially in a voluntary capacity — is an honour. It is not just a way to get noticed but it is definitely one of the few things we can do to make a difference to the people around us, and for ourselves.

The level and duration of military involvement will vary depending on the scheme that women sign up for — the SAF Volunteer Corps has a shorter cycle, whereas women will spend a few years in the military if they sign up as a professional soldier. It doesn’t matter which one they take up. The key is in knowing what they will defend.

Dr Leong Chan-Hoong is a Senior Research Fellow at IPS and Deputy Head of the IPS Social Lab. He led a 2013 survey to gauge public attitudes to national service in Singapore commissioned by the Committee to Strengthen National Service. This essay is adapted from Dr Leong’s speech at the Raffles Policy Dialogue, held at Raffles Girls School on 27 October 2014 and attended by students from various secondary schools.

Photo credit: CyberPioneer

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