Calling time on National Service in Singapore?

JANUARY 27 — Many Singaporeans have been asking this question over the past few days.

Following the tragic death of Singaporean actor Aloysius Pang after an accident during military training in New Zealand, many of my countrymen are grappling with a sense of needless loss.

From my Grab driver to the thousands of Facebook comments that follow each update and article, so many of us can’t quite understand how a life can be lost so suddenly in the military for a nation that isn’t at war and is nowhere near a war.

Before he left for his reservist duty, the young man had posted a poignant update that he was off to serve his nation and for his fans to await his return. He never did.

The 28-year-old, who was an armament technician, was diagnosing a fault in a gun on the Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH) when he was caught between the lowered gun barrel and the inside of the vehicle.

The hurt and grief is understandable. I cannot even begin to fathom what his family and loved ones are feeling; I can only offer them my condolences.

But as a nation, this is also an important conversation. The passing of Pang is the fourth military training death since September 2017 and Singaporeans are beginning to question if National Service (NS) is even necessary.

“If he had died in action or on the frontlines, this is understandable,” summed up my Grab driver, himself a male Singaporean who had served NS.

"But you know some accidents will always happen — it can't be 0," said another male friend who had also served NS.

Of course it’s true; there will be some casualties among any large group of active people, there are around 30,000 conscripts on active duty in Singapore at any one time.

Fatal accidents happen even along the mildest and safest-seeming commutes but does NS really put the nation’s young men in unnecessary danger?

There's no easy answer. Singapore's extremely capable armed forces underpin our geopolitical strength.

It is certainly true that we maintain armed strength out of proportion with our tiny size but if we didn't have this strength, would we really have any diplomatic room for manoeuvre? Would we even exist?

As we haven’t been involved in a major conflict, it might seem that maintaining such a large military is simply unnecessary but the reality is that without a powerful deterrent force, we would be a tiny wealthy strategically located nation without defenses i.e. extremely vulnerable.

NS underpins our armed strength with the Singapore Armed Forces being more reliant on conscripts than virtually any other medium-sized or major military in the world.

Therefore simply letting go of NS is basically not viable at this time.

But public opinion cannot be dismissed and what the public seems to be demanding is the highest standards of safety and accountability.

A reform in the basic structure of NS appears to be needed if the institution is to maintain the public’s support.

Perhaps we need to increase the number of professional soldiers and reduce the proportion of those who like Pang go on to do reservist training (periodic exercises and retraining) until they are 40 years old.

The conscription of women needs to be talked about as well. More women means more competence and more manpower therefore again the possibility of shortening the reservist training period or even NS.

Ultimately frontline troops and those serving the longest in the military and doing the most complex exercises should really want to be there.

Of course ideally no one should want or need to do military service.

Working towards a world where a nation’s aggregate killing power doesn’t dictate its security is a real and important aim.

But the day when all the world’s nations lay down their arms is still far away and until then Singapore will need a capable armed forces but this needs to be achieved with maximum respect for human life.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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