National Service is the bane of every Singaporean son. At the age of 18, every Singaporean male must serve a two-year term as a conscript. Following his discharge, he becomes a reservist, and must undergo annual fitness tests and in-camp training for a minimum of 10 cycles. Failure to enlist is punishable by imprisonment and a fine, and conscientious objection is not seen as a legal reason to refuse service. Small wonder that National Service is seen as draconian.
On the other hand, every argument against National Service I have seen completely ignores military and geopolitical realities.
Case in point, this article by Donovan Choy.
Choy frames himself as a classical liberal, advocating civil liberties and economic freedom. The chief flaw in this position with regards to Singapore is that it elevates the liberty of the individual above all else—including duties to society.
No man is an island. Everyone lies within a web of relationships: family, friends, neighbours, community, nation. To enjoy the benefits of society, everyone within it must act in a way that upholds society and refrain from undermining it. Chief among these duties is commitment to the national defence.
Without a strong defence, the country will fall. When crushed under the bootheel of a foreign invader, as Singapore experienced in the Second World War, talk of liberties and free markets become irrelevant. Without a strong defence force to guarantee the security of the nation, there can be no peace and prosperity.
Conscription… does not give avail you a choice. If activated for war, there is a very real risk of death or at best, permanent injury. Conscription therefore in some ways is tantamount to slavery, and is far more morally objectionable.
There is a choice: the choice between oppression and sovereignty.
Conscription requires a man to serve for 2 years, then between 2 weeks to 1 month for the following decade or two. In the rest of the time, he is free to live as he pleases.
When a country is conquered by a foreign enemy, or if a lawful government is overthrown and replaced by a tyrant, there is no freedom but what the oppressor is pleased to grant you.
Should war come, there is most certainly a risk of death and permanent injury. On the other hand, some things are far more important than personal safety. Friends, family, home, principles. A man who is not willing to risk everything to protect his home and loved ones is no man at all. He is a coward who only thinks of himself and not his responsibilities to society, the same society that gave him everything he enjoys.
Contributing to the national defence is thus part of the social contract. The benefits of society are made possible only because the people who live in it are willing to defend society. Most countries have the luxury of not needing a conscript military to ensure their security. Singapore is not one of these.
Tiny Red Dot
On the world map, Singapore is literally a tiny red dot. Unlike many countries, Singapore does not have much land mass. In the event of war, Singapore does not have the ability to trade space for time.
The strategy is simple but decisive. Meet the enemy at the front, then withdraw strategically to bait the enemy forward. Once he is overextended, the bulk of the regular military can strike at his flanks and rear. This strategy can also be used to buy time for allied militaries to mobilise.
Singapore does not have room for maneuver. If war comes to the island, the war would already be lost. Urban warfare in the densely-packed streets and towns would lead to widespread devastation and loss of life. Skyscrapers, factories, flats, houses of worship, every building caught in the battlefield would be ruined. Any victory would be a Pyrrhic victory. The damage would linger for generations.
Singapore’s military strategy thus rests on two pillars. Diplomacy, to cultivate strong ties with neighbouring countries and avoid being sucked into superpower conflicts, and deterrence, to dissuade potential aggressors from making war. Should these fail, the military must launch an overwhelming attack from a standing start to prevent the enemy from reaching Singapore’s shores.
Such a strategy depends on having a huge military. The Singapore Armed Forces presently has 72000 active personnel, and is capable of mobilizing about 1.39 million reservists. Any aggressor would balk at the idea of fighting a military with nearly one and a half million troops. Should the worst come to pass, these million-odd troops would play a vital role in the national defence.
On War and Politics
Then there is the realpolitik reasoning, where we have to defend Singapore from potential invaders, or use our army as a powerful diplomatic bargaining chip. Cue an impressive sounding Lee Kuan Yew quote about ruling with an iron fist.This argument was a lot more plausible during the heights of communism and the Cold War. But today? We live in one of the most peaceful times in the history of the world, and there is no serious threat of a geopolitical war forthcoming. So what is the justification for maintaining one of the most expensive and militarised armies in the world?
Peace is an aberration.
In all of human history, only 8 percent has been spent in peace. In the remaining 92 percent, a major conflict raged somewhere in the world. Even today, there are still people who remember the invasion of Singapore, and the horrors of the occupation. My own parents lived through the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi.
Peace is not the natural state of affairs. While war may not be on the horizon, we must be ready for it. Not only that, war is not the only reason to have a military.
In 1991, during Singapore’s National Day, Malaysia and Indonesia conducted a joint military exercise. Codenamed Pukul Habis, Malay for ‘total wipeout’, it simulated an airborne assault, coupled with live fire training, in Southern Johor, right across the Straits of Malacca. At that time, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, had handed over the reigns to his successor, Goh Chok Tong. This exercise could be seen as a test of the new government’s resolve and capability.
In response, the entire Singaporean military was mobilized for the first time.
After that, Malaysia and Indonesia kept the saber-rattling to a minimum.
In 2018, Malaysia sent government ships to intrude into Singapore’s waters, sparking another diplomatic row. This incident did not escalate into conflict, at least in part because of the presence of the Navy. The Navy’s response signaled that such provocations would not be left unchallenged. As the history of gunboat diplomacy shows, a country without a navy capable of intercepting intruders must bow to the will of a country with the willingness and ability to use military power.
In the arena of international politics, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Singapore enjoys strong ties with Malaysia and Indonesia, but a sudden regime change may lead to incidents like the ones described above. A strong military ensures that disputes do not escalate into war.
First, wars do not break out overnight. If there was any realistic chance of a war happening, its earliest signs would emerge years beforehand, leaving the government ample time to ramp up militaristic measures.
History tells us that nations do not always have years of preparation. During the Second World War, when the Japanese made landfall in Malaya, the British forces in Singapore studied the feasibility of expanding the military. They concluded that it was impractical, because it would take at least three months to train recruits, and the Japanese were only weeks away.
More recently, shortly after the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, Russia mobilized its military. Within days, Russia occupied the Crimea. Russian troops moved so swiftly, they had seized control of the entire region before the Ukrainians even began mobilization.
Militaries can move within months, weeks, days, even hours. Nations must fight with the forces they have on hand now, not the forces they hope to have years from now.
Not only that, Singapore’s defense strategy requires a long-term view, thinking not in terms of years but generations.
While a military should strive to preserve its own forces while destroying the enemy as far as possible, there is no way to completely eliminate risk. Robots and high technology can only mitigate it, but victory is still decided by boots on the ground. That in turn means casualties.
With over a million reservists, the SAF can regenerate its entire fighting force twenty times over. As losses mount, combat losses can be quickly replenished to ensure the survival of the military. In addition, reservists could also be deployed to secure the heartland and rear areas. This gives the frontline units the ability to push forward without fear of being flanked and encircled.
This kind of capability cannot be built up in months or years. It is the work of generations.
Singapore’s rapid mobilisation in 1991 was made possible because the Army spent decades learning how to recruit, organize, train and mobilise an increasingly larger military, and how to defend Singapore against foreign incursions. By downsizing the military to a more politically-palatable size, the experience and institutional knowledge needed for such a feat would be lost, not to mention the manpower needed to ensure the defence of the island and critical areas in times of war.
Choy next says:
Second, Singapore’s value lies in its commercial hub, not its natural resources. What are the incentives for invading Singapore? This is not a James Bond movie, where villains sit around plotting world domination. It makes zero economic sense to invade Singapore, much more so to trade with us.
Singapore is the second-busiest port in the world, and the busiest transshipment port. Singapore transships one-fifth of the world’s shipping containers and half of the world’s oil supply. Furthermore, Jurong Island is home to Singapore’s petrochemicals industry, which manufacture a huge range of petroleum products.
This is due to Singapore’s vital geostrategic position and deep water port. Singapore is placed at the crossroads of East and West, making it a vital node in maritime trade.
The incentive for invading Singapore is a stranglehold on the world’s oil, petrochemicals and transshipment sectors. Billions of dollars of revenue would flow into the coffers of the state that possesses the port of Singapore.
Any nation that conquers Singapore could hold the rest of the world to ransom. Should the world threaten sanctions or punishments, the occupier need merely turn off the tap to half of the world’s oil supply and cause a global economic meltdown. A shrewd tyrant may present the conquest of Singapore as a fait accompli, forcing the rest of the world to capitulate. After that, no help will come.
A failure to see economic incentives to conquest does not mean they do not exist.
Next Choy says:
Third, no one is saying abolish the army. If the objective is to be well-prepared, maintain an army by all means, but the current state of the army by which it exists in is completely unjustifiable. According to the Global Militarization Index 2019 by the Bonn International Center for Conversion, Singapore has the fifth most militarised army in the world, far ahead in terms of militaristic power compared to Indonesia or Malaysia if you’re worried of their potential aggression. The largest chunk of Singapore’s government spending — 30% in 2019’s National Budget — goes to defence and security, the second highest in the world.
Why is this ‘unjustifiable’? As I have already argued, Singapore’s defence needs demands a huge reserve force. Without land for maneuver, Singapore’s military strategy rests on an overwhelming first strike, which dictates the need for a large military.
Choy makes no military argument here, only an argument from his ideology, without any basis in strategy. It is not a point worth considering. His following points are also equally ludicrous.
Paying conscripts market wages rather than the paltry 500$ monthly allowances they are entitled to
If conscripts wish to earn market wages, they can sign on as regulars. The SAF will welcome them with open arms and competitive pay, with the additional security that comes with a government job.
On the other hand, if you pay conscripts market wages, then you must also drive up military spending. Choy thinks spending 30% of the National Budget on defence is unacceptable, yet this proposal will necessarily increase spending. Thus, he contradicts himself.
Gradually reducing the duration of conscription down from two years across-the-board, and reduce them even more based on good performance
Take a bunch of random people and force them to work together in a group. They are all strangers to each other, but, you assure them, every one of them meets the minimum possible standards for the job. Task them with carrying out important missions for an indefinite period, all of which are vital to national security. If they fail a single mission, they will die, their friends and family will die, and everyone around them will die. And then the nation will fall.
Ridiculous? Yet this is the logical result of cutting conscription to the bare minimum.
Basic military training takes 3 months. By that you take a civilian and turn him into someone capable of obeying orders and defending himself. But that is not enough for war. Modern warfare is highly technical, and requires additional advanced training. Medic to signaler, driver to commando, every military vocation requires specialist training that basic training does not offer. This means an additional 3 to 6 months of training.
Officers and non-commissioned officers, in addition to this training, must also undergo leadership training. It takes between nine months to a year to prepare an officer for military duties, six to nine months for a non-commissioned officer. After that, they will need additional experience training and leading troops before they are truly fit for military service.
You can only cut enlistment periods by so much before you cut into military effectiveness. Choy proposes no realistic timeline for military training, incorporating the entire training pipeline plus on-the-job experience. Instead he simply makes vague proposals about reducing conscription terms without understanding what it truly entails.
Allowing more flexibility to serve National Service (e.g. serving it at a delayed age, or in intervals)
War is a young man’s game.
Military duties are harsh, arduous and demanding. It requires men at the peak of their fitness, and pushes them past it. Older men, less strong and agile, may suffer a higher incidence of debilitating injuries and chronic lifelong ailments.
Singapore already allows a degree of flexibility. Outstanding athletes are allowed to defer NS to participate in international competitions, while specialists like medical doctors are allowed to serve in intervals so that they can pursue higher education critical to their military duties.
There may be a case to be made for greater flexibility. Nonetheless, it must be grounded in biology and a clear understanding of the rigors of military service, and the costs of it.
Remember that Singapore’s military strategy requires taking a generational view. Older soldiers equals even older reservists equals further reduced military capabilities. Delayed service will degrade the national defence too.
Providing conscripts more pathways to segue into corporate career options during the army
This is an acceptable argument. Men are forced to put their lives on hold for two years, placing them behind their female peers. By gaining industry-relevant skills in the military, they can close the gap. Indeed, the military is trialing options to allow enlistees to choose their vocations, so that their military training will also prepare them for the workforce.
Nonetheless, the needs of the nation must come first. The military must prioritise defending the country. All other things, including preparing conscripts for the workplace, is secondary, if not outright irrelevant, and should only be pursued if it also strengthens the national defence.
Outsourcing the military to private mercenaries (if the idea of privatised armies horrify you, consider that we already do that to some extent with the Gurkha regiment, and many countries do something similar such as in France, the United States and Australia)
Singapore’s Gurkha Regiment are not soldiers. They are highly-trained police officers deployed for specialist duties, such as VIP protection, hunting dangerous criminals, and election security. Police duties are not military duties.
Relying on mercenaries to defend the country is a dangerous proposition. Mercenaries fight for money. Thus, there is always the risk that an enemy power may buy out their contract, and turn them against you at the most inopportune moment. Mercenaries may also choose to refuse to fight in a time of crisis unless their employer agrees to pay a cutthroat premium.
Citizen-soldiers, on the other hand, can be counted upon to defend their families and homes. For their loved ones, they will be willing to risk death and disfigurement in exchange for absurdly low pay. Mercenaries cannot be trusted to fight for you when the money stops.
So why aren’t we talking more about the problems of conscription?
These problems exist in the heads of those who elevate the self over others, even their loved ones, especially those who think even home and family are not worth bleeding and dying for. The so-called solutions to these problems thus float in a nebulous zone utterly disconnected from geopolitical and military realities.
Is conscription distasteful? Certainly. On the other hand, the choice is simple: serve for a limited time, or suffer the jackboots of a tyrant indefinitely.
Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you desire peace, prepare for war. Singapore is peaceful because Singapore is prepared for war. However you feel about it, conscription remains a vital tool in ensuring preparedness for war — and thus guaranteeing peace.
Speaking of war stories, you can buy my war novel THE DIGITAL VEIL here!