I wrote this for TODAY upon their suggestion. I suppose it was logical for me to do this, since I had written about Melvyn Tan a while back.
It seems to me that NS as an institution is being increasingly questioned by Singaporeans. I see that as a positive thing, in that it demonstrates a more questioning and thinking citizenry, that is not prepared to simply take the Government's statements at face value.
As I write below, I firmly believe in the need for NS -- but I also believe it can be tweaked, and more importantly, it needs to be refined and updated to maintain its relevance and legitiacy in the minds of Singaporeans. Otherwise, resentment against NS will simply grow, and that will ultimately undermine its legitimacy as an institution. And there can be no sacred cows in this process.
I had originally included an additional point, that it is actually more disruptive to an enlistee's NS experience, to allow him to disrupt NS to go for university studies (as many Government scholars do), than to have the enlistee enter NS later. If the Government is prepared to allow that, then it seems inequitable to me to prevent young men who have already started their undergraduate studies from completing those studies before starting NS, and especially so if they are overseas. They should still be young enough when they get their degree. Unfortunately, this point was cut by the editor for space reasons.
Need to refine deferment policy?
Increasing number of young Singaporean males are growing up and studying overseas
Tuesday • August 12, 2008
SIEW KUM HONG
THREE years after pianist Melvyn Tan was fined $3,000 for not fulfilling his National Service (NS) obligations, the issue of National Service defaulters is in the spotlight again.
This time, two young men were convicted for staying outside Singapore without an exit permit.
Mr Shantakumar Bannirchelvam, 19, was initially placed on six months’ probation and ordered to do 40 hours of community service. Upon appeal by the prosecution, he was fined $1,500. Judge of AppealV K Rajah noted the need for a fine “as a matter of policy and precedent”.
On the other hand, Mr Amit Rahul Shah, 23, was jailed for three months. It is not clear why he received such a severe sentence, considering the benchmark of a $3,000 fine. Perhaps it was because he had not applied for a deferment, unlike Mr Shantakumar.
What is clear is that both men had voluntarily returned to Singapore to serve NS, with full knowledge of the charges they would face. In other words, they were essentially punished for not doing NS at the appointed time, and not for evading NS completely.
In response to a recent question in Parliament, Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean reiterated the policy of calling up NS-liable males when they turn 18, and the key principles of maintaining universality and equity in granting deferment from full-time NS to pre-enlistees still pursuing their studies.
In the Ministry of Defence’s view, all should be given the opportunity to attain their ‘A’ Levels, International Baccalaureate, polytechnic diploma or equivalent qualifications before enlistment, but not higher educational qualifications such as university degrees.
But is this policy outdated, in a globalised world with a growing Singaporean diaspora?
As more Singaporeans and their families settle down in other countries, whether due to overseas postings or otherwise, an increasing number of young Singaporean males will be growing up and studying overseas. It would be unrealistic to expect the educational systems in those countries, or their educational paths, to accommodate our enlistment policy.
Let me be clear: I am a strong advocate of the central role of NS in the Singapore psyche.
In 2006, I wrote a piece in Today criticising the portrayal in some quarters of Mr Tan as a “lost son of Singapore”. I firmly believe in the desirability of having all fit Singaporean men perform NS, and punishing those who do not.
NS is a compulsory obligation, and we must ensure its continued legitimacy amongst Singaporeans. Even as I agree with Mindef on the principles of universality and equity, I wonder whether its deferment policy can be refined such that it remains relevant in a globalised world, without undermining those key principles.
Failure to do so may result in Singaporean males resenting the institution of NS, which could then undermine its legitimacy.
Of Scholars and NS timing
If we were to ask Singaporean men what the true sacrifice of NS is, how would they answer? I dare say it would be the two years of full-time NS and the subsequent reservist obligations.
I also dare say the timing of those two years — whether they are served before or after one’s undergraduate studies — would be far less important.
As it is, the Government itself allows some scholars to disrupt full-time NS to go for undergraduate studies. It seems arbitrary to say that scholars should be allowed to disrupt their NS, but non-scholars already in undergraduate studies should not be allowed to defer their enlistment.
Yesterday, for example, it was reported that Mindef rejected a Singapore Institute of Management student’s appeal to defer his enlistment for three months to sit for his first-year exams first.
I believe we should distinguish between those who are unable to return at 18 years because of certain commitments or opportunities but do so upon the conclusion of those commitments or opportunities — such as Mr Shantakumar — and those who never return and do not evince any desire to complete their NS obligations, such as Mr Tan.
If a Singaporean male had gone overseas as a child — for instance, before he turned 15 — and upon turning 18 is undertaking or about to commence undergraduate studies, perhaps we should allow him to defer enlistment until he completes those undergraduate (but not postgraduate) studies, so long as he undertakes to return to Singapore and enlist at that time. We can also require a guarantor if needed.
This would strike an appropriate balance between maintaining the universality and equity of NS, by having all Singaporean males complete full-time NS by their early 20s, and allowing Singaporeans who grow up overseas to pursue their goals without undue disruption.
And I think most, if not all, Singaporeans would be perfectly fine with this.
The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel, commenting in his personal capacity.