Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What Does NS Mean to You, Me and Singapore

what does National Service mean to me, and you, and Singapore

“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”
- Albert Einstein

This came from a German-Jewish scientist who played a critical role in helping American develop its Atomic Bomb in the Manhattan Project, which ended the World War II. He disliked war intensely and he later regretted his contributions to the project.

Einstein is one of the world’s most eminent scientists of all time. I am nothing but a citizen of Singapore, a citizen of this huge world.But I agree with him entirely on his view on war, and his view on patriotism; that patriotism need not translate into taking up arms or anything along the lines of violence. This would necessarily mean that I am against the very notion of conscription itself.

Conscription is nothing more than slavery
In Singapore, all Singaporean males must go through National Service(either in Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force or Civil Defence), devoting two years of his life to the service of the nation. To me, conscription is nothing more than servitude, nothing more than modern-day slavery. Singapore, as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has violated no less than five articles by upholding its Conscription laws and imposing draconian penalties if violated.

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
All forms of conscription by itself is a form of slavery. Citizens are forced against their will, and paid little, or nothing, to “serve” the interests of the nation. I quote: “Slavery is the systematic exploitation of labour. As a social-economic system, slavery is a legal or informal institution under which a person (called “a slave”) is compelled to work for another (sometimes called “the master” or “slave owner”).

In the SAF, higher ranks order lower ranks to carry out their instructions. Any failure to do so could result in a wide-range of punishments, ranging from warnings to detention in SAF Detention Barracks, not unlike the olden days where the owner would flog the slaves. If this is not modern-day slavery, what is?

Article 23.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

I think Article 23 is self-explanatory. Conscription by itself violates clause (1). The meagre wages SAF pays and the huge amount of work and commitment they demand, which includes being on stand-by 24/7 because we are FULL-TIME National Servicemen violates clause (2). Needless to say, (4) is not allowed under SAF laws. Any form of association with any political parties constitutes an offence under the SAF Act.

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This is the very reason this article will appear only after a certain day and why the author chose to remain anonymous. Many servicemen have been punished for voicing out criticism of the SAF or writing negatively about SAF. Since when can negative writings or criticism be punished under the rule of law, especially when it is the truth? SAF and MINDEF as public organisations must be held fully accountable and must not suppress criticism or negative comments. They must never forget that the reason for their existence, if one attempts to justify, is to defend Singapore. They are and will always remain public servants to Singaporeans, and answerable to Singaporeans for their actions. By attempting to suppress criticism and negative writings of the SAF or MINDEF, this is in every way a clear violation of Article 19. If a public organisation is not receptive to feedback, negative or positive, and instead focuses on shutting down negative feedback and resorting to self-praise, I think that such an organisation’s existence must be questioned.

National Service must not be a social engineering tool
Singapore has frequently tried to justify National Service as helping to turn boys into men, building a sense of responsibility in them and promoting social cohesion when males of every sector of society come together to share a common experience. That itself is a very flawed argument of National Service. National Service can barely justify itself when one uses the argument of national defence since it is nothing more than slavery, much less as a social engineering tool. In today’s world, ANY form of social engineering tool must be treated with scepticism and rejection, for they have no more place in modern society. When anyone tries to justify conscription as a form of building up a world that fits his/her ideals, it becomes very very very dangerous. This is simply because one will know no boundary after that, a classic slippery slope argument. Today it can be conscription to build a cohesive society. Tomorrow, it could be forced marriages. The next day?

This also begs the question: By claiming that National Service turns boys into man, are they saying that people who do not go through National Service are immature, which is basically the vast majority of the world?
Another question: By using “building social cohesion” as a reason, are they saying countries that do not have National Service have divisive and fragmented societies, that will disintegrate in the face of trouble?

National Service as a social engineering tool is a failure
Much as the government tries to claim its success, one must take their claims with a huge tablespoon of salt. The system of choosing people as officers and sergeants still places its belief on education, which leads to a very skewed proportion of officers coming from JCs and Polys while the less educated remain as men to be led by these people. The argument of highly-educated people makes better leaders will now face off against the argument of National Service as a social engineering tool to build a cohesive society. These people will become officers, the elites of the SAF. They enjoy privileges and power that is not available to men, by virtue of their education. Where is the so-called shared experiences now?How many actually remember their men they lead ten years later, or truly know them and immerse into their world? If the argument of “highly-educated people makes better leaders and thus should become officers” hold, then the argument of “NS as a social engineering tool” must fail. One cannot have their cake and eat it too.

The truth is that many of my peers are officers and they remain close to their school-friends, rather than friends they made during NS. Much as one vehemently deny that, and then claim that one has made many friends because of NS, my counter-argument is easily this: you can make the same amount of friends outside if you don’t do NS. How many of these NS “buddies” remain as “buddies” one year after ORD? If you ask me, a better word here would be acquaintances. Much as you can remember the time where you “insert experience here” or “insert another experience here”, I would really question the significance and appliance of those experiences in real life.

Some proponents of NS also claim that NS toughens people up and “turn boys into men”. I oppose such views. Military experience by and large is tough. It is accepted and meant to be that way.But I do not accept the forcing of military experience on anyone. I do not deny that NS will toughen people up, but to what extent and at what costs? Some say that they test their own limits when they “insert tough experience here”. How relevant is the “testing of limits” in the future? Are they saying that NS is the only way they can test their limits? By that argument itself, are they also insinuating that without NS in many countries, one would not toughen up or know his potential leadership abilities and is doomed for failure?

National Service need not be the only solution to National Defence
Policy-makers also say that NS is critical and necessary to our nation’s survival. Much as I agree that there are things such as necessary evils for eg taxes, I do not believe National Service belongs to that group in Singapore’s context. Singapore is in peacetime. One cannot justify such a huge army in peacetime, unless one assumes that our neighbours are eyeing us hungrily and will not hesitate to wipe us out anytime should SAF cease to exist. This brings me to my next point about diplomacy and soft power. Attempting to mend and build better relations with our neighbours and not appear as arrogant or condescending would do more to our national defence than any army could. This is what Obama has accepted about America, that soft power can do more for any nation than any army could. This is something we must really learn instead of merely talking about it.

I am not proposing a demolition of the SAF. I am an idealist and I wish for a world free from wars, diseases and poverty. Unfortunately, this is not true. What I can accept is that SAF becomes a truly professional outfit, that all SAF personnel are regulars only. By removing conscription and adding up the total costs saved, which will definitely be significant, SAF can do much more to attract people who are truly committed to its cause, either out of love or money. That would definitely be better than having a ragtag army who looks forward to the next book-out or next long holiday just so they can escape from its grips.

In the past, Singapore could not afford a professional army. Today, I think they have more than enough financial muscle to do so. Hence their point about a professional army is moot and invalid today. If they have the ability to raise a much bigger conscripted army, that can only mean two things. Either they pay these people really really low(see the first point made), or that they can afford to raise a professional army, just that they don’t wish to due to cost savings.

National Service is wasting everyone’s time and money
The inefficiency of the SAF, the redundancy and sheer incompetency of many regulars in there, the senseless rules…I could go on and on forever. I have many examples, and I am sure others would have even more. Just that day, I heard a NSman verbally bashing his reservist unit commander for being stupid to his wife. I do not wish to go into specifics. Let’ just say that his verbal bashing was not unjustified, judging from what I hear. Rushing to wait, waiting to rush. Such anecdotes are common and everywhere in the SAF.

In today’s world, many countries have either abolished conscription or are drastically cutting down. It is pretty ridiculous. It takes 10 weeks to complete a US marine course, but it takes 2 years to train a Full-time National Serviceman to be a clerk, storeman, rifleman, armourer etc. If this is not inefficient, I do not know what is. The economic cost of such inefficiency is huge, given that many males are in the prime of their lives, and should be pursuing their further studies or contributing meaningfully in many ways instead.

When cuts should be made but not made, when things can be done much faster but not so, Singaporeans who pay taxes to an organisation and a Ministry that takes up the biggest proportion of the national budget should seriously question where the money is flowing to and how it is being used in the most cost-efficient way. Cost-overruns, the exceeding of budgets, buying things that are for decorative or cosmetic purposes..once again, I can go on and on. As taxpayers, Singaporeans should scrutinise and question the budget for SAF and MINDEF, especially in the wake of a bad economic climate worldwide. How much of the 16 billion poured into MINDEF every year is wasted on things that are not required, which could have been better spent elsewhere?

The unfairness of National Service
Given Singapore’s growing numbers of non-Singaporeans, I do not feel that it is justified that Singaporean males should give up two years of their time to defend these people, as these people treat Singapore like a hotel. What is the difference between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans? non-Singaporeans do not pay significantly higher taxes or education fees than Singaporeans. Many do not serve NS. Singaporean males have to face with reservist issues that lead to much unhappiness from employers. Is there any wonder why employers would very much prefer foreign workers given the unfair treatment meted to Singaporeans? It seems as if Singaporeans are punished for being male and born into Singapore and having to go through NS, as non-citizens enjoy the fruits of our labour. Yes, Singapore has laws that make the children of PRs to go through NS. However, there are ways of circumventing the rules, as I have seen with my own eyes. There was this serviceman who actually gave up his PR after having enjoyed 12years of education here. There was nothing Singapore could do, except to accept it. This serviceman was a top student in a top school and is in US furthering his studies, at the expense of Singapore’s taxpayers.
If Singapore really buy into the social cohesion argument, why not make it a pre-requisite for all non-citizens to spend some time with SAF before they are allowed citizenships or PR-ships since they say that there is a lack of integration between non-Singaporeans and Singaporeans? Let’s see for ourselves how many would give up their PR-ships or citizenships once we impose that rule. Let’s see for ourselves just exactly how much these people love Singapore, or love Singapore for the money and benefits they milk from it at the expense of locals? I hear the shouts of “xenophobia”. I assure you that I am anything but xeno-phobic. I do, however, believe in equality. Since Singaporeans do it, why shouldn’t foreigners who take up Singapore citizenship do it too? Others point to the globalisation and claim that it is good for Singapore to accept foreigners and stuff. Yes, my dear. However, other countries do not have conscription for their own citizens do they?

In conclusion, attempting to justify national service is the same as attempting to justify conscription, and the same attempt as justifying slavery. If you do not believe in slavery, why would you believe in conscription and NS?

That would be the meaning of NS to me: slavery. servitude.
Einstein’s words still echo around my mind.

Patriotism … is a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods; a superstition that robs man of his self-respect and dignity, and increases his arrogance and conceit.
- Emma Goldman

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