Wednesday, August 25, 2010

National Service: View from a foreign mum

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

National Service: View from a foreign mum

If you cut through the platitudes, Ms Aarti Giri's letter (The Straits Times 20 August 2010) emphasizes several issues that defence information managers should not lose sight of even after 43 years of National Service.

The first concerns the gulf in attitudes towards NS among Singaporeans. Another red flag is the perception that NS is a sacrifice capped at the duration of a full-time National Serviceman's service to Singapore.

As increasing numbers of foreign-born citizens approach conscription age, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) - which account for the bulk of defence manpower - have little time to lose in calibrating their messages properly.

Every family that sinks its roots in the Lion City brings essentially the same mindset, outlook, fears and prejudices towards NS that Singaporeans harboured when conscription began in 1967. This gulf in attitudes between New Citizens and long-time citizens (Old Singaporeans?) is not easy to bridge.

Dumb down defence information messages for New Citizens and the tone of the messaging could be seen as smug and patronising by older folk.

Calibrate it for Singaporeans who have embraced full-time NS and you risk losing the New Citizens who have yet to buy into the lofty ideals of nation-building and national security.

More worrying is the fallout MINDEF/SAF will be saddled with should a New Citizen NSF end up as a training fatality. Going by probability and the rules of chance, it is only a matter of time before a training accident/incident/glitch that involves a New Citizen NSF triggers the proverbial wake-up call.

When the clarion call is sounded, will New Citizens be rattled?

And how will New Citizens who hail from caste-based societies react when their sons are commanded by someone from outside their social circle? Will centuries-old prejudices undermine their commitment to defence?

Chinese parents in the 1960s knew of the old saying that good sons do not become soldiers, just as good iron is not used as nails. After years of public education more or less erased that point of view, in comes the influx of foreign talent. The wheel has turned full circle and defence information managers may find themselves back at the start line, educating and engaging New Citizens with zero exposure to the military.

This is why MINDEF needs a Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at the top of its game. In my opinion, the time for rebuilding will have to begin in earnest after the Director Public Affairs (Designate), Colonel Desmond Tan Kok Ming, formally assumes command of PAFF next month.

Ms Giri's letter is useful because it exposes how expatriates feel towards NS.

She wrote: "I have often come across expatriates discussing how they can help their children avoid NS. To me, it is only fair that if one wants to become a permanent resident or call Singapore home, one should willingly serve because that is what every Singapore male does."

For Singapore's sake, one hopes her point of view is not in the minority.

If Ms Giri keeps it up, her attitude and pro-NS letters may, someday, win her a Total Defence Award.

Be that as it may, even converts such as Ms Giri seem to cling on to fallacies about NS.

She noted that "sacrificing two years of a man's career is a small price to pay for Singapore's safety and security".

This statement ignores the sacrifices that Operationally-Ready NSmen make every time they are called up for NS. It is an obligation that stretches till 40 for other ranks and the age of 50 for officers and key appointment holders.

So New Citizens will need to know, appreciate and accept the stark reality that NS is really a life-long commitment.

NS in Singapore is not a limited tenure, 24-months stint in which citizen soldiers serve and forget.

No comments: