A little doubt
With uncommitted foreigners making up 36% of the nation, Singaporean servicemen are asking: "Why are we serving to defend them?" By Seah Chiang Nee.
Nov 6, 2010
(Synopsis: More outspoken and articulate youths who are not afraid to speak their minds have begun questioning the way the government is running the nation state.)
A FAST-TRACK strategy to populate mass foreigners, including well-paid professionals who are here just to earn a living, is putting strain on its concept of a citizens’ army.
The sensitive topic has been swirling around for some time but only privately because no one wants to be accused of undermining the country’s defence.
Already, falling birth-rates had long been reducing the number of 18-year-old recruits since national service (NS) was launched in 1967.
Not helpful is the Government’s ambitious population expansion plan, which brought in two million foreigners since 1990, most of whom owe no loyalty to the country.
Today, the presence of 1.8 million foreigners, who make up 36% of the populace, augurs long-term ill for the NS spirit.
“What it means is that a smaller Singaporean army will have to defend a bigger population during conflict, including fighting for foreigners who actually compete with them for jobs,” said a retired officer.
The biggest bugbear is that – unlike an estimated 20,000 locals every year – foreigners and permanent residents (PRs) need not do NS or report back for in-camp training for 10 years. Only children of PRs do.
Enlistment is not only obligatory, but in war Singapore’s reservists are activated to be a frontline army. Locals complain it is giving immigrants a big head-start when they compete for jobs.
Predictably, grumblings are loudest among NS youths, who ask, “Do we have to defend them?”
Last week, the controversy became public during a university dialogue session that Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong held with 1,000 university students.
Aerospace engineering undergraduate Lim Zi Rui, 23, who is still serving NS, spoke of how immigration and other changes were creating uncertainties among the young.
“When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,” Lim told the Senior Minister, “but that was about five, ten years ago.
"With all these changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I am defending any more.”
Many of the NS men he served with shared this view, he added.
The Nanyang Technology University (NTU) student asked Goh: “Why must I defend foreigners? I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth. We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.”
Goh replied: “This is one early sign of danger. If this is happening, it is very serious.”
He wanted to know why the final year student felt disconnected.
The youth said he was still serving as an officer “and I definitely would love to defend Singapore. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.
“My question (is), how are we going to help the younger generation feel a sense of belonging to Singapore? I don’t think it’s about integrating foreigners.”
(Second Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen quickly dismissed talk of a decline in morale, saying surveys showed 95% servicemen would step forward to defend the country when under threat.)
This latest exchange has revealed a chasm in thoughts and understanding between aging leaders and a segment of young citizens unhappy with the way the country is governed.
Compared with the hard-hitting Lee Kuan Yew past, recent university dialogues with current ministers had been more challenging, less compliant affairs.
Lee’s successors are increasingly facing more outspoken and articulate youths not afraid to speak their minds.
Early this year, Lee was himself on the receiving end. A 15-year-old schoolboy petitioned online to get Lee to apologise to Singaporeans for “disparaging” remarks made about them.
Kenneth Lim felt insulted when Lee accused Singaporeans of becoming “less hard-driving and hard-striving” because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide”.
More than 40% of Singaporean voters were born after independence in 1965. Increasingly they hold the key to the future.
In a TV forum in 2006, Minister Mentor Lee was asked some tough questions, something unthinkable from his peer generation.
“What we want is a choice,” said editor Mabel Lee, 28. “What we want is political vibrancy. What we want is a media that can reflect both the views of the opposition as well as of the ruling party fairly.
“What we want is to see that the opposition is being given a level playing field. What we want is fairness in the political sphere.”
Stung, Lee replied: “Let me tell you this. If what you say is a reflection of your generation, then I’m a bit sad.”
People over 55 who had known the hardships his country had overcome would never talk this way, he said, sounding like someone putting a grandchild in her place, a US journalist commented.
Both SM Goh and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s 58-year-old son – who have to content with the free-spirited Internet – are generally more tolerant of public criticisms.
The Youth Wing of their People’s Action Party (PAP) has worked hard to engage the young, going online, and young MPs even danced the hip-hop in public.
But somehow, things have not really worked.
Hsien Loong announced that a new generation of PAP leaders should emerge in the forthcoming election widely expected within months.
“I am 58, and Singapore should not have a prime minister who is 70 years old or more than 70 years old,” he said.
“You have to be in sync with the new generation of people. You may be in touch but you are not of that generation.”
(This article was published in The Star, Malaysia)