National service for the 21st century

National service for the 21st century

"Switzerland doesn't have an army, it is an army."

So described the American writer John McPhee the Swiss military in his famous reportage La Place de la Concorde Suisse.

For over 200 years, conscripted Swiss men have trained to mobilise to defend the whole country in less than 48 hours. In a referendum last year, an overwhelming 73 per cent of Swiss citizens showed continued support for mandatory conscription.

Singaporeans also believe that full-time national service (NS) is essential for defence, identity building, fitness and other reasons. But like all venerable institutions, NS must evolve with the times to remain relevant to the challenges it is designed to address.

The state has substantial and diverse priorities. These include national defence and internal security, social services, and a desire to stimulate creativity and promote economic growth. Singapore's NS should therefore be broadened to encompass these functions in a way that does not compromise fundamental security needs.

21st century info-states

SINGAPORE and Switzerland are what I have called "info-states". These are societies where data, technology, master planning and alternative scenarios are as critical to governance as democracy.

The two countries are often characterised as having inverted political systems, with Switzerland having a "bottom-up" system while Singapore maintains a "top-down" one. But Singapore and Switzerland can also be viewed as being quite similar, not least for their propensity to top many global competitiveness rankings.

A strong military is vital to protecting such small countries that are rich in financial, technical and human capital. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is thus unstinting in its pursuit of military excellence. It must continue to acquire all the assets necessary to deter aggression: military, cyber and economic. But even with razor- sharp defences, info-states fundamentally thrive on connectedness. Their economic and diplomatic footprint will always be far larger than their military one.

A 21st century country must think in 21st century terms about national security. Only two advanced countries still have military-only national service schemes: South Korea and Israel. Arguably they still need it.

But many stable societies in the world also modify their national service requirements to changing circumstances. The decade following the reunification of Germany in 1990 saw a wave of such adjustments. Just as I was leaving high school near Hamburg, all my German contemporaries went off to diverse military or civil service assignments lasting only one year.

If I have a bias in this debate, it is to keep national service a primarily military activity rather than diluting it. My undergraduate concentration was military strategy - known much more by its campus nickname "Guns & Bombs". I also served as an adviser with the United States Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting counter-terrorism missions.

My first book, The Second World, is a geopolitical travelogue covering high-stakes countries from Libya and Ukraine to Venezuela and Kazakhstan. I have worked with the US National Intelligence Council to develop scenarios on major regional conflicts.

Yet what I have learnt from all of these experiences is that someone who is expert in only "security" is missing the big picture.

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