National service for women: Time to change mindset

National service for women: Time to change mindset

In a recent dialogue session, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was asked about female conscription, and he answered that it should not be for reasons of equity.

In other words, it should be only for demographic reasons - if there are not enough young men to defend the country. To start young women thinking about this possibility, a volunteer corps has been started.

I wholly agree that female conscription should not be undertaken simply for equity reasons. It has been argued that the moral equivalence of national service for women is bearing children, and while this is not directly comparable - not all women bear children, and some bear more than one, for example - the debate quickly degenerates into a male-female divide with emotionally competitive overtones.

The reasons for female conscription must instead be underpinned by national need. However, as I argued in my recent Third S R Nathan Lecture at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) on the topic of Security and Sustainability, national need can be more broadly defined than as simply military defence.

In the Singapore 50 years from today, there will possibly be a defence need - but most certainly a social need - for all our young women to be trained in the skills needed by a rapidly ageing society. Therefore, we should start to prepare for this eventuality.

The whole notion of Total Defence, which Singapore subscribes to, is that for a small city-state, military defence is only one part of a more complex equation.

Whatever is critical, not only to the sovereignty of Singapore but also its economic, social and political sustainability, is a strategic imperative which requires full support from its citizenry. In this context, female conscription for military defence should be considered only as a final resort should male conscripts be unable to fulfil military needs.

But conscription may still be warranted, to serve the equally important social and community needs of an ageing population whose well-being is a strategic necessity. That would still fall within the ambit of Total Defence.

But let us deal with purely the defence need first.

The defence imperative

Will the time ever come when universal female conscription becomes necessary to infill for male soldiers? And even if it does not become an absolute necessity, should we prepare for the possible eventuality, given the very long timeframe required for debate and preparation before any implementation?

After all, much debate and preparation will clearly be necessary. There is a huge caveat or qualifier to the overwhelming 98 per cent support of NS by our citizens, which an IPS survey discovered. The same survey revealed that only 9 per cent of all Singaporean women surveyed - and 13 per cent of those under 30 - supported female conscription.

A different study found broadly the same results: A higher proportion - 22 per cent - of Singaporean women support female conscription, but only 9 per cent said they were willing to do it for two years.

In other words, it's great for my father, husband, boyfriend or son to do NS, but not me.

If we are to change young Singaporean women's views about female conscription - which by the way is gender-neutral in the Conscription Act - the first challenge is to convince them that there is indeed a demographic dilemma.

Going by past attempts to raise the issue and the lukewarm response, much convincing remains to be done.

Current demographic trends from the United Nations show that in a "no-change" scenario - meaning we assume current total fertility rates (TFRs) and no in-migration - the male population aged 15 to 24 will decline by around 35 per cent between now and 2040. That is a drop of one-third in 25 years.

The rate of decline will continue so that in 50 years' time - by 2065 - the same male NS-age cohort then will be less than half of its size today.

As the nature of warfare changes, the classic image of thousands of foot-soldiers charging up a hill will necessarily evolve, possibly to one with armed drones skilfully and remotely controlled - by women.

New technologies requiring more brain than brawn are inherently female-friendly and will increasingly enable women to serve meaningful roles in the military.

Today, women make up 33 per cent of the Israel Defence Forces, 15 per cent of the US military, and 7 per cent of the SAF regular forces. More than 90 per cent of the positions in the Israel Defence Forces are available to female soldiers. Starting next year, 100 per cent of vocations in the US military will be available to women.

While it is premature today to conclude that military conscription for two years for women will definitely become necessary, I would argue that we need to start changing mindsets soon. Otherwise it will be too late should the need actually arise one day.

Short-term stints

One way is to introduce universal female conscription for a form of non-military, shorter-term duration focused on supporting our civil defence, Home Team, community and health-care institutions.

Universal female conscription could start with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Ministry of Education (MOE) and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) taking the lead, and with the Ministry of Defence only providing whatever necessary technical support is needed, so that this massive undertaking does not divert our military from its main role.

It could last several months and be held during the interlude between graduating from secondary school and entering tertiary institutions or entering the workforce. Decentralised to the schools level for logistical purposes but with expertise provided by the uniformed services - the Home Team as well as SAF - the programme organised by MCCY could comprise a mix of school-level day classes, field practices and Outward Bound-style residential training.

An annual equivalent of reservist training lasting several weeks during school term breaks could enhance the relearning and refinement of paramedical, para-civil defence or para-police capabilities.

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