Whither the future of National Service as a credible defence institution?
That seems to be the key poser from last week's Institute of Policy Studies survey's finding that national service (NS) means more to citizens as a way of instilling discipline and values among the young than as a pillar of national defence.
The study, which canvassed views on NS through 1,251 face-to-face interviews, found that more than nine out of 10 respondents supported the rite of passage.
It is a clear endorsement in the first-ever independent study to be done after 46 years and the enlistment of more than 900,000 men.
Respondents were asked to grade eight different purposes on a scale of one (not important at all) to six (extremely important).
Inculcating values was rated at an average of 4.9, edging out national defence, which was rated at 4.86. Also ranked highly were social factors such as transforming boys to men, building a unique Singaporean identity and promoting understanding among people from different backgrounds.
This has led to some hand- wringing among older NSmen and citizens. Many now wonder if the NS rite of passage has become a two-year enrichment or character-development course instead.
They argue that the sole justification for introducing compulsory military service in 1967 was to build up a defence force that will provide "maximum security at minimum cost".
NS, as Mr Gerard Ong argued in his letter to The Straits Times Forum on Tuesday, is meant to train national servicemen to fight to win. Lessons of discipline and values that came with the training were incidental, being part and parcel of military life.
He wrote: "We came in wanting to be fighters, not disciplined team players, which we had already learnt how to be by playing team sports or joining school uniformed groups."
This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma for NS today. Should it buttress its core purpose of building up a defence force at minimum cost? Or should social factors like instilling discipline in successive generations play a role?