Proposed changes to shorten the waiting time for 90 per cent of pre-enlistees to a four-month window, as well as to match full-time National Servicemen to their preferred vocations will not be easy, given that the SAF enlists 20,000 servicemen annually, he said.
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Here is the speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, in today's Parliament:
Madam Speaker, I support the Motion of thanks to the President.
Nearly 50 years after independence, the President said, the world has changed on us,. So too, the transformation of the SAF which has been nothing short of dramatic. When the SAF was formed, very few believed that it could robustly defend this island. You look at our island that has no strategic depth and limited resources. This dim prognosis on our defence capabilities was not unwarranted, considering that when the SAF started out, we had very basic capabilities. Today you are used to our command and control systems. But when the SAF started out, our C2 system was six high frequency radio sets which we didn't even buy but took over from the 4th Malaysian Signals Squadron. We had two wooden hull boats for our Navy, and no aircraft to speak of. Today, the SAF is a widely respected professional military force, capable of deterring would-be aggressors and responding to an array of security challenges. Jane's Defence Weekly, a respected military journal, commented recently that "the SAF has consistently evolved during its four decades in existence to become one of Asia's most modern fighting forces". Our defence capabilities have indeed come a long way.
Critical to the success of building up a credible SAF is National Service (NS) for a simple reason. National servicemen form the bulk of the SAF. If there is a need to mobilise the SAF to defend Singapore, for whatever reason, there is no standby force that we can activate first before calling on our national servicemen. Our national servicemen know this. Our national servicemen are our first and main responders.
So when the Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS) was formed, we wanted to carefully assess the level of public support for NS. We commissioned the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) to conduct a rigorous and objective survey. The results were gratifying - and let me share some main findings. 98 per cent of respondents agree that NS is crucial for national defence and for securing Singapore's peace and prosperity, 97 per cent feel that NS instils discipline, and 94 per cent acknowledge that NS provides opportunities to learn something useful. When they presented to me these figures, I said, "Too good to be true. Must be selection bias, or the time you called, or the households you went to." The researcher was fairly taken aback, he said, "No, this is very rigorous, we looked at it. No different from other studies we did. This will stand up to scrutiny and scientific rigour; objective survey, across the population." These are remarkably high support levels for any national issues, let alone NS.
Is support for national conscription the norm for other countries? On the contrary, Singapore remains one of very few countries able to sustain an NS system. When we started NS 47 years ago, many other countries across the world had similar conscript systems. It has now dwindled to very few countries that have been able to maintain an NS of meaningful periods, and capable of having a conscript military force. Many countries, particularly European countries, abolished their NS. Some in response to the end of the Cold War to reap the peace dividend. Others have basically dismantled their NS system, not because their threats have disappeared but because public support waned. Members would know which countries these are, I don't have to name them specifically. But many of their leaders of these countries that have done so - given up their National Service - lament privately that they know it was a mistake but could not stop it. So what explains Singaporeans' public support for NS?
I believe, first and foremost, NS support has been built on the service of 900,000 national servicemen who have discharged their NS duties. Everyone faithfully, dutifully, did his duties. Here we want to place on record the appreciation of this House for all national servicemen who have served, and recognition of their contributions. To keep NS support strong, we must continuously maintain an open system that enforces NS duties equitably and never undermine the key principle that all male Singaporean Citizens and 2nd Generation Permanent Residents must perform their duties, regardless of race, religion, or social background.
Why did we form a CSNS, when public support was so high? 98 per cent. The simple answer is that this would be the best time to conduct the review to ensure that NS remains responsive and relevant to a new generation of Millenial national servicemen who will defend Singapore. Better to hear them now and adjust policies, rather than wait and assume previous policies will work even when circumstances have changed.
And circumstances have indeed changed. Family size is smaller which means that the burden on national servicemen to support their dependents is greater, whether their own families, or their parents.The proportion of national servicemen seeking higher education has gone up considerably. Work life has also changed - leaner staff, more responsibilities, more travel, tighter work schedules and deadlines were all feedback that we listened to carefully.
Therefore, motivating national servicemen will also have to change. Especially when this new generation of national servicemen has no direct experience of our early struggles. The Committee therefore took in views from over 40,000 who participated in our focus group discussions, Town Hall Session, webchat, and dialogue sessions in the NS units. I want to thank members of my committee and the sub-committees who were working very hard and reaching out and spending time, speaking to not only national servicemen but also members of the public. Many others provided suggestions through emails, letters, and our website.
We have presented our report and recommendations to MPs and the public- you would have received a copy. With your permission, Madam Speaker, I have asked the clerks to distribute an abridged version of all our recommendations. Overall, the response has been positive and the Committee is thankful for this. Some have said that we struck the right tone, by capturing the wide range of sentiments and ideas from the focus group participants. Indeed, we reproduced some of their direct feedback in our report because we wanted to capture the essence of what they said and their main points. The Committee was careful not only to recommend actions that were easy to implement. On the contrary, recommendations like shorter NS waiting times or matching aptitudes to vocations have huge administrative impact. Others commended the Committee for also explaining why some suggestions were not taken up, for example, priority places in primary schools and other aspects because we could have easily said yes. But if we give priority to all NSmen then nobody gets priority.
I want to thank many MPs who have spoken out in support of the Committee's recommendations - Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Mr Alex Yam, Mr Pritam Singh, MP Ellen Lee, and Eugene Tan. If adopted by the Government, how will the recommendations strengthen NS? Well, pre-enlistees can look forward to shorter waiting times before enlistment. The Committee has set a limit of six months that the SAF should impose on itself and for 90 per cent of pre-enlistees to start NS within four months of finishing their post-secondary education - it's double the current 45 per cent. In other words, under the current system, 45 per cent of pre-enlistees are called up after they finish their post-secondary education, that is ITE, Polytechnic or "A" Levels or overseas. Committee says, double this to 90 per cent. 90 per cent to be called up within 4 months and set the absolute cap at 6 months, reduce the waiting time. The SAF has studied this recommendation- as I said, it's one with huge administrative impact because we are dealing with about 20,000 national servicemen every year. The SAF, the SPF and the SCDF have studied this recommendation carefully and if accepted by Government, this will be implemented as early as the middle of next year. The usual June and September intakes will be brought forward to May and August, respectively, which are mainly Polytechnic graduates. Enlisting them earlier will mean that they will get into the workforce faster because they will complete it earlier. It also means that Polytechnic students, enlisted previously in September and bound for local universities in August, will not need to be disrupted as, previously it was two years and they had to be disrupted before they finish. Because if we bring it earlier, they will now be able to complete their NS before they go to universities. ITE students will also benefit from a shorter wait time. Similarly, "A" Levels graduates will be enlisted a month earlier starting December next year. I say this very quickly, but I tell you that my SAF commanders are sweating over this because they are juggling it. Each batch is about five, six, seven thousand and they are wondering how do we do this. But they have studied it, they are confident they can do it. We give them the full support if Government accepts it. We see some changes.