Right tone to touch millennial NSmen

Right tone to touch millennial NSmen
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen (in white) visits NSmen from 702 Guards participating in Exercise Golden Sand at Pulau Sudong on April 24, 2014.

Standing in front of a bronze life-sized infantry soldier with a Singapore Armed Forces flag a year ago, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen made a pledge: to listen to the concerns and wishes of national servicemen.

It was a fitting backdrop that marked the start of a year-long journey by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS), which Dr Ng leads, to find ways to boost buy-in for NS.

From the raft of 30 recommendations announced yesterday, Dr Ng and his high-ranking panel seem to have delivered on many fronts.

For the working NSmen, the CSNS proposes giving them more time and leeway to train for their Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT), addressing their perennial grumbles of juggling work, family and NS duties.

It is even prepared to ease the restrictions on those who go overseas, requiring only those whose trips are longer than 14 days to notify the authorities.

CSNS member Allan Lim said removing the "pain points" of NS would "create greater goodwill and spur more people to be more interested to serve".

The CSNS also heard those who had long clamoured for a bigger role in the nation's defence, allowing women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens to sign up to join the first-ever SAF Volunteer Corps from next year.

Hearing the 20-man steering committee present their report card yesterday, I could not help but sense that there is a change in the way Mindef, traditionally known as the behemoth, views and deals with its servicemen.

The I-know-better attitude has been replaced by an eagerness to engage millennial soldiers, who were "born and bred in an affluent Singapore with no direct memories of our early struggles", said Dr Ng.

But these digital natives are also more vocal, questioning, and have to be trained and dealt with differently from their predecessors.

As Dr Ng said in his first interview as Defence Minister in 2011, it is a new generation that "really has to find its own teaching moments".

That is perhaps why the CSNS is suggesting to give servicemen more time and flexibility to carry out their physical fitness training, as well as buy into the idea of self-motivation.

As Second Defence Minister Chan Chun Sing said: "When our NSmen take ownership of their own fitness and operational readiness, that is the strongest deterrent message that we can send to anyone."

Of course, the townhalls and focus group discussions with some 40,000 participants over the past year would have thrown up populist - albeit radical - proposals, like giving preferential admission to primary schools for NSmen's children and increasing full-time national servicemen allowance.

They were deemed unfeasible, and, rightfully, thrown out.

So the CSNS struck the right balance between sticking its ears close to the ground and keeping in sight its priority: "Singapore first, SAF and NS second, personal interest of all Singaporeans next."


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