Growing up, Dr Luisa Lee loved reading but money was tight at home. Turning to her neighbours, who were boys, she found that all they had for her to borrow were comics and books on combat and war. These were to have a lifelong effect on the medical doctor, who became Singapore's first woman doctor in the Singapore Armed Forces volunteer medical service in 1979.
For 20 years, she served the military. It gave her a deep insight into the lives of national servicemen that proved invaluable when she sat on the Committee to Strengthen National Service. Dr Lee, 65, tells Maryam Mokhtar how the panel's recent recommendations will fortify the national service core and let Singaporeans show their commitment to the country.
Five years of your childhood were spent in Melbourne, Australia. How did the experience shape you?
When I was between age four and nine, my father was studying engineering at the University of Melbourne, under a colonial government scholarship. We were poor because the scholarship covered only his expenses. The rest of us lived on my parents' savings. I loved reading and borrowed books and comics from my neighbours, who were boys.
These were all about combat, war and fighting and, at that impressionable age, I was taken by events like the Battle of Britain and war heroes like John Paul Jones of the American Revolutionary War. My penchant for the military was also stirred at school in Australia, where plenty of stories were told about war heroes. The school also celebrated wartime commemorations such as the annual Anzac Day and Poppy Day. But you became a doctor instead of a military historian. Why?
I was eight years old when an aunt very proudly proclaimed that one of her nieces had become a nurse. It made me think that I could be one too, working in a hospital and helping to heal sick people. It sounded very glamorous. But the notion of nursing was put on hold when I decided to continue studying after my O levels.
I prepared my application to the then University of Singapore to do science but the day before submission, my cousin urged me to try medicine and I thought: "Why not?" I think one thing that drove me was that I wanted to keep on studying, and not work.
You joined the Health Ministry's Training Health and Education Department in 1974. What led you to volunteer in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)?
In 1979, I came to know the SAF had a group of volunteer doctors and nurses. When I heard they were recruiting, I asked the chief medical officer if I could volunteer. The women volunteers then were nurses, no doctors. He said: "Okay, put in your application." I was thrilled when they accepted me, and went for the Medical and Medical Ancillary Officers' course.
Was the training arduous?
For six months, we trained twice a week and one weekend each month, we got a crash course on every aspect of military life. We learnt individual field craft (how to camouflage, identify field signals and determine target indication), military history and military law.There was also medical evacuation which I found difficult because we had to lift heavy loads. We chose the smallest person to put on the stretcher.
Is there any part of the training that left an indelible mark on you? During one topography exercise, I was with an older nurse who was also a volunteer. We walked past a group of young NSmen who were training and one of them said: "Wah lau, an ni lao ("so old" in Hokkien)!" I still laugh about it but I hope we were an inspiration.
Another time, as a company commander, I had to decide where to set up our field hospital. It had everything you find in a hospital - but under tents and trailers. It was tough work for everyone. When it rained heavily, the site of another hospital company next to us was totally flooded and everybody was swearing. I was so relieved I had chosen a spot on higher ground for my company.
One recommendation of the Committee to Strengthen National Service was the formation of an SAF Volunteer Corps. How would it help people understand what it's like to defend our country?
The contributions of our NSmen are invaluable. I don't think anyone who has not gone through it would be able to realise the sacrifices they make.
In the early days when most Singaporeans were renting their flats, they were encouraged to own their homes so that they would be committed to the country and defend it.
Our male citizens are defending our country through NS. The volunteer corps opens the way for participation by women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens who want to show their commitment to Singapore by contributing to our defence, and signal support for NS by the larger community.
The first volunteer corps aims to get about 100 to 150 recruits. What are the key considerations for them to achieve success?
What's important is we get the right people who are committed and have passion. A survey done by the Institute of Policy Studies (and commissioned by the committee) shows 80 per cent of respondents, men and women alike, were in favour of letting women contribute to defence as volunteers. It shows the notion of volunteering for defence is surfacing.
If we had this conversation 10 years ago, it is highly unlikely we would get anywhere near this number.
How did the committee select and review people's various suggestions to strengthen NS?
All suggestions and feedback were carefully examined. The recommendations had to be meaningful and have an impact but also be pragmatic. They ranged from improving the training system and administration, to expanding community support, to providing opportunities for contribution, to rewards and recognition.
Suggestions that we felt would have limited impact, like giving NSmen's children priority for Primary 1 registration, were dropped since the fathers of most Primary 1 registrants are NSmen.
The rewards and recognition have to be understood as tokens; the panel felt they should not appear transactional, which would detract from the essence of NS.
With the implementation of the recommendations, how do you envision NS in the future?
It's going to take a lot of work to implement some of the measures, improve administrative processes, training and so on.
An example is shortening the time between school and enlistment and after that, from the completion of NS to pursuing higher education - for some, there is a lot of time wasted there.
I believe the recommendations as a whole will make the NS system more efficient and optimise time and resources.
Singaporeans are very pragmatic; they want to make the best use of their time, especially when they are young. So if this and other measures can be successfully implemented, it will go a long way in addressing the complaints on the ground.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the NS review and recommendations were made to take into account a new generation of NSmen with no experience of Singapore's early struggles. Is your enthusiasm and dedication to the nation a hallmark of an older generation?
I'd like to use the metaphor of disease. You need not suffer from a disease to know you want to prevent yourself from getting it.
If younger Singaporeans truly understand what is at stake and what needs to be done to safeguard our nation and way of life, they will respond appropriately.
That's where I think education will have to play a part to open their eyes. It would be good for some of the retired regulars and volunteers to help in national education, go to schools to explain and share their experiences.
How can we develop in the younger generation a sense of loyalty to and a deeper stake in the country?
Loyalty comes through participation. One has to get involved and contribute before one can understand. So we need to find ways to encourage participation.
You have three sons, two of whom were aged three and five when you began volunteering in the SAF. Did your work have an effect on them?
Definitely. I believe that because I was an officer, my three sons felt they had to be officers too. The eldest was an NS commando.
My second son told me it was because of me that he did not take the "softer" option of being in the SAF Sports Association tennis team. He went into Officer Cadet Training (OCT). My youngest son went into Specialist Cadet School before joining OCT.
Do you talk to your children about loyalty and a sense of responsibility in defending the nation? What was their response?
I never had to do it. It's imbibed in them.
There have been occasions when the topic comes up, of NS setting them back in higher education and career advancement by two years compared to women and non-citizens. It's a bugbear of many Singaporean men.
But this is something they have to accept. However, there's unanimous agreement that NS is necessary and it is their duty to serve as well as they can.
This article was first published on July 05, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.