Volunteers with a purpose and passion

Volunteers with a purpose and passion
SAF will be setting up its first-ever Volunteer Corps to encourage women and Permanent Residents to contribute to National Service. (L-R) Chaffeur Sha'ari Bin Yakkub (Inspector in the Volunteer Special Constabulary), student Ahmad Syafi''i (Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit Firefighter), Nanyang Poly lecturer Lee Bee Lian (Lieutenant in Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit)

On weekdays, she is a Nanyang Polytechnic engineering lecturer. But on weekends, Ms Lee Bee Lian is Lieutenant Lee, ditching her office wear for a Singapore Civil Defence Force uniform.

The 44-year-old Permanent Resident helps to run SCDF's community programmes, which aim to prepare residents for emergencies. She is one of 130 volunteer officers with the Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit (CDAU). "I'm grateful to Singapore for funding two of my scholarships, so this is my way of paying it back, and it's good for me because I get to learn skills like CPR and fire safety."

It is this sort of passion that the Singapore Armed Forces is hoping to tap into when it launches its proposed Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) by next year, if it is accepted by the Government.

One of 30 recommendations made by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS), the unit will be open to women, first-generation Permanent Residents and new citizens.

While some have pointed out that the SAFVC can never match the commitment and contributions of servicemen, its purpose is to give a chance to "those not called up for NS to take greater ownership and understand what it means to serve and defend the country", said CSNS member Luisa Lee.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who chaired the CSNS, has also previously said the experience of the police and civil defence in setting up their volunteer corps "gives the SAF some confidence".

The police's Volunteer Special Constabulary (VSC) and the civil defence's CDAU have grown steadily since being set up in 1946 and 2006 respectively.

Between 2010 and 2013, about 108 volunteers joined the VSC each year. It now has 770 volunteers. Over the same period, around 40 people joined the CDAU annually. They wear uniforms and are deployed alongside national servicemen and regulars, for a monthly minimum of 16 hours for CDAU junior officers, and 38 hours for their VSC counterparts. More committed officers, however, easily log more than 100 hours per month.

Volunteers range from 21 to 35 years old for the CDAU, and 21 to 50 for the VSC. About a fifth of them are female. CDAU officers are trained for vocations like firefighting, emergency medical services, search dog handling, community involvement, while VSC officers do street patrols and anti-crime operations.

Commanders from both sides said their volunteer officers assimilated well.

"Our CDAU officers have received public compliments on their excellent service delivery… their enthusiasm is infectious and they serve as a good role model for others to emulate," said Major Quek Wei Liang, commander of Marina Bay Fire Station.

The army hopes that its first SAFVC intake, projected to be between 100 and 150, could start their month-long basic military course next year. Following that, they must return to serve one to two weeks annually, for a minimum of three years.

They can opt for either the "operations" track, which entails protection of key installations, or the "specialist" track, which taps on their professional expertise in the civilian world.

Observers believe the success of the army's volunteer unit will depend on how volunteers are trained, given the limited training, and how they are deployed - two areas that the police and civil defence have done well in.

"Military training is complicated, and the volunteers train for a limited period, so this will naturally limit where they can be deployed in the SAF," said defence analyst Ho Shu Huang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

The police volunteers train part-time for nine months and they often perform roles in the community like patrols and engagement which tap on existing skills, he noted. This is something the SAFVC should emulate, he added.

Both he and Dr Ong Wei Chong, a military studies assistant professor at the RSIS, felt that it is crucial for volunteers to be assimilated into the military culture.

"Part-time training may not be long or specialised enough to be able to assimilate volunteers into existing roles in regular units. They may find it easier to join the 'specialist' track, which focuses on their professional rather than military expertise " said Mr Ho.

Dr Ong agreed, noting that bringing in experts in fields like communications, law and psychology would also facilitate the "transfer of specialist skills, best practices and knowledge to the military".

jianxuan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jun 1, 2014.
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