Blanket NS exemption adds to stigma

Servicemen from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) participating in a military exercise on Pulau Sudong on 2 August 2011.

Dr Andy Ho suggested that people with schizophrenia be exempted from national service ("Exempt these young men from NS"; last Sunday).

Already, society attaches a stigma to mental illness; many companies, educational institutions and insurers ask applicants whether they have a history of such conditions.

A blanket policy to exempt those with schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses from NS will only amplify the stigma they face.

Currently, many companies use NS performance as a gauge of a worker's attitudes and abilities; some human resource managers prefer to hire those who served as officers during NS.

When most Singaporean and permanent resident males are required to complete NS, those who are exempted invariably have to explain the reason for it.

Schizophrenia is now believed to be a biological illness with a genetic basis. Studies have shown that about 40 per cent to 50 per cent of patients are able to work, and about one in three achieves full recovery.

Society needs to include these people in employment, as failure to do so will increase the burden on society for the provision of welfare and housing for them.

Exemption from NS should be granted on a case-by-case basis. One needs to consider the merits of each case and the impact of exemption on the individual. Stigma and bias are hard to prove but invariably exist.

Letter from Christopher Cheok Cheng Soon (Dr)

This article was published on April 20 in The Straits Times.

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