TAIWAN - Taiwan's military managed to recruit only 1,847 soldiers or 31 per cent of its targeted number in the first half of the year, raising doubts over whether it can transition smoothly from a decades-old conscription system to one built around professionals by 2015.
To make matters worse, the death of a conscript three days before completing his military service this month has aroused anger among young Taiwanese. This is expected to exacerbate what observers say is an unfeasible initiative given the island's small population and young people's distaste for rules-bound jobs.
The army's recruitment shortfall was flagged by the United Daily News (UDN) on Sunday and quickly followed up by other media outlets amid coverage of corporal Hung Chung-chiu's death.
Mr Hung, 23, who was due to begin graduate school in September, died of heat stroke after collapsing during allegedly excessive physical training on July 3.
About 30,000 people, mostly young men and parents, marched to the defence ministry last Saturday to protest against the death.
Lawmaker Hsueh Ling of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party was quoted by UDN as saying she had received calls from parents of seven people who had signed up with the military, asking how their children could quit.
What is now at risk is President Ma Ying-jeou's election pledge to transform Taiwan's military into a smaller but professional force by 2015.
Under the initiative, the current one-year compulsory military training for all adult Taiwanese males will be reduced to four months beginning in 2015.
Instead, the military will sign on professional soldiers, or "volunteers", for four-year, renewable contracts offering starting pay of between NT$29,625 and NT$33,845 (S$1,255 and S$1,435), more than 10 per cent higher than the average.
The 270,000-strong military, which is now made up of about 60 per cent volunteers and 40 per cent conscripts, will shrink to 210,000 professional soldiers.
But the authorities first need to contend with a lack of willing bodies in a developed economy with high education levels and increasingly stable ties with mainland China, the enemy since the two sides separated in 1949 following a civil war, that render the military a white elephant to many.
In 2010, amid recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis, the military signed up only 53 per cent of its targeted number of recruits. For the rest of this year, it needs another 15,600 recruits to meet its full-year target.
Mr Yang Ming, 20, a third- year student in business technology management, is happy to serve the one-year term, but the life of a professional soldier, even with its higher starting pay, is not for him. "I see military service as a rite of passage for boys to men, but I wouldn't want to stay more than a year in the army," said Mr Yang, who will be among the final cohort of 12-month military servicemen in Taiwan.
"I like being creative and to explore. A life of regimentation in the armed forces is not for me."
Lawmaker Lin Yu-fang highlighted this mindset in explaining the difficulty of doing away with conscription. "Professionalising the military is feasible in a country like the United States which has a much bigger population and deeper pockets than Taiwan. But others, such as Britain and South Korea, have found it tough, what more a small place like Taiwan."
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