Aware objects tying NSmen benefits to public goods

SINGAPORE - An online firestorm has been ignited after the Association of Women for Action and Research or Aware pushed back against a report that more rewards were being planned for national servicemen (NSmen).

On Thursday, Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen told reporters on the sidelines of a military exercise that the ministry wants to centre such recognition benefits of NSmen on giving them "greater stake in Singapore", be it in health care, housing or education.

Details of these rewards will only be revealed in a few months' time.

On Thursday, Aware protested this suggestion in a strongly-worded Facebook post.

"Aware disagrees strongly with any link between support for fundamental needs and an individual's status as an NSman, especially when the military may not be suitable for many people, regardless of their gender," it said.

The group added that this step by the defence ministry will only serve to create "different tiers of people with different social entitlements and worth".

The group's executive director Corinna Lim said she does not object to recognising the efforts of NSmen, but asked for the benefits to be tied not to public goods but closer to what they do, like their pay.

This, however, may breed a sense of entitlement as NSmen start to ask for more whenever they get disgruntled.

"Where do we draw the line?" asked Ms Lim, who instead suggested for NS to be made more inclusive so that the benefits, if any, can reach more people.

"Total defence is not just about the military. There are five areas of total defence. You can have women and people who are unable to do military service in it."

Over the last two days, the debate has raged on Aware's Facebook and netizens have taken to blogging about the issue.

Ms Ivy Tan disagreed with Aware's stance.

She commented: "I don't think there's anything wrong with giving our soldiers rewards for their hard work, as long as their benefits do not deprive the rest of us of basic services," she commented.

Another blogger, Mr Daniel Yap, wrote that the women's rights group was unaware of the kind of sacrifices NSmen have to make.

Associate Professor Daniel Goh, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, pointed out that while Aware's position was that no group should be specially privileged, they did not challenge certain groups of people, like single mothers, with access to some of these benefits.

MP Alex Yam, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs agreed. He cited how the recently announced Pioneer Generation Package would provide health care benefits for those above 65.

This was also a "fundamental benefit", he pointed out.

The MP, who just finished two weeks of "very intense in-camp training", added: "Whatever that is put in place to recognise the NSmen in any small way, the efforts will be welcome."

When asked about this allegation, Ms Lim retorted: "The Pioneer Generation Package is different. It was not an entitlement, but a kind of compensation for what they had lost out earlier."

MP Ellen Lee, the deputy chairman of the same GPC, said that the reality is that some NSmen do need help for the sacrifices that they have gone through to serve the nation, be it in their studies or careers.

"Just because those who did not do NS don't get the benefits doesn't mean that the NSmen don't deserve it," she said.

Those who did not go through NS and are looking to contribute to the country's defence can join the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps.

While defence planners and military top brass are still drawing up the job specifications, Dr Ng stressed in a previous news report that they will not be "administrative" roles.

Among the targeted groups are women and permanent residents in their 30s and 40s.

This article was published on April 27 in The New Paper.

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