SINGAPORE - Every week, 22-year-old Jonathan Ong Jun Kai sheds his army fatigues for civilian clothes and drives to town. But while his friends head out for family dinners or dates with girlfriends, Mr Ong is off to school.
The marketing and finance major at Kaplan Singapore is one of an increasing number of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) enrolling in part-time degree courses at private schools even as they serve the nation, instead of waiting to resume their studies after two years of national service (NS).
They attend classes on weekends and in the evenings after they book out of camp.
This trend started just two years back, according to a Kaplan spokesman, adding that in the past only a "handful of students" were NSFs.
In 2011, 42 NSFs were pursuing part-time degrees at Kaplan. The figure went up to 73 in 2012, and this year, 139 out of 6,000 part-time students are NSFs.
"The NS men who choose to study part-time while serving the nation want to get a head start over their peers and enter the workforce earlier," explained Kaplan Singapore's executive vice-president Leon Choong.
The head of MDIS School of Engineering, Dr Ben Lim Kheng Kiong, has also noticed that his classes are seeing more NSFs, whom he said are looking to "use their time more productively".
PSB Academy, meanwhile, has seen a "modest" 13 per cent increase in the number of NSFs in part-time programmes from 2011 to 2012. While the school would not reveal exact figures, dean Susie Khoo believes the trend will become more common in the coming years.
She said part-time courses offer NSFs flexibility, allowing them to "pursue personal development" while "not distracting them from serving their obligations to the nation".
Last month, the National University of Singapore announced that those who have completed NS would be able to take some modules online starting next January, instead of waiting for the school semester to start in August, giving them an early start of a couple of months.
Most of the NSFs attending part-time courses say that they prefer not to put their studies and career on hold for two years. By graduating sooner, they can secure jobs quicker, and start building up work experience earlier.
Said 21-year-old Muhammad Sadali Abdul Aziz, who hopes to graduate from his tourism, events and public relations course at Kaplan when he completes his NS next year: "The idea of being a student at 25 doesn't feel right to me. At that age, I feel like I should be working."
NSF Mohamed Sofian Mohamed Ali, a 22-year-old engineering student at PSB Academy where he has classes twice a week, added: "I want to have a head start and work full-time after I finish NS. I also want to earn a higher salary so, hopefully, the degree will give me a better standard of living."
The Temasek Polytechnic graduate, who sees his night classes as a retreat after a hard day of NS, added that studying part-time keeps him from forgetting everything he had learnt.
Juggling NS and studies means time is often tight, admitted MDIS engineering student Chua Wei Xuan, 20. Sometimes, he has no time to go home after leaving camp to shower and change, and has to attend class in his army uniform.
But he and others like him also make use of any downtime in camp to pore over study notes, and their army supervisors are usually supportive, letting them leave on time to go for their classes.
Of course, NS obligations come first, they added. Mr Sadali said he once missed two weeks of classes because of his army duties. But it their social lives that take the biggest hit.
"Once you're in NS, you don't see your family and friends much. Add school to that, and you don't see them anymore," admitted Mr Sadali. Still, these NSFs soldier on, some even pulling friends in to study part-time as well.
But part-time study is not an option for everyone. For some, training is too taxing. Others are in vocations that require them to stay in camp for the week.
Nineteen-year-old NSF Bryan Lim said: "I'd like to study, but I'm usually too tired after training to handle any more work. I'll wait until I leave the army to start studying again."
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