NS could be shortened by a few weeks with more career soldiers hired as trainers: Dr Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Thursday that having more experienced professional career soldiers in units and training schools to teach the fledgling soldiers will make NS training more effective and efficient. Having more seasoned hands will also result in "greater impact on training outcomes, inculcating discipline and transmitting values", he said in Parliament during the debate on his ministry's budget.

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Here is an exerpt from Minister Ng's speech in Parliament on March 6:

"I think Singaporeans should be heartened that NS continues to enjoy widespread support. Many of you would have read the independent survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies. It was randomised, [and] rigorous in statistical terms. We outsourced it so that it would not be connected to MINDEF.

"They surveyed 1,200 people last July. 98% of respondents acknowledged that NS is crucial for national defence and for securing Singapore's peace and prosperity. When they presented these results to me, I tried very hard to poke holes in their methodology, I said "These were people that you knew would say that defence is important." The researcher was somewhat taken aback and said, "No".

"He defended it well and I kept probing him. He was satisfied that his methodology was rigorous. I know of no issue in Singapore where 98% of the respondents give support. The Committee also engaged nearly 40,000 people from all walks of life to draw ideas and as well as to find ways that we think we can improve.

"I would say that while the majority of Singaporeans support NS, many also said that time committed to the SAF during full-time NS and In-Camp Training (ICTs) could be better utilised. I think that that is fair comment.

"The SAF takes this criticism to heart because those who gave feedback were not asking for lighter loads or less involvement. They in fact wanted NS to better strengthen our national identity and social cohesion, and instil discipline and values, which many members of this House have echoed.

"They said there should be less time wasted and more effective training systems. I agree that these are good outcomes, even if people are committed to NS and that we should find ways to improve the system, seriously look at the system to see if we can improve it. So I asked the SAF to take a serious view, take a serious look. Let me share with members some preliminary responses from the SAF.

"We need to and we can improve training, but we will need to employ more professional trainers, especially for the Army. Let me explain why. The current system has second-year NSFs train and lead new recruits and servicemen. You would have gone through it yourself or you would have children or relatives who gone there.

"In other words, the older batch second-year NSFs train and command the first-year NSFs. I think there are merits in this. You really build commanders, you hone leadership skills, you build a sense of stakeholdership, ownership. But there are limitations. Compared to having professional trainers which will have greater impact on training outcomes, inculcating discipline and more importantly, transmitting values.

"There is a limit to which what a 22-year-old NSF can transmit to a 21-year-old NSF. Some of them do it very well and I am very proud of them but we have to accept that there are limits. In fact, using only full-time regular trainers is how the Commandos train their recruits in basic training. They have always done it for years; all their trainers are professional trainers. For the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC), which your relatives and your children go to, only about 1 in 6 trainers are professional regulars.

"Of all the trainers, 5 are NSFs, 1 of them is a professional regular. Arising from the CSNS, the SAF has decided to employ more regulars as full-time trainers, as a career path. We are studying the details about how many we need but we could employ as many as 1,100 more regulars to fill this vital role. This will increase the proportion of professional regular trainers in BMTC from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3, which is a significant improvement, which I think will strengthen the training of our NSmen.

"Full-time Army trainers will make the training of NS men more effective and efficient; possibly even shorten the training duration. As quickly I have said that, let me quickly dispel unrealistic expectations. The number of ICTs that NSmen have to perform will not be reduced. Let me say that again, "Will not be reduced."

"The reason is this: we reduced it from 13 to 10 ICTs in 2006. As many of you have pointed out, including Mr Ong Teng Koon, the demographic challenges are there and we need these 10 ICTs and those in MINDEF reserves to maintain the strength in our standing force. This will meet our defence needs, even with falling birth rates, until 2040.

"The largest impact of employing more regular trainers I think will be on the training of our NSFs and I think there can be some time savings. Because in the present system, some time is required for the second-year NSF trainers to adapt themselves to the training environment in their units and training schools. So having regular trainers will smoothen this transition.

"But here again, let me quell unrealistic expectations. The time savings will be a few weeks at most, if any. I am not making any promises here because the Army has to study many details to ensure that we can continue to generate operationally ready units. But if there are time savings in terms of weeks, we will pass it on and we will operationalise it but the Army is under no pressure to deliver on that score.

"But there is an area that we can improve in, arising from the feedback, and that is to reduce the waiting time before enlistment. Many of you know this problem because the reason is Singaporeans before enlistment have different educational pathways. Some go to Junior College, some go to Polytechnic, some go to ITE and they have different waiting times. Some are longer than for others.

"I asked the SAF to respond to this feedback, to develop a system where we can commit to all enlistees, except for some exceptions, that all of them can start their BMT and NS within a fixed time frame, say within 4-5 months. I think this is possible. But please remember that we are dealing with nearly 20,000 enlistees every year, so the logistics are very challenging. But the Army is studying this seriously and expects to complete its detailed studies on the issues raised by the CSNS in the second half of this year.

"The Committee also noted that many Singaporeans supported the idea of more women and first-generation Permanent Residents and New Citizens volunteering for roles in national defence. The idea of a SAF Volunteer Corps for women, PRs and new citizens, I think has gained wide acceptability. Mr Pritam Singh talked about his own session that he was involved in and we think that this is a very good idea that we will adopt. Second Minister Chan will speak more on this idea.

"MOS Maliki will also share ideas from the CSNS, how we can enhance recognition and benefits for our NSmen.

"Some of the members here have asked how we are good stewards of another precious resource apart from dollars - land - and I agree with you.

"MINDEF is mindful to use land efficiently, given competing needs. I think Dr Lim Wee Kiak and Ms Sylvia Lim asked about. This is why MINDEF and the SAF on its own undertook studies to relocate Paya Lebar Airbase. I want to remind everybody here that this will free up the 800 hectares in Paya Lebar for redevelopment, as announced by PM last year.

"Where we can, we also train overseas. But we do need local land for training, which we optimise. The Multi Mission Range Complex (MMRC) is an example. I encourage you to visit it. We will arrange for you to visit this. The MMRC houses seven ranges which can simulate both day and night conditions, and it occupies the site of what used to be just one single 100m range. Seven ranges on one site.

"We have consolidated our training into two main training areas - the live firing areas and manoeuvring areas in the West and the offshore training area in Pulau Tekong. We have intensified the use of our camps and equipping centres to fulfil operational, security and safety requirements.

"Our security is also strengthened when we build defence ties with other countries as Ms Ellen Lee have asked and mentioned."