Dr Parag Khanna's vision of broadening national service roles beyond the armed forces is overly idealistic ("National service for the 21st century"; last Saturday).
The primary purpose of NS is national defence. We need a strong military to protect ourselves if war breaks out. We do not need "structural engineers... developing skills for a lucrative industry Singapore can export" in those times; we need men in uniform who can take up arms.
Dr Khanna's example of the American military looking to get more value from technology rather than manpower is less relevant when we consider that this is tied to the United States' strained national budget. In contrast, Singapore commits a sizeable portion of its gross domestic product to defence.
Also, technology is no substitute for human effort.
The menu of options across military, civil, commercial and social entities that Dr Khanna proposes stretches manpower too thin. The situation is exacerbated by our low birth rates in recent years.
I also disagree that military might is not a solution, given greater international connectedness.
Without a competent military, Singapore could possibly face greater "bullying" as geopolitics based on national interest dictates that threats are always present.
Russia's annexation of Crimea is a potent reminder of the vulnerability of small nations.
And in letting pre-enlistees choose between "hard" and "soft" placements, as suggested by Dr Khanna, we can presume that most will opt for the latter, given the same service obligations.
Even if we were to consider his proposal, there is a need to elucidate the precise roles that young people can take up in non-military entities, lest most end up performing mundane clerical work.
Uniformed service is inherently different from other forms of service. It is precisely the military discipline and regimentation that young men abhor which will do them good in the long run. These cannot be adequately replicated in a civilian setting. In fact, broadening NS roles may dilute the shared rite of passage that every Singaporean son undergoes.
A more pertinent issue is how we can allow those with special talents, such as in sports or the arts, to serve NS while pursuing their passions.
A key thrust is to better match servicemen's talents and interests to vocations, and to include females in NS. This could serve as a pilot project to gauge the feasibility of broadening NS roles.
Letter by Paul Sim Ruiqi
This article was published on April 30 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.