Why set up SAF volunteer corps?

Why set up SAF volunteer corps?

SINGAPORE - My first reaction to the idea of the Singapore Armed Forces' volunteer corps was: Who would want to join it?

I'm not an outdoorsy person and frequently failed the school physical fitness test's standing broad jump. I've also heard a fair number of horror stories from people I know about their National Service.

I do see inspiring stories from SCDF firefighters and photos of my Facebook friends on their way to becoming top military brass.

But for every one of those, there are at least 10 other people who are scathing about the inefficiency of National Service (NS) and being made to sacrifice two years of their life while they are in their prime.

So I did not think the volunteer corps, announced last Thursday, sounded attractive.

Able-bodied women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens between the ages of 18 and 45 can sign up for the scheme.

Some of their experiences will sound familiar to regular NSmen: They don military fatigues and go through a four-week course to become familiar with the military.

They may guard key installations and conduct crowd control during SAF-related events, or use their expertise in legal, medical, psychological or maritime fields, among other things.

They will be called up to serve for up to two weeks every year, for at least three years.

Similar groups such as the Police Volunteer Special Constabulary and Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit already exist, but not everyone is cut out for such groups.

If I wanted to give four weeks of my life to something, there are many other choices I would prefer, like reading a mountain of books. It cuts both ways: I do not want to join the corps, and I'm sure the corps does not want someone like me.

The exacting criteria weed out ambivalent people - like me - who baulk at the level of commitment demanded.

That is good. It means that those who do sign up for the corps will be motivated by a strong sense of passion and service to Singapore.

What I like about the idea of the corps is that women will have another option to serve the country in a military capacity, if they wish to.

Women can already sign on as regulars. But those who do not want to be full-timers but still want to help defend the country now have more flexibility to do so.

Whether they take up the option is another question altogether.

But what exactly is the point of the corps?

If it is to give women, first-generation PRs and new citizens more options to contribute to national defence, that is well and good.

But surely there must be more to it.

If the point of the volunteer corps is to promote deeper understanding and support of national defence, then it is hard to see how it can reach enough people to achieve this.

The first batch of volunteers is expected to be about only 100 to 150 strong.

The people most cynical about national defence are also those least likely to sign up for the corps.

Another possible goal is to give people a chance to reduce the perceived inequality between those who do NS and those who do not.

Those resentful of first-generation PRs paint them as freeloaders who do not defend the country militarily, but enjoy the fruits of the labour of others who do so. Worse, they can leave when it comes to the crunch.

This is unfair to those who do consider Singapore their home, but are tarred with the same brush.

This mentality is not healthy for an increasingly diverse place like Singapore, where more people will settle here from different places.

But if equality is the goal, then the volunteer corps cannot go far enough as there is still a vast difference between the experiences of an NSman and a volunteer.

There may be better ways for non-NS Singaporeans to serve in a more equivalent capacity to NSmen.

For example, NS could be made compulsory for more people, but for shorter stints.

The volunteer corps is a good start, but questions should be asked about its purpose and how to achieve it.

For now, it can never replace actual NS but maybe it can, at the very least, demystify it.

This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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