I view my life in 6-month increments. 1st half, 2nd half. I find it a useful medium-term outlook, to make plans and work on them. Maybe it’s the conditioning of a dozen years of school. Perhaps it speaks to the larger constraints of working society. Nonetheless, I find it functional and that alone matters.
It’s been over 6 months since I completed 2 years of NS. If you are still serving, I’m sure you are either looking at your ORD countdown timer, or trying hard not to. I haven’t asked my peers or seniors, but over the course of my 1st semester in NUS, NS keeps returning to my attention. Before I proceed, I should make this clear: I was no warrior. I was a duck.
Or half of it. (Pardon my silliness!)
Being in FASS makes the mental rewinds easy to come by. I contrived to write 2 separate essays on this significant episode of every Singaporean son. The first was a short Sociology assignment, which required exercising the sociological imagination on an aspect of everyday life. Of all things, I chose to explain medical malingering in NS. Or chao keng via MCs.
I began by applying a trend observed by Ronald Inglehart:
Economic development improves physical and economic security, which leads to a rising emphasis on self-expression… As militaries adopt justifiably authoritarian power structures, restrained recruits may feel depressive or aversive, seeking to express autonomy through medical exemptions.
Next, I alluded to social pressures on the military:
Moreover, unfortunate training deaths have recently been well-publicized, placing social pressure on the military to tend more to soldiers’ well-being… This can be exploited by unmotivated soldiers.
Finally, I tried to explain the higher prevalence of malingering among clerks:
Contracted regulars are entitled to an increasingly generous leave policy… invit[ing] discontent in office workspaces, where superior-subordinate interactions are more frequent and normalized. Recruits may feel short-changed, since they get way fewer benefits – let alone pay (or allowance) – despite performing similar tasks.
I hope you enjoyed the discourse above. If you are waiting for a blasting criticism of NS, it won’t happen. That would likely be the extent of enjoyment here for a relentless critic of NS. The first reason is simply that it is not my voice, or the kind of message I stand for. The second reason is the context in which I wrote.
Academic standards differ from personal standards.
If I had my way, I might have lambasted malingerers for the irresponsibility to their peers. Yet I know it’s hard not to feel disillusioned with the state of things. It is not an occupation of choice, and neither is the organizational structure friendly for the democratically-inclined. While I didn’t get to vent past grievances, the demands of academic writing actually brought me to a fairer judgment.
The second essay was for my Political Science module. There were twenty questions to choose from – 20! – on diverse topics (being an introductory module). Needless to say, I picked the one on conscription: Discuss if the policy is necessary and/or desirable. The conclusion didn’t appear intuitive for me, at least initially.
I argued that NS is not necessary, because of complex interdependence among nations, acting as a strong safety net despite anarchy (lack of central authority in international relations). Singapore has been adept at framing its interactions with other states positively, and so there is now minimal incentive for states to invade Singapore. Our most significant threat is now non-state terrorism, and “terrorism requires teams of intelligence, not armies of soldiers, to counter.” Hence, I proposed an optional system.
Yet despite possible fears and general resistance, I believe NS is socially desirable on a collective level:
Conscription allow[s] diverse intermingling that may not have been possible in meritocratic educational institutions. Not only does this reduce the threat of inter-racial or inter-religious conflicts, it also facilitates empathy towards the less well-to-do or less academically bright peers.
To put it differently, NS can be part of the antidote to capitalist exploitation, improving social fabric… In addition, the values espoused in NS can also reinforce Singapore’s non-corrupt political culture.
Harmony across diverse groups is also beneficial for the state. In conclusion:
Despite seemingly growing opposition, making NS optional will pose unexpected risks to social cohesion and even political culture. These are devastating effects, considering Singapore’s dependence on its peace and political uprightness for its international reputation and economic investments.
While conscription is not necessary in terms of dealing with existing external threats, its removal may, in a worst-case scenario, make Singapore vulnerable to new threats to its existence.
If you managed to read all that, thank you! If you agreed, do still try to be critical and formulate your own opinions. If you disagreed without your blood boiling, then I’d think you possess the open-mindedness that would you stand you in good stead for academic writing.
Because academic essays differ from opinion pieces.
So how do I actually feel about NS?
As a clerk, I am actually thankful for NS, at least for giving me the kind of break from studies I absolutely needed. I will be a much weaker university student without it. Combat soldiers can feel envious, but I’m sure you probably forged more friendships you can return to on your ICTs.
Thus, half a year after my ORD, I feel like I’ve gained some freedom from the shackles of NS. Not just in leaving the supervision of the institution, but also in resolving the testy memories that litter my experiences then. It’s about time, isn’t it?
I do not own any of the images. Sources can be accessed by clicking on them.