Two years is a long time for one’s life to stand still, all to serve the mandatory conscription in Singapore. Is it truly necessary?
If you’ve never served in the National Service in Singapore, you won’t necessarily realise it, but you inadvertently dig yourself into a sinking hole the minute you ask a Singaporean male: “So, what did you do in National Service?” Oops. But what is “NS”? Why do the menfolk speak of it with either such enthusiasm or contempt? How does it affect them and everyone else? Here’s everything you need to know about National Service in Singapore, as told by a Singaporean male who’s been through it all.
All about Singapore’s compulsory conscription
What is National Service in Singapore?
Affectionately (and I’m using that term loosely here) known as NS, National Service is a national policy in which all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents (sons who become PRs under their parents’ sponsorship) are mandated to serve in uniformed groups for up to two years. The majority of men typically serve in the army, while the remaining will be deployed either in the police force or civil defence.
When does enlistment start?
Once you reach 16.5 years of age, you’ll be informed to register for National Service. This kicks off the entire enlistment process, starting with a medical examination that determines your medical and physical status. Your statuses will then determine which vocational group you will be posted to.
NS life commences with Basic Military Training (lovingly known as BMT) at Pulau Tekong, the second-largest offshore island east of Pulau Ubin. Depending on your physical status, you may undergo BMT ranging between nine and 17 weeks. During BMT, you will learn the fundamentals of soldier skills such as basic drills and physical training, operating firearms, and going through field camp.
After completing your BMT, you’ll be deployed to a military unit where you will serve the remainder of your National Service. For soldiers who have performed exceptionally well during their BMT, they will be sent to leadership school for further leadership training before being deployed.
And that’s it for NS, right? If only!
Even after you’ve finished your NS obligation, you’re not out of the woods just yet! There’s still that little thing called reservist, wherein you will be called up at least once annually for refresher training. Each reservist duty can run between three days to a maximum of three weeks, depending on the activities. The reservist cycle is 10 years, or up to age 40 for specialists and below, and 50 for officers.
Can you avoid National Service?
National Service in Singapore is an inescapable requirement, so unless you want to end up in prison, you grit your teeth and go through it. Although there have been complete NS exemptions, those are rare and only because the persons involved are permanently disabled or have severe medical conditions. However, while you may not be able to avoid it entirely, you can delay the inevitable.
How do you delay NS?
Generally, deferment is granted to those who have completed their secondary education and want to carry on with tertiary studies. Tertiary education includes junior college, polytechnic, and ITE. Upon completing their studies, they will then have to go through National Service.
Why are girls left out of National Service?
While the womenfolk of Singapore don’t need to serve National Service, they can volunteer – or even enlist – if they want to. Gender equality, right? Unfortunately, it’s not as straightforward as that. Mention “women” and “NS” together in a sentence, and you risk opening a can of worms. There’s machismo attached to National Service that’s certainly confounding.
So is NS a boon or a bane? Here’s my hot take.
Let me warn you first, there’s a lot to unpack here.
Before I turned green…
I didn’t think about NS (AKA national slavery to me). At all. Until a letter arrived informing me of my medical examination at the Central Manpower Base. Yeah, shit’s starting to get real now, Suf. I was extremely nervous during the check-up. What PES status will I get? Will I be serving the army or the police because of my race? (Yes folks, that’s a thing…) How much longer do I have to go around this centre shirtless? (I was a skinny being back then, and walking around in public topless was uncomfortable. It’s a different story now.)
Sometime later, I was notified that I’d be reporting to Pulau Tekong in early June of 2006. I re-read the letter a few times over, processing everything in. My mind was a flurry of thoughts. I wished I didn’t have to go through National Service. I wished it hadn’t existed in the first place. Why is NS a mandatory thing? Why couldn’t it be voluntary, or done as a balloting system like Thailand? It’s not like this country’s going to war anytime soon! Will – and can – I survive in NS? Sigh…
I’m a (national) slave 4 U
Enlistment day came. I had to get up super early to be at Tekong. My family came along for moral support. While they toured the premises, I went through the enlistment process. We reconvened, had lunch together, and finally said our goodbyes. And that’s it. I was alone. It was just me for two weeks on the island. I was blank. Can you tell I wasn’t looking forward to this?
But as time wore on, it got bearable. I became friends with my bunkmates. They were my reminders that I wasn’t going through it alone. Even when it got rough (that one-week outfield training was a major toughie, I tell you), I spurred on. I made it. BMT’s over! The end of the first NS phase…
From boy to man
After BMT, I was initially deployed as a driver at a camp up north. I hated that posting. I’ve zero intentions of driving or getting my license. Going through the driver training programme just affirmed my decision. Thankfully, I managed to exit the course (don’t ask how) and was redeployed as a regimental policeman (RP) at another camp. “RP? What’s that?” you may wonder. Well, think of it as like a security guard.
Frankly speaking, I would say I learned and grew a lot as a person during unit life. I became comfortable with who I am (that’s a story for another time). I realised that I’m capable of leading, after being made the second-in-charge of my batch. Was it a big responsibility? Of course, no shit! But if not for that role, I wouldn’t have discovered this part of myself. So thanks, but also no thanks NS? I was also grateful that I could vibe with my fellow RPs. Life in camp was lively because of them. (And also because I didn’t have to stay in, heh.)
Now don’t get me wrong – just because my unit life turned out okay, it doesn’t mean I’m rah-rah about conscription. I hated the stiflingly regimented life. I hated having to follow everything “by the book”. Dealing with personnel who think you should never question their decisions and thought processes frustrated me. Above all, I hated that two years of my life was disrupted because of conscription. If I had a choice, obviously I wouldn’t have gone through NS. But I didn’t. My National Service experience turned out to be okay, nothing to shout about. But as a person? I turned out to be better, and that’s something to shout about.
If you have any thoughts and experiences on National Service, let us know!
Top image: Gramicidin via Flickr