Aloysius Pang’s passing affected more Singaporeans than any other death in the Singapore Armed Forces. This is clearly due to his celebrity status. Without underplaying Pang’s death, God rest his soul, he is another citizen soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Other Singaporeans have died in the course of duty to nation. All of them equally deserving of our mourning.
None, however, received the dignity that their death paid for: an SAF that is justly accountable to the soldiers under its charge and the family members who have willingly let their loved ones serve. Pang, like many of his other fallen comrades, would likely have died in vain.
This is not to say that SAF should engage in a witch hunt, find a scapegoat and slaughter him to sate the public’s call for accountability. Firing even the Chief of Army would never bring back the lives of our soldiers. Yet, we seem to be stuck in a perpetual cycle – a soldier dies, SAF apologies and send condolences, a committee of inquiry is convened, “rigorous training” must continue. Cycle repeats, ad infinitum.
Put in perspective, training deaths are not unique. In recent years, the US military saw more deaths in training than it did in war. Factors cited include poor equipment and resources, lack of proper training, and over-taxed troops. Yet Singapore seems inclined to, literally, soldier on when we are faced with such a situation. Of course, we can say that training deaths in a country that has never gone to war is shockingly unacceptable, but we will eventually have the SAF claim that training must be realistic and rigorous in order for us to defend our home. For some reason, we find it acceptable to let this be. Until the next death, whereupon we get worked up all over again, before settling back once again into equilibrium.
Singapore’s conscripted army might not be unique in the world, but we must surely be unique in allowing our sons to serve without demanding that they receive the proper care from those we entrust to train and use them. This has to with our national psyche, whereby we believe our vulnerability accords the military the right to protect us at all cost, even if a few lives are lost. Such a mindset fuels, and is also fuelled by, perceptions that National Service is a sacred cow, the epitome of our nationhood. Articles you might find call us to be patriotic, to unwaveringly support a system, and by extension the organisation that owns that system.
But what if that system is fundamentally broken?
Singaporeans will never be able to get the accountability they deserve from SAF, until they critically re-examine what NS and military conscription means for us. We would blindly continue to place trust in SAF simply because we believe we need National Service to protect us.
How, then, should we re-examine the system? For a start, let us acknowledge the sacrifice of our soldiers without thinking of them as “Singapore Sons”. They are our sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, nephews, cousins, schoolmates, colleagues, friends. They are the young men dressed in green on the MRT trains, but they are also the average guy queuing to take the bus to work, sitting at the table next to you at the hawker centre, carrying his son at the shopping mall, the same son who would eventually have to take that uniformed path.
They are human. They deserve our love, respect and care not because they serve, but because they are one of us. A nation that does not recognise the intrinsic value of our military men out of their uniform, does not deserve them in uniform.
Next, we need to rethink National Service. This will be met with raise eyebrows and aghast looks, but before you jump on the how-dare-he-question-NS patriotism bandwagon, let me quality: NS is important for a small independent nation in so far as we need to protect our borders. But is the way we are doing it correct?
We often hang on to myths about our vulnerable nation, drawing inspiration from other small nations. Hence, NS becomes an essential obligation, a mark of pride, even a privilege to serve. It becomes a social icon of suffering that leads to our civilian life based on how much you have suffered. Don’t believe me? Ask how often a former officer has been given a job over trooper. It has even been ingrained into our minds as a right of citizenship. But why? We are citizens by birth or assimilation, irrespective of what role we play for our nation.
The immense value we placed on NS has blinded us to our value as citizens. It gets played up constantly by SAF every chance they get (including at the death of a soldier), at every chest-thumping National Day Parade, every time we have a border dispute. We never once thought of NS as what it really is: a concept and a fabricated extension of our nationhood.
Can we protect our nation without NS? If we believe in our intrinsic and individual value as citizens, that we contribute whether we serve in the military or not, then the answer is yes. Not because we have the latest technology and military toys, not because our “4G Army” has the best fighting spirit, not because we are “ever vigilant”, and certainly not because “if Country X attacks, every Singapore Son will take up arms”.
It will be because we recognise our diverse roles in making it happen – in the military, in the diplomatic service, but also in the everyday civilian work we do that make us better as friend than enemy to our neighbours, and among those who volunteer time and energy to make our democracy stronger. Each role deserves to be seen as worthy of national respect, and to be justly paid their dues. They are not National Service, but service to nation.
When we have finally renegotiated NS, we can partake in the last re-examination: the role of SAF in all this. We often ascribe to SAF the role of taking care of our loved ones, but we also ascribe to it the role of nation protector. We often see SAF as the custodian to the ideal of NS, when in reality, they are but the administrator to a broken and misunderstood NS system.
It is then only right for us to call for SAF to fix NS, and until it does so, to demand that SAF produces zero fatality and accidents. We should not accept military deaths and injuries to our citizens just because we believe SAF has a right to do what is necessary to protect us. SAF’s accountability to a nation, purchased with a warped concept of “National Service” too easily sold to us, cannot be to say sorry, we are grateful for your sacrifice, let’s move on and continue to protect the nation we all love, hoo-yah.
Enough lives have been lost. If SAF truly believes that one life lost is one too many, it is time for it to get off its high moral perch atop a far-shooting howitzer and get up close and personal with the people who matter: you and me.