National Day: Redefining National Service

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By Lee Yung Hwee

9 August 2018. Our nation is now 53 years old.

It has been 53 years of independence in the making with the heart, sweat, blood and tears of Singaporeans. This is the collective national service put in by all Singaporeans over the years to help get our nation to where we are today. So what is this national service?

It is from the days that we spend learning in school & equipping ourselves with knowledge to contribute to society, the work which we take on at our jobs to grow the economy, the taxes we pay for infrastructure growth, the spending that we do to shape our economy and of course, few might think all of this as national service but even family planning and getting our new homes are all essentially forms of national service. It is broad but that is not all of it nor the end of it.

It also means country representation across all fields including sports where we can compete, win & fly our flag up high on the global stage.

We have all served one way or another and we are still doing our national service.

But the real essence of national service is far deeper than all the above.

It is not just about going through the motion and helping fill the nation’s coffers or to gain rankings when there is no direct sense of pride felt by Singaporeans, making it a soulless process. It is also not about the one particular form of national service that has been strictly defined as “national service” in our country.

That form of national service is one that is dreaded by many of our young men in Singapore as they approach 18 years of age. This is the time when they are starting off in early relationships, entering tertiary education, exploring potential career opportunities and growing towards the peak of physical development. These are the years where they are reaching their prime and forming the foundations of their adulthood with vast opportunities ahead where their dreams & aspirations are waiting to be achieved.

Yet this is also the time where they will have to take 2 years out of their lives, put everything on hold and don uniforms to serve as required under the definition of “national service” as mandated by old policies. It is a time of personal sacrifice that they make for the country.

I believe it is a necessity for our country to be capable of defending herself if the need should arise and be able to save others when their lives depend on it. We cannot assume that all will always be well or we can depend on our allies to come to save us when the need arises.

We should all be proud of all our uniformed organisations as they are our unsung heroes who are sometimes the least appreciated in keeping Singapore and all of us safe.

But as we cross the 53 years mark of our nation’s birthday, it is time to re-examine and reflect upon ourselves on the definition of national service. Is this how we should continue to define national service?

Since the Ben Davis saga, it has highlighted how the rigidity of our system where criteria and policy have been defined in a very technical & unbalanced manner that favours some over others.

The crux of the matter was not just about one person, his nationality, football, his personal goals or national service. It was about exploring other ways to improve our system to enable Singaporeans to grow in their own personal developments while contributing to our national service in other ways.

National service should now no longer be confined strictly to uniformed organisations and the notion that personal development is detrimental to national service needs to be debunked.

Personal development and national interests are not mutually exclusive.

It is an opportunity that can be seized for greater nation development and that gives our young men a chance to advance both the country’s interest and their personal development as they carry with them a passion and stronger motivation to do even better. Those are factors that will allow them to excel.

Singaporeans will also be heartened to know that the Government is supporting and empowering them to do even better. This is also an investment in our people as we are a country with limited resources and our people are at the core of it.

The real essence in national service is the underlying dignity and pride that comes with serving the nation. The ability to serve with our chin up high and our hearts filled with pride.

It is the ability to serve to the best that we can that defines national service which can restore the dignity and pride that has left us.

Yes, we must have national service but we can let them serve 3 months of BMT with no more than 6 months of unit training. We must also deploy some of them into other sectors where they excel in as part of their national service beyond uniform organisations after their BMT. It is a change of system that can create new horizons for our country.

These are some of the changes that we must make for the sustainability of Singaporeans if we are to face future industrial revolutions and other challenges that lie ahead for Singapore.

With that being one of the many approaches as part of a greater equation, we can then bring back the soul of our nation and only then, Singaporeans will feel that this is where we belong.

Let us not miss another opportunity again. We must change.

Happy Birthday Singapore!