Public discussion on National Service and military matters has reached a stage where every family must now be allowed to have a say on how the Singapore Armed Forces should go forward. All that Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has touched on – every measure to ensure safety and zero fatality during training – is the barest minimum that true-blue Singaporeans would expect. If for any second anyone of us does not buy his reiteration in Parliament of the SAF’s commitment to safety measures following the deaths of CFC Aloysius Pang, NSF Gavin Chan, NSF Dave Lee, NSF Liu Kai and others, then the enlistment letter that will go out to all NS-liable males from here on will not be worth the cost of the paper on which it is printed.
Fifty-two years and many generations of NSmen later, the shape of NS must no longer be determined by just MINDEF and the Cabinet. True-blue Singaporeans must be invited and encouraged to take part in a comprehensive public conversation of the concept. It is not enough to focus merely on safety and have a statement, say sorry, go through some manner of debate in Parliament, tighten up inspections and pass the buck to an inquiry.
Don’t waste this opportunity. Don’t stop here. We have gone beyond the do you or do you not support NS phase. PM Lee Hsien Loong has served his NS. That we know and appreciate. Workers Party’s Pritam Singh is still doing his reservist training. (By the way, many Singaporeans are still unhappy that we have a young male Minister of State who has never done NS at all). Every other millennial male MP – sons of the early batches of NSmen – would have been familiar with Pulau Tekong, just as early batches knew SAFTI and Peng Kang Hill at the back of their palms. Each would have something to say about training, the IPPT, reservist duties – and what they want their own sons to undergo.
There is credibility when ex-NSman PM Lee spoke about how seriously he and SAF leaders took safety. He said: “(While serving in the General Staff) I had to account to the bereaved families and think hard how to keep servicemen safe while still fulfilling the SAF’s mission.”
He added that later as PM, he has to make sure that MINDEF has capable leaders and that “when a training accident occurs, the Government answers, not only to the family but also to all NSmen and the public too.”
When WP’s Pritam Singh tried to push for greater accountability beyond answering to families and upping safety measures, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen became unnecessarily defensive. He replied that he was more interested in dealing with the issue instead of getting involved in posturing and politicking. I don’t think Pritam was trying to earn brownie points in the debate. He is a politician yes but he is also a still serving NSman and has every right to make suggestions, to reflect ground feeling.
Ng did not sound like a man who was deeply sorry. Pritam’s point was perfectly legitimate. Heads must roll if lapses have been proven. Otherwise, the culture of reporting on these lapses as suggested repeatedly by Ng does not make sense, it would have no sting whatsoever.
We have made progress and moved on with the times. Not so long ago, any discussion of any aspect of military matters had to be cleared by MINDEF. I remember in the years just after NS was introduced in 1967 there was a burst of public debate on NS. MINDEF quickly clamped down on it and it got to such an absurd degree where even reporting on a couple of MINDEF-sponsored helium filled balloons for an Orchard Road celebration had to be approved.
Social media makes it impossible now to control every dissemination of information unless of course there is clear-cut breach of national security.
Let the public conversation on NS continue. Don’t stifle it. Every true-blue family has a stake in this country. NS affects their lives – the quality, impact on jobs, future, education.
Three foreigners you just love to hate
You have seen his face on Facebook, showing his middle finger purportedly just outside the Singapore embassy in Washington DC. American fraudster Mikhy Brochez, described as a “pathological liar” by Singapore authorities, had allegedly leaked the confidential records of 14,200 HIV-positive individuals, along with 2,400 of their contacts, with information spanning almost three decades from 1985 up to January 2013. Singapore is trying to extradite him here to face charges.
Singapore is also still waiting to extradite Canadian David James Roach who is still under arrest in Britain pending an extradition bid to get him to answer a charge for robbing a StanChart bank in Holland Village.
Finally, there was the late Romanian diplomat Silviu Ionescu, convicted for a deadly 2009 hit-and-run accident in Singapore. , who died of cardio-respiratory problem in a Bucharest jail hospital.
If looks could launch a thousand darts, I would nominate this trio.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.