This weekend, I met an American who volunteered to send his son to the national service. He was proud that his son was posted to be a medic, and he was also glad that his son, who had been to international schools, finally got the chance to make Singaporean friends.
He had, however, one complaint, which was the fact that from what he saw, basic military training (BMT) was “soft.” He told me that when he went for the initial parent’s visit at Pulau Tekong, he saw an army of Bangladeshi workers raking the leaves.
While I generally try to avoid getting into the “It was tougher” in my day line when it comes to national service, I did tell him that there was a time when raking leaves was considered “rest” for soldiers in BMT. His immediate reaction was, “Yes, if those boys raked the leaves, they will look at Bangladeshi workers in a different way.”
OK, I get that the Singapore of today is very different from the Singapore of the 60s, and the nature of warfare has also changed. Technology has shown that you can get the firepower at the push of a button that once required several men. I am reminded of the time I was invited by the then Chief of Artillery to “review” the Primus Gun in 2003 because he felt that it was worth getting the perspective of someone trained on the old Field Howitzers. My first question to the young commander was, “What’s your gun drill like?” He stared at me blankly, and then the S3 had to sheepishly say, “Our gun drill is called push button.”
So, like it or not, this is how things are heading. With our small population and lack of strategic space, our military needs the best technology to have an edge against any potential adversary. When my batch got the FH2000 in 1998, it was considered state-of-the-art. I take my alma mater, the artillery, as an example. In 1998 my batch was told that we had a wonderful gun called the FH2000, which required an eight-man crew and could send rounds up to 40km away. This was progress because we had eight instead of 12 men on a crew, and we did considerably less hammering of things. However, in 2003, Primus came along, and artillery was no longer about sitting there and firing rounds. It was about mobility. Then in 2011, we became one of five US allies that got to use HIMARS, where a single HIMARS unit could do as much damage as an entire six-gun battery under the old system.
Technology in the military, like elsewhere, is supposed to give you more bang for your buck. There is something that shouldn’t change. Soldiers, for example, need to be physically more resilient than your average civilian, even if the technology the soldiers of today allows them to do more damage with a single shot than their predecessors could.
What is true of a professional army should be more of a conscript army like what we have in Singapore. For your average Singaporean, national service is often the first “away from home” experience that our young men have, and it’s supposed to be where you get some of the harsh realities of life kicked into you. It is, for example, the place where you discover that Singapore is much larger than the small magic circle your junior college would have let you believe.
However, in 2011, we realized that this was increasingly untrue. Someone caught a young recruit walking to camp with his maid:
While I believe soldiers should be respected for their work, the writer misses the point. National Service is the first time that many of us think of us. The boys from well-to-do families who went to top schools suddenly experience what it’s like for the wider world to think of them as nothing but another nuisance. It’s in that moment where they have to bond with the boys from less well families and be actual humans rather than part of the magic circle that they were told was their birthright.
Well, that’s not happening if you have recruits getting their maids to carry their rucksacks or Bangladeshi workers doing area cleaning. When you allow this to happen in national service, you normalize the idea that you are too good for certain things, and certain entitlement attitudes are normalized.
When I think of national service today, I inevitably think of how we treat construction workers. It rained today, and as the bus drove past a group of construction workers, I noticed that nobody was going to stop the work. Interestingly enough, the SAF has protocols to stop training if the rain gets heavy or if there’s a thunderstorm.
You cannot talk about foreigners “taking” from us until our young men go through experiences that give them resilience. Our guys need to be able to take a knock and get right back up and fight. You can’t outsource resilience to Indians and Bangladeshis. The point of National Service is to toughen us up. I think of the current UAE President, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who felt that his people needed to be toughened up and imposed ju-jitsu in schools and national service.
When you mollycoddle our boys and tell them that they don’t need to carry their bags or clean up after themselves, you turn them into the type of people who are only good for being automatons in cubicle land and need to be told what to do by people who once experienced what it was like to pick up their own bags.
A version of this article first appeared at beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com