Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The Call of Duty
This is what I received in my letter box today and if you have 17 or 18-year-old sons, you will know what it is. It's the military conscription notification sent to all able-bodied young men and to their fathers to inform them of the precise date and time when they have to report to the Basic Military Training Camp in Pulau Tekong. In Singapore, there is compulsory military conscription for all 18 year old boys and they will have to serve in the army for two and a half years. This military conscription is called National Service or NS and the conscripts are called National Servicemen or NS men.
For the first half of this year, there was a spate of casualties among NS men and there were a few fatalities. A simple search in google gives me the following links which you may want to read:
Death of Private Lee
Death of Private Amirul
Death of NS man Suresh
Dearh of NS man Tan
The above are not the only deaths earlier this year but they are the first four that I chose from my google search. I'm not interested in the statistics; a single death is one too many.
The notification that I received today came with an invitation to the initiation ceremony held in Pulau Tekong for the whole family. Pulau Tekong is an off-limits island for military use exclusively. You can't just sail to the island. The only way a civilian can visit it is by way of an invitation such as the one I received today. Pulau Tekong is intriguing not only because it's inaccessible to the civilian population. From an aeroplane, it looks like a lovely tropical island with white sandy beaches. It's also reputed to be haunted which adds to its attractiveness.
I've been told that it's quite common for parents who attend the initiation ceremony in Pulau Tekong to weep when it comes to the time for them to board the ferry back to the main island of Singapore and leave behind their sons who will receive basic military training for the next 9 weeks on the island before they are deployed to the different divisions in the army for the next two years. This may sound strange to Westerners but in the Asian culture, children continue to live with their parents until they get married. The Western concept of a child of 18 leaving the home and earning his own bread is viewed with horror. Nobody in Asia ever does that and it does not matter if he's Chinese, Malay or Indian. The only time an 18 year old might live apart from his parents is when he has to go to college abroad but the bond between parent and child remains extremely strong throughout the duration of their lives. With such adverse reports of NS casualties, it may very well be that there will be even more weeping.
There are many who take the view that we don't need compulsory military conscription in this day and age. But that is a dangerously flawed view to hold. Singapore isn't exactly surrounded by terribly friendly neighbours. Nobody really forgets the Confrontation from Indonesia or the envy that Singapore excites in its Northern neighbour, Malaysia. Singapore's history is very much an embarrassment to Malaysia. When Tengku Abdul Rahman expelled Singapore from Malaysia, he really thought that would be the end of Singapore. After all, Singapore was without any natural resources and it's such a small island you can't even run a marathon in a straight line without hitting the sea. There's an old video that shows Lee Kuan Yew weeping at the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia and that scene has become an iconic symbol of what perseverance means in the face of hopelessness and adversity. With each passing year after the Separation, contrary to expectations, Singapore instead of crumbling became increasingly successful and progressive and it didn't take many years before Malaysia, which is rich in natural resources and is a hundred times the size of Singapore, became no more than an economic backwater when compared with its hugely successful neighbour.
It's unavoidable that Malaysia would feel a certain amount of envy for Singapore. Singapore's incredible success despite the odds only brings to question the competence of Malaysia's leaders. Some years ago, there was a dispute between the countries over a little outcrop in the middle of the sea and the matter was brought to the International Tribunal and was ultimately resolved largely in Singapore's favour. Anyone reading the proceedings cannot help but wonder if Malaysia might have done better at the Tribunal if it had kept its documents and records better. As far as competence goes, everyone knows that when compared with its Southern neighbour, Malaysia tak boleh.
I'm not suggesting for a minute that there is any threat to Singapore by Malaysia or Indonesia. As matters stand today, all three countries are on the best of terms but whether there will be a future threat or not depends very much on who the leader is. If you get a hawkish, combative leader, even the most friendly countries can go to war with each other. No country can afford to neglect its military force in the expectation that the friendliness of its neighbours will remain the same for all times.
The majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese. According to an old Chinese proverb, "Just as fine metal is not made into nails, gentlemen do not serve in the army". You must excuse my poor translation that robs the proverb of its beautiful rhyme. The fact is most Chinese people despise the military. Very few Singaporeans would voluntarily join the the armed forces as regular soldiers. If Singapore were to abolish compulsory conscription, there would be hardly anyone to fill the ranks of the army.
What about the casualties that happened earlier this year? The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) issued a statement that the safety of servicemen was top priority to the government. See this link: Minister of Defence, Dr Ng, Assures the Public
But it's easy to make a statement. Are there steps taken to ensure the safety of servicemen or was Mindef's statement nothing more than mere empty words designed to calm the public?
I think Mindef has looked into safety issues and has taken steps to ensure that the casualties that took place earlier this year are not repeated. From what I understand, Mindef is now very quick to lower the Physical Employment Status (PES) of its young recruits. I have heard how a boy who will be conscripted next year had his PES lowered to PES C for something as trifling as a difference in the size of his eyes! Another boy had his PES lowered because he injured his hand in a rugby match a few years ago and it didn't matter that the injury had long healed. But I don't think Mindef is wrong to err on the side of caution. It's far better to demote a cockeyed recruit to the non-combat category than to expose the other NS men to his wildly inaccurate shooting. I am sure this is not all that Mindef has done to ensure NS men's safety. There must be heaps more that they have done that I am not aware of. But the little that has trickled down to my attention tells me they're on the right track.
So when you're in Pulau Tekong with your sons, you should put your mind at ease. It's going to be a safe two-year ride for the boys. The only bummer for me is the ban on cameras and camera-phones. It's such a shame we won't be allowed to take pics on such a memorable occasion. Mindef has done a good job but they've got to learn to be less uptight and allow parents to bring a camera or at least an iPhone. What threat to security can cameras be? I would love to take a few pics of the island and post them on my blog.
It will be a proud moment for all parents to see their sons answering the nation's call of duty . Our sons will have earned for themselves the right to declare that those "now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap".
EDIT: [8:56pm, 1 Nov 2012] I have just been informed by a friend of mine that parents are permitted to bring cameras and any phone they like for the initiation ceremony. I'm going to take loads of pics and post them on this blog when I'm there in February next year. You'll get to see what this inaccessible but delightfully haunted island is like.