The Public Relation (PR) team behind Mindef has one of the most important job in the country. Alienating Singaporeans from the army, police or civil defence will only do more harm than good to national defence, something previous generations had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to forge.
We have come a long way since 1967, when the first batch of 900 Singaporean males were conscripted. Modelled on the Israeli conscription system, the introduction of this controversial National Service (NS) regime received much flak and resistance.
Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his generation of leaders probably did not understand much about PR back then, as it surprised us to find that it was his intention to “recruit the most primitive people in the country” made up mostly by the unemployed and of Malaysia origin, as opposed to the majority Chinese population (we could not find a local source, but this Israeli news article quotes Lee Kuan Yew).
Fortunately, Lee Kuan Yew surrounded himself with able and intelligent advisors, who ultimately persuaded him otherwise. This could have been one of the most crucial PR blunders we averted.
Why National Service Is Important
The real reason Singapore needed NS was because of the region it was situated in. It was an uncertain time, and the country needed a way to defend itself and to stay strong. Till today, some aspects of this argument still ring true. It is a more peaceful region, but if we are not strong, we could still be bullied. That is the natural order.
One question to be asked though is that if the country really needs National Service, who should be paying for it? Surely it should not just be the Singaporean males with blood, sweat and monetary sacrifices.
Providing Equality Through National Service
Although the army has and continues to deal with other PR campaigns such as ensuring a modern and intelligent army, engaging the youths who enlist and integrating it as a way of life through television series, movies, inviting parents to be more involved and ensuring a fulfilling time in the army, it still remains a possibility that National Service, should it not reflect equality in required service, may break down.
We can see that in the example of Melvyn Tan, the musician from London, who came back to Singapore after defaulting on his National Service and received only a $3,000 fine. Can it then be asked if someone defaults National Service to study overseas and gain a heads up over his peers in that situation, work for many years, and then when he finally wants a 2-year break, comes back, pays $3,000, serves 2 years and then goes back to his normal life? Should citizens who obey the rule and choose the country before themselves be unfairly penalized?
To end, it is interesting to note that in Israel, the women also serve National Service. That represents true universality. It is useless to fight for gender equality when it is only the perks that you are fighting for. We do not have a strong opinion about whether women should serve the army; it is something for Mindef to think about as it has come to the fore most recently.
The landscape of Singapore is changing. We have more foreigners in our country today compared to 1967 and with it, the arguments that our Singaporean boys are giving two years of their time to the country while the MNCs are hiring and training our foreign counterparts. This is the challenging PR dynamics that Mindef will have to continue managing right to ensure that the support for National Service continues to remain strong.
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