Why NS should not (or cannot) be shortened…

An article caught our attention, “Former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian has started a petition online to call for national service (NS) to be shortened from the current two years to a year, and for less frequent reservist training…”

Again, the populist call to shorten NS is ringing again.

Both of us think that NS should not be shortened – don’t reason that it’s because D ‘signed on’ for it and is a regular or that J is a female who does not need to serve NS.

This article argues for NS and explains why NS cannot be shortened, “According to a government poll conducted in 2011, over 90 per cent of those surveyed said National Service (NS) is necessary. Arguments that it can be shortened, however, are regularly made.

These arguments typically rest on two assumptions. The first concerns time. Some argue the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) uses it too inefficiently. “Hurry up to wait”, or “wait to rush, rush to wait” is often used to describe one’s experience in NS. They reason that NS could be shorter if time were more efficiently used.

Others assume NS should be shorter because the advanced military technology that the SAF actively seeks is ostensibly a force multiplier that should reduce the amount of manpower required to maintain a high level of capability, as well as the time required to train individuals.

In fact, it was because of the increased efficiencies achieved through technology and innovation that the length of full-time NS was standardised to two years for all ranks almost a decade ago.

The second assumption is that if other developed countries conscript their citizens for shorter periods of time, surely Singapore can too. Supporters of this argument point to countries such as, inter alia, Finland, Denmark, Austria and Norway where conscription is shorter, often only a few months long.

These assumptions and their related arguments are not intrinsically illogical. They do not, however, sufficiently account for the functional objectives of NS.

NS does not exist for its own sake, but as its first principle states, it “must be to meet critical national need for security and survival”. It does so by providing a large body of highly-trained front-line troops for the SAF, a conventionally structured deterrent force.

Singapore’s approach to defence dictates its function and therefore its form. As such, arguments that full-time NS should be shortened cannot be merely guided by internal logic alone, anecdotal observations or the experiences of other countries. They must fully recognise what full-time NS is expected to deliver.


Singapore’s defence policy rests on the twin pillars of defence and deterrence. The SAF provides the means to achieve the latter.

More than half of the active-duty Singapore Army, the biggest service in the SAF, is made up of full-time NSmen (NSFs). Few countries, even the aforementioned ones with long traditions of conscription, have such a high conscript-to-regular ratio.

NSFs fill a wide variety of vocations and appointments across the SAF and are trained to the same exacting standards as their regular counterparts. The high quality of NSFs was amply demonstrated in 2009 when a Leopard tank crew of three NSFs led by a young regular, having only trained with the vehicle for six months, beat seasoned regulars from Australia and the United States in a friendly tri-nation competition.

It is more often witnessed in the complex, high-tempo overseas exercises, such as Forging Sabre or Wallaby, that the SAF regularly conducts.

Such standards are typically not expected of conscripts in other countries because of the different doctrinal structure and lower technological sophistication of the militaries they serve in. In many instances, conscripts operate in a more evenly mixed military manpower system and augment the regular core of the military, rather than form it, as is the case in Singapore.

The training they consequently receive reflects this. Given the difference in what is expected of each country’s conscripts, it is unfair to suggest full-time NS can be shortened simply because other countries have shorter periods of conscription.

NS cannot be benchmarked against conscription elsewhere as each system is fit for its own specific purpose.

The skills conscripts are expected to acquire dictate the time needed to train them well and, more importantly, train them safely. This in turn determines the length of full-time NS.


Training to such a high standard cannot be rushed. While technology can indeed be a force multiplier in allowing more to be done with fewer men, it can also be a double-edged sword as its complexity also demands more extensive training.

Technology-assisted training can mitigate this, but a learning curve still remains because of the technological sophistication of the equipment used. There are often multiple levels of instruction before overall proficiency is attained. Furthermore, these skills have to be applied in cooperation with others — within the unit, and the unit itself with others in a larger formation.

Acquiring group — in addition to individual — competency takes time. Rushing through the different phases of training may result in the boxes being ticked on paper but an ineffectively trained soldier, as well as unit, in reality.

Training also needs to be sequential and incremental for reasons of safety. Often a new experience unlike any other, military service can be emotionally and physically challenging. Assuming a soldier can transit seamlessly between roles without allowing sufficient time for the transition to take place can be dangerous.

Full-time NS is therefore intentionally incrementally structured, even if this requires more time. For example, the Physical Training Phase to help recruits meet the fitness standards of military service is almost as long as Basic Military Training itself.


While the SAF should investigate if there is any basis to the claim that NS training is excessively inefficient, a certain amount of inefficiency in NS might actually be desirable.

An apparent inefficient use of time can, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, provide opportunities for camaraderie to be built. Esprit de corps is developed through shared experiences; war or intense physical action typically comes to mind. But a common refrain heard, at least since the World War I, is that war, and by extension military service, is actually mainly boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror.

This reality of military service suggests unit cohesion is not generally built during the intensity of action, for this is limited — but in the boredom of daily routine when soldiers interact and bond with one another while engaged in the mundane, or while awaiting orders.

Arguably, it is precisely because men are not busy with demanding tasks that they can afford the time and attention to actually get to know one another at a deeper level. These “wasteful” pockets of time also allow individuals to decompress during the intensity of training.

The value of periods of idle time must be appreciated. What may appear to be a waste of time may not actually be so.

The regularity of calls for full-time NS to be shortened suggests their supporting arguments and assumptions have not been adequately addressed. Engaging them is important because ensuring that there is common agreement on — or at the very least, understanding of — why full-time NS cannot be shorter is crucial to securing commitment to it.

It is crucial that this discussion acknowledges the practical objectives of NS and the constraints it faces in achieving them. Until Singapore’s defence policy changes — an important but separate issue for discussion — the length of full-time NS will always be guided by these practical considerations.


Ho Shu Huang is a MPhil/PhD candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is currently on study leave from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
(Article is taken from Today Commentary by Ho Shu Huang on June 18, 2013.)

D once mentioned in conversation that the best training to give a soldier is the toughest training – so that the soldier learns something, is strengthened and in times of war (which no country should ever wish to be part of), would survive. IF NS does get shortened and then, Singapore was indeed to go to war, how would our regulars AND conscripts go to fight and protect our country if they aren’t up to ‘par’ (weapon handling or technology competency or even fitness level)? Wouldn’t we just be sending our “conscripted” husbands/brothers/son to their graves??

Of course, Singapore does not maintain a conscript army for the sole purpose of going to war, but the steady size of our ever-ready conscript army means that Singapore would be a country not to be trifled with just because we are small! We have forces ready to protect our lands 24-7!

Check out what Lee Kuan Yew thinks of our neighbours…

No matter how we grow, we’re still a little red dot to them…

There’s also the argument that time is not used well during NS. J thinks that the waiting time is good for camaraderie to be fostered – she’s gone through the ‘waiting’ when she underwent NCC training to become a Teacher-Officer and had to wait to fire at the range, and then also waited with her students when they had to go for range too! All that waiting helped her get to know her batch mates or students a bit more and also allowed her students to interact with each other as well as with cadets from other schools. Likewise, the waiting that goes on during training would be a platform to bring men together to foster their brotherhood – how else would you ‘cover’ for each other out at war in the fields?? The cycles of ICT would be a reunion platform for the men – going for training with your batch mates and reliving the younger days! 😛 Of course, we aren’t saying that time cannot be used better but that the time that people say is ‘wasted’ can actually be put to better use by the soldiers themselves – it’s a matter of perspective! 😉

And then you may think, it’s so easy for the women, they aren’t the ones going through NS and the cycles of ICT! Think again… The enlistees have mothers/sisters who would see their sons/brothers go through their 2 years of NS; when the NS men serve their cycles of ICT, they “leave” their girlfriends/wives/daughters – do you think it’s easy for women to cope?? NS brings all Singaporeans, men and women alike, together! 😉

Maybe it’s just J but she strongly believes in the importance of NS, the importance of training our soldiers well, the importance of NS being a leverage to bring men from all walks of life together as one – regardless of your background (whether you stay in HDB or private estate, whether you’re from JC, Poly, ITE or BTC, whether you’re CMIO, whether you’re blah blah blah), you enlist – shave your head bald, put on the same uniform, undergo training together. (J has seen it many times – put Singaporean men who do not know each other together and NS would be a talking point!)

When J’s younger brother and cousins enlisted, having heard many stories from her own friends who went through NS, she told them, “姐 (Jie / sister) may not understand what you’ll be going through, but that’s why you’re a man. Since you have to do it, spend your time in NS well. Use the 2 years of training to learn something from the force, don’t go through it blindly, dread everything and really waste your time. It’s all in your mind – mind over matter, change your mindset! Learn something!”

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Serenity Prayer


One thought on “Why NS should not (or cannot) be shortened…

  1. Pingback: ANZAC Day 2014, ‘Lest We Forget’ | Hu's Married!

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