14 November 2013

National Service — Enough Recognition?

When national service started in 1967, young Singapore citizens simply served.

They grumbled, of course. No one really wanted to spend up to 3 years of his youth serving in the military. Yet no one sought appreciation or recognition for his service.

If almost all males — about half the population and excluding those whose physical or mental condition precludes their participation — serve NS, and if females are traditionally excluded from conscription, why then is the cry for recognition growing stronger?

There several reasons.

Sacrifice
There is an opportunity cost in sacrificing two years (2½ years for some ranks, until recently) of a young man's life as an NSF and then undergoing up to ten (as many as 13 at some point in history) reservist training sessions.

▪ Their careers are delayed by at least two years, possibly longer if they are not called up sufficiently early for full-time NS to enable them to read an overseas university course of studies shortly after their ORD — a not insignificant opportunity cost — because of NS.

▪ They are liable to be called up for reservist in-camp training. Many employers, especially the smaller companies, do not like the disruption that this entails.

▪ They have to pass annual IPPT. Otherwise, they have to undergo remedial training.

The opportunity cost is much higher now than in the past because everyone is striving to get ahead, especially when our young men see foreigners and permanent residents eating their lunch in their home (i.e., Singapore).

Permanent residents
The number of permanent residents has grown rapidly in recent years, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total resident population.

Permanent residents numbered 287,500 in mid-2000, or 8.8 per cent of all residents. By mid-2013, they numbered 531,200, or 13.8 per cent of all residents. Put another way, there was one permanent resident to 10.4 citizens in 2000 and one permanent resident to 6.2 citizens in 2013.

To make matters worse, permanent residents enjoy privileges not very different from those enjoyed by citizens.

So second-generation permanent residents were conscripted. But many have surrendered their permanent residency to escape conscription.

First-generation permanent residents are not conscripted, but since the Government treats permanent residency as a route to citizenship, many permanent residents have been granted citizenship without serving NS. Having a group of citizens who are not required to serve NS is a source of unhappiness among citizens who are required to serve NS.

Nevertheless, I believe it is irrational and not in the country's interest to conscript permanent residents.

Monetary Recognition
Once the Government began to recognise the contributions of NSFs and NSmen, it was almost inevitable that they started thinking of their sacrifices, leading to an unending chorus of recognition and more recognition.


Some monetary benefits have been formalised or institutionalised, for example:

▪ NSman tax relief. Over the years, the quantum of NSman relief has increased. The relief is now also available to wives (including widows who have not remarried) and parents of NSmen.

As this is a tax relief, its monetary value depends on the individual's assessable income. This is clearly illogical and inequitable. The country's recognition or appreciation of an individual's contribution to national defence should not be a function of his assessable income for that year nor should the country stop recognising or appreciating his contribution once he retires.

▪ National Service Recognition Award of up to $9,000 or $10,500 per NSman.

▪ IPPT awards of up to $400.

The danger of formalising or institutionalising monetary benefits is that it is politically extremely difficult and unpopular to reduce or withdraw them.

And the greater the monetary benefits, the greater the financial burden on future generations of tax payers.

The irony is that NSmen hardly appreciate or even acknowledge the value of the monetary benefits, including even the additional monetary and non-monetary benefits that they clamour for.

In any case, appreciation or recognition is not the same as compensation, for the State cannot really compensate most males for the sacrifices that national service imposes on them.

The Way Forward
The way forward, I believe, is not more appreciation or recognition for NSFs and NSmen. It doesn't serve any purpose.

The tax relief should be replaced with a direct annual cash gift to all NSFs and NSmen, or scrapped altogether.

All permanent residents and foreigners should pay a tax or levy, called by any politically acceptable name, for the security that is provided by NSFs and NSmen. This is not the same as the suggestion that second-generation permanent residents pay a levy in lieu of serving NS.

The privileges granted to permanent residents should be clearly differentiated from those enjoyed by citizens.

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Note

1. The author is a Singapore-born citizen who has completed his national service and reservist training obligations.

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