05 November 2018

Should permanent residents and dual citizens serve national service in Singapore?

Minister of Defence Ng Eg Hen previously made nice comforting noises (otherwise known as motherhood statements) in parliament about how safety is a top priority of army training, in light of a recent escalation in fatal training incidents. But isn't 1 reported accident every 3.5 months statistically significant for an armed forces that has only 35,000 conscripts at any time? Doesn't this statistic indicate the presence of serious and pervasive systematic failings in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)?

Liu Kai, the victim in the latest SAF fatal training accident and possibly SAF's fatally compromised culture was a permanent resident. Kok Yuen Chin, the victim in the previous SCDF fatal training accident was also a permanent resident. Many Singapore PRs and dual citizens who are legally obligated to serve national service at the age of 16 have every right to ask to ask the question: Should they just say no to their NS obligations and give up their permanent residence or Singapore citizenship?

Soldiers are meant to die heroically in battle.
Which is why every accidental training death must be investigated.
Does the Singapore Armed Forces have a diseased organisational culture?

A citizen army based on universal conscription and nearly lifelong reservist obligations has no secrets to hide. There is no shortage of anecdotes, accusations, open secrets, and conspiracy theories about the Singapore Armed Forces, such as:
  • Rush to wait, wait to rush
    Read as: poor management
  • Training injuries during national service that develop into lifelong muscular-skeletal conditions
    Read as: lack of safety awareness in training
  • Training injuries that SAF attempts to run out the clock on, so as to avoid paying for disability and treatment beyond the duration of national service
    Read as: shifting the costs of unsafe training to conscripts
  • Training injuries sustained during reservist physical testing are exempted from claims for treatment
    Read as: shifting the responsibility and costs of poor training to reservists
  • Reservist units disregarding PES status and genuine medical conditions when deploying or holding on to reservists, and refusing to revocate or discharge them
    Read as: blatant disregard for reservists, as long as unit KPIs like manpower count are met
  • Officers ignoring medical exemptions from private practice doctors and even camp medical officers, and threatening to charge soldiers who fall out or report sick Read as: open disregard for safety training considerations, institutionalisation of illegal orders
  • Officers threatening to charge soldiers if and when they get injured during training
    Read as: institutionalisation of illegal orders, abuse of authority
  • Persistent procurement lapses involving overpaying contractors
    Read as: poor management, disregard for public resources
  • Mismanagement of public land
    Read as: poor management, disregard for public resources
  • Insufficient drivers for training exercises "solved" by ignoring training safety requirements and deploying drivers beyond TSR limits
    Read as: disregard for safety training guidelines
  • Overuse of collective punishment
    Read as: institutionalisation of illegal orders, bullying culture
  • Culture of deference to authority even in the face of its stupidity
    Read as: institutionalisation of incompetence
  • Indenting lunch on Saturdays and forcing conscripts to eat it before they're allowed to book out for the weekend
    Read as: deliberate, hostile poor management
The running gag in Zombiepura:
Singapore's armed forces camps would run just fine even if everyone turned into a mindless zombie.
While not exhaustive, this list does point towards consistent organisation-wide problems with SAF culture. SAF culture is, at its best, marked by massive inefficiency, wastefulness, devaluation of manpower and time, disrespect for public resources. At its worst, SAF culture is stupidly sadistic, encourages officers to put themselves above the law, and inculcates disregard for natural justice. This institutionalised mediocrity is for the most part, non-fatal, which makes it a more insidious blight on Singapore's core values of excellence and meritocracy. This is the root of the popular hostility towards the increasing militarisation of the cabinet, and the fact that the next prime minister of Singapore could well be a former army general.

What does the Singapore Armed Forces think of its PR and dual citizen conscripts?

When defence minister Ng Eng Hen denied Ben Davis's application for deferment from national service, he more than let the cat out of the bag about how the SAF has a contempt for permanent residents and dual citizens equalling that of the lives of Singaporean citizens.

(Ben Davis was offered a football scholarship to play for Fulham F.C. As a Singapore dual citizenship holder, Davis is obliged to serve his national service before he is allowed to make any decision about keeping or relinquishing his Singapore citizenship. Singapore does not allow adults to hold multiple citizenship. Note that most Singaporeans are granted deferment to continue their tertiary studies, up to the age of 21. Most famously, the son of Singapore's former president was granted 12 years deferment, all because he was studying medicine abroad. Singapore's football aristocracy has a scion who was allowed deferment after his basic training to play in a football team. That aristocrat had a case of homesickness and ran back to Singapore.)

Ben Davis not allowed to bend it like Beckham
Here are the rationales presented by Mr Ng, and how these reflect SAF's dysfunctional values.
  1. Ben Davis is not really talented. He was not talent-spotted in Singapore's national football project, not invited to join the national youth squad or the national squad.
    Decode as: Singapore's national football is failing and untalented.
    Further decode as: If we didn't recognise your talent, no one else can!
  2. Ben Davis has no intention of fulfilling his national service conscription.
    Decode as: Asking for deferment is a sign of acting in bad faith! Or maybe... is saying that is a sign that the SAF itself always acts in bad faith?
    Why should the SAF make a reluctant foreigner (i.e. permanent resident or dual citizenship holder) who will most probably give up their Singapore citizenship serve national service? Wouldn't a reasonable, responsible, respectable armed forces actually TURN AWAY reluctant conscripts precisely because their reluctance will pose a security risk to operations?
  3. Ben Davis applied for the Fulham F.C. scholarship as an English national, not a Singapore citizen.
    Decode as: If you hold Singapore dual citizenship, the SAF thinks you should not, ever, rely on your other nationality to get things you're eligible for. How dare you be proud of any nationality aside from your Singaporean one!
    This should ring an alarm in the head of every cosmopolitan foreign talent willing to uproot to Singapore because it is an ideal place to race their young family.

    This is troubling because Ng Eng Hen was the minister who pioneered the foreign talent immigration scheme as we know it today.
Is the SAF dedicated at all to recognising and fostering talent? Apparently not. The SAF through its actions towards both citizen and PR and dual citizen conscripts, shows that it is more interested in destroying talent and fostering mediocrity. If Singapore at any time feels like a dysfunctional city state, you can look towards the Singapore Armed Forces and its toxic organisational culture and values, and towards the vile and malevolent Ng Eng Hen.

Looking at the problem from the other end: it's one thing for the SAF to accidentally lose the lives of Singaporean conscripts; quite a different kettle of fish for the SAF to start accidentally losing the lives of conscripts who are citizens of other countries. 

One death too many, but SAF demands service from children of permanent residents and dual citizens

Any death during NS training, even if rare, is one too many.
- Commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, Brigadier-General (BG) Kenneth Liow, after the death of NSman Dave Lee.

We must strive hard for zero training deaths because any death is one too many.
- Minister of Defence, Ng Eng Hen, after the deaths of NSman Gavin Chan, Dave Lee & Kok Yuen Chin.

Any training death is one too many.
- Brigadier-General Goh Si Hou, Chief of Army, after the death of NSman Liu Kai.

That's about one canned apology too many.

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