At the age of eighteen, every young man in Singapore must serve in the Singapore Armed Forces through a program called National Service. This makes Singapore one of about twenty-five countries around the world with mandatory military service, and Singapore’s required term of service — roughly two years — is among the longest.
National Service (NS) has been around since 1967, when this two-year-old country realized that it had neither the population nor the money to maintain a standing army. So in preparation for the final departure of British military forces in 1971, the Singaporean government called up about 9,000 young men and began training them to defend the fledgling nation. And while NS was not at all popular when it was first instated, it has now become an expected rite of passage for young men. Tens of thousands of young men join up every year.
At least a handful of those young men in NS are recent graduates of the Singapore American School, so I was invited for a visit day at the Basic Military Training Centre on Pulau Takong.
Pulau Takong, colloquially known as “the big island,” is the starting point for every young man who enters NS.
To get to the island, my colleague Andrea and I — along with several hundred prospective NS boys and their parents — started out early in the morning at the Singapore Armed Forces ferry terminal:
If the fencing and barbed wire weren’t enough to let you know that you were at a military installation ..
… the signage plastered all over the place did the trick:
While bulk of the signs did their utmost to instill pride and and patriotism, this sign was a reminder of military discipline:
In the email that we received prior to our travels, we were told that the use of “mobile devices integrated with image capturing functionality” (the longest way I can possible think of to say “camera phones”) would be restricted. But pretty much every single parent was snapping pictures from the moment that the island came into sight, so I cheerfully joined in.
From the ferry, the main camp at Pulau Takong looks like a large resort:
But while the island appears to be ringed by narrow strips of beach all around …
… as far as I could see, the sand was rendered inaccessible from land by long stretches of fences and wire.
One of the first things you encounter when you arrive at Pulau Tekong is this map (with Pulau Tekong on the right) of the weak defenses that the British military had in place when the Japanese marched in and took over in the middle of World War II:
This map serves as a stark reminder of why Singapore needs a defense force in the first place. The take-home message here is, “we cannot depend on others to defend our country.”
The arrival area at Pulau Tekong also takes you by “The Landmark”:
This much-ballyhooed figure was the subject of a lengthy presentation — two soldiers gave us an explanation of all four sides of the statue…
… including a discussion of the four figures at the base, which represent each of the four major Singaporean ethnic groups:
NS has become a vehicle by which Singapore attempts to bring together citizens (and permanent residents) of different races and backgrounds, part of the country’s massive attempt to encourage racial harmony. Today, the military even has a buddy and bunking system that pairs young men of different ethnicities.
There have been some sticking points around ethnic favoritism in NS, which you will still hear about from cab drivers and other locals. The contention is that Singaporeans of Chinese descent have historically received the plum assignments; and indeed, Malays were virtually excluded from NS for the first ten years of its existence. (This practice had its roots in concerns that Singaporean Malays might side with Malaysia should the two countries every come to war, which was not such a farfetched possibility in the wake of the Singaporean/Malaysian split in 1965.) Rumors about anti-Malay discrimination in NS continue to abound, though there are now Malay pilots and commandos both in NS and in the regular armed forces.
We were given an extensive tour upon our arrival at the training camp, starting with the bunk rooms (where we learned, among other things, that the NS boys don’t have access to washing machines — instead, they do their laundry in orange plastic buckets). Our guides also took us into a tv/game room, which one of my SAS graduates says is really there for show — according to him, they keep it locked on non-parent visit days (I like that Singapore NS’s version of a Potemkin village includes an XBox).
We had lunch in one of the cafeterias, which looks exactly like a canteen at pretty much any Singapore public school:
We also had a presentation on the entire contents of a new recruit’s duffel bag…
… a viewing of the recruits hard at work under Singapore’s mid-morning sun …
… and a tour of the Individual Marksmanship Training Centre (where the motto is, “train today / marksman tomorrow”):
I got to stand in one of those “foxholes” and fire a weapon at a computerized target, which was a disturbingly satisfying exercise.
The language of the military disconcerts me in any country. Here we have Singapore’s military oath of allegiance, where you are identified as a number before you are a name …
… a display titled “battle inoculation course” …
… and these lyrics to an army song, which I found posted on a wall outside of the bunks:
“Kick them / HA / Push them kick them / HA / Into the river / Let them drown / We don’t need no terrorists / Hanging around.”
I also found myself frowning at LEARNet, a computer teaching system that allows recruits to learn how to shoot people using a “gaming application.”
I know that kids shoot people in video games all the time, but somehow, using fake people so that you can learn to shoot real people strikes me as potentially problematic. Of course, there isn’t much land for training recruits here in Singapore, so we have to reply on simulators to a significant extent (the military also sends troops to train in “friendly” countries, such as India, Australia, and the US).
While I will always have my hesitations about military complexes, I left this trip with a healthy respect for what Singapore is trying to do. Singapore has an “it’s not whether, but when” approach to terrorism (there are public service signs to this effect at bus stops and in MRT stations). And this is a tiny, wealthy country in the middle of a region that has not always had a reputation for stability. Singapore’s answer is to have a large pool of trained persons at its disposal (after NS, every Singaporean man continues to serve for up to forty days every year in the national reserve). Every single male person must serve, regardless of economic status, education, race, or religion (there are no conscientious objectors — if you have religious compunctions and refuse to serve, you get to spend time in prison instead).
The one group that’s left out of all of this is women, who can volunteer, but who are not conscripted. This results in concerns that NS reinforces a male/female divide in Singaporean society, one in which the boys go on to become men while the women stay home and worry about whether those young men will be well fed in the field (indeed, we were shown two videos of an NS mom, an NS wife, and an NS girlfriend bemoaning the possible eating fate of their loved ones). NS reinforces gender stereotypes (I won’t even touch on questions of trans or non-binary people, because that’s not legal in Singapore). Some individuals are now asking whether girls will have to go into NS at some point in the future, but I suspect that’s a good while away.
I think that all Singapore high school educators should make a visit to the NS Basic Training center, if only to get a sense of what their young male seniors will soon be going through (one look at the obstacle course is enough to impress you that these guys are engaged in something serious). Plus, you get to ride on a ferry!